Is grass-finished or grain-finished beef better?

Many news articles make the incorrect assumption that grass-fed beef is better for you than grain-fed beef. Here, we address ten common claims about grass-fed versus grain-fed.

1. Incorrect Claim: Grass-fed animals don’t need antibiotics.

Fact: All antibiotic use contributes to resistance in some way. The real question is whether it’s impacting public health. Multiple studies have reviewed whether antibiotic use in cattle production causes an increased risk to consumers by developing antibiotic-resistant foodborne or other pathogens, and none have found a connection. (Journal of Food Protection, July 2004; Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy, 2003). Some cattle receive a class of antibiotics known as ionophores that promote the good bacteria in the rumen and help cattle better digest and use their food (kind of like a probiotic). The World Health Organization, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and prevention (CDC) agree ionophores are not important to human medicine.

2. Incorrect Claim: Perennial grasses are better for soil.

Fact: Cattlemen understand the importance of managing grazing pastures in an environmentally responsible way. Most cattle spend the majority of their lives on grass, whether they are grass-finished or grain-finished. Approximately 85 percent of U.S. grazing land isn’t suitable for growing crops according to USDA’s Major Uses of Land Report: 2002. Grazing cattle on this land more than doubles the area that can be used to raise food. On average, each cattle farmer and rancher has more than a dozen different practices in place to accomplish environmental goals such as nurturing wildlife, preventing erosion or conserving and protecting water. (Cattlemen’s Stewardship Review, Profile of U.S. Cattlemen survey, July 2010).

3. Incorrect Claim: Grass-fed animals are healthier, and their meat is safer for you.

Fact: Cattle can get the nutrients they need from eating a wide range of plants, including a variety of grains and grasses. E. coli O157:H7 is capable of living in the digestive system of all cattle, regardless of what they eat. While some scientific evidence does show that manipulating cattle diets can affect digestive bacteria levels, these studies have not found that a particular feeding regimen can reliably reduce levels of E. coli O157:H7. In addition, researchers have found no difference in the safety of beef from grass-fed cattle versus grain-fed cattle. (Pre Harvest Control of E. coli O157:H7). Cattle farmers and ranchers have invested nearly 30 million in safety research and the industry annually spends more than $550 million developing, validating and implementing safety measures from pasture to plate. (Cattlemen’s Stewardship Review). The beef industry has been credited in part for helping reduce the risk of illness from E. coli, whichaccording to CDC, was cut in half between 2007 and 2010.


4. Incorrect Claim: Grass-fed animals produce the right kind of fat.

Fact: Cattle diets can modestly effect beef’s fatty acid profile. For example, extended grain feeding can result in beef with increased levels of monounsaturated fat (the same heart-healthy kind found in olive oil), while feeding grass longer (depending on the type of grass), can influence the amount of omega-3 fatty acids in beef. However, because the fat profiles are only modestly influenced, most experts agree that when beef is consumed in the context of the total diet, the human health benefits from beef’s nutrient rich package and high quality protein are the same from all beef choices.

Watch below as nutritional consultant, Michael “Dr. Mike” Roussel, PhD, explains the differences between grass-finished and grain-finished beef and how you can make confident beef purchasing choices knowing that all beef is nutritious.

5. Incorrect Claim: Corn fed to feedlot cattle is fossil-fuel intensive and heavily subsidized.

Fact: This claim, made by Cornell University’s Dr. David Pimentel, in a March 31, 2002 New York Times Magazine is outdated given tremendous advancements in how agriculture products are grown and raised. Corn growers today, for example, get a 64 percent better yield per acre than they did in the 1980s. In addition, it takes 30 percent less land, 53 percent less irrigation water and 43 percent less energy to raise a bushel of corn today. This continuous improvement over time has also meant a 67-percent decrease in soil erosion and a 53-percent decrease in greenhouse gas emissions. (Field to Market National Report: Corn).

6. Incorrect Claim: Perennial pasture reduces flooding and pollution-laden runoff.

Fact: Globally, humans still directly consume nearly two-thirds of total cereal grain production, while beef cattle consume only 5 percent, according to the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology. Cattle diets also include a variety of ingredients other than corn, with cattle farmers and ranchers utilizing renewable feeds like distillers grains, cornstalks, wheat stubble, citrus pulp and almond hulls, for example, feed that has been left over from the primary harvest but cattle can utilize as part of a balanced diet. Even if grains like corn and soybeans were not used as ingredients in livestock feed, they still would be grown for human goods like corn-syrup, ethanol, edamame and other derivatives from these plants.

7. Incorrect Claim: Perennial pasture is a carbon sink.

Fact: In November 2006, a report from the United Nations (U.N.) Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) titled Livestock’s Long Shadow was released. Publicity surrounding the report focused on the finding that livestock production accounts for 18 percent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. However, the FAO report does not call for reduced consumption of animal products and, in fact, suggests U.S. livestock production practices be considered a model for the rest of the world. According to Livestock’s Long Shadow (Page 17), intensification provides “large opportunities for climate change mitigation,” “can reduce greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation,” and is the long-term solution to sustainable livestock production. Also, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the entire U.S. agriculture sector accounts for just 6 percent of the country’s total annual GHG emissions. Of this, livestock production specifically is estimated to contribute just 2.8 percent. (EPA, Critical Analysis of Livestock’s Long Shadow).

8. Incorrect Claim: Modern grazing methods match the efficiencies of industrial-scale grain production.

Fact: One of the beautiful things about the beef community is that cattle are raised in all 50 states. This includes states like Colorado, Nebraska and Kansas that also experience a winter season. Farmers and ranchers utilize their local resources and, through grain-finishing, are able to feed cattle year-round, not just when grass is available. That means a fresh, nutritious beef supply is available to consumers when they want it. In addition, according to research from Dr. Jude Capper while at Washington State University, it takes significantly longer for grass-finished cattle to reach market weight than grain-finished cattle. That means more environmental resources like water, feed and energy per pound for grass-finished beef. (The environmental impact of beef production in the United States: 1977 compared with 2007. Journal of Animal Science, 2011).

9. Incorrect Claim: Pasture-raised animals are treated more humanely.

Fact: More than 90 percent of cattle in the United States are handled according to practices established by the farmer and rancher funded Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) program. BQA was established in 1987 by the Beef Checkoff Program to provide cattle farmers and ranchers with the tools and training necessary to assure animal health and wellbeing as well as provide a safe, quality product. BQA unites animal scientists, veterinarians, feed suppliers, animal health companies, meatpackers, retailers and state and federal regulators with producers to achieve the common goal of quality care, and ultimately, quality beef.

10. Incorrect Claim: Grass-fed animals take less of a toll on the environment.

Fact: Eating meatless isn’t a shortcut to saving the planet or eating healthy. Beef is environmentally and nutritionally efficient. Raising a serving of beef today requires less land, water and energy than it did 30 years ago and beef has an 16 percent smaller carbon footprint. (The environmental impact of beef production in the United States: 1977 compared with 2007. Journal of Animal Science, 2011).Each serving of beef provides 10 essential nutrients, including protein, iron, zinc and B vitamins. A 3-ounce serving of lean beef provides all of the essential amino acids you need in about 150 calories on average. The same effect from plant protein requires 2-3 times more servings and many more calories. You can enjoy lean beef guilt-free, knowing that including it in a healthy, balanced diet is good for you and the planet.

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