Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
30 Apr

The Problems with Conventionally Raised Beef

cows 1As mentioned in our Red Scare commentary a few weeks ago, beef gets a seriously bad rap these days. “Saturated fat!” the status quo shrieks, running in all directions, hair on fire, arms flailing, gnashing their teeth. Let’s set the record straight here. You know our decidedly pro-fat leanings. No need to go any further there. But what else is there to like about beef? To its credit, beef offers among the biggest boost of protein per ounce of any traditional food. (Yes, insects and other underappreciated delicacies in some cases offer more. We’ll let our good readers fill in the options here.) To boot, beef is an excellent source of niacin, vitamins B6, B12, K2, phosphorus, selenium, as well as iron, potassium, and riboflavin. In its best form (and we’ll get to that), it also serves as a good source of conjugated linoleic acid (more on this in a minute) and omega-3 fatty acids. (See why we were so compelled to defend red meat’s honor?)

The inevitable caveat, however, is this: not all beef is created equal. (Yesterday it was cheese, we know. It’s really about fact, not fussiness.) Most of the beef consumed today is not, by any stretch, what your great-grandparents (let alone Grok) would’ve eaten. Modern day CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) do a real number on the nutrition of today’s beef cattle. Forget the happy cow image of relaxed, casual grazing on healthy, nutrient-rich grasses. CAFO cows are fed a diet of grains typically mixed with soy product and, honestly, whatever the farmer sees fit. (We seriously know a beef farmer who fed his cows those orange jelly candies. Why? Because he got an enormous load of them cheap from the local candy manufacturer since they were “defective.”) But there’s so much more. Let’s break it down….

Grass vs. Grain Fed

What is the big deal with grass-fed beef anyway? Well, for one, the conjugated linoleic acid content. As mentioned in yesterday’s cheese post, CLA is believed to offer anti-cancer properties. It can also help decrease the risk of insulin resistance. Another big difference? A pastured diet results in a nearly 1:1 ratio of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. This is the ratio believed to characterize our hunter-gatherer ancestors (you know, Grok and company). What does a grain-fed ratio look like? Try 6:1. A skewed ratio is a prescription for inflammation and possible precursor/risk factor for chronic disease.

Finally, there’s the E-Coli issue. With all the concern about food safety in the last decade or so, one fact doesn’t get enough if any real press: grass fed (and finished) beef is considerably less likely to be infected with E-Coli (abstract), particularly acid resistant E-Coli that cannot be effectively “disarmed” by our digestive systems.

It’s worth noting that many cattle start off grass-fed early on in their lives but are nearly always switched to grain in the months before slaughter. Most of the initial omega-3 stores and other nutritional benefits are lost during that time. Grass-fed and –finished are not synonymous.

Antibiotics

In the age of so-called “super bugs,” bacteria resistant to even our most powerful drugs, you’d think the routine use of antibiotics for livestock would be scaled back if not outlawed. Not so. The majority of antibiotics in this country is administered not to sick humans or even sick animals but to basically healthy but unnaturally confined livestock. Because of the unnaturally crowded CAFO conditions (in addition to the poor diets), sickness is more common. However, instead of fixing the problem and changing the environment, all cattle are given a steady “preventative” dose of antibiotics to keep the herds clear of disqualifying disease. In response to growing antibiotic resistance, the European Union has outlawed the routine use of antibiotics in livestock, and debate is firing up in this country as well. Check out these websites for more information on the threat of CAFO antibiotic use to public health: Keep Antibiotics Working and The Pew Charitable Trusts: Human Health and Industrial Farming.

Hormones

Heard of hormonal implants? (Not the human contraceptive kind…) We mean growth hormone implants placed in young cattle that will continue to administer hormone supplements for the long term (designed for continual “re-implanting”). Check out the link (PDF) for not only an explanation of the implant procedure but the dizzying array of hormone versions used in American livestock. Hmmm. So, that’s what’s for dinner….

Concern over hormone use has grown considerably over the last decade. Though the debate continues over the exact effects widespread use of these “natural” and synthetic hormones have on human consumers, the thinking tends to center around “how much” impact rather than “if.” The European Union’s Scientific Committee on Veterinary Measures Relating to Public Health (a real mouthful, yes) conducted a review (PDF) of relevant studies as well as subsequent follow ups on additional research. Their findings revealed legitimate human impact in the areas of human hormonal disruption and cancer risk.

Other Issues

How about toxic pesticides (hormone disruptive, cancer-causing substances) used in growing feed and the prevalence of genetically modified grain feed? If you have reasonable access to organic, we suggest it. No one wants to be a guinea pig for Big Agra’s latest chemical or genetic concoction.

