The truth about grassfed beef

The truth about grassfed beef

Is it really better

Are you, like me, horrified by how animals are treated in factory farms and feedlots? Do you want to lower your ecological footprint?

A lot of people are looking for healthier alternatives. One of the results is that more and more people are eating pasture-raised animals.

One former vegetarian, San Francisco Chronicle columnist Mark Morford, says he now eats meat, but only “grassfed and organic and sustainable as possible, reverentially and deeply gratefully, and in small amounts.”

Sales of grassfed and organic beef are rising rapidly. Ten years ago, there were only about 50 grassfed cattle operations left in the U.S. Today there are thousands.

Is this a good thing? How much difference does it make?

Is grassfed really better? If so, in what ways, and how much? And what are the ethical and environmental realities?

Bestselling author John Robbins, has written what may be the definitive answer to these questions and you can read it here from the Food Revolution Network.

A lot of people today, horrified by how animals are treated in factory farms and feedlots and wanting to lower their ecological footprint, are looking for healthier alternatives. As a result, there is a decided trend toward pasture-raised animals.

One former vegetarian, San Francisco Chronicle columnist Mark Morford, says he now eats meat, but only “grassfed and organic and sustainable as possible, reverentially and deeply gratefully, and in small amounts.”

Sales of grassfed and organic beef are rising rapidly. Ten years ago, there were only about 50 grassfed cattle operations left in the U.S.  Now there are thousands.

How much difference does it make? Is grassfed really better? If so, in what ways, and how much?

If you read on, you’ll see why I’ve concluded that grassfed is indeed better. But then, almost anything would bePutting beef cattle in feedlots and feeding them grain may actually be one of the dumbest ideas in the history of western civilization.

Cattle (like sheep, deer, and other grazing animals) are endowed with the ability to convert grasses, which we humans cannot digest, into flesh that we are able to digest. They can do this because unlike humans, who possess only one stomach, they are ruminants, which is to say that they possess a rumen, a 45 or so gallon fermentation tank in which resident bacteria convert cellulose into protein and fats.

In today’s feedlots, however, cows fed corn and other grains are eating food that humans can eat, and they are quite inefficiently converting it into meat. Since it takes anywhere from 7 to 16 pounds of grain to make a pound of feedlot beef, we actually get far less food out than we put in. It’s a protein factory in reverse.

And we do this on a massive scale, while nearly a billion people on our planet do not have enough to eat.

The Truth About Grass Fed Beef — The Feedlot Reality

How has a system that is so wasteful come to be?

Feedlots and other CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations) are not the inevitable product of agricultural progress, nor are they the result of market forces. They are instead the result of public policies that massively favor large-scale feedlots to the detriment of family farms.

From 1997 to 2005, for example, taxpayer-subsidized grain prices saved feedlots and other CAFOs about $35 billion. This subsidy is so large that it reduced the price CAFOs pay for animal feed to a tiny fraction of what it would otherwise have been.  Cattle operations that raise animals exclusively on pasture land, however, derive no benefit from the subsidy.

Federal policies also give CAFOs billions of dollars to address their pollution problems, which arise because they confine so many animals, often tens of thousands, in a small area. Small farmers raising cattle on pasture do not have this problem in the first place.

If feedlots and other CAFOs were required to pay the price of handling the animal waste in an environmentally healthy manner, if they were made to pay to prevent or to clean up the pollution they create, they wouldn’t be dominating the U.S. meat industry the way they are today.

But instead, we have had farm policies that require the taxpayers to foot the bill. Such policies have made feedlots and other CAFOs feasible, but only by fleecing the public.

Traditionally, all beef was grassfed beef, but we’ve turned that completely upside down. Now, thanks to our misguided policies, our beef supply is almost all feedlot beef.

Thanks to government subsidies, it’s cheaper, and it’s also faster. Seventy-five years ago, steers were slaughtered at the age of four- or five-years-old. Today’s steers, however, grow so fast on the grain they are fed that they can be butchered much younger, typically when they are only 14 or 16 months.

All beef cattle spend the first few months of their lives on pasture or rangeland, where they graze on forage crops such as grass or alfalfa. But then nearly all are fattened, or as the industry likes to call it “finished,” in feedlots where they eat grain.

You can’t take a beef calf from a birth weight of 80 pounds to 1,200 pounds in a little more than a year on grass. That kind of unnaturally fast weight gain takes enormous quantities of corn, soy-based protein supplements, antibiotics and other drugs, including growth hormones.

