Grass-Fed: What’s the Beef?

Until a few years ago, I very happily, and quite simply, based my food shopping decisions on taste and price.  Recently, in my evolution — that has actually become somewhat of a revolution — I have had an awakening and have started focusing on both food labels and menu descriptions.  These observations have spanned across number of categories, with beef being one of them.  I had always been a very content consumer of a good cheeseburger on simple occasions and a great steak on special occasions, but never gave much thought to the origins of the beef itself.

grassfedbeef1Admittedly, I did not know details about the grass vs. grain-fed beef debate.  Upon paying closer attention, I quickly saw that grass-fed beef has increasingly become all the rage among the health- and environmentally-conscious; at least among the subset that has not abandoned meat consumption altogether!  While it is still far from mainstream in our local restaurants and grocery stores, grass-fed beef demand has been growing at a rate of 20 percent a year throughout the US.  Over a decade ago, there were only about 50 grass-fed cattle operations left in the U.S., and now there are thousands.(1)  What did all of these people know, that I didn’t?  It left me asking, What’s the beef with grass-fed?”  I read as much as I could, and was shocked by some of what I learned!


What ever happened to the cows and green pastures?  We may have an idealized view of cows happily grazing on green pastures, because throughout history, that’s the way it was. In reality, I learned that since as far back as the 1950’s, many farmers have been feeding grains to cows to increase their speed of growth.  Additionally, they also found that they could plan more effectively when they were not dependent on grass availability and the weather.  While the switch to grains benefits the farmers economically, it causes harmful effects to the cows, to the environment and to the nutritional value of the meat that is ultimately consumed by humans.

Screen Shot 2013-12-26 at 1.00.15 PMIn the good old days, cows grew for four to five years before they were eaten, and today’s timetable has condensed that to under a year.  A calf, which weighs about 80 pounds at birth, grows at an amazing rate to reach 1,200 pounds in a little over a year.  How is this even possible?  All cows start off in the same way; they graze on grass pastures and this process moves along smoothly for the first six months of their lives. In today’s environment, after that initial period, the majority of cows – approximately 97% (2)- are transitioned to feedlots, also known as CAFO’s (Concentrated Animal Farming Operations) and fed a diet of grains predominantly consisting of corn, but also containing soy and wheat to speed their growth.  However, when these grains are introduced into the cows’ diet, their digestion (rumination) can be significantly disrupted.

According to John Robbins, former heir to the Baskin-Robbins fortune who abandoned the world of ice cream parlors to become a best selling author, activist and humanitarian, “If the process of moving from a grass to grain diet takes place too quickly, it can kill the cow… The kind of unnaturally fast weight gain takes enormous quantities of corn, soy-based protein supplements, antibiotics and other drugs, including growth hormones.” (3)

Grain-fed beef and antibiotics

The following information caused me to become a vegetarian for several months recently.  To make a long story very short, cows cannot digest grains; a grain-based diet causes them to get bloated, which can very seriously affect their breathing.  Additionally, the cows develop acidic stomachs, which adversely diseases their livers, weakens them and leaves them susceptible to infection and illness.  Furthermore, if not organic, the grains are often full of pesticides and heavy metals, further compromising the cows’ health. (4,5) To make things worse, the feedlots in which they live have been known to contaminate air and water, degrade soil, run off nutrients, elevate hormone and antibiotic levels and cause infections in surrounding communities. (6)

The overuse of antibiotics has been highlighted in the news lately; specifically that they will soon be rendered useless against increasingly resistant pathogens, both in livestock and in humans.

Currently, a staggering 80% of all antibiotics consumed are done so by our food supply! (7)

Antibiotics are routinely administered to grain-fed cows because they are more likely to develop diseases due to their weakened systems, as well as from the tight conditions of the feedlots. The antibiotics are also used to accelerate the growth of the cows, but at a very real cost to society. 