In addition to the pile of health issues, many consumers take issue with the ethical concerns and environmental impact of conventionally raised beef. Among them… Because of the extreme, unnatural confinement, CAFO cattle show significant signs of anxiety. The disposal of hormone-laden waste is an increasing controversy in certain regions of the country. Additional pesticide use for grain feed adds to our environmental chemical soup. It’s a sad existence for the cattle and an enormous burden on the land and waterways.

It’s true that meat as a whole is a resource-intensive food commodity. But humanely raised, grass-fed cattle from organic (or as close to it as possible) farms offer all the health benefits with a more sustainable farming approach. And, as we always say: waste not, want not. We whole-heartedly believe in using the entire carcass. Organ meats? Cook ‘em up. Bones? Throw ‘em in a pot for soup.

Times are tough, we know. Nonetheless, from a purely health-focused, informative perspective, grass-fed (and –finished), organic beef stands as the ideal – the gold standard, albeit financially or logistically unattainable for many. The bottom line is this. As Mark always suggests, go for the cleanest meat you can find and afford. A good fish oil can counter the omega imbalance of grain-fed meats when needed. A good supplement and otherwise clean diet can help minimize the effects of hormones, feed pesticides and other impurities. And be sure to visit some of our past posts for more ideas and information on good sources and great tips for enjoying (and affording) healthy meat options.

How many of you have made the transition to grass fed/finished beef? What are your sources? Comments, questions, suggestions? We want to hear them.

Further Reading:

Cowpooling: Share a Side

Cheap Meats Round 2: “Thrift Cuts”

Salmon: Factory Farm vs. Wild

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. I purchase grass-fed beef flank steak (frozen) from Open Space Meats (in Newman, CA) at the Isla Vista Food Co-op because they sell it for $6.99/lb. If I go to the farmers market, it’s priced from $11-14/lb. Either way, I’m buying local and grass-fed.

    Since I’m a college student, I like to utilize the crock-pot. I’ll thaw it out the night before and before I go to class in the morning, I’ll throw it in the crock-pot with some salt, pepper, water, and a little apple cider vinegar. By 5pm, it’s so tender it’s like string cheese, except way better. I like to IF on these days, as I can look forward to eating a big piece of “REAL” beef when I come home at the end of the day.

    BenUCSB wrote on April 30th, 2009
  2. Mark;

    As always, dead on the mark writing.
    Thanks very much.

    Jay

    Jay Cohen wrote on April 30th, 2009
  3. I’ve recently found that the Sprouts near my house sells grass-fed beef, and I’ve been buying that about once per week. No such luck on grass-fed dairy so far, the pickings appear to be slim in Phoenix.

    Parley wrote on April 30th, 2009
  4. I tend to buy the cheapest grass-fed beef cuts just to try to save a little money. I get ground beef at $4.25/lb. that comes from just a few cows and is processed in a small local plant. The stew beef is only $4.50 and also helps stretch the dollar. It is still way better than CAFO beef and costs no more than many steaks at the grocery store. That’s a sacrifice I am willing to make.

    Rodney wrote on April 30th, 2009
  5. Thank you for the further clarification! Still working on finding affordable grass-fed/finished beef in LA, but I’m not giving up! Until then, my Vital Omegas are keeping me healthier.

    Holly wrote on April 30th, 2009
  6. Any beef that I purchase for home consumption is purchased through a local farmer whose cows are grass-fed and finished. If anybody is Washington State is looking for a source, check them out. http://www.thunderinghooves.net. They have the BEST meat, and while prices are generally higher than most traditional grocery stores, I feel so much better eating this way that the price is worth it to me. Plus, I’ve learned to use some of the less expensive cuts so really, it all evens out.
    Great post!

    Krys wrote on April 30th, 2009
  7. We get grass fed/finished beef (thru our CSA in San Diego) from Rangelandbeef in Tehachapi, CA. It’s damn good and makes me happy.

    I emailed the owners about ordering their beef and they hooked me up with my CSA. They’re very nice!

    Cynthia wrote on April 30th, 2009
  8. Luckily I live in cow country, New Brunswick in Canada. They raise them for milk here and they raise them for eating here. The great thing about it is that the meat available either locally at grocers or at the farms themselves. Around here they aren’t raised in feed lots and they don’t have the issues with HUGE amounts of antibiotics hormone implants. Yes, their pasture time is supplemented (especially in the winter) with “cow corn” which is also grown conventionally, BUT it’s still a lot better then what they get fifteen minutes away in Maine.

    When I first moved here I bought all my meat there because it was SO much cheaper, when I learned why it was so cheap, I immediately stopped. Cheap meat is not worth the cost on your health!

