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.
Admittedly, 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.
In 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
Grass-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.
I 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 grain–fed 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/
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
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)