Under current farm policies, switching a cow from grass to corn makes economic sense, but it is still profoundly disturbing to the animal’s digestive system. It can actually kill a steer if not done gradually and if the animal is not continually fed antibiotics.

Author (and small-scale cattleman) Michael Pollan describes what happens to cows when they are taken off of pastures and put into feedlots and fed corn:

“Perhaps the most serious thing that can go wrong with a ruminant on corn is feedlot bloat. The rumen is always producing copious amounts of gas, which is normally expelled by belching during rumination. But when the diet contains too much starch and too little roughage, rumination all but stops, and a layer of foamy slime that can trap gas forms in the rumen. The rumen inflates like a balloon, pressing against the animal’s lungs. Unless action is promptly taken to relieve the pressure (usually by forcing a hose down the animal’s esophagus), the cow suffocates.

A corn diet can also give a cow acidosis. Unlike our own highly acidic stomachs, the normal pH of a rumen is neutral. Corn makes it unnaturally acidic, however, causing a kind of bovine heartburn, which in some cases can kill the animal but usually just makes it sick. Acidotic animals go off their feed, pant and salivate excessively, paw at their bellies and eat dirt. The condition can lead to diarrhea, ulcers, bloat, liver disease and a general weakening of the immune system that leaves the animal vulnerable to everything from pneumonia to feedlot polio.”

Putting beef cattle in feedlots and giving them corn is not only unnatural and dangerous for the cows. It also has profound medical consequences for us, and this is true whether or not we eat their flesh.

Feedlot beef as we know it today would be impossible if it weren’t for the routine and continual feeding of antibiotics to these animals. This leads directly and inexorably to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. These new “superbugs” are increasingly rendering our antibiotics ineffective for treating disease in humans.

Further, it is the commercial meat industry’s practice of keeping cattle in feedlots and feeding them grain that is responsible for the heightened prevalence of deadly E. coli 0157:H7 bacteria. When cattle are grainfed, their intestinal tracts become far more acidic, which favors the growth of pathogenic E. coli bacteria that can kill people who eat undercooked hamburger.

It’s not widely known, but E. coli 0157:H7 has only recently appeared on the scene. It was first identified in the 1980s, but now this pathogen can be found in the intestines of almost all feedlot cattle in the U.S. Even less widely recognized is that the practice of feeding corn and other grains to cattle has created the perfect conditions for forms of E. Coli and other microbes to come into being that can, and do, kill us.

Prior to the advent of feedlots, the microbes that resided in the intestines of cows were adapted to a neutral-pH environment. As a result, if they got into meat, it didn’t usually cause much of a problem because the microbes perished in the acidic environment of the human stomach. But the digestive tract of the modern feedlot animal has changed. It is now nearly as acidic as our own.

In this new, manmade environment, strains of E. coli and other pathogens have developed that can survive our stomach acids, and go on to kill us. As Michael Pollan puts it, “by acidifying a cow’s gut with corn, we have broken down one of our food chain’s barriers to infections.”

Which Is More Nutritious?

Many of us think of “corn-fed” beef as nutritionally superior, but it isn’t. A cornfed cow does develop well-marbled flesh, but this is simply saturated fat that can’t be trimmed off.

Grassfed meat, on the other hand, is lower both in overall fat and in artery-clogging saturated fat. A sirloin steak from a grain-fed feedlot steer has more than double the total fat of a similar cut from a grassfed steer. In its less-than-infinite wisdom, however, the USDA continues to grade beef in a way that rewards marbling with intra-muscular fat.

Grassfed beef not only is lower in overall fat and in saturated fat, but it has the added advantage of providing more omega-3 fats.

These crucial healthy fats are most plentiful in flaxseeds and fish, and are also found in walnuts, soybeans and in meat from animals that have grazed on omega-3 rich grass.

When cattle are taken off grass, though, and shipped to a feedlot to be fattened on grain, they immediately begin losing the omega-3s they have stored in their tissues. A grass-fed steak typically has about twice as many omega-3s as a grain-fed steak.

In addition to being higher in healthy omega-3s, meat from pastured cattle is also up to four times higher in vitamin E than meat from feedlot cattle, and much higher in conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a nutrient associated with lower cancer risk.

What About Taste?


The higher omega-3
levels and other differences in fatty acid composition are certainly a
nutritional advantage for grassfed beef, but come with a culinary cost. These
differences contribute to flavors and odors in grassfed meat that some people
find undesirable.

Taste-panel participants
have found the meat from grassfed animals to be characterized by
“off-flavors including ammonia, gamey, bitter, liverish, old, rotten and sour.