    Christine Crain wrote on April 30th, 2009
  9. Parley: I can get this un-homogenized milk at my teeny local health-food store in my podunk little town in Colo, you should be able to find it somewhere. If not, ask if they can get! http://www.farmersallnaturalcreamery.com/
    I won’t have anything else now. It comes from Iowa.
    everyone:
    I found this page for meat (& other stuff)
    http://www.paleodiet.com/FoodVendors/

    Peggy wrote on April 30th, 2009
  10. We’re in Chicago and have a small freezer. Though there’s lot’s of grass-fed producers according to the eatwild.com site, we’ve had a hard time picking a producer that will sell us the smaller quantities we need. We often have to purchase grass-fed beef and bison from expensive Whole Foods just to get it and unfortunately, Whole Foods seems to be the only convenient place that carries grass-fed. Also, our farmers markets haven’t opened yet.

    Anyone have any suggestions on how to about buying grass-fed meats for those with small storage space?

    Nick wrote on April 30th, 2009
  11. I found a couple local farms that sell grass-fed beef, and other livestock, but it often comes in halves and whole animals. My solution? Offer to go in on an animal with family members, and divide the resources. That way I can get all the healthy meat I need without shelling out $$ on a half a cow.

    Deanna wrote on April 30th, 2009
  12. Nice post. I would caution anyone absolutely intent on getting grass-fed beef to really confirm that it is what you think it is. Some producers are raising calves on milk and pasture, then switching to grain, and then switching back to grass, so they are technically grass-finished. This is not to stand in judgment of this practice – I try to take a long view that it will take time to switch our cattle herds to the right genetics for growing on grass and to train farmers to finish cattle on grass. But when I’m personally looking to buy grass-fed beef, I’ve learned to ask first for grass-fed, then to confirm that it’s grass-finished, and then to confirm that it’s grass-only. Even doing this, I had an LA area butcher try to sell me what I knew to be grain-finished beef. But it’s likely to work more often than not.

    Holly, BTW, I have not tried Rangeland Beef but I have spoken to the team there and a trusted friend who’d a very good artisan steak taster loves their beef. It’s an unusual cross-breed, designed to thrive in California’s rather desert-like climate.

    Carrie Oliver wrote on April 30th, 2009
  13. Nick:
    Find friend(s) to go in on a whole or half carcass with you! Also, a lamb (if you like it) is smaller than a cow or steer…

    Peggy wrote on April 30th, 2009
  14. I’ve just started eating meat again after 20 years and enjoyed my 1st grass fed & finished steak & bison burgers recently. Since I live in NYC I’m lucky enough to have access to Farmers Markets for local, hormone free protein sources(as I posted yesterday). Now I think I never would have given it up had I known such an alternative existed all those years ago.

    Marci wrote on April 30th, 2009
  15. Not to sound too much like Grok himself, but to take this one step further, compare the benefits of grass fed beef vs wild game. The nutritional benefits of eating wild rabbit, quail, turkey, and venison far outstrip even grass fed beef. Of course the only way to get those meats in the U.S. is to hunt, or have a friend who hunts and is willing to share. U.S. law prevents the sale of wild game on a commercial scale. So even if you find these in a specialty shop, they are taken from non-native farm raised stock.

    Greg at Live Fit wrote on April 30th, 2009
    • I totally disagree that wild animals are superior to grass fed beef. That may have been true up until about 40-50 years ago, but I don’t think that it’s true now. Most grassfed beef is raised in a controlled enviornment aka a fenced in pasture. However, for the most part, wild animals can go most anywhere they please & often that means to a place where food is very abundant & easy to obtain. Where might that be? Deer & turkey love to hang out in crop fields & hay fields while rabbits love to hang out in gardens & hay fields! Keep in mind that the overwhelming majority of all of the crop fields, gardens & hay fields in the USA are not very “natural” or “organic” at all! “Wild” may sound good at first glance & yes, these animals may spend a lot of time in the wild, BUT, for the most part their diets are often not that much different than typical conventionally raised farm animals. I can’t even begin to count the number of wild Deer that I’ve seen in my lifetime grazing in GMO Soybean & “Round-Up Ready” Corn fields or grazing in “Round-Up Ready” Alfalfa hay fields, etc. Now depending upon where the wild animals are located, I will admit that some have a lot fewer opportunites to eat “unhealthy stuff” than others & that certainly needs to be considered. But, how do you know for sure where they have been & what they have consumed? The answer is, “you don’t”.

      With that said, nothing against wild game, but based on my observations of the eating habbits of wild game, I’m going to argue that all natural grass fed beef is probably a couple of steps ahead of most wild game!

