As you are browsing through the meat section at the supermarket you may see a ‘grass-fed’ beef label. This label implies the beef came from cattle who lived better lives, but is there truth to this claim, or is it just a clever marketing tactic to get well-intentioned people, like you, to buy more beef?
The conventional way of raising beef cattle
There are nearly 10 million cattle raised for beef in Canada every year (source: 2016 census).
Today, most beef cattle start their lives on ‘cow-calf operations’ where they are able to graze on pasture with their mothers and the rest of the herd for about 12 months. During this period, their diet mainly consists of a variety of natural, high-fibre grasses.
At about a year old, or once calves reach 200-300 kg (450-600 lbs), they are sent to ‘feedlots’, which are large, open dirt lots sectioned into many pens. Each pen has a feed and water trough and maybe a small covered area for protection from weather extremes, but often little else.
Cattle spend the next three to six months in feedlots. Instead of the grasses they are used to eating, they are fed mostly high-energy grains like corn and barley until they reach slaughter weight. This switch to a grain-based diet causes them to quickly put on fat; a process called ‘finishing’. This finishing phase is important in the North American beef industry because consumers prefer an even distribution of fat throughout the muscle (called “marbling”) in the cuts of beef they buy.
However, for cattle, eating high-grain diets contributes to abnormal behaviours and digestive problems, especially if the diet change happens quickly, which it often does. Cattle may eat their bedding or chew on fences since their diets lack the grasses they have evolved to eat. In addition, because their stomachs are not made for digesting grains, they often get painful stomach aches that can lead to more serious health concerns if left untreated.
Today, concerns about animal welfare at the feedlot, as well as the impacts of feedlots on human health and the environment, have led many consumers to view feedlots as unacceptable. Farmers who share these concerns are turning to alternative ways of farming. Rather than sending their cattle to feedlots for grain finishing, they are keeping their cattle on pasture where they are able to graze grasses for their entire life.
It is assumed the ‘grass-fed’ label was originally developed to identify cattle that spent their whole lives on pasture instead of being ‘finished’ on grains in feedlots. Today, however, this is not the case.
This leads to confusion over how to use the label since ‘grass-fed’ can logically include any animal that was fed grass at some point during its life. For example, all conventionally-raised beef could be labelled ‘grass-fed’ since the cattle spent the first their lives grazing pasture grasses. In reality, however, they spent the last third of their lives eating grain-based diets in bare, crowded feedlots.
Other labels are slightly more reassuring, but do not cover all aspects of cattle welfare. For example, ‘100% grass-fed’, ‘grass-only’ and ‘grass-fed and finished’ imply the animals’ diet only ever consisted of grass, and they were never fed grains. However, the cattle may still have been housed in a feedlot-like environment at some stage of their lives.
And, like the ‘grass-fed’ label, the ‘100% grass-fed’, ‘grass-only’ and ‘grass-fed and finished’ labels are not regulated by the government. There are currently no provincial or national standards defining how these claims can be used on foods.
So how can you be sure the beef you buy comes from cattle who lived better lives than conventionally-raised beef? Start by looking for certification.
Choose a certified label
Third-party animal welfare certifications such as those listed below audit their farms often to verify the farmer is raising animals to a higher standard of animal welfare than what is commonly done in the farming industry. Third-party certifications ensure you get what you pay for when it comes to animal care.
Ensure you support only those hard-working farmers who have a passion for improving the lives of the cattle they raise.
- Choose certified products.
- Get to know your local beef cattle farmers and ask about visiting their farm.
- If you can’t find certified foods in your area, use our quick guide to humane food labels to learn what labels you can look for instead.
- Encourage your local supermarkets to stock higher-welfare beef
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