By Cat, May 2008; updated July 2017 (Photo, right, from American Grassfed Association (5))
Many people today look for meats labeled “All Natural,” or “Organic,” to avoid added hormones and antibiotics. In the case of poultry, savvy consumers also look for “Cage Free” or “Free Range” on the label. All of these are good things to look for in quality meat, but it is not enough to ensure the most healthful product for consumption. Furthermore, the “All Natural” label has no standards and can be used even on foods that are not at all ‘natural.
Your best option is to buy from a local rancher who can ensure the animal is both grass-fed and grass-finished (in the case of beef, goat and sheep), or pastured (in the case of poultry and pigs). And now (2017) the American Grassfed Association (AGA) has introduced it’s own label as pictured above, but it has not totally caught on yet.
Note that many ranchers raise their cattle in pasture, then ship them off to a feed-lot for finishing before slaughter. Unfortunately, feed-lots are not pasture; these cattle are fed commercial grain feed, or a mixture of hay and grain feed. Their meat then contains all the problems caused by grain feed and is not as healthful as those finished on pasture.
- See also: 1. Whole Foods Menu;
- Other sites: 1. EatWild: Grass-Fed Basics (3); 2. Grist Blog: From Cow Poop to Cow Power (4); American Grass-fed Association (5); Food Revolution: Is Grass-fed Beef Good for Your Health and the Planet (6)
- Includes: 1. Farm Animals and Products; 2. A Return to Traditional Farming Methods; 3. Nutritional Advantages of Grass-Fed Animals; 4. Other Advantages of Grass-Fed Beef
Farm Animals and Products
In times past, before the advent of modern and commercial agriculture:
- Farm/ranch animals such as cows, pigs, goats, and sheep grazed in pastures in all seasons except harsh winters, when they were fed silage (fermented, high-moisture stored fodder). It was unheard of to feed them corn or soy because all farmers knew these were not good for them.
- Chickens roamed freely in yards or large pens where they could forage seeds, grasses and insects.
Such a diet ensured healthy animals and top quality meat, milk and eggs; high in Omega-3 fat, CLA (another desirable fat), and fat-soluble vitamin (A, E and K) content.
But today, commercially produced meats, dairy and eggs come from animals kept in tight pens, and fed a diet almost exclusively of grains (corn, etc.) or soy; since the mid 1990s, this diet was likely GMO. This diet is not healthful for the animal, nor for us, the consumer. In order to keep the animals healthy, their feed contains antibiotics, which then contaminates the meat, milk and eggs, and ultimately contaminates the consumers, leading to the emergence and proliferation of antibiotic-resistant pathogens (bad bugs).
Commercially produced meats are inferior in quality and nutritive value than traditionally raised, pastured meats.
A Return to Traditional Farming Methods
Because of consumer demand, more farmers/ranchers are returning to age-old practices of allowing animals to graze in pastures. Such methods, however, require more people to care for the animals, which means smaller farms or more employees. Large commercial farms are averse to such changes, because they are not profitable on a large scale.
Therefore, if we care about the quality of our meats and other animal products, it is important to support the small farmers/ranchers in our local communities. Small, traditional farms are also more sustainable, ensuring a reliable food supply.
Nutritional Advantages of Grass-Fed Animals
- A healthful 2:1 balance of the essential fats (Omega-6 : Omega-3) in grass-fed, as opposed to an unhealthful 20:1 ratio (or greater) in grain-fed.
- Lower total fat content in grass-fed than grain fed; grass-fed beef has ⅓ fewer calories per ounce than grain fed.
- CLA (Conjugated Linoleic Acid) is a fat abundant in grass-fed beef, providing 4-times the amount than in grain-fed beef.
CLA provides many health-giving benefits for both the animal and the consumer (1):
- Supports increased lean body mass;
- Prevents arteriosclerosis (clogged arteries);
- Slows or halts type-2 diabetes.
Protein and vitamins
- Branched-chain amino acids (leucine, isoleucine and valine) are abundant in grass-fed livestock, and make up a major portion of muscle protein, playing an important role in metabolism.
- Vitamin A, a fat-soluble vitamin, is found in abundance in grass-fed animals. True vitamin A is different from carotenes (plant substances theoretically converted to vitamin A in animals). Grass-fed animals are literally vitamin A factories, because grasses are high in carotenes, providing 2 – 4 times the vitamin A than is found in grain-fed animals.
- Vitamin E is another fat-soluble vitamin, critical for the protection of essential fats from oxidation, and are found in abundance in grass-fed, but much less so in grain-fed animals.
- Vitamin K
Other advantages of Grass-Fed Beef 1
While this comparison is for beef, comparisons for other farm animals are similar (beef, dairy, lamb, venison, bison, goat, poultry, pork and farmed seafood). The primary source of the information is from Dr. Ron’s (1), but other sources are as noted.
Feeding animals on pasture is environmentally sustainable; grain feed is not sustainable. In fact, the environmental cost to grow the grain is significant.
For one thing, the chemical fertilizers, herbicides and insecticides used to treat the soil and grain degrade the soil over time until it is no longer productive.
These chemicals are made from oil; these manufacturing processes are highly polluting. After application, these poisons not only poison the animals and their meat, but also poison us, not only as we consumer their meat, milk and eggs, but also by leaching into our water supplies.
Animals fed on grain urinate and poop into troughs which carry this valuable waste away for disposal, instead of fertilizing the pasture to grow more grass.
The care of pastured animals is rewarding,not just economically, but also emotionally. Recycling animal waste as fertilizer – as the animals move about the pasture, distributing their manure – saves money.
On the other hand, feed-lot labor is stressful, with low pay. