For years its advocates have claimed that pasture feeding – letting farm animals live and graze on grass – results in meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products that are more nutritious than the same foods from grain-fed animals, especially those raised in confinement. Now the demand for “pasture-fed” or “grass-fed” meat is so high that last November, the U.S. Department of Agriculture implemented regulations for labels using those terms.
However, the new standard was immediately criticized for being inadequate by the American Grassfed Association and other organizations.
With confusion at an all-time high, how can consumers make the best ingredient choices for themselves and their pets?
Until the USDA announced its new guidelines, the use of the words “grass fed” or “pasture fed” on labels was unregulated. The USDA now allows meat to be labeled “grass fed” only if it comes from animals that ate nothing but grass after being weaned. Growers must have their farms and records inspected before they can use a “USDA Process Verified” seal. Meat can be labeled as grass fed without the seal if growers submit documents showing that their animals were raised according to the standard.
The American Grassfed Association welcomed the requirement that animals be fed all grass and no grain; early versions of the USDA regulations would have allowed meat to be labeled “grass fed” or “pasture fed” even if animals were fattened on grain in their final weeks. But the association objected to other, watered-down parts of the new regulations. It was unhappy that the USDA did not require grass-fed animals to live on pasture year-round (animals can be confined on factory farms, with little freedom of movement), and it allowed the use of antibiotics and hormones.
In cooperation with Food Alliance, a national nonprofit certification organization, the American Grassfed Association developed its own certification program in which animals are required to be on pasture or rangeland all year long and be free of antibiotics or hormones.
Checking a meat’s certification is one way to discover how it was produced, but not all small farms and ranches have the time and resources to invest in certification programs. Growers in your area may raise superior quality animals on pasture. In fact, their farming methods may exceed the requirements of any “organic,” “pasture fed,” or “grass fed” certification. In most cases, it’s easy to find out what you need to know.
It’s only natural
Until the1960s, when large factory farms began to replace family farms and ranches, nearly all of America’s farm animals were raised on pasture. Calves were weaned on grass and grew to maturity on pasture and hay, reaching market weight at two to three years of age. Their meat was chilled for two weeks to enhance flavor and tenderness in a traditional process called dry aging.
This meat was free from the antibiotics, added hormones, feed additives, flavor enhancers, preservative gases, and salt-water treatments common today. Mad cow disease and the dangerous O157:H7 strain of E. coli bacteria that has caused recent beef and produce recalls did not exist.
Grass is the ideal diet for all ruminants – vegetarian animals with multiple stomachs who chew their cud (which consists of regurgitated semi-digested grass and other plant material). Cows, goats, sheep, bison, deer, elk, camels, llamas, and giraffes are ruminants. Chickens, turkeys, geese, and other domesticated birds also thrive on pasture because of the insects they consume in addition to their daily grain. All pasture-raised animals are “free range” by definition: they enjoy fresh air, exposure to sunlight, and unrestricted physical exercise.
Pasture-raised foods are usually lower in calories and fat, higher in vitamins, and have a more healthful balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fats than conventionally raised foods. An Argentine study published in the journal Meat Science in 2005 determined that grass-fed meat is higher in vitamin C, vitamin E, and beta carotene than grain-fed meat.
Scientists working with the USDA found that lamb raised on pasture and grass contained about 14 percent less fat and 8 percent more protein than grain-fed lamb.
Pasture-fed chickens, ducks, geese, and turkeys have significantly less fat than factory-farmed poultry, their bones are stronger than those of birds raised in confinement, and their meat is more nutritious.
Eggs from pastured chickens, ducks, geese, and other fowl have darker yolks, harder shells, and more nutrients than eggs from factory farms. Last year, Mother Earth News sponsored a test of eggs from 14 flocks around the country in which hens range freely on pasture or are housed in moveable pens that are rotated frequently to maximize access to fresh pasture and protect the birds from predators.
“We had six eggs from each of the 14 pastured flocks tested by an accredited laboratory in Portland, Oregon,” the magazine’s October 2007 issue reported. “Compared to official nutrient data for commercial eggs published by the USDA, eggs from hens raised on pasture contain up to one-third less cholesterol, one-fourth less saturated fat, two-thirds more vitamin A, two times more omega-3 fatty acids, three times more vitamin E, and seven times more beta carotene.”
