The lie: See this label, and bucolic scenes of grassy fields with healthy, happy cows probably come to mind. Think again. "Grass-fed" is a term that's sort-of regulated by the USDA, who has defined it to mean that an animal ate 100 percent grass and no corn or soy and had continuous access to pasture throughout its life. But the USDA allows anyone to use that terminology, provided a meat producer submits documentation saying that's what he or she is doing; no farm inspections are required to meet the definition. Furthermore, before this rule went into place in 2006, anyone could use the term "grass-fed" on food products, and those people were grandfathered in under the new rule, whether they meet the requirements or not. A final kicker? The rule applies only to cattle and other ruminant animals, but you'll often see it on packages for pork or chicken—animals that can't survive on a grass-only diet.
To get the real thing: If you see the words "U.S. Grass-fed" accompanied by a “USDA Process Verified” shield, you're in the clear. USDA verification requires actual farm visits, and it means that someone other than a farmer has witnessed that animals are eating grass. Or look for the American Grassfed Association certification, which has even stricter standards on "grass-fed" than the USDA. A third option: Buy your meat at the farmer's market, where the farmer who raised the meat can give you a detailed rundown of what his or her animals eat every day and who will allow you to visit the farm yourself.