RICHMOND—Some Virginia fast-food restaurants are beginning to advertise the fact that they serve grass-fed beef, and such products are popular at farmers’ markets and local butchers around the state. Many grocery store chains now carry it, and grass-fed beef has been a popular dish at higher-end restaurants for years.
So what’s the difference between grass-fed and conventionally produced beef?
“Grass-fed beef, by its nature, tends to be leaner and not as well-marbled as corn-fed beef,” said Spencer Neale, director of commodity marketing for the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation
. “Historically, most beef would have tasted like that. But as the cattle industry matured more than a century ago, consumers came to prefer the taste of beef from cattle that were finished on grain feeds.
“Now with the passage of time there is a new market and a demand for grass-fed beef.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture standard for grass-fed beef requires that all cattle with that grade must have been fed solely grass or other hay and grass products during their life cycles. Virginia cattle producers typically have raised their animals on pasture for a year, then sold them to out-of-state feedlots to be finished on grain. More producers are now keeping their herds on pasture, then selling the meat locally.
“The health benefits of one type of meat over the other is up for debate,” Neale said. “There’s been research on both sides of the argument, but (grass-fed) is definitely a leaner cut of meat. So if that’s what you’re looking for, it’s a good choice. It is definitely a product that most consumers don’t know how to cook; you do have to handle it differently.”
Despite an increase in consumer demand for grass-fed beef, the market is still relatively small. According to The Pasture Project, an advocacy group for grass-fed beef production, grass fed beef accounts for less than 3 percent of all U.S. beef sales. But the number of U.S. grass-fed beef producers rose from 50 in 2002 to more than 2,000 in 2011.
“I work with a lot of grass-fed beef people; I like it when I cook it,” Neale said. “This shouldn’t be an either/or situation for cattle producers. Thanks to the local food movement, there’s so much opportunity out there now. Anytime producers can diversify to develop a new market, that helps the whole industry.”