There are two very different kinds of red meat in our world. And they are a world apart.
The first kind is found in every grocery store in America. It’s cheap, abundantly available, and may taste fine with a little pink slime. This kind is generously referred to as “conventional meat” or just “meat”. I call it factory meat, feedlot meat, or cancer-causing meat.😝
The other kind, which you may think is ridiculously expensive and elitist or hipster, is often called grass-fed (the term free-range fell out of favor because everyone used and abused it). Local grass fed is more expensive. If the label says sustainably raised, you are paying farmers to raise cattle in a way that is healthy for the animal, the farm, and the environment. And then there are dancing, well-adjusted, grass-fed, local, sustainable cows who were recipients of attachment parenting and got tap dance and ballet lessons and were read bedtime stories. These are the happiest cows so they fetch the highest price 😉.
But kidding aside, what is the difference? Does it really matter?
Yes, of course, and here’s why: Good ole regular no-frills meat at HEB or Safeway or Kroger or Albertsons or Randalls costs just $4/pound. But what are you getting?
Your cow was tortured. Cows are ruminants. They have a stomach called a rumen and are meant to eat grass. When they eat grains, it makes them sick. They get acid indigestion because the grains interfere with their natural saliva production and this results in chronic diarrhea; they get liver abscesses from bacteria leaking through their damaged stomach lining into their blood and ending up in their liver; bloat, because grains cause gasses to get trapped in cows’ digestive systems. Their stomach become so distended that they can die of asphyxiation; they also get a bovine form of polio because their grain-eating bodies are severely acidic and causes them to produce an enzyme (thiaminase) which blocks nutrient production and results in brain damage. Which leads to paralysis. Conventional cows would all eventually die from grains, but they are slaughtered first, after a short and unhappy life.
Your cow was imprisoned. Cows are made to graze. Though some calves are started on grass, most soon move into the warehouses (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) where they will live out their short lives without fresh air, sunshine, or a blade of grass. They are packed into metal cages with artificial light and their pens are so cramped they can barely move.
Your cow was drugged. Cows are exposed to all kinds of pharmaceuticals—hormones to fatten them up quickly, antibiotics to combat illness caused by unsanitary living conditions, and other medicines to make sure they don’t die before slaughter. And their feed contains pesticide residues and heavy metals.
Your cow may be infected with E. Coli According to a report in Applied and Environmental Microbiology, there is always a population of cattle on feedlots which carry E. Coli. It can be persist through the production process and into humans who eat them. A 2015 Consumer Reports investigation showed that 300 packages of meat from over 100 grocery stores all contained bacteria with fecal contamination. This bacteria can cause great harm to human health, including blood and urinary tract infections. Also, about 20% of conventional beef contained bacteria that is resistant to most antibiotics. Bon Appetit!
Your cow is full of GMOs. Monsanto has not yet inserted DNA from a dinosaur egg to make them grow bigger but I’m sure they’re working on that! Still, they are full of GMO—their diet consists almost entirely of corn and soy. This is food that no cow was ever meant to eat.
Your cow was sprayed down with ammonia or chlorine. Yeah, it’s gross, but arguably necessary since they’ve been sitting in their own crud and their neighbor’s crud and living in conditions where pathogens thrive. Dangerous bacteria growth is also present in slaughterhouses. Meat carcasses are washed down with ammonia to eliminate some of this bacteria. Scrumptious!
Your conventional cow may be sold as grass-fed. There’s a deceptive practice out there called “DDG-fed”. That stands for dried distiller grains. Which is a fancy name for corn that’s been processed to remove its starch. Without the starch it technically qualifies as a “grass fed feeding supplement”. It’s amazing what factory farms get away with—if you can’t convince the customer, confuse them! Studies show that DDG fed animals do not have the same nutrient composition as real grass-fed, so don’t be fooled.
Your burger has God-knows-what in it. Yeah, I’m not sure either. But I do know that pink slime is back, under the misnomer “finely textured beef” so that you are none the wiser. Also, carbon monoxide is used to color aging meat which naturally turns brown. What does the USDA have to say about that? It’s “safe and suitable” of course. …because if it doesn’t sicken or kill you right away, it must be safe! Carbon monoxide is also added to “master containers” used to ship meat, but is removed from the final retail packaging and, of course, missing from the ingredient list. Lots of germ-killing compounds like cetylpyridinium are used to disinfect meat. Something called protease from Aspergillus mold is injected into “mature meat” to make it tender. Enjoy your next burger!
Now let’s talk about my cow.
