Grass-fed beef is a trendy idea right now, and sometimes it’s difficult to distinguish the real information from the trend, so let’s talk about beef, because god knows we all love beef. There are a number of factors to think about when evaluating this whole issue – some of them have been researched and some haven’t. So let’s dive in with cow happiness, cow health, health implications for you and your family and just keep going from there.
What does “Grass Fed Beef” Even Mean?
I know, that sounds like kind of a dumb questions – obviously grass fed means the cow has been fed grass. But, does that mean it’s been fed grass for part of it’s life, all of it’s life, only grass or grass mixed with other things? So let’s get into the legal nitty gritty. In October 2007 the USDA set voluntary standards to define the term grass fed. These standards suggest that beef should be grass or forage fed for the duration of it’s life, meaning that it doesn’t get grain except as an incidental part of the grass. In general all cattle eat grass for the first 6-12 months, so this really only restricts the last portion of their life. This sounds great but here are the drawbacks:
- Verification is voluntary, and unless beef displays the USDA process verified shield, we’re just taking the farmers word for it.
- In this sense grass-fed is different than pastured. These cows could still be in a penned feed-lot environment, but instead of being given corn or soybeans, they’re given hay. So essentially it still isn’t cows in their natural environment.
- These regulations have no bearing on hormones and antibiotics given to the cattle. Cows can be labeled as grass fed and still be getting daily growth hormones and antibiotics with their hay. This tends to run counter to the general perception of what it might mean for beef to be grass fed.
Is There A Better Labeling Standard for Grass fed Beef?
The short answer, is yes! But of course the long answer is slightly more complicated than that. The American Grassfed Association is a membership organization of farmers and public interest groups who have come together to determine higher standards. Which is wonderful. If you see their logo on your beef it means that the meat animal (they certify any ruminant animals, so cattle, goats, sheep and bison) is raised according to the highest standards:
- Diet — Animals are fed only grass and forage from weaning until harvest.
- Confinement — Animals are raised on pasture with no confinement.
- Antibiotics and hormones — Animals are never given antibiotics or growth hormones.
- Origin — All animals are born and raised on American family farms.
This is a fantastic step forward and gives you as a consumer much more information about the meat you and your family are eating. The problem is that each farm that wants to be included has to pay for membership and pay each year for an independent inspection, as well as pay per head according to the number of animals that they have. This is by far the best system we’ve got, but for some farms the cost may be more than they can support. Still, if you have a chance to buy your meat animals either from a farm you know personally or a farm that is AGA certified I would highly recommend it. If you’d like to see the AGA’s complete standards here they are.
Is Grass Fed Beef Healthier?
The good news is that this one is a resounding yes. Grass fed beef has higher antioxidant levels, better fat ratios and fewer calories than conventionally raised beef does without the pesky traces of antibiotics and hormones. A 2009 study published in the Journal of Animal Science compared grass finishing vs. grain finishing methods on the nutritional content of the meat. Here’s what they found:
- Healthier Fat Content– Grass fed beef is higher in total omega-3 fatty acids and lower in total fat than conventionally raised beef. Grass fed beef also has a healthier ratio of pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids to anti-inflammatory omega 3 fatty acids (1.65 vs. 4.64 in conventional beef).
- Higher in Potential Cancer-Fighters – Grass fed beef is higher in CLA, which is a potential cancer fighter and also higher in vaccinic acid, which can be converted into CLA.
- Higher in Vitamins – Grass fed beef is higher in thiamine (vitamin B1) and riboflavin (vitamin B2)
- Higher in Antioxidants – Grass fed beef has higher levels of vitamin E and beta-carotene.
- Higher in Minerals – Grass fed beef is higher in potassium, calcium and magnesium.
S.K. Duckett et al, Journal of Animal Science, (published online) June 2009, “Effects of winter stocker growth rate and finishing system on: III. Tissue proximate, fatty acid, vitamin and cholesterol content.” Also for a great article on grass fed beef, meat, milk and poultry check out Eat Wild.
Quality of the Cows Life in Grass Fed Beef
I am an unashamed omnivore, proud of my status at the top of the food chain. Nothing about that means that I do not value the lives of the animals that I eat any less than I value any life. It matters to treat all living things with kindness, care and consideration. There is absolutely no excuse to neglect another living being. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves and you can make your own decisions as to which life looks happiest.
The simple fact is that their environment speaks for itself. I have no ethical problem with eating meat, but I have a huge ethical issue with raising animals in a cruel or unnatural environment.
Other Thoughts on Grass Fed Cattle vs. Feedlot Cattle.
I’d like to digress for a minute into the musings of my mind, simply because these issues aren’t talked about too much with farmed beef. Obviously on a feedlot cattle need daily doses of antibiotics so that they don’t get diseases from all the other cows there – it’s like humans in prison, but with less space. Communicable disease travels quickly. Of course I don’t like that, but what about lifestyle diseases? These cows are being fed a diet that has nothing to do with what they would get in the wild (which is grass). That diet happens to be tremendously high in sugars and starches, which in humans leads pretty directly to diabetes. Is it safe to assume that the cows we eat are largely diabetic cows but that this doesn’t matter to growers because they’re slaughtered before the health ramifications show up? I would theorize that this is exactly the situation. I’m guessing that by eating diabetic or pre-diabetic cows, we may actually also be ingesting their hunger and satiety hormones as well as the inflammatory particles that the cows flesh would be saturated with. What would that mean if my theory is correct? It would mean that by eating diabetic animals we are raising in our own bodies some of the hormonal and inflammatory factors that would contribute to our own diabetes. Food for thought.
Economic Impact of Grass Fed Beef
This is a hard one to parse out. Grass fed cows take more time to raise, more land per animal and more expertise in their farmers. This means it costs more (often far more) per pound for the consumer. That can be a real challenge if you have a family of four. In defense of grass fed the farmers are more likely to be small family farmers rather than huge agri-business and more of that money is more likely to stay in the hands of real families and real communities. Environmentally this requires less chemical use and healthier land maintenance, but the bottom line is that it’s expensive. The compromise that I’ve come to is eating less meat, but higher quality and filling in the gaps with more fruits and veggies. This gives me a healthy balanced diet, keeps me in my food budget, and makes sure that I’m putting money towards the things that are important to me. Grass fed beef, grass fed meats and sustainably raised food in general have become a priority for me, but I’d love to know what you think so please leave your feedback!