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. Someone who eats meat is approving of and collaborating in the wrongful acts of the agriculture business, and it is morally wrong to approve of and collaborate in wrongful acts, even indirectly.

    BARBBF wrote on April 7th, 2010
  2. There will always be consumers out there who are looking only at price, and growing out a steer in a feed-lot is cheaper than doing it the natural way, on grass, since they grow faster. However, the more health conscious consumers look for leaner and healthier meat while still hoping to have a great eating experience. Here is where grass-fed comes in the picture.

    We at JX Ranch Natural Beef in New Mexico (www.leannaturalbeef.com) sell All-Natural Grass-fed and Dry-Aged Beef to individuals within New Mexico as well as in other States.

    Here’s where we differ from many other grass-fed beef producers – We harvest our beeves at a younger age, which results in our beef being very lean yet tender and flavorful, without all the fat required of older animals. Even grass-fed animals that are allowed to reach an older age and higher weight, say 1000 – 1200 lb, had better pack a considerable amount of fat to be tender. By harvesting ours at a much younger age and weight (650 – 850 lb), the meat is naturally so tender, it does not require fat to make it so.

    We guarantee that the beef you buy from us, is from an animal that was born, and raised, on our ranch, and has lived every day of its life on native pastures that have never been fertilized or sprayed with insecticides, and the animal has never ever been given any antibiotics, growth-hormones, animal bi-products, insecticides, or chemicals of any kind. They are grass-fed free-range from beginning to end. We also practice human animal handling, and believe strongly in avoiding stress to the animals as stress will negatively affect the meat. We manage our ranch using holistic range management practices. Our custom processor, which is a small family operated business only an hour from the ranch, take great care in dry-aging the meat for 21 days. We sell various 10 and 20 lb. beef packs, as well as whole, half and quarters of beef.

    Happy Cows = Happy Eating, Mimi

    Mimi Sidwell wrote on May 27th, 2010
  3. I am lucky (in this respect) to live in Australia, and have access to kangaroo , an animal which is always eating its natural diet and is generally harvested in regions with very little industry. So it is reliably free of contaminants. It is excellent game meat, and is exported in tins to Europe, though I have only ever tried the fresh variety.
    I have been eating kangaroo meat for years, and believe it is one of the reasons I am lean for my age; 61 yrs old, 6 ft 1 inch (182cm) tall and 155 lb (71 kg). I have no trouble exercising in the gym for an hour when I get enough time,, though whether you can credit that to a free-range diet is debatable. Apart from being naturally fed, kangaroo meat is very lean. It makes cooking it more delicate and time-consuming, if you wish to avoid dry, leathery steaks. For this reason, and its higher price than standard beef, kangaroo is unlikely to make it into the fast food spots. BTW, I believe emu meat- always wild caught- is equally good, though it is rarely sold fresh in eastern Australia.

    Chris wrote on July 30th, 2011
  4. You can get all of this stuff (pastured organic beef, pastured organic dairy) at Whole Foods if you want. For dairy, the best brand is Organic Valley. It’s the same price as other organic dairy products, and their dairy is actually raised outside by small farmers on grass instead of being kept in an indoor facility and fed organic grain.

    Max wrote on January 28th, 2012
  5. This scares me. I grew up on a grain-fed beef farm where the animals were clustered in too-small areas and little if any pasture. Reading this literature worries me because I grew up eating this beef. I don’t know of any grass-fed farms in my area (Eastern Iowa – agricultural hub of the world it seems), but will look for grass-fed at the grocers while I search for farms that won’t break the bank… maybe I should just buy a calf and set it loose in my big back yard… cut down on mowing!! :)

    Jenn wrote on February 29th, 2012
  6. I went from a die hard raw food / vegan to only grass fed beef, free range organic chicken, family raised goat meat, organic coffee and plenty of grass fed butter, organic cream and coconut oil. We get our grass fed hamburger and steaks at Trader Joe’s and it’s delicious. I can’t even tolerate the smell of factory farmed beef, it’s really nasty. Having since changed our diet nearly 2 years ago, I’ve never felt better, had more energy, and have maintained the same weight I was in my teenage years, and I’m 60. Most people I meet think I’m 35 or 40. Even my hair is only slightly gray, and no wrinkles in my face. Literally, I’m not kidding, and I tell everyone why. They think I’m kidding when I say I try to get 50 – 60% of my diet from healthy, saturated fat, loaded with Omega 3’s and medium chain fat.

    LW wrote on October 27th, 2013
  7. Why is only the EU doing research on the hormone topic? I was googling it but not much satisfying information came up. Is there any news on this, since this article was written in 2009? any more research on impacts on humans? what about the political issues here (ban of us meets in eu)?

    Claudia wrote on August 2nd, 2014

Leave a Reply

If you'd like to add an avatar to all of your comments click here!

© 2014 Mark's Daily Apple

Subscribe to the Newsletter and Get a Free Copy
of Mark Sisson's Fitness eBook and more!