When you buy beef from the grocery store, you can usually tell that there's some kind of beef encased in all that plastic and styrofoam. You also know what cut of beef you're getting. But as for details on what you're actually eating, packages are not very informative. That will all change when the same "Nutrition Facts" panel that appears on milk, eggs, and every other packaged food at the grocery store will start appearing on packages of beef, as well as poultry and pork, a new USDA rule that will take full effect in January 2012. But what those labels won't tell you is whether your meat contains residues of rBGH or rBST growth hormones or whether it contains trace amounts of the 30 million pounds of antibiotics used on livestock every year. They won't give you a good idea of where your meat came from or how the animals were treated prior to slaughter, nor will they tell you about an animal's diet, which can impact the health of the animal as well as whether it's meat is contaminated with E. coli.
If you care about all those things—as well as the nutritional quality of your beef—it's best to avoid the supermarket and buy grass-fed beef directly from a farmer, says Shannon Hayes, a partner at Sap Bush Hollow Farm in upstate New York and the founder of GrassFedCooking.com. "Either know a local natural-food store owner who knows how beef is produced, or know the farmer directly," she says. "Trust is the only thing that's going to assure your meat was produced ethically." Grass-fed beef has also been found to contain higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids and is typically leaner than it's corn-fattened counterpart behind the market's deli counter (those are some nutrition facts that won't appear on the new labels, either).
However, savvy marketers have come up with some creative terminology to convince you that conventionally produced meat is as good as truly pasture-raised, grass-fed beef.
Following is a rundown of some common terms used on grass-fed beef packages and what they all mean.