Even the people who
market grassfed beef say this is true. Joshua Appleton, the owner of Fleisher’s
Grassfed and Organic Meats in Kingston, New York, says “Grassfed beef has a
hard flavor profile for a country that’s been raised on corn-fed beef.”

Unlike cows in a
feedlot, animals on a pasture move around. This exercise creates muscle tone,
and the resulting beef can taste a little chewier than many
people prefer.

Grassfed beef doesn’t
provide the “melt-in-your-mouth” sensation that the modern meat eater has come
to prefer.

What About The Environment?

As well as its
nutritional advantages, there are also environmental benefits to grassfed beef.

According to David
Pimentel, a Cornell ecologist who specializes in agriculture and energy, the
corn we feed our feedlot cattle accounts for a staggering amount of fossil fuel
energy
.

Growing the corn used to
feed livestock takes vast quantities of chemical fertilizer, which in
turn takes vast quantities of oil
. Because of this dependence on petroleum,
Pimentel says, a typical steer will in effect consume 284 gallons of oil in his
lifetime. Comments Michael Pollan,

“We
have succeeded in industrializing the beef calf, transforming what was once a
solar-powered ruminant into the very last thing we need: another fossil-fuel
machine.”

In
addition to consuming less energy, grassfed beef has another environmental
advantage — it is far less polluting
.

The
animals’ wastes drop onto the land, becoming nutrients for the next cycle of
crops. In feedlots and other forms of factory farming, however, the animals’
wastes build up in enormous quantities, becoming a staggering source of water
and air pollution.

Less Misery On The Menu?

From
a humanitarian perspective, there is yet another advantage to pastured animal
products. The animals themselves are not forced to live in confinement.

The
cruelties of modern factory farming are so severe that you don’t have to be a
vegetarian or an animal rights activist to find the conditions to be
intolerable, and a violation of the human-animal bond.

Pastured
livestock are not forced to endure the miseries of factory farming
. They are not cooped up
in cages barely larger than their own bodies or packed together like sardines
for months on end standing knee deep in their own manure.

Grassfed or Organic?

It’s
important to remember that organic is not the same as grassfed.

Natural food
stores often sell organic beef and dairy products that are hormone- and
antibiotic- free. These products come from animals who were fed organically
grown grain, but who typically still spent most of their lives (or in the case
of dairy cows perhaps their whole lives) in feedlots.

The
sad reality is that almost all the organic beef and organic dairy products sold
in the U.S. today comes from feedlots
.

Just
as organic does not mean grassfed, grassfed does not mean organic.
Pastured animals sometimes graze on land that has been treated with synthetic
fertilizers and even doused with herbicides. Unless the meat label specifically
says it is both grassfed and organic, it isn’t.

And
then, as seems so often to be the case, there is greenwashing. A case in point
is the “premium natural” beef raised by the enormous Harris Ranch, located in
Fresno County, California. Harris Ranch “premium natural” beef is sold in
health food stores west of the Rockies. The company says it is “at the
forefront of quality, safety and consumer confidence” with its “premium natural
beef.”

But
even Harris Ranch spokesman Brad Caudill admits that under current USDA rules,
the term “natural” is meaningless. Harris Ranch cattle are fattened in a
100,000 cattle feedlot in California’s Central Valley. And the feed is not
organically grown. The only difference between Harris Ranch “premium natural”
beef and the typical feedlot product is that the animals are raised without
growth hormones or supplemental antibiotics added to their feed. Despite the
marketing and hype, the product is neither organic nor grassfed.

(Harris
Ranch also sells a line of organic beef, but the cattle are still raised in
over-crowded and filthy feedlots. There can be as many as 100 cattle, weighing
from 700 to 1,200 pounds, living in a pen the size of a basketball court.)

Is Grassfed Beef The
Answer?

Grassfed
beef certainly has its advantages, but it is typically more expensive, and I’m
not at all sure that’s a bad thing. We shouldn’t be eating nearly as much meat
as we do
.

There
is a dark side even to grassfed beef.

It
takes a lot of grassland to raise a grassfed steer. Western rangelands are
vast, but not nearly vast enough to sustain America’s 100 million head of
cattle. There is no way that grassfed beef can begin to feed the current meat
appetites of people in the United States, much less play a role in addressing
world hunger.

In a world of 7 billion
people, I am afraid that grass-fed beef is a food that only the wealthy elites
will be able to consume in any significant quantities.

John Robbins

Grassfed
meat production might be viable in a country like New Zealand with its
geographic isolation, unique climate and topography, and exceedingly small
human population. But in a world of 7 billion people, I am afraid that
grassfed beef is a food that only the wealthy elites will be able to consume in
any significant quantities
.