Grass-fed is better for human consumption

images-1Grass-fed beef has been acknowledged by many to be healthier than its grain-fed counterpart.  It is said to contain less total fat and less saturated fats.  It also contains CLA (Conjugated Linoleic Acid), a fatty acid that recent studies show may help reduce weight and prevent cancer, and which is absent from feedlot animals.  Meat, milk and butter from pastured animals contain higher amounts of vitamin B, beta carotene and Omega 3’s, specifically ALA (Alpha Linolenic Acid). (8)

And then there is the very real issue of diseased cows suffering from infectious pathogens due to the compromised digestions as well as the confined quarters in which they live.  Even though grass-fed beef is not immune to outbreaks, it happens far less frequently than in grain-fed beef.  According to two separate studies, grass-fed animals had as much as 80% less of a particular strain of E. coli in their guts than their grain-fed counterparts, and Campylobacter bacteria was found by Australian researchers to be carried by 58% of cattle raised in feed lots versus only 2% of pasture raised and finished cattle.  (9, 10) 

A note about grass-fed vs. organic

I think that at some point, many people have used terms grass-fed and organic interchangeably.  However, they do not have the same meaning.  Organic beef comes from cattle raised without antibiotics or growth hormones, and are fed an organically grown, vegetarian diet. This diet may or may not include grains. Grass-fed beef comes from cattle raised solely on grass, hay, forage (leaves and stems) and silage (fermented grass). Grains cannot be included in the diets of grass-fed cows, however, the grass and hay may or may not be organically grown. If the hay and grass in a grass-fed cow’s diet is organic, then the beef is both organic and grass-fed. (11)  If grass-fed beef is unavailable, organic is certainly a great choice, due to its lack of hormones and antibiotics. 

 “You are what what you eat eats”  – Michael Pollan

Once I became aware of the details of grass vs. grain-fed beef, I took pause and considered giving up red meat altogether.  I actually did that for several months, but found that I needed meat in my diet in order to feel strong and nourished.  Once beef was re-introduced, albeit in a reduced capacity, there was no going back to my former “ignorance-is-bliss” mentality.  In the seemingly never-ending quest to navigate my family and myself toward healthier meals and choices, I have found the most comfort in purchasing the best quality food that I can find at the grocery store and cooking it at home.  This way I can control, as much as possible, whether we are eating organic, grass-fed beef as well as other organic items.

Screen Shot 2013-12-26 at 1.08.43 PMI absolutely recognize that grass-fed beef costs more, but frankly, I think that it is worth it; there are more vitamins, no antibiotics or hormones, and the cows and the environment are treated in a gentler way.  I pay $6.99/pound for grass-fed ground beef at Whole Foods and $9.99/pound for grass-fed London Broil.  The grainfed prices are only a few dollars per pound less at Whole Foods.  On a recent visit to Super G, I saw that grain-fed ground beef ranged from $3.99-$5.99/pound.  The expense becomes evident with the more select cuts; grass-fed filet mignon is priced at around $29.99/pound at Whole Foods vs. $17.49/pound for grain-fed beef at Super G.

In addition to price, there is the consideration of taste, with some people claiming that grass fed simply tastes too “gamey.”   This is because the grass-fed has more muscle and less fat, due to the fact the cows are not leading a sedentary existence.  Our family consensus is we find that Whole Foods’ beef, sourced from White Oak Pastures, tastes the best.  We also like Pasture Perfect American Style Kobe Beef Burgers, which can be found in the frozen food section of Janssen’s in Greenville as well as at Harvest Market in Hockessin, Delaware.

During the occasions that we do eat at restaurants, we intentionally seek out those that offer grass-fed beef and other organic foods wherever possible.  On the days that we do not find these items on the menu, we order something else, perhaps a vegetarian meal, for some balance. Of course, there are plenty of times when we do not eat organic due to various circumstances of where we are, but I do not worry about that because we eat much more organic today than we ever did.  Nonetheless, I am always hoping that more local restaurant menus will begin featuring grass-fed beef, even if it is only in the form of a grass-fed burger!

