November 17, 2009

Corn-Fed Beef Is Bad, Mkay?

The cow is coming tonight! I plan to write another post on the logistics of picking up, splitting and storing one quarter of a 500 pound frozen animal later this week, but for now I want to get into the question everyone asks me whenever I mention that I'm buying a cow: what’s the big deal with grass-fed beef, anyways?

Cows are ruminants, which means that they can eat grass for the same reason people can’t: their stomachs are set up with the mechanics to digest it. However, 99% of cows sold as beef in the U.S. only consume grass for the first few months of their lives. Most are then sent to a confined animal feeding operation (CAFO), where they are fed a mixture of corn, soy and growth hormones to fatten them quickly and cheaply for slaughter.

Grass, to a cow, is like spinach to a human: it’s low in carbohydrates and high in fiber and other nutrients. Corn, delicious on the cob as it may be to us, is very high in sugar and is technically a grain, which ruminants aren’t meant to eat. Excessive grain consumption causes major health problems for the cow; it’s like what a person’s body might look like if he ate nothing but soda and candy bars – pretty darn sickly.

So because of what they eat, the beef from these cows actually has a very different nutritional composition from what nature would dictate. It’s higher in saturated fat and omega-6 fatty acids and much lower in beneficial omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants than meat from a grass-fed cow. We’ve all heard that “red meat is bad,” but I have to wonder if it really is red meat itself, or just the way we’ve been producing it for decades that’s makes it so bad for us to consume.

Contamination is another major concern. The cattle’s poor health and confined quarters create a prime environment for the spread of bacteria and diseases. To combat this problem, they're often fed antibiotics. This works to a degree, but it can also promote antibiotic-resistant bacterial strains, which are all the more deadly if and when they make it to the human population. And since the cows are all slaughtered and processed together, if one cow is contaminated, the whole lot is at risk. Just earlier this month, more than 270 tons (tons!) of beef were recalled due to E. coli O157:H7 contamination. The beef was distributed to stores all over the Northeast, including Trader Joe’s, which was one of the few places I still trusted to buy meat.

Not so delish. Photo via Flickr

On top of all that, many argue that the environmental cost of conventional beef production is higher: the corn is harvested using fossil fuels, then processed and trucked to the cattle, who are themselves trucked all over the place, from their birth farm to the CAFO to the slaughterhouse to your grocery store. Graze the cows on the same land used to grow the corn and sell directly to a local consumer and you can cut out quite a few fuel-consuming steps. This argument has a couple of holes though, which I hope to explore later since this post is long enough as it is.

For now, the health and safety benefits are enough to sway me, and the fact that the whole cow is $4/lb, regardless of the cut, is a pretty good deal as well. Stay tuned for the beef pickup post – I promise that one will have more pictures!

Further reading: Time magazine's article "The Grass-Fed Revolution"

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