Milk from pasture-fed dairy cows and meat from pasture-fed cattle have two to five times more conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a beneficial fatty acid, than milk and meat from grain-fed cattle. The butter from grass-fed cows is darker in color, richer in flavor, protects against nutritional deficiencies, and speeds recovery from illness and injury.
Some of the world’s most interesting nutritional research was conducted in the 1930s and ’40s by Dr. Weston Price, a dentist who traveled the world in order to study the teeth and health of indigenous people. Dr. Price discovered what he called “a new vitamin-like activator” that played an important role in the utilization of minerals, growth and development, reproduction, and efficient brain function, while protecting against heart disease and tooth decay.
This compound, which he called Activator X, occurred in the butterfat, organs, and fat of animals who consumed rapidly growing green grass in spring or early summer. He found the same substance in certain sea foods, such as fish eggs.
In recent years, nutrition researchers have deduced that Dr. Price’s Activator X is part of the vitamin K complex, specifically vitamin K2. Unlike vitamin K1, which affects blood clotting, vitamin K2 works synergistically with vitamins A and D to activate proteins and nourish the cells. The Weston A. Price Foundation, which promotes traditional farming methods and food preparation, considers “Activator X” butter an important health tonic.
Dairy products are controversial foods for dogs, but Juliette de Bairacli Levy and those who follow her Natural Rearing philosophy (see “Grandmother Nature,” Whole Dog Journal, July 2006) value raw milk, butter, cottage cheese, yogurt, kefir, and other dairy products for puppies and dogs of all ages.
Only a few states, such as California and Pennsylvania, permit the retail sale of raw (unpasteurized) milk for human consumption, while several others permit the sale of raw milk at the farm but not in stores. In recent years, “cow share” programs have made it possible for consumers to legally obtain raw milk in states that otherwise prohibit its sale. They do so by buying shares in a cow and the milk it produces. Thanks to artisan cheesemakers, pasture-fed raw goat, sheep, or cow’s milk cheeses are widely sold, and in some areas, probiotic-rich whey is available along with lactofermented dairy products like kefir and yogurt.
Good for dogs
Dog lovers who have access to pasture-fed ingredients may not have double-blind placebo-controlled clinical trials to refer to, but the anecdotal evidence is persuasive. Caregivers report that most dogs prefer pasture-fed ingredients when given a choice and that dogs on a home-prepared diet who are switched from factory-farmed to pasture-raised ingredients experience improvements in skin, coat, muscle tone, stamina, and overall health.
“This isn’t surprising,” says Todd Eldred, who with his 3C Beef partner, Doreen Eldred, raises 25 to 30 mixed-breed Red Angus per year in Chester, New York. “There’s a big difference in the health of factory-farmed cattle and that of cattle raised on pasture. Dogs and people who eat naturally raised meat are getting better nutrition.”
In Hickman, Tennessee, Jenny Drake and her husband, Darrin, have been raising beef cattle, hogs, lambs, sheep, goats, chickens, ducks, and geese for 15 years. “We grow Angus cattle, Tamworth hogs, and Lincoln Longwool sheep,” she says, “and all of our animals are raised on pasture.”
Their chocolate Lab-mix, Golden Retriever-mix, two hounds, and six Great Pyrenees range in age from one to 11. “They all eat raw and pasture-fed,” says Drake. “The vets always comment on their excellent overall health and great teeth. They eat and enjoy lots of pork – in fact, it’s their favorite. They don’t like poultry except for chicken feet.”
Drake is puzzled by the resistance of some dog owners to feeding pork. “Wild pig is a favorite food of dogs everywhere,” she says, “and it’s very good for them. The hide can be left on some cuts of pork, which the pups here just adore. Trichinosis, the parasitic disease caused by the roundworm Trichinella spiralis, is still associated with undercooked pork but it is all but unheard-of in the U.S. today. Even if it were in the pork, it is killed by five days of freezing, and all of our meats are sold frozen. In 2006, the Centers for Disease Control reported something like 38 cases of trichinosis, all of which came from wild game and none from farmed pork. Contrast this with 23,000 reported cases of salmonella. Pork is a really safe raw food to give to dogs.”
Several of the experts we interviewed for our “Green Tripe for Dogs” article (Whole Dog Journal July 2008) remarked on the differences between the stomachs of pasture-fed and factory-farmed cattle. Janet Klapac, a supplier of green tripe in Northeastern Ohio, told us that she avoids tripe from corn-fed cattle because it contain so much hair. “The cattle swallow hair when they incessantly groom themselves,” she says. “That’s not a behavior you see in pasture-fed cattle, and I think it reflects nutritional deficiencies as well as stress. The pasture-fed tripe is of much higher quality.”
