ASHVILLE - As the paradigm of unscrutinized consumer shopping continues to wane, a growing number of families are taking into consideration the environmental, ecological and personal health costs of what they buy at the grocery store, in addition to the monetary costs.
At the grocery store, in the butchery, consumers have the choice of cut and quality of beef, but also several other options that can become very confusing. Was that beef pasture-raised before it was slaughtered? How can a cut of beef be both grain-fed and pasture-raised? How much difference is there between grass-fed and grass-finished beef? How can beef be anything but natural? And does any of this even matter? It all depends on how much you want to know about where your food is coming from.
All the buzzwords that are found in front of cuts of beef can describe much about how a cow was raised before slaughter, which can be very important for those who have higher expectations for their food. The American Grassfed Association recognizes a handful of words as proper jargon which can help buyers select the correct beef for them, and dismisses others as fluff jargon which doesn't truly tell the consumer anything. To help educate the consumer, it has released the following explanations for typical beef related terminology:
P-J photo by Remington Whitcomb
Grain-Fed: The animal was fed grain at some point, probably in the last few months of life. This could be in a large Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation or on a small family farm. If an animal has ever consumed corn, soy, brewers grain, or other grain-based feeds, the meat can't be labeled grassfed.
Grass-Fed: A USDA term that means the ruminant animal has been fed nothing but grass from weaning to harvest. The term doesn't guarantee, however, that the animal wasn't given antibiotics or hormones at some point, and it also doesn't necessarily mean the animal was raised without some confinement. Meat labeled grass-fed may be imported from other countries. This term has legal standing, and to use it as a marketing claim or on a label, the producer has to be sure the animals were raised in accordance with the rule.
AGA-Certified Grass-Fed: A term that takes the USDA standards to a higher level. AGA certifications is a third party audit system with strict standards to insure the animal has eaten nothing but grass from weaning to harvest, has not been confined, and has never been given antibiotics or hormones. AGA-certified grass-fed also means that the meat is produced in the United States from beef cattle and other ruminants born and raised in this country.
Grass-Finished: This term has no legal meaning and is a self-made marketing claim. If an animal is grass-fed, it is, by definition, grass-finished, so there's no need to claim grass-fed and grass-finished. The term by itself on a label can mean anything, so it's up to the consumer to ask questions of the producer or seller.
Natural: This USDA term applies to the finished product and means that it contains no artificial ingredients or added color and is only minimally processed. Minimal processing means that the product was processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter the product. The label must include a statement explaining the meaning of the term natural (such as no artificial ingredients, or minimally processed). The term has nothing to do with how the animal was raised or fed.
Naturally Raised: This is another USDA term with legal standing. It means that the animal has never been fed animal by products, growth hormones, or antibiotics. The feed could be grain or grass, and the animal could be confined to a feedlot for a portion of its life.
Organic: The USDA certifies organic production standards, which require that the livestock was raised without antibiotics or synthetic hormones; on feed that was vegetarian, pesticide and herbicide free, and contained no GMOs. Organic does not equal grass-fed. A ranch with organic certification may feed its herd entirely on grass, but many also feed organic grains and grain by-products during periods of confinement. Conversely, many grass-fed producers choose not to pursue organic certification, even though they follow organic standards in the production of their meats. With this label, the best thing to do is ask the farmer or research more about the brand.
Pasture-Raised: You may encounter this term in articles that use it as a general term for any animal that never sees confinement; however, when you see it on a label, it's another self-made claim with no legal definition or independent verification of production standards. This is another case in which you should ask plenty of questions.
And while all these titles describe aspects of a cow's life before slaughter and can help the consumer to select the beef they desire, many also leave a lot to interpretation. The best way to find out if an order of beef lives up to one's own moral, ethical and hygenic standards is still to directly ask the farmer who raised the cattle.
JOHNSON FARMS STANDS
BEHIND ITS PRACTICES
Johnson Farms, located at 555 Wellman Road in Ashville, is a small farm that raises 20-25 heads of cattle at a time, and focuses less on interpretive words and more on ensuring that its cattle is raised using ethical and sustainable practices, which leads to a quality product.
Johnson Farms raises its own beef cows and pigs without growth hormones or antibiotics, and uses no herbicides or pesticides on its pastures and hay fields. The cows are grass-fed and get no commercial animal grain.
"When we moved up here in 1985, we bought a couple of calves," said Alice Johnson, co-owner of Johnson Farms. "Around 1990, we started selling to just a few families. Now we ask customers to call ahead, just to make sure we have enough inventory."
By the terminology of the American Grassfed Association, Johnson Farms is grass-fed, naturally raised, pasture-raised, and organic, although not certified organic. However, the farm's reason for going through such trouble isn't just so it can place a few extra words on its product.
"It's certainly cost effective to raise the cattle without purchasing grains, antibiotics, pesticides and herbicides, but it's so much more than just cost effective," said Johnson. "The industrial beef production uses antibiotics, hormones and nasty chemicals such as pesticides. Everyone is concerned about the antibiotic residue that ends up in our food, and continually giving cows the same antibiotic can lead to resistance. The way we raise our calves is just a more natural approach. The calves are conceived naturally, we don't even do artificial insemination. They're raised naturally - the babies nurse on the mothers. There's no weaning. It's just a more rewarding way to raise animals - to see them in their natural state."
However, there are plenty of health benefits for consumers when cattle is raised the way Johnson Farms raise them. The first benefit comes simply from the Johnsons choosing to raise a Scotch Highlander breed of cow.
According to the Johnson Farms website, Scotch Highlander is bred to have long, fuzzy coats, which keeps them warm in the winter and cool in the summer, so there is not an extra layer of fat under their hide. For this reason, their beef is naturally leaner. And because their cattle is grass-fed, it contains two to five times more omega-3 fatty acids than grain-fed cows.
"I have a customer who buys beef from me, and she's told me that she can't eat most beef from the grocery store without becoming ill, but she can eat the beef she buys from us," said Johnson. "I think it starts with what the cows are fed. Industrial beef productions use growth hormones, and who's to say what's in the grain as far as herbicides or pesticides? The meat here is chemical-free, and the fact that it's so lean is good too. You can always go to the store and buy grass-fed beef, but there's nothing to say that it wasn't given hormones. We're about making sure that our cattle is grass-fed, antibiotic and hormone-free, never comes into contact with pesticides or herbicides, never gets fed anything that contains GMOs and never sees confinement. To me, that's what naturally raised means."
To learn more about Johnson Farms, as well as its practices and products, visit its website at johnsonfarmsny.com.