What
would happen if we sought to raise great quantities of grassfed beef?

It’s
been tried, in Brazil, and the result has been an environmental
nightmare of epic proportions
. In 2009, Greenpeace released a report titled
“Slaughtering the Amazon,” which presented detailed satellite photos showing
that Amazon cattle are now the biggest single cause of global
deforestation
, which is in turn responsible for 20% of the world’s greenhouse
gases.

Even
Brazil’s government, whose policies have made the nation the world’s largest
beef exporter, and home to the planet’s largest commercial cattle herd,
acknowledges that cattle ranching is responsible for 80% of Amazonian
deforestation. Much of the remaining 20% is for land to grow soy, which is not
used to make tofu. It is sold to China to feed livestock.

Amazonian
cattle are free-range, grassfed, and possibly organic, but they are still a
plague on the planet and a driving force behind global warming
.

Trendy
consumers like to think that grassfed beef is green and earth-friendly and does
not have environmental problems comparable to factory farmed beef. But grassfed
and feedlot beef production both contribute heavily to global climate change
.
They do this through emissions of two potent global warming gases: methane and
nitrous oxide.

Next
to carbon dioxide, the most destabilizing gas to the planet’s climate is
methane. Methane is actually 24 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon
dioxide, and its concentration in the atmosphere is rising even faster.

The
primary reason that concentrations of atmospheric methane are now triple what
they were when they began rising a century ago is beef production. Cattle
raised on pasture actually produce more methane than feedlot animals, on a
per-cow basis. The slower weight gain of a grassfed animal means that each
cow produces methane emissions for a longer time
.

Meanwhile,
producing a pound of grassfed beef accounts for every bit as much nitrous oxide
emissions as producing a pound of feedlot beef, and sometimes, due to the
slower weight gain, even more. These emissions are not only fueling
global warming. They are also acidifying soils, reducing biodiversity, and
shrinking Earth’s protective stratospheric ozone layer
.

The
sobering reality is that cattle grazing in the U.S. is already taking a
tremendous toll on the environment. Even with almost all U.S. beef cattle
spending much of their lives in feedlots, 70% of the land area of the American
West is currently used for grazing livestock. More than two-thirds of the
entire land area of Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada,
Utah, and Idaho is used for rangeland.

In
the American West, virtually every place that can be grazed is grazed. The
results aren’t pretty. As one environmental author put it, “Cattle grazing
in the West has polluted more water, eroded more topsoil, killed more fish,
displaced more wildlife, and destroyed more vegetation than any other land use.

Western
rangelands have been devastated under the impact of the current system, in
which cattle typically spend only six months or so on the range, and the rest
of their lives in feedlots. To bring cows to market weight on rangeland alone
would require each animal to spend not six months foraging, but several years,
greatly multiplying the damage to western ecosystems.

The
USDA’s taxpayer-funded Animal Damage Control (ADC) program was established in
1931 for a single purpose — to eradicate, suppress, and control wildlife
considered to be detrimental to the western livestock industry. The program has
not been popular with its opponents. They have called the ADC by a variety of
names, including, “All the Dead Critters” and “Aid to Dependent Cowboys.”

In
1997, following the advice of public relations and image consultants, the
federal government gave a new name to the ADC — “Wildlife Services.” And they
came up with a new motto — “Living with Wildlife.”

But
the agency does not exactly “live with” wildlife. What it actually does is kill
any creature that might compete with or threaten livestock. Its methods include
poisoning, trapping, snaring, denning, shooting, and aerial gunning. In
“denning” wildlife, government agents pour kerosene into the den and then set
it on fire, burning the young alive in their nests.

Among
the animals Wildlife Services agents intentionally kill are badgers, black
bears, bobcats, coyotes, gray fox, red fox, mountain lions, opossum, raccoons,
striped skunks, beavers, nutrias, porcupines, prairie dogs, black birds, cattle
egrets, and starlings. Animals unintentionally killed by Wildlife Services
agents include domestic dogs and cats, and several threatened and endangered
species.

All
told, Wildlife Services intentionally kills more than 1.5 million wild
animals annually
. This is done at public expense, to protect the private
financial interests of ranchers who graze their livestock on public lands, and
who pay almost nothing for the privilege.

The
price that western lands and wildlife are paying for grazing cattle is hard to
exaggerate
. Conscientious
management of rangelands can certainly reduce the damage, but widespread
production of grassfed beef would only multiply this already devastating toll.