      TJ wrote on April 7th, 2011
  16. … and to add to Greg: don’t forget about roadkill. Some areas allow salvage of carcasses. Of course, this doesn’t work in urban areas. Check with local authorities such as hwy patrol and wildlife to see how and if allowed. I had some friends that got a whole moose that way.

    Peggy wrote on April 30th, 2009
  17. I was just reading a very interesting article about our food consumption and the environment, in particular the green house effect.

    So, Apparently cows are less environmental friendly than pigs or chickens. A milk caw produeces 112 kg Methan in the air yearly and that’s about 2350 kg of CO2, which is roughly equal to the amount a car yearly produces…and the article went on talking about the CO2 produced during shipments etc…funny..mass production of cows are like mass production of cars that polutes our mother earth.

    I love meat and I eat beef whenever I feel like it. Despite the health benefit and all, I still believe that people on average eat a lot more meat than in the old days. I do believe that we need to consume fat and protein daily, and there’s no need for us to fear beef, but we shouldn’t live on it either.

    Beef is just one of our ALTERNATIVE protein sources. We should always mix things up! chicken, fish, pork, lamb, whatever! I think it’s a great idea to get organic beef occasionally, and it’s even better if one could get it around one’s local area.(and that’s more environmental friendly;P)

    some people worry about the high costs.. the fact is, I don’t think people care about the real quality of living enough. Our grandparents spent much more money on food, relatively. A normal household would spend roughly 1/3 of its income on food and beverage in the 60s, compared with a roughly 1/11 today. We get so distracted with all the other consumption options that we have really devalued the importants of food and essencial nutrients. I sometimes feels very upset when my friends wouldn’t mind to pay 5,6 bucks each day to get ciggarettes(or some more money to get the “real” coke rather than no brand) , yet a couple of dollars to improve their quality of meal seem to really push them over the financial edge…

    riceball wrote on April 30th, 2009
  18. My very first post on my very first blog is about my attemtps at using the “sous-vide” method to prep grass fed steaks for the grill: http://beefandwhiskey.com/?p=6

    mrfreddy wrote on April 30th, 2009
  19. Greg- Great point!

    For the last year or so I’ve been living on “non-traditional” meats. AKA- varmits.

    In my freezer you’ll find a wide range of animals. Some of it (alligator, antelope, ostrich and kangaroo) was a Christmas gift from my Dad, and is obviously farm raised. There’s venison from last deer season. The rest (rabbit, raccoon, fox, coyote, possum, etc) came from my nephew, a trapper.
    I didn’t set out to eat this stuff originally. I got into a bit of a debate with my nephew over trapping animals just for fur, to which he responded “Well then YOU eat it!” and I said “Fine, I will!” And the rest is history.
    People tend to look at me weird when they find out what I eat, but to be honest, it’s better than anything you’ll find in a grocery store. I’m looking forward to shooting some woodchucks this August. I hear it’s quite tasty. They’re grass-fed also. ;)

    Deanna wrote on April 30th, 2009
  20. We need to be very careful where we get our food. Anytime a product is mass-produced, cattle beef, chicken, even produce-the bottom dollar is more important than quality. Eat clean takes a little work. Not many in the food biz care enough about the consequence of a substandard inferior product if what they market sells.

    pjnoir wrote on April 30th, 2009
  21. Mark,
    Great post! Your level of insight into the meat industry is amazing.
    Here are some posts I have explaining how I got started raising grass-finished beef and also the amount and kinds of beef in a typical quarter of beef. http://curiousfarmer.wordpress.com/category/curious-direct-market/
    Hope this helps anyone looking at making the jump to buying direct.

    Curiousfarmer wrote on April 30th, 2009
  22. Hi Mark,

    I would like to recommend the place I buy my grass-fed beef, not only because the price is reasonable but he has a lot of information on his website that you and your readers would appreciate. Please take a moment to read all the articles and you would agree.

    http://www.texasgrassfedbeef.com/slanker_s_grass_fed_meats.htm

    Kyle

    Kyle wrote on April 30th, 2009
  23. Here is a great source of 100% grass-fed meat for my family:

    http:www.grasslandbeef.com/StoreFront.bok?affiliate_no=634

    Healthful Regards,
    Dr. John

    dr john wrote on April 30th, 2009
  24. I’d rather eat grass-fed bison than beef any day.

    George wrote on April 30th, 2009
  25. The “environmental costs” of my free range, local beef approaches nil. The same grassy badlands once were populated with bison, so the same CO2/methane, no fertilizers, supplemental feeds, antibiotics, hormones, shipping consisted of a 45 mile drive for enough complete nutrition for 6 months. That would be impossible for a vegetation/grains (god forbid) based diet in our climate to have that small of a carbon footprint.

