Why You Shouldn’t Buy Grass-Fed Beef (And What to Do Instead)



I know what you’re thinking.

“You guys SELL grass-fed beef, and now you’re telling us not to buy it!? What’s going on here?”

Hear me out — I’ll make my point soon. But first, let me clear up some of the confusion that this post’s title has probably already caused.

Cows are indeed supposed to eat grass — not the genetically modified corn/soy/grain mixture they’re given in feed lots. Grass-fed beef contains 2-5 times more omega-3s and 2-3 times more Conjugated Linoleic Acid (a polyunsaturated fat that’s high in antioxidants and protects against heart disease, diabetes, and cancer).

In addition, the extraordinarily higher antioxidant, vitamin, and mineral content of grass-fed beef compared to grain-fed beef isn’t anything to scoff at. According to Chris Kresser,

Grass-fed beef also contains significantly more of the antioxidants vitamin E, glutathione, superoxide dismutase (SOD), and catalase than grain-fed beef. These antioxidants play an important role in protecting our cells from oxidation, especially delicate fats in the cell membrane such as omega-3 and omega-6.

Antioxidants such as vitamin E and beta-carotene also work together synergistically to protect the meat itself from damage during the journey from butcher to plate.

Sadly, grains aren’t the only harmful substance fed to factory farmed cows. It isn’t uncommon for cows in feedlots to also be given candy (often jumbled up with the wrappers), stale pastries, rotten potatoes, and other harmful industrial products that are extremely damaging to the health of the animals (and the humans who eat them).

Cows fed grain-based diets are also known to develop unnaturally acidic gut conditions — an environment that has allowed E. coli O157:H7 to thrive (and kill those who consume it in the form of under-cooked hamburger). Researchers have demonstrated that when cattle were abruptly switched from a high grain diet to a forage-based diet, total E. coli populations declined 1000-fold within 5 days.

You probably already know all of this. And that’s why you’re most likely already buying grass-fed meat from the supermarket.

So why the confusing title? Because grass-fed beef isn’t always exclusively grass-fed.

In fact, you might be paying upwards of $4 extra per pound for beef that’s not a whole lot better than the stuff that comes from feedlots.

The Grass-Fed Fallacy

Almost all cows raised in the U.S. were grass-fed at some point, but only a small percentage of the beef produced in the U.S. is actually grass-finished. The overwhelming majority of cows that were once grazed on pasture are sent to a feedlot to be fattened up with grains and synthetic growth hormones for the last portion of their short lives.

Companies who label their meat as grass-fed should know this, as the USDA standard for grass-fed beef demands that “grass and forage shall be the feed source consumed for the lifetime of the ruminant animal.”

While the “lifetime” part of the standard is good, there’s another part of this sentence that deserves a closer look — “and forage.”

Although forage (hay) is technically grass, it’s grass that’s been cut, dried, and stored for an indefinite period of time before being used as cattle feed. Some would argue that grass and forage are one and the same, but that just isn’t the case. Imagine if (instead of consuming fresh, whole vegetables) you only ate veggies in a dried-up powder form for the duration of your life. Do you think you’d be as healthy? Heck no! Forage is definitely a step up from grain, but it can’t compete with a natural diet of fresh grass.

And since forage-fed cows aren’t required to consume a single blade of fresh grass for their entire lives, the’re often kept in feedlot-like conditions — not exactly what consumers picture when they think of “grass-fed” cows.

Primal Pastures Cows

What Grass-Fed SHOULD mean (Primal Pastures cows)

But it gets worse — there’s another loophole in the USDA’s standard that should cause us to further question how healthy “grass-fed” beef really is. As pointed out by David Maren of Tendergrass Farms in his guest post on Mark’s Daily Apple,

One of the problems with the USDA definition for grass fed beef is that it has a loophole that allows for the use of grain “to ensure the animal’s well being at all times during adverse environmental or physical conditions.” One local grass fed beef company here in Virginia once disclosed to me that they have an internal policy with regard to this loophole that allows their farmers to feed up to 2% of the animal’s weight in grain per day during the winter months. Assuming that their cows weigh about 1000 pounds and given the fact that there are about 5 “winter months” in this part of the country, their policy would allow for each grass fed cow to be fed about 1.5 tons of grain per year. Amazingly, it can still be marketed as “grass fed beef.”

Sketchy practices such as these are more of the norm than the exception when it comes to the “grass-fed” beef market. And even when grass-fed beef is actually grass-fed, the standard says nothing about a number of additional factors that have a dramatic impact on the cow’s health. Things like…

  • Hormone & antibiotic intake. Unless also labeled organic, it’s perfectly permissible for grass-fed cows to be given antibiotics to prevent infection and synthetic hormones to promote faster growth.

  • Quality of life. The USDA standard requires that grass-fed cows must “have continuous access to pasture during the growing season.” Hmmm. Sounds a bit like the “cage-free” scam, which requires that chickens have “access” to the outdoors, which (for most large scale operations), means opening a window in the feed house for a few hours out of the day. My point is, there’s plenty of room for deceptive interpretation in this sentence.

  • Toxin Exposure. Even if grass-fed cows ARE actually eating grass, that grass is probably being treated with herbicides and fertilizers on a pretty consistent basis. YUCK.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Organic Shmorganic.

The organic label does matter, but not as much as one might assume. Though the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) prohibits the use of hormones and antibiotics in organic animals and ensures that the animals’ feed has not been treated with pesticides or harsh chemicals (both of which are absolutely important), it misses other critical markers of health.

