What Does “Grass-fed” Actually Mean?

Food labeling in Canada is governed by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (“CFIA”). While there has been progress in the rules and regulations around the terms that have been defined (such as organic), there is the unfortunate reality that not every term used to describe food out there has been defined. And even if they were, there are simply not enough inspectors/agents to go to every establishment and inspect every label on every package to ensure that operators are complying with the regulations. So how do you know what someone is selling is what they are claiming? In truth, unless you were there for the entire animals life, you don’t know. As the consumer, one has to ask the proper questions such as the following:

  • Is your beef grass-fed and finished?
  • Do your animals receive any antibiotics at any point during its life?
  • What kind of access to outdoors do your animals receive?

You have to ask the seller questions and evaluate their answers. As a rule of thumb, the more defined or detailed a label or answer is, the smaller chance there is for it to be misleading. In the following paragraphs, we will be discussing the term Grass-fed, and what that actually means.

First, let’s start with a bit of biology. Cattle are part of a family of animals in the sub order of Ruminantia, along with goats, sheep, and deer. This means that their “stomach” is essentially divided into 4 parts, each of which alongside fermentation, allows a diverse diet of grasses to be broken down and turned into tasty meat. They are also herbivores which means that their diet only consists of plants. All of this to say that cows eat grass which means that all beef is technically “Grass-fed”.

So if all beef is technically grass-fed, then why use grass-fed labelling? Grass-fed labelling came out as a way of marketing to differentiate from grain-fed meat. However, this marketing can be misleading due to its vagueness and generalization. An animal can eat grass at the beginning of its life and grain at the end, or vice versa and be called grass-fed. This has led to labelling such as “Grass-fed, Grain Finished” or “Grass-finished”. While these terms provide more information at a glance on how the animal was raised, they still do not show the whole picture. An animal could only eat grass for the last month or week of its life and be considered “Grass Finished”. Similarly, it may have only eaten grass for the first month of its life and grain the rest, and could fall under the “Grass-fed, Grain Finished” label. So how do you find meat that is raised the way that lines up with your personal views?

The best way is to ask the producer/purveyor questions and to evaluate their answers, or to find labelling that is more definite in its claim. At West Side Beef, we only use “100% Grass-Fed” labelling in order to differentiate our “Grass-fed” animals from animals that ate some sort of grain at some point in their life. In our opinion, 100% Grass-fed means that the animal ate only grass during its life and should only be used to describe as such. Although all our animals are raised on pasture and thus eat some grass during its life, we do not use the grass-fed claim/labelling anywhere else other than our 100% Grass-fed products due to its incomplete/misleading nature as described above. We prefer to use the term “pastured” which means that they live/enjoy their life on the open pasture eating a mixture of what they want, and what diet has been curated for them.