Beef Buying Guide

Updated 06.17.09
More and more of us are willing to pay a premium for beef that is “sustainable”—not only safe to eat, but raised humanely and in an environmentally responsible way. Selecting from the choices (if there are choices, that is) at the meat counter can be confusing, though. How do you know what you’re getting?

Most of the beef available to consumers comes from conventionally raised cattle. These animals have been raised on pasture for about six months, then sent to feedlots for “finishing,” during which they’re fed a calorie-dense diet (primarily processed corn and other grains) so that they gain intramuscular fat in the form of marbling—those snowy flakes of fat in the muscle—before slaughter. The USDA grades of “Prime,” “Choice,” and “Select” are based on the amount of marbling in a cut, Prime having the most. Grain-finishing came into being after World War II, in large part because federally subsidized corn became cheap feed. It produces the tender, well-marbled meat that consumers are used to eating; it’s consistent and available year-round. All grain-finished cattle and all feedlots are not created equal, but most cattle confined in industrial feedlots are also fed hormones to stimulate growth, plastic pellets for roughage, and a steady course of antibiotics to prevent the illnesses that result from their grain diet (grass and other forage is their natural feed). They live in conditions that are often overcrowded, unsanitary, and stressful. (“Two years of tender loving care,” says one producer, “can be undone by rough handling at the end.”) Below are some terms you may be curious about. If you can’t find what you’re looking for at stores near you, help create demand by asking for the kind of beef you want. Farmers markets and the Internet are two other options.


This term, introduced by the USDA in the 1960s, technically means that the beef has been minimally processed and contains no artificial flavors, added colors, or preservatives. All the fresh beef you’ll see in your supermarket is “natural,” whether or not it’s labeled as such. The issue is confused by the fact that some meat producers use the term to mean they raise their cattle without growth hormones and antibiotics. The term does not mean that the cattle are grass-finished or certified organic. Many “natural” cattle are kept in feedlots.


These words on a label don’t guarantee that the animal was raised outdoors on pasture, only that it was fed strictly grasses (and grain), hay, silage, and other forage that is found in a field. The label is a response to concern about bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, or mad cow disease), which is spread through the feeding of rendered material from ruminants (cattle, sheep, deer, goats) to other ruminants. In 1997, the FDA prohibited the feeding of these animal by-products to industrially raised livestock, but loopholes remain. (Cattle blood and blood products, poultry litter, plate waste, and salvaged pet food may all be used as ingredients in cattle feed.)


The cattle must be raised under USDA standards, which require, among other things, that the cows be fed 100 percent organic feed and have access to pasture (how much pasture has not been defined). The USDA does not require the cattle to be grass-finished; they can be finished on organic grain in a feedlot. The producers must adhere to humane-treatment standards that are stronger than those in the cattle-industry guidelines. The cattle can’t be given growth hormones or antibiotics in the absence of illness (if a sick animal is treated with antibiotics, it’s removed from the National Organic Program), but they may be vaccinated against diseases. For more information, visit the Organic Farming Research Foundation and Sustainable Table.


All cattle graze on pasture until they’re ready for finishing, so in one respect, all cattle are grass-fed; however, younger and younger cattle are being put into feedlots prior to slaughter. If you want a steak from a steer that’s been fed a 100 percent pasture diet for its entire life, you want one that’s been finished on grass and certified, somewhat confusingly, as “grass-fed” by the USDA. The seasonality of peak pasture determines when the best finishing time is in different parts of the country, so consumers shouldn’t expect to see USDA-certified grass-fed beef in their supermarkets or (more likely) their natural foods stores year-round. (Most is available in the late spring and early summer.) It may or may not be certified organic. In general, the meat is leaner and less tender than conventional beef, so it’s very important not to overcook it. It’s best when served rare or medium-rare.

In terms of flavor, 100 percent grass-fed beef is cleaner tasting than grain-finished beef but not as consistent, because of the differences in pasture. Proper aging also seems to make a difference. Recent tastings have convinced us that quality is steadily improving: Ranchers (some of whom are now calling themselves “grass farmers”) are learning which cattle breeds finish best on grass, how to manage grazing lands to bring pasture to its peak, and how to modify aging techniques. People’s palates are changing, too—perhaps because of the increasing availability of the renowned beef from Argentina, all of which is grass-finished. In the United States, USDA-certified grass-fed beef represents just a tiny fraction of the market, but health concerns are fueling growth: The meat is not only much lower in saturated fats but also higher in healthy omega-3 fatty acids. It’s higher in the antioxidant vitamins A and E as well as in CLA (conjugated linoleic acid, found in the fat), which, recent studies show, may help prevent breast cancer, diabetes, and other illnesses. Researchers have also found that cattle fed grass or hay for a short period before slaughter have a much lower incidence of E. coli 0157:H7, the virulent, relatively new strain of bacteria common in feedlot cattle.

Because this category has such variability, we thought we’d mention just a couple of producers we like: La Cense, which carries USDA-certified grass-fed beef; and Lewis Waite Farm, which is 100 percent grass-finished, but not officially certified. For more information, visit the American Grassfed Association, Eatwild, and The Stockman Grass Farmer.


Humane Farm Animal Care oversees the “Certified Humane” program; the American Humane Association oversees the “Free Farmed” program; the Animal Welfare Institute has its own protocols and label; and Whole Foods has its own standards for meat as well. There are substantive differences among the programs, but they are all stricter than cattle-industry guidelines.

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