Grass-Fed Beef: It’s What’s for Dinner
The images are an indelible part of our heritage — open fields of cattle, grazing peacefully, with the occasional flick of a tail to break up the scene.
According to the 2008 film, Food Inc., this picture may be more nostalgia than a true representation of today’s food system. Currently much of our beef is delivered via Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations or CAFOs for short. CAFOs may concentrate over one thousand head of cattle in a “factory style” confinement system to produce large quantities of meat at the lowest possible cost.
Factory farming methods are made possible by the extensive use of corn, a heavily subsidized and abundant substitute for the grasses that cattle naturally consume. Even many smaller operations have now added corn because it produces beef so economically.
Despite the cost advantages, there are downsides that bear examining. As Food, Inc. asks, “who wants to buy the cheapest car?”
Why you should care what your beef ate?
Cattle are superbly adapted for grass consumption. Evolution has blessed them with a specialized digestive system that allows them to utilize normally indigestible cellulose. This uncommon talent has helped humans turn marginal lands into productive territory while keeping the animals healthy and vigorous.
Raising cattle on a natural diet can translate into health benefits for us. Grass fed beef (as well as dairy products from grass fed cows) has a healthier fat composition, may be less prone to bacterial contamination, and is often produced without antibiotics and pesticide treated feed.
Decades ago, red meat was considered a major contributor to heart disease. While newer research has reduced these concerns, the picture surrounding grass fed meats looks even better. Compared to conventional beef, grass-fed meat is lower in cholesterol and saturated fat, contains less fat and has fewer calories. Grass fed beef is higher in “good” fats, providing 3 to 5 times more Conjugated Linoleic Acid (linked to lower cancer rates), and 2 to 6 times more omega-3 fatty acids (may help prevent heart disease and cancer).
Another advantage of grass-fed beef may lie in reduced bacterial contamination. In 2001, two year old Kevin Kowalcyzk contracted E. coli 0157:H7 after eating a hamburger and, according to his mother, “went from being a perfectly beautiful little boy… to being dead in 12 days”. An ensuing political battle resulted in the drafting of “Kevin’s Law” designed to grant the USDA the power to shut down plants that repeatedly produce contaminated meat. While that bill failed to pass, elements from it were incorporated into subsequent legislation.
Both lifestyle and feeding practices may influence the type and prevalence of E. coli in cattle. In a Cornell University study, grain-fed cattle harbored higher numbers of dangerous, acid-resistant E. coli, which thrived in their higher acid stomachs. The altered bacteria were then better able to survive the barrier that acidic human stomachs normally provide.
Conventional farming also contributes to the problem of antibiotic resistance through its heavy reliance on low or “sub-therapeutic” doses of antibiotics. Today, 70% of the antibiotics used in the United States are consumed by livestock in order to counter crowded living conditions and promote faster growth.
This may come at a real cost to humans. I will never shake the image of my father, bedridden and feverish, following brain tumor surgery. Lying in an intensive care unit, he had developed pneumonia and was told that, to combat antibiotic resistance, he would not receive drugs unless he failed to fight the infection. The irony was unsettling. We are willing to risk antibiotic resistance to help cattle grow faster but not to heal people with pneumonia?
In addition to health benefits, grass-feeding practices may offer further advantages such as greater sustainability and a more humane, healthful lifestyle for the cattle. Dairy cows on grass have a longer lifespan, living 12 or more years versus an industry average of 3 to 4. After purchasing his current farm, Bailey’s Harbor farmer Tom Lutsey decided to take stress seriously and installed a handling system built by Temple Grandin (of HBO film fame) that gently coaxes the cattle through gates and passages for an even lower stress environment — and presumably healthier, tastier beef.
If you are ready to take the plunge and try some grass fed beef, here are some things to consider:
• Locating sources. Don’t expect to pop into your neighborhood supermarket and find grass fed beef. More reliable sources include health food stores, Internet shops, farmers markets, and local farms, which may offer the most economical solution. Some farms sell single cut packages or larger convenience packs of varied cuts, as well as the traditional quarter or half of a cow.
• Is the meat grass-finished? Some producers will start their cattle on grass but switch to grain before slaughtering with the objective of faster weight gain and more marbled meat. Unfortunately, some of the health benefits decline rapidly with the change in diet.
• Can you taste first? All meat is not the same. If you are considering a large scale purchase like a quarter of beef, you may wish to taste some of the producer’s beef first. Farmers markets may offer cooked samples and farms may sell smaller packages so you can buy with confidence.
• Cooking Instructions. Because the grass fed meat has a lower fat content, it may benefit from slight modifications to cooking style. Tougher cuts like chuck roasts will be tenderized by slow cooking at low temperatures and steaks will be more tender if cooked medium-rare rather than well done. Most producers are happy to provide cooking suggestions. Note that standard safe cooking and handling practices should still be applied to grass-fed beef.
Finding grass-fed beef may be a bit more challenging than a trip to the supermarket, but it’s a great way to indulge in a delicious and healthful food. Even better, patronize family farms that support the local economy and produce food in a humane and sustainable manner. It’s grass-fed beef for dinner at our house!