Ben Hartwell rolls a round bale of hay into place for his grass-fed cattle at Sebago Lake Ranch in Gorham on Monday. Hartwell is one of the farmers asking the state to crack down on food trucks, restaurants and farmers markets that falsely claim to offer grass-fed beef. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Some farmers are asking the state to crack down on food trucks, restaurants and farmers markets touting pricey grass-fed burgers or steaks when the beef is really sourced from cattle that were fed a cheaper and less eco-friendly grain diet over the winter.

Not only is it unfair competition for farmers who are spending the extra time and money to raise the beef cattle on a grass-only diet, but it is also misleading customers who are paying extra for something they’re not getting, said Ben Hartwell, who raises grass-only cattle at Sebago Lake Ranch in Gorham.

Grass-fed cattle eat at Sebago Lake Ranch on Monday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“It happens a lot more than you think,” Hartwell said. “The federal guidelines are hard to find, but they’re clear when you do find them: to say it’s grass-fed, it has got to be grass-fed, from start to finish. No grain. No excuses.”

But the state agencies in charge of policing grass-fed claims only do so when somebody complains. In the last year, the state has fielded three complaints about restaurants making bogus claims about a grass-fed burger on their menus; in all three cases, the complaints turned out to be true.

In response to Hartwell’s concern, Rep. David Boyer, R-Poland, has introduced a bill that would codify the federal definition of grass-fed – all grass, no grain – which already is referenced in state regulation, into state statutes. This will give the definition more heft and make it easier to find, lawmakers say.

The bill was unanimously endorsed by the agriculture, forestry, and conservation committee on Monday.


The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the agency responsible for health inspections and honest food claims by restaurants and food trucks, provided records that show Rosie’s Restaurant & Pub and Portland Mash Tun, both of Portland, falsely claimed to be serving grass-fed burgers.

Rosie’s told the state it would stop making the claims in February, but it is still listed on its online menu. Mash Tun told an inspector in December that it was selling grass-fed burgers, but it couldn’t prove it, so it was ordered to remove the claim from menus in January. It is still making the claim on social media.

Phone calls to both places confirmed employees were still pitching grass-fed products when asked. But a reporter asking follow-up questions about the veracity of those claims was told no one was available who could answer or respond to the proposed bill on Monday.

Ben Hartwell watches his beef cattle after bringing them round bales of hay on Monday at Sebago Lake Ranch. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

A spokeswoman said the agency also had confirmed a false claim by Cowbell in Scarborough but did not provide the detailed record for that case. The upscale burger joint is still offering a $13 “grass-fed” burger under its build-a-burger section. It was unclear Monday whether it had switched its source of beef.

At a public hearing this month, Heather Spaulding of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association reminded lawmakers of the value of terms like grass-fed and organic when it comes to food, and how hard it is for farmers to meet these standards when raising livestock entirely on grass in Maine.

“The term (grass-fed) is an important marketing tool for farmers to differentiate livestock management practices and demand a premium on meat and dairy,” Spaulding said. “Many of MOFGA’s producers use this term and work hard to defend the integrity of their messaging.”


For Hartwell, a former Gorham town councilor and a practicing attorney, the term has a fungible value.

It costs this 43-year-old, third-generation farmer more to raise his 80-head herd this way: they require more land to graze, which drives up fencing and irrigation costs, and the hay he feeds them over winter when the grass is dead or covered in snow costs more to buy than grain feed.

Grass-fed cattle watch as Ben Hartwell approaches with a tractor carrying round bales of hay to a field at Sebago Lake Ranch in Gorham on Monday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Grass-fed cattle are slower to put on fat, so they are typically butchered, or “finished off” between 24 and 30 months, while grain-fed cattle are butchered at 14 to 16 months of age. That means grass-fed livestock require two winter’s worth of hay.

Hartwell said he is responsible for the grass-fed beef complaints made to the state. He said those do not represent the totality of the false claims he has observed at area restaurants and farmers’ markets – in some cases, he has talked with restaurant owners and they have willingly removed the claims.

One day, Hartwell would like to see the state incorporate advertising checks of claims like grass-fed and organic into its restaurant and food truck inspections, but for now, he said he would settle for a clear presentation of what is required in state law for all to see.

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