My Beef With The Beef Industry: What’s The Deal With Grass-Fed?

You spot a package of ground-beef that is labeled "grass-fed," and it costs three times more. But wait, you think...aren't all cows grass-fed? What's going on?

November 13, 2015
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Five years ago, I stopped eating non-grass-fed beef products, and my family questioned my sanity. Back then (said like it was ancient history), grass-fed beef was really hard to find where I live; now, it is only pretty hard to find. You could forget about seeing it on most restaurant menus. You basically had to hunt it down and sometimes special order it to cook yourself.

It also cost way more than my family had ever spent on meat.

A lot of people ask me now if it’s worth it. Given that I still stand by my decision, my obvious answer is yes…for me. But why, and does that mean it’s unequivocally better for everyone? What does the other side say?

THE PROS

– Many articles claim that grass-fed beef is leaner than grain-fed. It has less marbling, which is an important measure of internal fat that doesn’t get trimmed before cooking or eating.

– The ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fats is more favorable in grass-fed beef, with a higher omega-3 content and lower omega-6. This ratio is a big deal.

– Cows evolved to eat grass. Feeding them grains can lead to more cattle sickness, which can promote more antibiotic use, which in turn sets the stage for stronger, antibiotic-resistant bacteria that can infect us. It also raises some ethical red flags, since the grains slowly cause liver abscesses and acidosis (both treated with more antibiotics, naturally), the latter of which can lead to sudden death syndrome.

– Most non-grass-fed cattle finish their lives in feedlots: essentially, expansive pens full of cattle as far as the eye can see. Not quite the image you normally conjure when you think of how your food was raised, right?

THE CONS

– It costs more upfront.

– Less marbling may mean less fat, but it also means a tougher, chewier product if care is not taken during preparation.

– If grass-fed is leaner, that means that it contains minimal amounts of fat. If it contains minimal amounts of fat, then how can it possibly be a significant source of omega-3 fats specifically? (It’s not.)

Some authorities suggest that cows raised 100% on pasture result in huge increases in greenhouse gas emissions, water use, and land use, resulting in a larger carbon footprint. Feedlots, they argue, are far more efficient.

– Farmers like to remind us that all beef is grass-fed, but some is “grain-finished.” (In a feedlot. For “only” six months.)

– Grass-finishing can take up to a year longer than grain-finishing, which puts a strain on the beef supply.

I’ve actually had a farmer argue that their cows would rather never roam free, and in fact, prefer their indoor stalls with grain-filled food bins. My colleague’s response was spot on: “Well sure, I’d like to spend all day lying on my couch eating Cheetos too, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for me!”

Which leads me to…

THE BOTTOM LINE

You know what I’m going to say: FIT!

First of all, arguing that it’s not a big deal to finish a cow on grain if it spends “most of its life” on pasture is like saying it’s not a big deal if a human were to subsist entirely on corn muffins from age 50 onwards, as long as they ate salads every day before that. It’s ridiculous.

But look, here’s the thing: critics are right. We can’t convert all of our feedlots to grazing pastures and continue to pump out the tremendous quantities of beef to meet our nation’s current demand. Grass-fed or not, we eat too much red meat in this country, and it has a lot of hidden costs too few people are talking about. That statement is wildly unpopular, I know, but I’m not going to sugarcoat it for you.

Eat less meat.

One benefit of eating less? You might find that you can afford to buy grass-fed and finished, saving up for one, pricey purchase each month rather than lots of cheap ones. You can also save money by purchasing straight from the farm, usually in large-quantity cow shares that can be split with other families.

If, in the end, your family really cannot afford grass-fed meat, don’t panic. The worst thing would be to succumb to analysis paralysis, where the overwhelming idea of perfection prevents you from making any change at all. If you have to buy conventional beef, you can still impact the health of your family and your planet by focusing on portion size and frequency.

There is no one, right answer. My response has been to eat very small quantities of 100% grass-fed beef. For some, that may seem too extreme; for others, not extreme enough. But it’s my choice based on my evaluation of the facts. What will yours be?

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