Joanna Blythman: Why ‘grass-fed’ isn’t as virtuous as it seems
It’s a description that conjures up images of free-roaming animals, but is it always true?
The term ‘grass-fed’, which of late is popping up on meat, milk, butter, cream, yogurt and cheese, is potentially a very significant piece of information. It should help us distinguish between foods that come from factory-farmed animals reared indoors and fed on cereals, and those from their more naturally reared counterparts found in fields, chomping on pasture.
‘Grass-fed’ has become a major selling point for several reasons. Dairy products from pasture-fed animals contain higher levels of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acid than those from grain-fed animals. From a welfare perspective, people like to know that the animals supplying their food led a nice, natural life outdoors.
There are environmental benefits, too. Grass-fed livestock is increasingly seen as an essential part of ‘regenerative agriculture’. By fertilising the land they graze while leaving it fairly undisturbed – unlike when it’s tilled – animals stimulate much-needed biological life in our depleted soils. Unlike pesticide and chemical fertiliser dependent crop production, regenerative livestock farms create a haven for wildlife.
In taste terms, it’s thought that meat and dairy products that come from grass-fed animals are more flavourful than the intensively produced equivalent. This is attributed to the animals’ natural diets and active outdoor lives, as well as the fact that while factory farmers are focused on breeds that can be reared quickly on high-performance cereal diets, grass-based farmers often choose lower-growing native breeds that are adapted to their local environment, and do not push them beyond their biological limits.
Meat, milk and dairy products from grass-fed animals bring fascinating flavour nuances to the plate – what the French call ‘terroir’. These reflect the unique local geography of the land on which they graze. Lamb from sheep that have fed on seaweed rich coastal marshes, for instance, won’t give you exactly the same taste experience as lamb from heather-clad hills. The texture of the meat will also vary.
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But there is a problem with ‘grass-fed’. In the UK, the term is often used extremely loosely, and can refer to any animal that has eaten grass at any point in its life. So, a farmer who initially rears his cattle outdoors on grass, then fattens them up inside on cereals or manufactured feeds before bringing them to market can say his meat is grass-fed.
A butcher or restaurateur can then pass that on to his or her customers in good faith, or lazily, without checking. It’s technically correct, but it’s not the whole story. But the distinction matters because many of the nutritional benefits associated with pasture-fed meat decline after only a brief period of grain feeding.
A small group of British farmers called the Pasture-Fed Livestock Association has been lobbying to tighten the law so that the ‘grass-fed’ label can only be used on products from livestock reared 100% on pasture. They also want to encourage farmers to stop fattening animals on grain.
This quickly ‘finishes’ the livestock, but does so at an economic and environmental cost, and produces less nutritious food. A vote is due in parliament, but as the law stands, we’re likely being misled by ‘grass-fed’ products that don’t deliver the health, animal welfare or environmental benefits that come with the genuine article.
Happily, the Association has created a striking ‘Pasture for Life’ certification mark. It guarantees that the products have come from animals fed only on their natural diet: verdant green pasture. I’ll definitely be seeking it out.
Read more articles by Joanna Blythman
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Good Food contributing editor Joanna is an award-winning journalist who has written about food for 25 years. She is also a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4.