09 May 2010

Organic versus Grass-fed Beef

This week's theme is "Organics." Each week (or month, haven't really decided yet...) will be dedicated to a broad theme.

Today I'm going to focus on organic and grass-fed meat. There are several reasons to consider organic and/or grass-fed as opposed to conventional sources of animal protein: ethics, flavor, health, and the general aesthetics (i.e. the gross-out factor) of the mass-production of meat.

Organic versus Grass-fed

According to USDA regulations for certifying organics, beef (or any livestock animal for that matter) can only be certified as "organic" if they're fed organic foodstuffs. They can't be fed plastic pellets as "roughage," no manure, and no formulas containing urea (waste your body produces when it metabolizes protein, found in your pee). Farms producing organic livestock can't administer antibiotics, synthetic parasiticides, or non-vaccine meds if the animal isn't sick. (What gets me is that clearly, these things can be fed/done to non-organic livestock).

Grass-fed beef, as defined by the USDA, basically means the animal was raised exclusively on mother's milk and forage (grasses, etc). This does not however guarantee it's organic. Grass fed beef can be kept penned for life, fed hay, and pumped with antibiotics.


We'll assume for now if you're going to follow me on this train of thought, you're not a vegetarian (don't worry veggies, I'll be covering plenty of options for you guys down the road). We'll therefore assume, for the sake of argument, that eating animals isn't inherently unethical. Unfortunately, the methods used to supply meat to most Americans can fall far from the realm of ethical behaviour (not only when considering how animals are treated between birth and the mass-slaughterhouses, but in how the producers think of us as consumers).

Since the goal of this site is primarily to supply delicious recipes (not to disgust you so far that you have to leave the site and never come back) I'm choosing to avoid most of the specifics of the mass-meat system. Much of my knowledge of the meat-packing world comes from the book Fast Food Nation and the movie Super Size Me (both which really address the whole food system, as opposed to simply why fast-food is bad for you) I haven't eaten McDonald's since I saw Super Size Me in 2004. Check out Fast Food Nation for an in-depth look at how the fast-food industry shaped the meat-packing industry, a job that was once the highest-paid and very well-respected, now dangerous (and incredibly disgusting).


General consensus is that free-range, grass-fed beef tastes very different than grain-raised. Americans as a rule have become accustomed to the flavor of grain-fed beef, and so grass-fed can take some getting used to. I personally find it more "beefy" if you can believe that.

It can be tougher than conventional beef, due to lower fat content. Because of this fact,  when many local farmers sell their meat directly to consumers, they will first age the meat, allowing a gentle break-down of the proteins, giving you more tender meat and more complexity of flavor.

Health Benefits

Have you ever heard of the nutrient CLA? I never had before today. In an attempt to keep the science-speak to a minimum, basically, CLA or Conjugated Linoleic Acid (say that 5X fast), is a naturally occurring nutrient found in most animals. Humans don't produce it, but instead need to get it exclusively from diet. It's unclear if it's a medically necessary nutrient, but from what I've read, it has some near-magical properties. The Organic Center (a non-profit dedicated to promoting peer-reviewed studies supporting organic farming) reports that CLA reduces body fat - most especially visceral or belly-fat, considered to be more dangerous than subcutaneous fat, the stuff residing all around under your skin. At the same time, it promotes muscle growth, as well as inhibiting tumor growth, reducing hypertension, and a slew of other benefits. Organic meats tend to have significantly more CLA than conventional (as do grass-fed animals).

According to TIME, grass-fed beef has significantly less saturated fat and more Omega-3 fatty acids than conventional grain-fed. Mesquite Organic Foods, the largest producer of organic, grass-fed beef in the US was actually started by a cardiologist.

Buying Local

So, clearly, organic is good, but doesn't guarantee the healthier grass-fed benefits in your meat. Grass-fed is great, but doesn't really appease my conscience, as the animal can still be horribly mistreated.

In my humble opinion, the best thing to do is buy local. Most local beef farmers I've spoken with opt for a mostly- or all-grass diet for their cows, who roam "on the range." The most important thing is to TALK to the farmer. Ask questions about the animals' diet, including whether or not they are finished on grain. Then decide for yourself.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts with Thumbnails