By Paula Fitzsimmons
You’ve heard claims that grass-fed beef is more nutritious than conventional, and you’d naturally like to know if your furred family member can reap these benefits. Or you may reach for products with the grass-fed label in the belief that the animals are well cared for.
There are some common misperceptions surrounding the term grass-fed and what it means in terms of animal welfare, nutritional value, and safety. Considering the array of specialty labels on the market, it can get confusing for any of us.
Veterinarians and animal experts weigh in to answer your most-pressing questions about grass-fed meat. Does it have more nutritional content for cats and dogs? Is it free from growth hormones and antibiotics? Are the farm animal welfare standards higher than in conventional farming? You might be surprised by some of the answers.
Does the Grass-Fed Label Mean Higher Farm Animal Welfare Standards?
The term “grass-fed” is not an indicator of how humanely farm animals are treated. The government’s definition is limited to the animal’s diet, says Dena Jones, director of the farm animal program at Animal Welfare Institute, based in Washington, D.C. While consumers picture cattle happily grazing out on pasture, that is not necessarily the case.
There are actually a variety of grass-fed claims on the market, says Andrew Gunther, executive director of A Greener World, a Terrebonne, Oregon-based organization that administers the Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) label. “Many allow forage-based feedlots, hormones, routine antibiotics, and painful mutilations,” he says.
Jones adds, “The USDA does not routinely conduct inspections for animal-raising claims—with a few exceptions, such as USDA Certified Organic—and therefore ‘grass fed’ is not verified unless the producer participates in a third-party certification program.”
For assurances that a producer maintains high animal welfare standards, the ASPCA recommends products that have been verified by credible third-party certification programs. The organization lists the agencies on its page and highlights three: AWA, Certified Humane, and Global Animal Partnership. Each has its own set of criteria pertaining to animal care and welfare.
Gunther’s organization, for example, offers a Certified Grassfed by AGW label that ensures producers maintain high animal welfare standards, like raising the animals on pasture with a 100 percent grass-based diet.
“When it comes to production claims, if it’s not third-party certified, you just don’t really know what you’re buying,” Gunther says. Not all labels are created equally.
Is Grass-Fed Meat Free of Antibiotics and Added Hormones?
Unlike the USDA Certified Organic label, which prohibits the use of antibiotics and added hormones in cows, the grass-fed label does allow their use. The three ASPCA-recommended certifying agencies allow antibiotic use, but only for sick animals—in other words, it shouldn’t be routine or a way of doing business.
Even if an animal is treated with antibiotics, that doesn’t necessarily mean it will be in the final product. “The use of antimicrobials (like antibiotics) is strictly controlled, and the consequences of selling an animal with antimicrobial residues are high,” says Dr. Keith Poulsen, a veterinarian with the Wisconsin Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.
“Is it possible for antibiotics to be used to treat the animal that produced the meat at some time point in that animal’s life, for conventional animals? Yes. That is why we have meat and milk withholding periods for animals treated with antimicrobials and other drugs. For certified organic beef, the answer is definitely no.”
Another concern the public has is with added growth hormones (estrogens), which are allowed for conventional beef. Put into perspective, “An 8-ounce glass of milk contains 35.5 nanograms of estrogen. An egg contains 1,750 nanograms of estrogen. Wheat germ contains 3,400 nanograms of estrogen. Soybean oil contains 1,680,000 nanograms of estrogen per serving. So, the soy latte at Starbucks has exponentially more ‘hormones’ in it compared to an 8-ounce filet,” Poulsen explains.
The Animal Welfare Approved, Certified Humane, and Global AnimaI Partnerships prohibit the use of added hormones—so if you want to be certain that the meat you serve your cat or dog is free of added hormones, your best bet is to look for one of these labels.
Is Grass-Fed Meat More Nutritious for Your Cat or Dog?
Grass-fed meat has more antioxidants, lower dietary cholesterol, and more vitamins A and E than conventional meat, Gunther says. What this means for cat and dog health remains largely unknown, as scientific studies comparing pets who eat grass-fed meat versus conventional meat are lacking.
There are also more omega-3 fatty acids present in grass-fed beef, depending on the types of grass being fed and components of the diet, says Dr. Joe Bartges, professor of medicine and nutrition at the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Georgia in Athens. But this doesn’t necessarily translate into health benefits for our furred pals.
“Although there is more omega-3, it is usually in the form of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). While people utilize ALA well, dogs only convert about 8 percent to EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), which is the omega-3 fatty acid that is incorporated into cells and used. Cats cannot convert ALA to EPA, so it doesn't make any difference,” explains Bartges, who is board-certified in veterinary internal medicine and veterinary nutrition.
Plus, other ingredients offer better sources of omega-3s. “Most premium diets have added fish oil or other ingredients that are going to have much higher amounts of omega-3s than the beef, so the difference isn’t really going to matter,” says Dr. Cailin Heinze, a veterinarian at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, in North Grafton, Massachusetts.
And since commercial diets typically have dozens of ingredients, “having higher or lower amounts of nutrients in one ingredient doesn’t really matter, as long as you know what the levels are when you design the diet,” she says. “It’s what the overall diet, the sum of all the ingredients, has that matters.”
Is the Risk of Food-Borne Illness Lower With Grass-Fed Meat?
There is evidence that food-borne illness from E. coli may be lower with grass-fed meats. “Conventionally raised cattle have been shown to have a higher risk of shedding enterotoxigenic E. coli,” Poulsen says.
But there are other factors that play an even bigger role. “The first risk of food-borne illness depends on the facility and whether or not a carcass gets contaminated with bacteria during the slaughter and trim process,” he says. “The second, and undoubtedly highest, risk for contamination is poor handling and storage of raw meat post-purchase by the consumer. This is not different between grass-fed and conventional beef.”
“Regardless of how you source your beef, cooking it to a safe internal temperature intended to kill agents of food-borne illness (160 degrees for ground beef and 145 degrees for steaks) is strongly recommended,” says Heinze, who is board-certified in veterinary nutrition.
Is Grass-Fed Meat Worth the Extra Cost?
Poulsen stresses that the terms grass-fed and natural are not synonymous with organic. “The marketing and misleading label statements are confusing and often not worth the extra money,” he says. “In my humble opinion, if the meat is locally sourced and the animals are treated humanely, the premium price for organic grass-fed beef is worth it.”
Gunther adds, “Many believe it is worth a little extra money on the front end to prevent medical challenges (and costs) later. Diet is directly related to health, and as in human animals, feeding animals a diet commensurate with their nutritional need is going to result in the best health outcome.”
But from a value perspective, he says, “it’s important to ensure that you’re really getting what you pay for by seeking out credible third-party certifications.” Unless you opt for grass-fed meats and pet foods that have been certified by a credible third-party agency, you may be buying something that doesn’t meet your own high standards.