Grass-fed beef is an increasingly popular menu offering at establishments around the country. According to a Datassential report released earlier this year, 55 percent of Americans favor beef over all other animal protein sources. However, there has been a substantial increase in consumer demand for products that are produced using best practices for the environment and for animal welfare.
In a 2018 survey conducted by the Specialty Food Association, in partnership with Whole Foods, transparency about how food is grown, raised, and produced ranked in the top 10 among consumer concerns. In addition, health conscious consumers are also increasingly interested in grass-fed options, because those products have been shown to be leaner than traditionally-raised livestock and typically contain 50 percent more nutrients—including omega 3 fatty acids and antioxidants.
“The driver in the marketplace for grass-fed beef is the no-added hormones, no GMO, no antibiotics, and the free-range component,” says corporate executive chef Daniel Huebschmann of Gibsons Restaurant Group, based in Chicago. “But what’s interesting is that when we convince customers to try the grass-fed steaks, they say the taste of the meat really holds up to a traditional, corn-fed product.”
While Australian beef is not USDA graded, the Australian eating quality grading system—Meat Standards Australia (MSA)—ensures transparency and traceability for consumers interested in the source of their meat. Measured attributes include meat color, marbling, fat depth, pH, and maturity.
MSA is a paddock to plate beef grading system which uses a statistical model, based on consumer testing and commercialized meat science research to predict the eating quality of each cut of meat from a given animal. Ranchers are rewarded for practices that ensure the highest quality—careful breed selection, attention to the animal’s diet and welfare, and carefully managed processing.
“Flavor comes from the environment in which an animal is raised,” Huebschmann says. “What I found interesting about the Australian grass-fed meat is that the grading system prioritizes the factors that go into providing feedback for the producer, so they can understand better what they can do to deliver a superior product.”
Grass-fed cattle tend to have lower levels of cortisol and other stress hormones, which can cause meat to be tough. Chew, or tenderness, is also affected by the meat’s age. At Gibsons restaurants, Huebschmann applies a 75-day minimum age on their Gibsons Grassfed Australian beef (underpinned by JBS Australia’s Great Southern Pinnacle Beef brand), which are among the top 5 percent of cattle graded by MSA in Australia—at 75 days, they are “perfectly tender,” he says.
In addition to having comparable taste, chefs have found that grass-fed meat handles more or less the same as traditional corn-fed meats. Although the meat cutting can be slightly different— because the muscle density of the animals differs, according to Huebschmann—processing and aging practices are identical.
“Compared with similarly-aged products, grass-fed meats cook about the same,” Huebschmann says. “All prime isn’t created equal in the U.S., and there can be a lot of inconsistency depending on different environments and feeding grains, which all yield a different product. The grass-fed meats we use probably beat out the majority of the prime products. It’s the right age and the right chew. Coupled with the flavor and the health and environmental benefits, it’s really amazing.”
As more consumers are looking for a product that is healthy and supports environmental and animal welfare initiatives, an increasing number of restaurants are adding grass-fed beef options to their menus.
“The educated consumer who eats a ton of steak is going to say it tastes amazing,” Huebschmann says, “and quality trumps the cost for chefs.”