Grass-fed meat and dairy products are all the rage these days. When I worked in a health-food store, people would constantly ask if our beef, milk, and even sometimes our chicken came from grass-fed animals. But is giving animals grain really all that bad, and what does grass-fed really mean? While people are very interested in this issue, most have little understanding of the many nuances within it. To truly understand, we must look beyond the marketing slogans and explore animal digestion, human history, and more.
Before we begin to analyze the many grass-fed products you will find in stores, I will in this post introduce you to some of the history and physiology of animals eating grains and grasses. When talking about grass-fed animals the first and most important ones to cover would be ruminants. These are animals that can, through their incredible digestive systems, do something even we humans could not imagine achieving in our wildest dreams: turn grass into protein. Through this process, cattle and other ruminants, like buffalo, bison, deer, sheep, and goats, are all able to subsist completely from the same stuff that would make us sick. It is also important to bear in mind that these animals naturally consume very small amounts of grain when eating grasses that have gone to seed. Grains such as these offer a potent source of supplementary fat, protein, and carbohydrates for animals accustomed to eating what is even to them barely digestible food. In raising livestock domestically, we have taken advantage of this naturally, but rarely, occurring protein by adding large quantities of grain to ruminant diets in order to increase productivity and produce fatter animals. This practice has been so widespread for so long that references to grain-fattened cattle can even be found in the Bible. While it is clear to most progressives that ruminants best thrive on a diet consisting of mostly or all grass and the copious amount of grain they are fed in factory farms is not healthy to say the least this issue is still not exactly black and white.
While red meat products tend to be the main thing people look for to be grass-fed, many search for it in their eggs, chicken and pork as well. As opposed to ruminants, poultry and swine are omnivores and require a higher density food source than grass to survive, so such a claim for these products is generally considered silly. None the less allowing omnivorous farm animals to consume a higher percentage of grass and forage is certainly a good thing and has given way to the term pasture-raised and free range being used as well.
Labels like grass-fed, organic, and pasture-raised all mean something, what exactly that something is usually a bit more complicated than we might think. To consume animals and animal products ethically and responsibly, we must stop thinking that a catch phrase can tell us all we need to know about a product. To do this properly, we must educate ourselves about animals’ digestion, history, and much, much more.
About the blog:
Welcome to The Kosher Omnivore's Quest! My old blog on kosher slaughter, kosher meat, and animal welfare. For new content check out my new website, The Kosher Cut™. There you'll find: blog posts about shechita and related topics, educational slaughter presentations, kosher slaughter training, and a selection of high quality professional kosher slaughter equipment.