For one, it’s acceptable for organic cows to live in feedlots. The fact that the NOP does not allow organic cows’ time in the feedlot to exceed 120 days is of little consequence, as most non-organic cows are also grazed on pasture for the first part of their lives and are then moved to feedlots for about the same amount of time to be fattened up before slaughter.

Cows labeled organic aren’t always fed a natural diet of grass that’s necessitated by their species. And more often than not, organic cows are raised on corn, soy, and other grain mumbo jumbo. And by now, we’re all familiar with why that’s a BIG no-no!

Moral of The Story

Labels can be tricky. Even the term “pasture-raised” (often thought of as the final word when it comes to completely natural, beyond organic meat & one of the ways we describe how we raise our meat at Primal Pastures), doesn’t always mean what you think it does.

Because there’s no legal definition of the term, pretty much anyone can claim to produce “pasture-raised” beef (even if it’s really anything but) and suffer no consequences for the misinformation.

With all labels (grass-fed, organic, pasture-raised, etc.) most companies and industries will jump through any loophole they can if it means making things easier and more cost-effective on their end, making it extremely difficult for the consumer to make smart decisions.

We’ve been lied to, deceived, and scammed into spending our hard-earned dollars on products that aren’t what we think they are.

This issue extends much further than grass-fed beef, which is only one symptom of the dishonesty and greed that has dictated the direction of our country’s food system for far too long — but that’s a topic for another day.

Fortunately, there’s something we can all do about it. It’s up to US to vote with our forks (and knives) by making educated decisions about what we eat and where our food comes from.

This means finding your local farmer, doing the research, asking the right questions, and visiting the source of your food if necessary in order to ensure that the beef you’re buying was fed organic grass, never given hormones or antibiotics, and lived a happy life on the pasture with plenty of room to roam.

There’s nothing worse than spending big bucks on fancy labels and empty promises. Most small, local farms know and understand this and are more than willing to go above and beyond to reassure their customers of the natural, ethical, and sustainable nature of their farming practices.

At Primal Pastures, we offer detailed information on the living conditions of our animals, daily phone/email support, farm tours, and ways to make buying good meat affordable.

Buying meat in bulk is definitely the most affordable (and fun) way to go. But it can also be super intimidating — mostly because it’s hard to know how much freezer space you’ll need in order to store your meat.

That’s why we just launched an amazing deal to make buying quality meat even MORE simple, efficient, and cost-effective for our neighbors in So-Cal. It involves a brand new deep freezer, free delivery, and a lot of high quality meat at an affordable price (click here for more info on the deal).

If you aren’t in So-Cal and can’t buy from us, don’t worry! Head over to EatWild.com to find a sustainable, beyond organic farm near you (but remember to do your own research as well).

Have questions or comments? Be sure to let me know your thoughts on the information presented in this post in the comment section below!


  1. k says

    I understand everything in this article… it makes sense, and I appreciated the clarifications, but I seriously just got so anxious while reading this. Trying to keep myself healthy these days is going to be the death of me, I swear.

    Just more reason to push my husband to get on board with buying local pastured beef from the farms around here.

    • k says

      and clarification….. on EatWild, I have discovered that not all farms are “beyond organic”…. they do what they can but make sure you ask or snoop around online first (for example, I bought 12 chickens THEN did my homework… they were put out ON pasture for a short time, but being Cornish X they couldn’t be fully sustained and received a “healthy” dose of soy/corn/grain).

      • Bethany McDaniel says

        Thanks for pointing that out, K! Just another reason to do your research and make sure that you’re buying from a good source. And as for your first comment, I know this stuff can be overwhelming. I wrote this post not to mandate that everyone eat pasture-pure beef all of the time in every situation, but merely to offer some information on the sorts of schemes and tricks that companies try to pull on good-intentioned consumers every day (which it sounds like you’re already pretty aware of)! So don’t feel too overwhelmed…just do your best! That’s all anyone can ask 😉

  2. whidbey_joan says

    we’re lucky enough to have a 1/4 cow raised up & harvested for us, yearly. we give thanks for knowing our sustainable, organic farmer is doing the best for his cows and his customers by raising them in a humane manner. and since we’re practically neighbors I can drive by & send blessings to the farmer, family & cows, looking happily at our future dinner!

  3. Chris Cope says

    So the moment one develops an interest in healthy food and starts googling ‘grass-fed beef’, the #2 result that comes up is titled “Why You Shouldn’t Buy Grass-Fed Beef”. This is the case with anything health-related these days. No wonder everyone is so confused about food in our modern industrialized world where people ‘hunt’ exclusively in the supermarket.

    You see, the problem is that people don’t know sh*t about food anymore and articles like this one (although full of useful information) create even more confusion. Most people have never seen a live chicken, let alone cherries on a tree (yes they do grow on trees!) or herbs in a forest (you mean forest as in Harry Potter?). Instead they nitpick about the small details and consequently live in fear of saturated fats, refined grains, and unregulated foods.

    About a third of the people in Holland have cancer (it was on the radio the other day). America and other developed countries are not far behind. Way to go civilization!

    So hopefully in the year 2300, when almost everyone is dead, people will finally realize that it doesn’t work that way and will go back to living on a small farm, raising their own food and monitoring the process from start to finish. Until then there is the Internet with all the confusing information.


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