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Moving onto grass-fed pastures

Praised for their health benefits, grass-fed products are popping up on more store shelves. But the industry faces some setbacks in Canada

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Canadians are sending out a new type of cattle call: they’re on the hunt for grass-fed meat and dairy.

“A lot more people are coming in specifically asking for it,” says Mario Fiorucci, co-founder of Ontario’s three The Healthy Butcher stores, which sell grass-fed beef, game and dairy products. “There’s definitely more awareness.”

Specialty stores have stocked grass-fed for as long as a decade. But now the products are showing up in more mainstream stores, such as Longo’s and Whole Foods.

The product selection itself is broadening, too, and now includes beef, lamb, milk and, more recently, yogurt and butter. Even processed products, such as mac- and-cheese and frozen sausages, are getting in on grass-fed. (Annie’s Homegrown, for example, has varieties of mac-and-cheese that use cheese made with milk from grass-fed cows.)

Part of what’s fuelling the popularity of grass-fed products is health. Research shows that compared to their conventional counterparts, grass-fed beef and dairy have a healthier ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fats, more conjugated linoleic acid (which may reduce the risk of cancer and heart disease) and higher amounts of certain vitamins. That sits well with consumers.

“The population is becoming more health-conscious, and with that comes an interest in foods that some think have increased health benefits,” says Melissa Baker, a registered dietitian in Toronto. (She notes, however, the nutritional advantages to grass-fed products come from eating a lot of them–more than three servings of beef a day, for example–which wouldn’t be recommended in a well-balanced diet.)

Popular diets such as paleo and “Bulletproof ” are also boosting the popularity of grass-fed products since they support eating grass-fed meat.

Apart from the health benefits, raising grass-fed animals is also often more humane if they’ve been raised in a pasture instead of a feedlot. Some people describe the taste of the meat as richer and beefier.

The higher price isn’t a turn off for consumers who seem willing to pay for the quality they’re getting with grass-fed. Pricing varies, but two litres of grass-fed whole milk might cost, for example, $5.99 instead of $4.99.

Most of the time, grass-fed is still priced lower than organic. According to the experts Canadian Grocer contacted for this piece, it’s too early in the grass-fed market to have hard sales and growth figures, especially in Canada.

But the industry does have its challenges. For starters, our Canadian climate doesn’t exactly support lush, green meadows year-round. Grass-fed cows can eat preserved hay over the winter, but must be finished on fresh grass for that fuller flavour.

That makes fresh grass-fed beef a seasonal product.

“The problem is, in January people come in saying, ‘Why don’t you have it in winter?’ ” says Fiorucci. “So, we decided to import beef from New Zealand.”

That may not be appetizing to customers who prefer to eat locally. Another option for grocers is stocking it frozen, alongside the burger patties.

A lack of regulations in Canada is another hurdle. There are no requirements to follow certain standards or be certified to use the term “grass-fed” on a label. “

A lot of grass-fed meat on the market is not all grass-fed,” says Fiorucci. Nothing’s stopping producers from labelling their beef “grass-fed” even when the cows are fattened up on grain (see sidebar).

And while you may picture contented cattle grazing in a pasture, the reality could be a cramped feedlot where the animals get hydroponically grown grasses.

READ: Hay is for horses, but grass is for cows

Canadian farmers can be grass-fed certified by the U.S.-based Animal Welfare Approved program. But only a dozen have done so, according to the group.

“People are creating their own definitions,” says Matt von Teichman, CEO of Rolling Meadow Dairy, which sells grass-fed milk, butter and yogurt (and is introducing kefir and Greek yogurt this summer).

For instance, von Teichman says it’s standard practice for grass-fed dairy cows to be fed a little grain (not corn) when they need extra energy to produce milk.

“What is required is for the retailers and consumers to do a little homework, and find out what grass-fed means to that company.”

And that means buying from farms that are open about their practices and open to answering questions from potential buyers, such as where their animals graze and what they eat at each stage of their lives.

READ: Life Choices rebrands to focus on more ethical farming

“We really spit out our story on our website; we say exactly how we’re doing it,” says Tim Mock, who along with his wife, Laurice, raises grass-fed beef at Windhorse Farm in Duncan, B.C.

Much of his beef is sold directly to the public, and he says, “Our customers call and ask questions and want to see the operation when they come. Some of them are very well informed. And they’re getting more and more so.”

Aaron Skelton is VP of brands and business development at GreenSpace Brands, which, in addition to the Rolling Meadow line, sells grass-fed sausages and burger patties under its Life Choices brand. (Both brands are sold in Whole Foods, Choices Markets, Loblaws, Longo’s and Sobeys.)

He agrees that more consumers are asking the right questions.

“It’s very similar to what we saw in organics 10 years ago,” he says. “In grass feeding, people want transparency.”

In a recent Health Canada consultation, parents called for more animal welfare information, such as “free range” and “grass- fed” on food labels.

Retailers, take note. Your meat department managers and in-store dietitians may be getting questions from curious customers about the source of your grass-fed products and your suppliers’ farming practices.

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