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5 Tips for Buying Better Beef

How to decode all those labels, find responsible producers, and help force change in the beef-production industry through the power of your dollars.

Americans consume more meat than nearly any other country. (We see you, Luxembourg!) Even though our carnivorous habits have dropped off slightly in recent years, each one of us still eats an average of 270 pounds of meat annually—and 60 pounds of that is beef.

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This is tough news for our environment. Raising and shuttling cattle demands substantial amounts of food, water, energy, and land. “Red meat is like the SUV of the food system,” says Jonathan Kaplan, director of NRDC’s Food and Agriculture program. “It’s disproportionately harmful to the planet—responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than any other kind of meat.”

NRDC has estimated that if every American eliminated just a quarter-pound serving of beef per week, the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions would be equivalent to taking four million to six million cars off the road. Consumers can also reduce the carbon footprint—and other environmental and health impacts—of their beef by buying meat that's been certified as having been produced on well-managed ranches and farms

The next best thing to eating less beef is to buy beef from cows raised on ranches and farms that not only maintain a high level of animal welfare but also protect our environment and public health and treat workers fairly. Of course that's easier said than done. After completing an exhaustive analysis, NRDC found that there is no comprehensive standard that can give consumers complete peace of mind. There's also no standard to define what qualifies as "sustainable beef" for food companies. To remedy this, NRDC has joined forces with the Rainforest Alliance and the Food Alliance to pioneer a way for shoppers to recognize sources of beef in the marketplace that are credibly more sustainable. Together, the three organizations have formed the Grasslands Alliance, which has developed a new sustainability standard and certification program that considers the health of people, animals, and our environment on U.S. and Canadian ranch- and farm-grazing operations. In the meantime, keep these guidelines in mind on your next trip to the grocery store or farmers’ market.

1. Read labels—carefully.

While they can be somewhat helpful, the labels on beef are far from perfect. Grass-fed or organic? Pasture-raised or pasture-finished? The options are a lot to digest and, frankly, anything but intuitive. Knowing what these terms mean (or don't mean) is critical. Here's a breakdown of some of the most common.

  • Pasture-raised or Pastured: These terms mean that the cows were allowed to roam freely and eat grass and other plants, which their bodies were designed to process—not grain, which factory feedlots often use to fatten the animals up. But this label doesn't tell you anything about whether the cow was raised on an operation that avoids overgrazing via good grazing management, maintains healthy soils and streams, conserves native fish and wildlife, and uses climate-smart practices that reduce its carbon footprint. It’s also possible that the animal’s diet included grain at some point.
  • Grass-fed: Similar to "pasture-raised," this U.S. Department of Food and Agriculture–regulated term can still be slapped on beef from cows that weren't fed grass all year long. The most ideal option is to buy grass-fed (or pasture-raised) beef directly from a farmer or rancher, so you can ask him or her specific questions rather than rely on a label. Or look for the American Grassfed Association logo, which also indicates that the animals were raised humanely (meaning they weren't confined) and weren't given hormones or antibiotics. Remember, though, that "grass-fed" doesn't reveal anything about whether or not the ranches or farms that produced the beef used regenerative practices that protect soil health and water quality, conserve native fish and wildlife, and reduce carbon footprint.
  • Organic: To be worthy of this USDA-regulated term, the farm and the producer must meet specific organic standards. “Organic animals have to be fed organic feed,” explains Kaplan. “And animals can’t be given nasty hormones.” Cows raised on organic farms also can’t be fed antibiotics or genetically modified feed. However, the USDA Organic Ruminant Pasture Standard doesn’t include specific requirements to conserve native fish and wildlife or reduce heat-trapping methane emissions from cattle belching.
  • Antibiotic-free: Though the USDA regulates “No Antibiotics Administered” and similar labels, they are not verified. If you see “USDA Process Verified” on the label, it means the producer has tried to verify compliance—these cows weren't regularly fed antibiotics, but there's still a good chance they were finished—meaning they spent the last few months of their lives eating grain—on a factory farm. Additionally, producers can label their beef as antibiotic-free even if they’ve used other antimicrobial drugs while raising the animals.

2. Open your pocketbook.

The large subsidies our government bestows upon Big Ag make grain-fed beef cheaper than beef from smaller, more responsible farms. “Buying sustainably raised food animals does cost more, but if you reduce consumption, you can probably make that pencil out,” Kaplan explains. Or just consider the higher cost as an investment in your health and that of the planet.

3. Skip the big-box supermarket.

Even though major grocers are offering more organic foods these days, the beef options remain limited. Smaller, often independently owned shops aren’t reliant on mass production, which frees them up to purchase better-quality meat from local farmers.

4. Find a farmer.

In the United States, most grass-fed and "better" beef is produced on small farms and sold directly to consumers. If you don't have a local farmers' market, you can find producers close to home by checking out online resources like American GrassfedEat Wild, or Local Harvest. Be sure to ask ranchers and farmers how they can demonstrate that their practices are regenerative—that their grazing is well-managed and protects soil health and water quality, that they are good stewards of native plants and wildlife, and are doing their part to reduce their carbon footprint.

5. Be mindful of menus, too.

Be that diner who actually asks how the sausage was made. You won’t be alone. With consumers demanding to know more, even the most unlikely food-industry players are taking notice. Mainstream fast-food chains, like McDonald’s, Chipotle, and Chick-fil-A, have announced plans to start sourcing more sustainable food.

“Those companies never expected to do that, but when they asked their customers what they worry about, hormones and antibiotics were at the top of the list,” Kaplan says. “When consumers care, it transforms markets and shifts how billions of animals are raised. People always think, ‘My sandwich choice isn’t going to make a big difference.’ But they’re wrong. It does make a big difference.”

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