The Problems with Conventionally Raised Beef

As 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.


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.


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

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50 thoughts on “The Problems with Conventionally Raised Beef”

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  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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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. 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!

  6. 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!

  7. 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!

  8. We’re in Chicago and have a small freezer. Though there’s lot’s of grass-fed producers according to the 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?

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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…

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

    1. 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!

  14. … 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.

  15. 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…

  16. 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. 😉

  17. 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.

  18. Here is a great source of 100% grass-fed meat for my family:

    Healthful Regards,
    Dr. John

  19. 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.

  20. 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.

  21. 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.



  22. I don’t eat beef. I hunt the plentiful deer on my property and buy organic pastured lamb.

  23. 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!

  24. 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)

  25. 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.


  26. Some of the farmers in south Texas feed their pigs potato chips that are seconds from a local factory. No kidding.

  27. 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!

  28. 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

  29. 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.

  30. Good article, I’ll have to start getting grass fed beef as soon as possible!

  31. 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.

  32. 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.

  33. 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 ( 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

  34. 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.

  35. 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.

  36. 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!! 🙂

  37. 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.

  38. 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)?

  39. The only beef I buy anymore is grass-fed. I’ve been able to get a pretty good selection at Whole Foods, but I just signed up for a subscription service where they’ll deliver it every month. I’m starting out with the ground beef. They only deliver to Texas, currently –

  40. I live in Singapore and grass fed beef, pastured chicken, and wild caught fish are all prohibitively costly for everyone.

    Most people cannot afford enough of it for a paleo diet.