There are currently no government standard definitions for “grass-fed” and “pasture-raised” as used in animal production. The American Grassfed Association, a coalition of producers, food service personnel and consumer interest representatives, established their own standard of “grass-fed” products: “food products from animals that have eaten nothing but their mother’s milk and fresh grass or grass-type hay from their birth” (1). In addition, the animals must be pasture-raised or free-range. To date, “grass-fed” usually refers to beef.
Compared to animals raised in CAFOs (concentrated agricultural feeding operations), grass-fed animal producers claim that grass-fed animals have an overall better quality of life since they are allowed to graze on open pastures and able to perform natural behaviors (2). They are not given antibiotics to artificially enhance growth nor are they confined indoors with thousands of other animals.
In addition, cattle raised in CAFOs are fed a corn-based diet, which causes health problems for these ruminant animals that naturally feed on grass and forage. Because their stomachs are not equipped to digest low-fiber foods like corn, the acidic buildup can cause ulcers and infections that further damage their digestive tracts.
Grass-fed animals not only seem to have a high quality of life, but they also may be beneficial to the environment. For example, when animals are free to graze on pasture, they provide natural fertilizer by spreading their waste around the pasture area. Compare this to CAFOs where tons of manure must be trucked and disposed of separately often causing environmental damage due to spills or mishandling. Other environmental benefits may include decreased fuel dependency (since grain production is so energy-intense), decreased soil erosion, and improved water and air quality (1).
Producers claim that meat and dairy products from animals fed grass diets are more nutritious than from animals fed grain-based diets. Grass-fed animal products contain higher quantities of beta carotene (vitamin A) and omega-3 fatty acids and are lower in calories and fat. In addition, because the animals receive absolutely no antibiotics, hormones or other “unnatural substances,” they do not pose serious risks to human health like antibiotic resistance or Mad Cow Disease (3).
1. American Grassfed Association. Accessed March 14, 2007.
2. Sustainable Table. The issues: pasture-raised. Accessed March 13, 2007.
3. Clancy K. Greener Pastures: How grass-fed beef and milk contribute to healthy eating. Union of Concerned Scientists: Cambridge MA, 2006. Accessed March 14, 2007.