What it means
The term “grass fed” implies that the animals used to produce meat and dairy were fed only grass. As a labeling claim, “grass fed” claim on meat and dairy product labels should mean that the animals were raised on pasture (during the growing season) and fed only grass and forage, but this is not always the case.
The bottom line: should you look for this labeling claim?
Yes, but look for seals such as American Grassfed or PCO Certified 100% GrassFed for assurance that the claim was verified and means the animals were 100% grass fed and raised on pasture.
Look for these seals, for programs with strong standards for 100% grass fed and on-farm inspection:
Don't rely on these seals:
What this claim means
The term “grass fed” implies that the animals used to produce meat and dairy were fed only grass. Even though grass and grass-based forage is the natural diet of ruminants, such as beef cattle, bison, sheep and dairy cows, most animals are fed grain to speed up their weight gain and increase milk production. Beef and dairy products from cattle that were fed a 100% grass-based diet have important nutritional benefits, and feeding only grass has important benefits for animal health as well.
Meat. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which oversees labeling claims on meat, has defined the “grass fed” claim for producers who make the claim on their label. As a labeling claim on meat, “grass fed” means the cows were only (100%) fed grass after being weaned from their mother’s milk. The diet must be derived solely from forage, and animals cannot be fed grain or grain by-products and must have continuous access to pasture during the growing season until slaughter. Forage consists of grass (annual and perennial), forbs (e.g., legumes, Brassica), browse, or cereal grain crops in the vegetative (pre-grain) state. Hay, haylage, baleage, silage, crop residue without grain, and other roughage sources may also be included as acceptable feed sources. Routine mineral and vitamin supplementation may also be included in the feeding regimen. If incidental supplementation occurs due to inadvertent exposure to non-forage feedstuffs or to ensure the animal’s wellbeing at all times during adverse environmental or physical conditions, the producer should provide a signed and dated document to the establishment attesting the above incident is not a routine occurrence. The establishment should include this information as part of the labeling documentation verifying the product the meets the grass fed claim.
Dairy. The Food and Drug Administration, which oversees labeling of dairy products, has no definition and does not set a common standard for producers who make a “grass fed” claim on their label. “Grass fed” on the label of dairy products therefore does not necessarily mean 100% grass fed. Some companies making a “grass fed” labeling claim on dairy products feed grain in addition to grass.
Why it matters
Beef and dairy cattle are ruminants, and their digestive systems have evolved to digest high-fiber and low-starch grasses. They gain weight more rapidly when they are fed grain in addition to grass, which has become standard practice in the beef and dairy industries, but grain-feeding comes at a cost to the nutritional value of the meat and dairy they produce, and the animals’ health.
Can you trust the claim? Is it verified?
Meat. The verification requirements for the "grass fed" claim on meat labels are weak. Labels on meat and poultry are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). On meat labels, producers can make a “grass fed” claim after submitting a one-time label application with the USDA, with required documentation to support that the “grass fed” claim means the animals were not given any grain. However, there is no requirement for on-farm inspections and no requirement for annual review or auditing of the producer’s records to ensure compliance.
To obtain approval for the label, producers that make a “grass fed” claim on the label have to submit written documentation including:
- A detailed written description explaining controls for ensuring that the raising claim is valid from birth to harvest or the period of raising being referenced by the claim; (e.g., controls to ensure cattle that are supposed to be raised 100% grass fed are not fed grains);
- A signed and dated document describing the diet of the animals to support that the claims are not false or misleading;
- A written description of the product tracing and segregation mechanism from time of slaughter or further processing through packaging and wholesale or retail distribution; and
- A written description for the identification, control, and segregation of nonconforming animals/product.
No additional verification or on-farm inspection is required for producers making a “grass fed” claim.
Dairy. No. Labels on dairy products are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which requires no verification or on-farm inspection for dairy producers making a “grass fed” labeling claim.