GRASS-FED BEEF // the local food report

What's so good about this steak?

For starters, I finally learned how to cook it. I've nailed it now twice in one week. Bring on the meat! But there's another, more important component at play. This steak is 100 percent grass-fed, from a local cow. What does this mean?

Well, there's a lot of meat jargon out there these days. Grain-finished. Grass-finished. Grass-fed. Pastured. Hormone free. Antibiotic free! Depending on who you ask about what all these terms mean, you can get different answers.

Let's start with the current conventional standard of cattle farming. While there is some middle ground, there are two basic ways to do it. You can raise calves on mother's milk and pasture, and continue them on pasture for another few years until they reach slaughter size. Or you can start by raising calves on mother's milk and pasture, and once they reach a certain cut-off weight—usually around 650 or 700 pounds—put them on a diet where 70-90 percent of their rations come from "grain and protein concentrates," usually some combination of corn and soy byproducts. On this grain-based diet they reach slaughter size much faster than they do on grass, and they get much fatter.  In fact, most feedlot cattle are 30 percent fat by weight—technically obese. Because they gain weight so quickly, they gain a lot of it as intramuscular fat, what butchers and cooks call "marbling." Grass-fed animals, in contrast, tend to gain fat around their bones.

There is something we should stop to note. The USDA grades beef based on the amount of marbling and a cow's age at slaughter. The younger and fatter, the better the grade. Since grass-fed cattle have on average half as much fat as grain-fed cattle and often take a year or two longer to reach slaughter size, they don't usually make the cut.

Before we get into the health implications of all this, let's start with the history. Grain-finishing—finishing is the term used to describe the process of fattening cattle up for slaughter—is a relatively new phenomenon. Until about the 1950s, most cattle were raised and finished on grass. But with the advent of the Green Revolution, U.S. farmers found themselves with a lot of cheap corn and soybeans on hand. They started feeding them to cattle, noticed how quickly the grains fattened the cows up, and decided it was quicker and cheaper to finish cattle on grain. 

But there were health consequences. Lots of them, both for the cows and for us. 

For starters, ruminants aren't good at digesting grain. Grain-based diets lower the pH in their colons, fostering the growth of a new acid-resistant strain of E. coli (O157). Other strains of E. coli live in the colons of healthy cows and humans, and can be harmless. And usually, even if we eat food contaminated with E. coli (usually by way of fecal matter), our stomach acid kills it. But this acid-resistant strain of E. coli is much more dangerous—it thrives in our acidic stomachs.

In addition to increasing our risk for E. coli, feeding cows grain also changes the composition of their fats. The typical American consumes 14-25 times more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3 fatty acids, mainly because we eat so many processed foods. The ideal ratio is 1:1, and we can't make these fats—we have to eat them. This imbalance has been linked to heart disease, diabetes, depression, obesity, cancer, arthritis, asthma, and a host of other health problems. Grass-fed beef has a much more favorable ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids than grain-fed beef, and also has twice as much CLA, or conjugated linoleic acid. CLA is a rare omega-6 fatty acid that acts more like an omega-3 fatty acid, in that it's thought to reduce the risk of heart disease, keep cholesterol and weight in check, and boost the immune system.

Finally, grass-fed beef has been found to have ten times as much beta-carotene as meat from feedlot cattle (that's why the fat from grass-fed beef has a more yellow color than the snow-white stuff you see on grain-fed steaks) and at least three times as much Vitamin E. And that's just the nutrition stuff. 

Feedlot diets also make cattle sick. Crowded together with their digestive systems doing overtime (they're asked to gain between 2 and a half to four pounds a day), they're at a much higher risk than animals on pasture for all kinds of diseases. To counter this, many farmers add antibiotics to the animals' daily rations, both as a way of keeping disease in check, and because they've noticed that antibiotics, too help cattle gain weight. The use of antibiotics in farm animals has increased over ten to twenty times since the 1950s, and the antibiotic-resistant pathogens that develop in these animals can make us sick, too, and leave us with no way to treat the illness. 

In addition to antibiotics, most feedlot cattle are also often given growth hormones in the form of implants. Nearly all cattle entering conventional beef feedlots are given a combination of six anabolic steroids, including estrogens, testosterones, and progesterones. Measurable levels of all of these growth hormones—including those that mimic human sex hormones and are known endocrine disruptors—are found in the meat at slaughter, which means we're eating them. There has been remarkably little research done in the United States on the effects of these hormones (the E.U. banned them in 1988). But a 2007 study looked at sperm quantity and quality of men born to women who ate a lot of beef (defined as more than seven servings per week, which really is A LOT!) or "not much" beef (less than seven beef meals per week, still a fair amount). The more beef women ate, the lower their son's sperm concentrations. Most beef in the United States comes from grain-fed, feedlot cattle, and hormonally speaking, this study is just the tip of the iceberg. Premature puberty in girls, various reproductive cancers, and a host of other health issues have also been linked to endocrine disruptors. Is it all because of grain-fed steak? Not at all. But sticking to grass-fed meat is one thing that can help.

So this all is the long answer to the question: What's so good about that steak?

The short answer is this: Compared to a conventional, grain-finished steak from a feedlot, it has on average twice as many omega-3 fatty acids, twice as much CLA, ten times as much beta-carotene, three times as much Vitamin E, and none of the antibiotics or growth hormones.

It also costs twenty to forty percent more. You get what you pay for. To me, it's worth every penny. 


Lucky Dog Ptown said...

Outstanding! !

Steve in Wellfleet said...

Excellent article... informative and accurate. One minor correction, however. Dairy farming or husbandry refers to animals involved in milk production. Beef husbandry refers to animals involved in meat production, the focus of the article.

Elspeth said...

thank you steve! very good point :)

Leslie Plumb said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Leslie Plumb said...

Great article on an important topic!!!

Patricial Munson said...

Therefore, it is better for cattle owners to let the cattle grow. But with the number of people wanting cow meat against those raising it, what are the odds?

Unknown said...

Keep up the great works guys I've included you guys to my personal blogroll.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
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