When I buy meat, I think about how the cow lived. Why? Who cares? You should, because whatever went into the cow ends up in you.
I want a cow that lived on forage. That means grass, vegetables, and leaves, plus access to a pasture to graze, as cows were meant to do.
I want a cow that was grass-finished. Producers can feed their cows grass for 5 minutes and then switch to grain and tell you it’s grass fed and grain finished. That makes it sound better, but it’s not. The industry is full of tricks. If it’s grass finished, they didn’t cheat at the end and pump it full of grains. After three months of eating crappy grain grub, all the health benefits of the grass will be entirely gone.
I want a clean cow. Grass-fed cows don’t need to be sprayed down with ammonia because they live in a clean, healthy environment. Grazing on grasses maintains healthy bacteria in their gut. The risk of E coli is dramatically reduced along with other food-borne illnesses.
I want a cow which will provide my body with health benefits. Grass-fed cows contain more nutrients. One superstar is conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). Research shows that CLA can:
- reduce tumors from many different cancers including breast and lung.
- reduce asthma
- reduce inflammation that is implicated in cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, high triglycerides, and osteoporosis.
- improve the insulin response
Grass-fed beef is also higher in
- carotenoids like beta carotene
- vitamins like E and B,
- minerals like calcium, magnesium, potassium, iron, and phosphorus.
- Omega 3 essential fatty acids
Yeah, I’ll take some of that!
I want to support the health and sustainability of my local community. If you want to have a healthy local economy in which the residents are earning an honest living producing healthy food for you, then support your local farms! Or, you can make industrial cattle ranchers and huge supermarket chains rich while slowly destroying your body. Tough choice—right?
Should we really be eating meat?
We have been eating meat through all of human history. Our bodies are designed to digest and absorb the nutrients from meat. Traditional hunter-gatherer populations like the Masai and Inuit got most of their calories from meat and had no evidence of heart disease until processed carbs were introduced into their diets. That said, we need a lot less than most of us are getting…
Grass Fed Farms. How do I find them?
Eat Wild has a directory of 1400 pasture based farms in the US and Canada. Many of the farms will ship to you.
Local Harvest has a feature to help you locate famers’ markets, independent farms, and other places where you can find sustainably grown food
Eat Well Guide. This is an online directory of farms, stores, and restaurants that use sustainably raised meat and dairy products in the US and Canada. I was a little surprised to see Chipotle on the list…
What about the environment. What does the environment prefer?
The environment probably prefers having fewer cows. Both feedlot and grass fed cows have a detrimental impact on the environmental although feedlot are worse. Growing grains for feedlots requires a massive amount of land, chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and fuel-using equipment for growing, harvesting, and storing grains. In pasture-based operations, the cows do all the work. They graze on existing land, usually co-existing with species already there, and they fertilize as they go, distributing manure across pasture, which improves soil and prevents erosion.
Critics of grass fed farming point out that grass-fed cows require more acreage and they consume more water over their lives, because they live longer. They also compete with wild animals for resources. And they often use public land that could be earmarked for other things, like National Parks or wind farms. But there are so many more problems with feedlots.
Feedlots accumulate huge quantities of manure in a concentrated area. When it’s windy, it causes air pollution and when it rains, pollution leaches into groundwater. All cows produce methane and nitrous oxide, and these gases contribute to global warming. Grass fed cows live longer lives so their cumulative output is higher. But the majority of American cows live on feedlots. And the waste and waste treatment methods from grain-fed factory cows produces more carbon dioxide than car emissions.
What can you do?
Eat less meat. Make meat a treat. When you buy it, look for local, organic, and grass-fed. Make sure it’s not imported—you have no idea what practices were used to raise foreign born meat. Get to know local farmers and find out about their practices. If it meats all this criteria, it’ll be more expensive, so you can just buy less. Find a recipe that uses a little bit of meat instead of making it the main course of dinner. Add a few strips of sirloin atop a salad. Make a beef stew with lots of veggies. Make smaller meatballs. Toss a few pieces of sausage or pastrami into scrambled eggs. Make ground beef and add in celery, carrots, onions, parsley, and crumbled cauliflower or broccoli.
Also, look for this American Grassfed Association’s label, which ensures that your cow has been fed a 100% forage diet, has never been confined in a feedlot, has never received antibiotics or hormones and was born and raised on American family farms. The program also requires 3rd party audits, so cheating is not likely.
So now you know why a healthy cow costs more. Is it worth it to you? What if you cut your meat consumption in half?