Conventional farmers could slap a grass-fed label on their beef, critics say.
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Meat-eaters usually assume a grass-fed steak came from cattle contentedly grazing for most of their lives on lush pastures, not crowded into feedlots.
If the government has its way, the grass-fed label could be used to sell beef that didn't roam the range and ate more than just grass.
The Agriculture Department has proposed a standard for grass-fed meat that doesn't say animals need pasture and that broadly defines grass to include things like leftovers from harvested crops.
Critics say the proposal is so loose that it would let more conventional ranchers slap a grass-fed label on their beef, too.
"In the eye of the consumer, grass-fed is tied to open-pasture-raised animals, not confinement or feedlot animals," said Patricia Whisnant, a Missouri rancher who heads the American Grassfed Association. "In the consumer's eye, you're going to lose the integrity of what the term 'grass-fed' means."
All beef cattle graze on grass at the beginning of their lives. The difference generally is that grass-fed beef herds graze in pastures, while conventional cattle spend the last three or four months of their lives being fattened with corn or other grains in feedlots.
People buy grass-fed beef for many reasons: They want to avoid antibiotics commonly used in feedlots, they think it's healthier, or they like the idea of supporting local farms and ranches.
Grass-fed beef is a leaner meat; fat tends to form around the muscle. With conventional corn-fed beef, the fat streaks the muscle in marblelike patterns.
"When you eat steak that is corn-finished, there's a mouth-feel that you get specifically from the fat; it hangs there in the palate for quite awhile," said Thom Fox, the chef at Acme Chophouse in San Francisco and a member of the Chefs Collaborative.
"Grass-fed beef tends to have a much quicker finish. The taste lasts for a few minutes and cleans itself off very fast," Fox said.
Demand for grass-fed products is intense, and producers are responding. By Whisnant's estimate, the number of farms has grown from about 40 seven years ago to around 1,000 today.
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.
"The awareness is there, but yet I think there is confusion," said Leah Wilkinson, food policy director for NCBA. "We want them to come out with something that won't be misleading to consumers."
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.
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