Farmers contend their product is a cut above feedlot animals in health and taste; some experts doubt claims

By Matthew Chayes
Washington Bureau
Chicago Tribune (link no longer available)

MIDDLETOWN, Md. — The image that schoolchildren conjure up when they imagine how animals live probably looks a little like Eric Rice’s Country Pleasures Farm: a half-dozen steers on acres of hill pasture, gnawing lazily on orchard grass.

On a recent Saturday, Rice, a mustachioed farmer in filthy khakis, was throwing homegrown apples at the herd in an attempt to get their attention. The animals, responding with a collective “moo,” stayed put, savoring the verdant countryside.

Beef producers such as Rice, who feed their animals only grass instead of corn, say this traditional setup distinguishes their beef from most commercial products.

“It is tender and it’s very flavorful,” said Rice back at the farmhouse, as his wife–who says she rarely if ever eats beef–labeled jars of homemade fruit preserves. The couple sells the preserves alongside grass-fed porterhouses, sirloins and other cuts at a farmers market some 60 miles southeast in Washington’s Dupont Circle.

Under proposed U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations, beef farmers like Rice, who also teaches English at the University of Maryland, could soon be allowed to apply a special “grass-fed” label to their meat. Nutrition activists and government officials say these labels would help consumers ensure that what’s called grass-fed actually comes from animals with exclusively grass diets and not some mixture.

To be eligible for the new label, a cattle’s energy source would have to be 99 percent grass or other forages under the rules proposed this month. That proposal was a pleasant surprise even for the department’s regular critics.

“It’s important because it’s a high enough standard that it will not allow folks who are doing something kind of halfway–they will not be able to use the grass-fed label,” said Margaret Mellon, director of the food and environment program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

For now, no labeling rules

As it stands now, any producer can label his or her beef grass-fed. Even once the regulations are finalized, producers will be able to label their beef grass-fed, but the new regulations will cover labels with the imprimatur of the USDA.

Nutrition activists were disappointed with rules proposed in 2002 that would have allowed the grass-fed label for animals whose diet consisted of 80 percent grass. That, the activists say, could have permitted large commercial producers to market beef as “grass-fed” that is barely different from their regular fare, which, the beef industry says, has a diet that is about 75 percent grass.

“Eighty percent–that really doesn’t mean much,” said Michael Hall, a professor and beef cattle specialist at California Polytechnic State University. “They needed to tighten the guidelines.”

Most of the beef Americans eat comes from animals who spend the twilight of their lives in feedlots to be “finished”–fattened up with feed consisting largely of corn–before slaughter. Advocates of grass-fed beef call this process unnatural for the animal and say it leads to fatty, less healthful meat.

But some in the scientific establishment say there are few if any tangible health benefits to eating cattle that have spent their lives eating only grass. “Scientifically, I just don’t think there’s enough data,” Hall said.

Fad or `important new sector’?

Hall said he’s glad the government is proposing a strong national standard, but he predicted that grass-fed beef will prove to be a flavor of a week. “Personally, I think it’s a little faddish,” he said.

Mellon, the food activist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, disagreed. “In my view, it’s not a fad. It’s the beginning of an important new sector in American agriculture,” she said.

Gary Weber, chief scientist and director of regulatory affairs for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, said the group is evaluating the proposed regulations, but he’s concerned that nutritional claims about grass-fed beef might not be scientifically sound.

“Whatever we do, we want to be science-based, we want to be factual, and we don’t want to contribute to consumers being exploited in any way when people market beef or any food product,” Weber said.

The specialized beef market has benefited from negative publicity about mad-cow disease and the way traditionally raised beef cattle spend their last days in huge feedlots after being pumped with antibiotics. Activists contend that the antibiotics are necessary only because cows aren’t built to eat feed grain that way.

The grass-fed standard is different from beef labeled organic, which requires adherence to a long list of other regulations. Beef can be organic without being grass-fed and vice versa.

Backers of specialized beef concede it’s pricey. But as supply grows with demand, they predict, prices will fall.

Mellon predicted the market for grass-fed beef will grow because consumers are increasingly concerned about animals’ health as well as their own.

Health benefits claimed

As grass-fed beef becomes more common, Mellon said, research could show more conclusively that the specialized beef is healthier. At the very least, she said, it’s less fatty.

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said this month that one of the components in grass-fed beef–omega-3 fatty acids–shows promise for treating Alzheimer’s disease.

But some in the scientific establishment aren’t ready to shutter the feedlots.

“There needs to be more research,” Hall said.

As the beef community debates the health virtues of grass-fed beef, Eric Rice in rural Maryland will continue to keep his animals out of feedlots.

“We choose to still be grass-fed,” he said.

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