 

Notes and Sources:

1) John Robbins, http://www.foodrevolution.org/blog/the-truth-about-grassfed-beef/

2) http://animalrights.about.com/od/animalsusedforfood/a/GrassFedBeef.htm

3) John Robbins, http://www.foodrevolution.org/blog/the-truth-about-grassfed-beef/

4) Michael Pollan, “Omnivore’s Dilemma” (Penguin Books, 2006) pp. 78-79

5) Dallas and Melissa Hartwig, “It Starts with Food” (Victory Belt Publishing, 2012) p. 145

6) http://www.farmaid.org/site/c.qlI5IhNVJsE/b.2723715/k.852A/Factory_Farms.htm

7) http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/10/22/us-usa-agriculture-antibiotics-idUSBRE99L1F420131022

8) http://mastersranch.com/pdfs/Grass_Finished_Beef_and_Lamb.pdf

9) Bailey,G. D.,B. A. Vanselow,et al.(2003). “A study of the Food Borne Pathogens: Campylobacter, Listeria and Yersinia, in feces from slaughter-age cattle and sheep in Australia.” Communicable Diseases Intelligence, Quarterly Report, Vol. 27, Issue No 2, pg. 249- 257

10) James B. Russell, “Rumen Microbiology and Its Role in Ruminant Nutrition (Ithaca, NY: self-published, 2002)

11) http://animalrights.about.com/od/animalsusedforfood/a/GrassFedBeef.htm

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9 Comments

  • While you list a number of sources they are not very a balanced group and quoting a gross distortion does not make it suddenly into a fact. Even a high school student could come up with the controversy which surrounds leasing federal land to Graze Cattle and subsidize wealthy cattle ranchers who are in turn accused by the Democrats of subsidizing the GOP. (I’m registered Independent with very little use for either party). As far as dropping to only about 50 farms raising grass fed beef, wouldn’t you be embarrassed to learn the number was actually several thousand, but it might make you reconsider your sources.
    I share your concern for a safe and equitable food supply chain and I have a solution for you. On Delmarva, if are you familiar with the term, SB Farms in Hurlock, Maryland raises grass fed Bison which is even healthier than Beef. Were you to start purchasing Bison from them you would feeding your family from a source where you knew the entire history of the meat while aiding our local economy and reducing your carbon footprint. Forgive me if your geospatial awareness starts to blur somewhere around Smyrna, but Hurlock, Maryland is in Dorchester County and not too far from Seaford. SB Farms, Inc – sbfarmsinc.com and I look forward to your culinary review of Bison.

  • I discovered about 10 years ago the benefit of eating grass fed beef while my child was diagnosed with a rare form of ADD that borders on autism. My doctor required us to change our diets from non-preservative, non-GMO based foods. I did not realize how much of our food (including beef) is fed by corn (GMO).

    Your article is really well informed and written. I believe the farming industry has sold out to the fast and easy approach to growing their feed lots and making a profit. I only choose grass fed beef and wild caught fish when I cook at home or when the family is out at a restaurant.

    As for the commentor above, it sounds like “Kurt” is a very upset man and is probably consuming too much preservatives and corn fed beef! While I am sure SB Farms is as good as the other Bison farms in Maryland, I personally think Bison and Buffalo meat taste too much like “meat”. Btw, for great Bison meat, my husband swears by Gunpowder Bison & Trading Company in Monkton Maryland (on the other side of the Chesapeake).

    Thank you for your article. I enjoyed it. I was also glad to learn of John Robbins and his story. His blog foodrevolution.org is a great source of information.

  • Thank you for such an informative article, which I intend to share to all my friends on Facebook for the simple reason to educate people on what has and is happening in the beef industry. I am upset that this transformation to grain fed beef has taken place without any real concern for the consequences of human health, but am equally appalled at the complete lack of concern for the inhuman conditions that the animals are kept in. It’s no wonder that the beef tastes so much better if from a grass fed cow which has experienced a far better existence than that of a grain fed cow. I am from Australia so am completely unaware to what extent the move has been made from grass to grain fed beef production but considering the greed orientated live export industry at all costs mentality, even when shown by groups such as Animals Australia that Australian animals are being brutally slaughtered at overseas destinations, I would not be surprised at all if a large proportion of beef production had already transitioned to grain fed. I will most certainly from today onwards be asking for only grass fed beef and if not available be asking why not? It’s only with education that the consumer can make informed choices and if enough consumers demand grass fed, then it has to become available, as with free range products, the availability of those in Australian stores is growing massively all the time. Thanks again for such an eye opening article.

  • What’s the beef Kurt? All I know is that grass fed is better than corn fed and this article lays it out nicely. I might not be as smart as Kurt and I live in an area that would make Smyrna look like Beverly Hills, but I will spend more money for grass fed beef with the hope that I can minimze longer term health problems.