Buying in bulk
Some buyers save by purchasing a side of beef (one-half of a steer) or an entire steer at a time.
“That’s expensive,” says Doreen Eldred, “but the per-pound cost is much lower than retail, and the butcher who prepares your order will cut the meat according to your instructions. One of our customers who orders a side of beef at a time has us deliver the prime cuts like tenderloin and sirloin steaks refrigerated rather than frozen, and she has the rest frozen in 1 to 1½ pound packages for her dog. None of the bones go to waste. They’re either attached to pieces of meat or packaged separately. The meat and trimmings that are usually turned into hamburger can be ground, cubed, or cut into large chunks for the dog.”
Depending on processing plants and local regulations, the liver, kidneys, heart, spleen, pancreas, and tongue may be available. Farms that do their own slaughtering may be able to provide dog owners with green tripe, lungs, and other organs.
The price of large beef orders varies according to the size of the steer and its fat content. Pasture-fed beef is usually leaner than grain-fed beef and thus has a lower percentage of waste. Beef also loses weight as it ages. A lean 300-pound side of beef will typically result in 225 to 250 pounds of meat and bones, while a very fat side of beef may produce only 165 to 180 pounds of usable meat and bones.
The “per pound” price of what you actually receive will be higher than the beef’s hanging weight price. For example, a 350-pound side of pasture-fed beef costing $3.10 per pound ($1,085 total based on hanging weight) might produce 270 pounds of meat and bones, which would bring the finished per-pound price to $4. Add shipping, delivery, or transportation costs and the total might be $5 per pound or more.
Those who don’t have a large freezer or can’t afford a side of beef at a time often share orders with friends, dog club members, or fellow students in obedience class. Some trainers, groomers, breeders, and holistic veterinarians bring like-minded customers together to share the cost or take turns picking orders up. Occasionally a rancher will cull an older steer, ram, or other animal whose meat is not suitable for sale to humans but which dogs thoroughly enjoy, and sell it at a discount. Other favorite dog treats include chicken feet, which are rich in collagen, as well as chicken or turkey livers, hearts, and gizzards.
Some farms and ranches deliver to restaurants, markets, and private homes. Others use FedEx, UPS, or other delivery services. “We ship nationwide and have customers all over the country,” says Drake, “but now that shipping prices have skyrocketed due to high fuel costs, our long-distance sales are down. I do truck deliveries three times a year to Georgia and Florida, and those cost-saving trips are popular with raw feeders.”
Most local farmers’ markets and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs offer meat, bones, poultry, eggs, or cheese from pasture-fed sources. In CSA programs, customers pay farmers at the beginning of the year for a share of the farm’s output. Like farmers’ markets and CSA programs, food co-ops and buying clubs help make pasture-raised meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products more affordable.
For websites and organizations that will help you locate pasture-fed ingredients for your dog, see “Resources Mentioned in This Article” in the box above.
For years, the beef from supermarkets and discount stores has cost considerably less than pasture-fed beef, but the reasons for the price differences aren’t pretty.
According to Jo Robinson, author of the book Pasture Perfect and a leading expert on the benefits of grass feeding, nearly all of the beef and other meats sold in America’s supermarkets comes from animals raised in feedlots or in large facilities called CAFOs or “Confined Animal Feeding Operations.”
Because it’s expensive to raise cattle, the beef industry does whatever it can to make animals grow in record time. Instead of the three years that it takes grass-fed cattle to reach maturity, factory-farmed cattle reach slaughter weight in just one or two years. The process reduces the meat’s nutritional value, stresses the animals, increases the risk of bacterial contamination, pollutes the environment, and exposes consumers to a long list of unwanted chemicals. Factory-farmed beef contains traces of hormones and antibiotics, and its freshness when packaged is often chemically enhanced.
To improve the efficiency of factory farms, cows are treated with synthetic hormones that regulate the timing of conception so that all of the calves can be born within a few days of each other. On many ranches, herd bulls have been replaced by artificial insemination, and now that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has granted preliminary approval for cloning, declaring that cloned meat is indistinguishable from normal meat and safe for human consumption, industry insiders predict that within the next five to ten years, mass-produced calves will be carbon copies of each other.