    Tim Rangitsch wrote on April 30th, 2009
  26. I am lucky enough to live in Northern CA near the Oregon border. A friend of mine gets a couple calves late every spring from his brother-in-law and then raises them on his 20 acres supplanting their diet with hay. I get a quarter of the steer cut and wrapped around the first of Dec every year. We have a little divide up the packages party – one fillet for you and one for me; one chuck roast for you and one for me………. Last year my cost was about $3.30 per pound for a 120 lb mixture of everything from ground beef to fillet mignon. Cooperative farming is the way to go. Though my kids are now off to college, we still find a way to eat it up every year and I have learned how to cook many different cuts of beef.

    Michael S wrote on April 30th, 2009
  27. Mark,

    This question is off topic but addresses your article about Body Composition. I was wondering what your thoughts were on low glycemic fruit. I have been following the Warrior Diet and have been having fruit (apples, oranges, and berries) for my dessert. I am currently trying to drop 20 pounds and get my body fat down to 6-8%. I am doing HIIT 3-4 days a week as well as lifting heavy with low reps 3-4 days a week. Any advice you could give me to help me lean down in the next couple months and achieve a low body fat I would appreciate it.

    Thanks,

    Sam

    Sam wrote on April 30th, 2009
  28. I don’t eat beef. I hunt the plentiful deer on my property and buy organic pastured lamb.

    Alex wrote on May 1st, 2009
  29. I buy all of our beef from the farm up the road. It’s all grass-fed, and tastes way better than the supermarket cuts.

  30. My local Farmers Market should be re-named “Primal Plaza.” They have local/organic Beef, Bison, Ostrich, Turkey, Chicken, and all the veggies you could ever ask for. They all sell single serving, or bulk. I don’t know if it makes me feel any differant, but it sure tastes better!

    Brad wrote on May 1st, 2009
  31. I gave up on beef years ago when friends bought half a cow and served up Sunday dinners to me and a bunch of other masochists. It was tough and tasteless.

    There’s been something of a renaissance here, back to grass fed quality product from the intensive reared grain fed hormone filled crap. Graze cows on watermeadows and marshes that flood annually and the grass is fertilised naturally, reducing input costs. Make silage and haylage to feed them over winter which is cheaper than imported grains and concentrate and most importantly doesn’t give them diabetic dyslipidemia and you have a product which is, well still only marginally profitable but of far higher nutritional value. Older breeds are better for this.

    Nearly as tasty and nutritionally excellent as game (rabbit casserole tonight)

    Trinkwasser wrote on May 2nd, 2009
  32. Is anyone familiar with a farm or company that is located around Gainesville, Florida with grass-fed and finished beef. I’m looking to get into buying direct and any information about local farms here would be much appreciated.

    -Justin

    Justin wrote on July 23rd, 2009
  33. Beef its what Im for killing for dinner!!

    Joe Petrusky wrote on August 3rd, 2009
  34. Grass fed Beef is absolutely amazing.

    Daniel Merk wrote on August 3rd, 2009
  35. Some of the farmers in south Texas feed their pigs potato chips that are seconds from a local factory. No kidding.

    Dave, RN wrote on December 9th, 2009
  36. Great post on Grass Fed beef, your dead on in how much healther it is than traditionally raised cattle. My client, La Cense Beef also has great Grass Fed Beef thats the best you’ve ever had!

    todd james wrote on January 6th, 2010
  37. Excellent analysis of the many reasons to buy grass-fed and the importance of differentiating 100% grass-fed from animals who were fed grain.

    For more information on grass-fed and a list of producers in the Southwest that you can buy from, check out the website for the Southwest Grassfed Livestock Alliance at http://www.grassfedlivestock.org.

    Laurie Bower wrote on February 6th, 2010
  38. I like the tip at the end about fish oil being able to correct omega imbalances. It is a tough economy right now and what quality i can afford is not much.

    Wayne wrote on March 12th, 2010
  39. Good article, I’ll have to start getting grass fed beef as soon as possible!

    Jianna wrote on March 27th, 2010
  40. If there any readers in the Oklahoma City area, we have begun distributing purebred longhorn beef that is grass fed/grass finished, hormone/antibiotic free, completely organic, and very lean (if you care)
    We have a facebook fan page. It is Oklahoma Grass Fed Longhorn Beef. Check it out!!
    We offer some informative links about Longhorn beef on the page also.

    Jessica Richey wrote on April 4th, 2010

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