    For what it is worth, Bison tastes like shit.

    Fred S

  • Very good topic! There are even bigger problems in our agriculture and aquaculture with the overdosing of antibiotics. Here is a condensed story based on the New England Journal of Medicine perspective paper just published.

    http://www.bignewsnetwork.com/index.php/sid/219312682/scat/a1e025da3c02ca7c

    Or the NEJM study is here:
    http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMp1311479

    This is the reason I choose to consume free-range chicken, wild caught fish and grass fed beef. As a medical professional, not enough information is provided in universities and medical (teaching) schools. Young doctors are coming out ill prepared to answer the affects of this on the body’s immune system.

    Thank you for publishing this article, it is very well done (pardon the pun!)

  • Thank you for providing this topic on your site. The article is a real eye opener for the average consumer. I have worked in the Delmarva area as an inspector in the poultry industry for over 25 years (recently retired) and have seen significant changes is the poultry products since the introduction of accelerated corn based feeds as well as the overdosing of antibiotics of the chickens.

    It doesn’t surprise me that the beef industry is doing what the poultry industry has been doing for decades. The hyper growth rates of the animals should be alarming to any government body.

    In addition to grass fed beef, a consumer would be wise to choose free range chickens (and eggs) that are fed “organic” feed. This is hard to come by and quite expensive, but much healthier to the human specie.

  • Amazing how you can use one-sided agenda ridden folks as sources for your article. If any of the above folks even had a clue about the ignorance they spew and the affects on ALL American Farmers they do by writing one-sided comments. You acknowledge grain-feeding has been going on since the 1950’s….what is this rush & the all of a sudden…I didn’t know mentality. The Beef Industry for decades (since the 1960s) has been marketing high quality beef as “Grain-Fed USDA Choice (or Prime)Beef”. Don’t use that Grass-fed is nutritionally better argument because there is NO scientific evidence to prove this claim and ALL “blind-taste” panel research shows Grain-fed to be the hands-down winner from a flavor & a texture standpoint. Bison folks shouldn’t be included in this conversation as these are completely 2 different eating experiences….bye-the-bye…I like a good bison steak !!!

  • Thank you Bob the Butcher for really butchering what the author writes about. First, she is pointing out the differences between grain fed and grass fed beef and clarifiying the two. Since there is much confusion in the market place about which is “better for you”, even if slightly more costly. As a butcher, I am sure you have been asked that question before and this isn’t the first time you are learning of this confusion.

    Secondly, the article offers some solid sources that have done plenty of research in this area. You cannot deny the fact that since the 1960’s this country has consumed a lot of beef and since the 1980’s much of this beef is being fed “grains”, at an alarming rate, that have been genetically modified. I believe the bigger issue is all the antibiotics that are given to the cattle. I can understand the GMO grains growing at an increasing rate, but the amount if drugs administered to cattle is worrisome.

    The one area this author should have focused on to help support her point is the fact that so many countries across Europe, South America and Asia still reject US beef imports because of the high levels if chemical residue found in testing. This should be concerning to our farmers.

    Finally, as a butcher, it would be helpful for you to weigh in and let us know why there is such a premium placed on “grass-fed” beef. Clearly someone (either the farmer or the butcher) is making nice profit on this product.

  • The butcher is worried about the farmer! Of course, because without farming there is no butching! In all seriousness, the farmers are part of this problem because they have sold out to the chemical companies like Monsanto and Dupont and others. The chemical companies convinced the farmers to use their seeds to create the largest supply (an over abundance) of GMO wheat, corn and soy and now the farmers are hooked in this easy to grow, just add water, type of farming! They are not only feeding their cattle, but they are stuffing us with the same crap.

    See the article below. The farmers are now subsidizing the Monsanto’s of the world and, in turn, Monsanto is going to automate the crap out of farming. No need for water, soil, tractors or farmers! Eventually, farming as we know it will be gone.

    http://www.salon.com/2013/12/29/monsantos_scary_new_scheme_why_does_it_really_want_all_this_data/

    Prior commenter raises a good point. Why are other countries rejecting our beef, wheat and corn? Because it is made with chemicals. I am not a butcher, a baker or a candlestick maker, just a lonely accountant that needs questions answered.