After calves are born, they spend several months grazing on grass, which is how calves have been raised for millennia. But when they reach 500 to 700 pounds in weight, they are loaded onto trucks and shipped to auction barns. Their new owners truck them to distant feedlots, a journey that takes up to a week, after which the stressed, thirsty, hungry calves are dehorned, castrated, branded, tagged, dewormed, and vaccinated.
Regardless of whether they show signs of illness, the calves are often fed tetracycline, an antibiotic used to treat humans. Then they are implanted with pellets that contain growth-promoting steroid hormones, a procedure that is repeated as needed in order to add over a hundred pounds of lean meat per calf. “Every dollar invested in implants,” says Robinson, “returns $5 to $10 in added gain for each animal in the 6 to 12 months they spend in the feedlot.”
Many consumer advocates and researchers have called for a ban on growth-promoting implants because even trace amounts can promote tumor growth. The European Union has banned the use of implants and importation of U.S. beef from hormone-treated cattle. Meanwhile, the FDA insists that beef from implanted cattle poses no threat to human health.
The standard fare in feedlots is a high-grain diet, usually corn, which causes calves to reach maturity months ahead of grass-raised calves. “But unnatural high-grain diets have a major drawback,” says Robinson. “They make cattle sick. To prevent or reduce the symptoms caused by grain-feeding, they are given a steady dose of antibiotics in their feed, adding yet another drug to the mix.”
To lower production costs, cattle are often fed “byproduct feedstuffs,” which can be anything from beet pulp and carrot tops to far less nutritious ingredients such as stale bread, candy, garbage collected from municipal landfills, chicken feathers, chicken manure, plastic, salvaged pet food, and “spent hen meal,” or ground-up laying hens. A 1996 study published in the Journal of Animal Science concluded that stale chewing gum, still in its aluminum wrappers, “can safely replace at least 30 percent of growing or finishing diets without impairing feedlot performance or carcass quality.”
Until 1997, many of the cattle in U.S. and European feed lots were fed blood, meat, and bone meal from other cattle. Feeding these ingredients to vegetarian animals was completely unnatural, and it also transmitted bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, more commonly known as mad cow disease.
“Mad cow disease helped pull in the reins of an industry that was getting out of control,” says Robinson. FDA regulations passed in 1997 and 2004 reduced the risk of mad cow disease by prohibiting the feeding of mammalian blood and cattle parts to cattle, but America’s feed lots remain a breeding ground for harmful bacteria like the O157:H7 strain of E. coli.
Feeding grain to ruminants, whose digestive tracts are designed for grass and other foliage, causes excess stomach acid. Cattle with acute acidosis can develop growths and abscesses on their livers, stop eating, sicken, and even die.
“Even when they’re fed antibiotics,” says Robinson, “many calves develop ‘subacute acidosis,’ an aggressive form of acid indigestion. A calf with subacute acidosis will hang its head, drool, kick at its belly, and eat dirt. Alarmingly, this is regarded as ‘natural’ in feedlots. According to an article in the trade magazine Feedlot, ‘Every animal in the feedlot will experience subacute acidosis at least once during the feeding period…. This is an important natural function in adapting to high-grain finishing rations.’ When calves are finished on high-grain diets, a certain amount of suffering is simply taken for granted.”
In contrast, humane treatment from birth to death matters to ranchers and farmers who know their animals as individuals. “I confess that we do give a tiny amount of grain to our steers,” says Doreen Eldred. “It’s a training treat reward for coming when we call them.”
Environment, economy, and regulation
Feedlot cattle produce waste that contaminates the environment and adjacent crops. Wherever they occur, E. coli outbreaks are often traced to the manure of feedlot cattle, which can be spread by irrigation, rain, farm equipment, and processing plants.
In contrast, the manure of well-managed pastured cattle – which do not carry the dangerous strain of E. coli – goes back into the earth. Because their forage is naturally fertilized, grass-fed cattle don’t have to ingest the residues of pesticides or chemical fertilizers.
Feedlot cattle consume about 8 pounds of grain in order to yield a single pound of meat. With corn in short supply because of recent floods that damaged Midwest crops and the loss of corn to biodiesel production, grain prices are rising.
As a result, factory farms are seeking less expensive feed for their cattle, further compromising the animals’ health and nutrition. Pasture farms feel the pinch, too, because harvesting the hay and silage for winter feeding uses equipment powered by diesel fuel. No matter how they are fed, the cost of raising cattle and other farm animals is going up.
