If you've read Michael Pollan's, The Omnivore's Dilemma, and you still eat beef, chances are that you prefer to purchase grass-fed over corn-fed feedlot beef. The advantages include a more humane lifestyle for the animals and less fat for the consumer.
Well, the US Department of Agriculture has been soliciting opinions on their proposed rules for labeling of beef as grass-fed and received a whopping 17,000 opinions before closing discussion last month.
From Libby Quaid, AP Food and Farm Writer:
With so many producers rushing into the market, the definition of grass-fed varies. Some meat is sold as grass-fed when grass is only part of the animal's diet.
Confusion has resulted. A survey by the National Cattlemen's Beef Association found that half of consumers had heard of grass-fed beef, but only 28 percent believed it came from cows that grazed on grass their whole lives. Sixty percent thought the cows also ate other things, such as oats, corn, hay and alfalfa.
We are a confused people, indeed. After all, this is the country where we have to put warnings on coffee cups that say, "Caution! The beverage you're about to enjoy is extremely hot."
All cattle start their lives as grass-fed, but only the select few avoid the forced-corn feeding of the manure-choked feedlots of the nation's heartland.
Producers who keep cattle on pasture began asking the Agriculture Department in the late 1990s to set standards to help sell their beef as truly grass-fed. They want to send clear marketing signals to consumers inundated by things like organic, natural, certified humane or hormone-free.
The department has tried to come up with rules ever since, but it's a bureaucratic process that can take years. Officials have proposed standards twice now, in 2002 and again this year, that were greeted with protests from the industry.
So, now that we have to get the government involved, what standards do we use to classify beef products as coming from grass-fed cattle?
The department is reluctant to regulate a cow's time spent grazing because some parts of the country might suffer weather extremes that stress pastures, said William Sessions, associate deputy administrator of the department's livestock and seed program.
So officials provided leeway by proposing that only 99 percent, rather than 100 percent, of a cow's diet come from grass forage, and by defining forage more broadly to include things like leftover corn stalks from harvest and silage, which is fermented grasses and legumes.
"With the geographic diversity found in the U.S., a farmer or rancher in Minnesota is going to have a little bit different grass-fed scheme than, say, one that's located in Alabama, in the South where year-round grazing is available," Sessions said.
Sounds fair to me - with 99% of the lifetime diet coming from grass, you'd be pretty certain this is a pasture-grazed animal. Right?
Insisting on access to pasture could be covered by another standard, such as the department's rules for organic meat, Sessions said.
But that's what many grass-fed producers are hoping to avoid.
The department's organic standard requires that animals have unspecified access to the outdoors, and big organic dairy operations have been accused of exploiting the broad language to keep cows confined in barns.
Yes, just as the 'organic' label has been bastardized, called 'industrial organic' by Pollan, grass-fed beef is following the same path.
My personal solution is to do as Pollan recommends you do for organic produce: source your beef locally, at farmers' markets or via community-supported agriculture consortia, so you can be sure of the conditions under which your meat was raised.
Or, just choose some nice Colorado, high country lamb.
Or, just go vegetarian.
As a small scale farmer of organic, grass (and goldenrod and birch and willow leaf - we raise Scottish Highlanders which are aggressive browsers) fed beef, I think it is a mistake for any food consumer to look to the federal government for clarity or reassurance about how any of our food is produced.
There are too many variables and too many political pressures for the federal government to make anything but a well intentioned mess of any standard. It's hard enough to figure out what to eat (as Pollan points out) why add to the confusion?
I also have to wonder at the AP writer who doesn't understand that hay is grass. Dried grass for sure, but still grass. I mean, really, what does she think cows in places like Vermont eat during the winter?
It may take more time initially, but finding a local farmer and buying your food from him/her is the best way to know what your eating. I use an 80/80 rule for feeding my family: 80% of our food is raised within 80 miles of our house.
Vegetarianism is certainly an option, but you still run into the problem of "industrial organic". Why support a monoculture?
Brook - only to play devil's advocate (which is basically my gig here), how do you trust the local farmer? That is, as I walk through the Boulder farmer's market every week I always think, "How would I know if they sprayed their peaches or not?" Other than just blind trust (which I'm not good at), just because there is a sign saying "no spray" confirms nothing to me without some sort of certification. Similarly, I'd like to trust the two beef producers and one pig producer at the market that their animals are fed organic and all, but how the hell would I know? I'm going out on a limb paying more when all I have is blind trust.... Is there a solution for me or is trust all I have to go on?
I'm not arguing the need for certification, I'm arguing that the federal government is not the appropriate certifying agency for something as locally dependent (literally!) as agriculture.
Who you trust and why you trust them are important issues, whether we're talking about drug purity, air quality or what goes into the food we eat.
Beyond just looking for a certification, develop a relationship with the farmers who are growing your food. Visit the farm. Ask questions. We don't market our meat anymore, we just have the same customers who show up every fall to buy their cow or lamb or pig. They know how we produce our meat, how we slaughter it, and how the butcher will package it. This is a very open process.
There really isn't a magic answer that will fit everybody, you have to develop your own standards based on your own comfort level.
I can walk into my local "stupidmarket" (one of my boys mis-hearings of the word) and find usda organic apples. Grown in Chile. Those apples fulfill every one of the USDA organic standards. But they fulfill none of my personal requirements that my food not be raised in a monoculture, that the people raising my food have a least a shot at making a living off their land, and that I use as little fossil fuel as possible in producing and acquiring my food. So, before my orchard got established, I bought apples from the orchard down the road where I know they spray, but I also know when they spray (just after blossom set) what they're spraying and how carefully they're applying the pesticide they're using. (That her apples taste better than the conventional organic ones is just an added benefit.) I'm more comfortable buying my food when I know that the people I'm buying from share my philosophy from conversation than from certification.
I feel extremely blessed to live in a country where such a wide variety of food is available at such a reasonable price. The downside is that every choice we make has its pros and cons and we have to live with that uncertainty.
Colorado does have an Organic Producer's Association, I know nothing about them but, if you aren't already a member, it's worth checking out their website.