“Most
of the public lands in the West, and especially the Southwest, are what you
might call ‘cow burnt.’ Almost anywhere and everywhere you go in the American
West you find hordes of cows. . . . They are a pest and a plague.

They
pollute our springs and streams and rivers. They infest our canyons, valleys,
meadows and forests. They graze off the native bluestems and grama and bunch
grasses, leaving behind jungles of prickly pear. They trample down the native
forbs and shrubs and cacti. They spread the exotic cheatgrass, the Russian
thistle, and the crested wheat grass.

Even
when the cattle are not physically present, you see the dung and the flies and
the mud and the dust and the general destruction. If you don’t see it, you’ll
smell it. The whole American West stinks of cattle.”


Edward Abbey, conservationist and author, in a speech before cattlemen at the
University of Montana in 1985

Not The Stiffest
Competition

Grassfed
beef is certainly much healthier than feedlot beef for the consumer, and it may
be slightly healthier for the environment. But doing well in such a comparison
hardly constitutes a ringing endorsement.

While
grassfed beef and other pastured animal products have advantages over factory
farm and feedlot products, it’s important to remember that factory farm and
feedlot products are an unmitigated disaster. Almost anything would be an
improvement.

I
am reminded of a brochure the Cattlemen’s Association used to distribute to
schools. The pamphlet compared the nutritional realities of a hamburger to
another common food, and made much of the fact that the hamburger was superior
in that it had more of every single nutrient listed than did its competitor. And
what’s more, the competitor had far more sugar. The comparison made it sound
like a hamburger was truly a health food.

The
competition, however, was not the stiffest imaginable. It was a 12-ounce can of
Coke.

Comparing
grassfed beef to feedlot beef is a little like that. It’s far healthier, far
more humane, and somewhat more environmentally sustainable, at least on a
modest scale. Overall, it’s indeed better. If you are going to eat beef, then
that’s the best way to do it.

But
I wouldn’t get too carried away and think that as long as it’s grass fed then
it’s fine and dandy. Grassfed products are still high in saturated fat
(though not as high), still high in cholesterol, and are still devoid of fiber
and many other essential nutrients. They are still high on the food chain, and
so often contain elevated concentrations of environmental toxins
.

Imagine…

While
grassfed beef has advantages over feedlot beef, another answer is to
eat less meat or even none. 

If
as a society we ate less meat, the world would indeed be a brighter and more
beautiful place.

Consider,
for example, the impact on global warming. Gidon Eshel, a geophysicist at the
Bard Center, and Pamela A. Martin, an assistant professor of geophysics at the
University of Chicago, have calculated the benefits that would occur if
Americans were to reduce beef consumption by 20%. Such a change would decrease
our greenhouse gas emissions as substantially as if we exchanged all our cars
and trucks for Priuses.

If
we ate less meat, the vast majority of the public lands in the western United
States could be put to more valuable — and environmentally sustainable — use.
Much of the western United States is sunny and windy, and could be used for
large-scale solar energy and wind-power facilities.

With
the cattle off the land, photovoltaic modules and windmills could generate
enormous amounts of energy without polluting or causing environmental damage.
Other areas could grow grasses that could be harvested as “biomass” fuels,
providing a far less polluting source of energy than fossil fuels. Much of it
could be restored, once again becoming valued wildlife habitat. The restoration
of cow burnt lands would help to vitalize rural economies as well as
ecosystems.

And
there is one more thing. When you picture grassfed beef, you probably envision
an idyllic scene of a cow outside in a pasture munching happily on grass. That
is certainly the image those endorsing and selling these products would like
you to hold. And there is some truth to it.

But
it is only a part of the story. There is something missing from such a pleasant
picture, something that nevertheless remains an ineluctable part of the actual
reality. Grassfed beef does not just come to you straight from God’s
Green Earth. It also comes to you via the slaughterhouse
.

The
lives of grassfed livestock are more humane and natural than the lives of
animals confined in factory farms and feedlots, but their deaths are often just
as terrifying and cruel.

If
they are taken to a conventional slaughterhouse, as indeed most of them are,
they are just as likely as a feedlot animal to be skinned while alive and fully
conscious, and just as apt to be butchered and have their feet cut off while
they are still breathing — distressing realities that tragically occur every
hour in meat-packing plants nationwide.

Confronting
the brutal realities of modern slaughterhouses can be a harsh reminder that
those who contemplate only the pastoral image of cattle patiently foraging do
not see the whole picture.

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Also check out our book site for help with Healthy Living Solutions.

.

Rod Stone
Author,
Publisher and Supplier of Healthy Living information and products to improve
your life.

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