Government regulation complicates the lives of farmers everywhere, and, as Jenny Drake explains, “Most people don’t realize the amount of regulation we are under and the resulting high overhead. Many raw feeders are shocked at my prices, especially for poultry. They don’t realize that small farms cannot produce meats for under $1 a pound, which is what most people want to pay for their dogs’ dinners. Then we have to add costs related only to processing and regulation, which on my chickens come to more than $2.85 per pound.”
Like other small farmers, Drake appreciates the raw feeders who go out of their way to support her farm and others like it. “If the small farms are not consumer-supported,” she says, “they won’t continue to exist. Even buying some of the raw food you feed your dogs helps support local farms such as ours.”
“Choosing pasture-fed ingredients is a great way to keep dogs strong and healthy,” says Katrina McQuilken, who runs a pet health store in Ridgewood, New Jersey. “The trend toward pasture-fed ingredients exists even in convenience foods. Some manufacturers work with local pasture farms in order to use grass-fed ingredients in their frozen dog foods. Whether you’re feeding green tripe, organ meats, muscle meat, bones, treats, or chews, your dogs will receive better nutrition from pasture-fed animals.”
As you study descriptions and labels, be ready to decipher the following terms:
■Natural. All Natural. 100 Percent Natural. Although consumers respond to this claim, it’s a meaningless label. According to the USDA, “All fresh meat qualifies as natural.” It should not contain artificial flavors, coloring, chemical preservatives, or synthetic ingredients, and it can be only minimally processed (ground, for example). The USDA requires that meat labeled “natural” carry a statement that clarifies the use of the term, such as “no added coloring.”
The “natural” label does not prohibit the use of animal byproducts in cattle feed. As Jo Robinson reminds us, “Virtually all the beef in your supermarket comes from animals that were treated with growth-promoting antibiotics. You can’t tell by reading the label, however, because the FDA doesn’t require antibiotic use to be listed. It’s agribusiness as usual.”
■ Organic. This label, which applies to beef, other meats, poultry, eggs, and dairy products, has the backing of a legal standard and certification system. The animals involved have not undergone genetic modification (they were not cloned, for example); they were fed grain or grass that was free from chemical pesticides, fertilizers, animal byproducts, and other adulterants and not genetically modified; and they were not treated with antibiotics, growth hormones, or chemical pesticides.
While the animals must have access to the outdoors, they are not necessarily raised on pasture, and their access to the outdoors may be limited. And even though their feed has to be produced organically, it need not be fresh or of high quality.
■Grass-fed or Pasture-fed. The USDA defines grass-fed animals as living on pasture and eating only grass and forage after weaning for their entire lives. The term implies (but the USDA does not require) organic farming methods.
■Free Range or Free Roaming. This label, which is usually applied to poultry, implies grass feeding and unlimited access to open pasture, but because the term has no specific definition in the U.S., it can be misleading. An open door may offer access to the outdoors but chickens might or might not use it, and once they get outside, they may be standing on concrete or gravel. Those who raise poultry outdoors on grass prefer the term “pastured.”
■No Antibiotics. Beef, lamb, poultry, and other meats, eggs, or dairy products sold with this label must be from animals raised without the use of antibiotics over their entire lifetime.
■No Hormones. Because hormones cannot legally be given to hogs or chickens, “no hormones” is a meaningless claim for pork and poultry. Beef and dairy products carrying this label are from cattle that have not been treated with hormones.
■No Animal Byproducts. The animal’s feed does not contain animal ingredients.
■Biodynamic. Beef, chicken, pork, cheese, and dairy products certified Biodynamic are raised organically according to strict standards developed in the 1920s by Austrian philosopher Rudolph Steiner. This is a “beyond organic” certification.
Because so many label claims are unregulated and because so many farms and ranches operate outside the certification process, the best way to find out how your meat, dairy products, eggs, and poultry are raised and processed is to talk to the growers. Pasture farmers are usually passionate about what they grow. They’ll explain everything in detail and invite you to visit.
“A label is only as accurate as the person placing it on the package,” says Doreen Eldred. “If you want to know the quality of the meat you are getting, you need to know the farmer and how the animals are being raised. It’s all a matter of trust.”
CJ Puotinen is a frequent Whole Dog Journal contributor and freelance writer living in New York. She is also the author of The Encyclopedia of Natural Pet Care and many books on holistic health care and herbal remedies for humans.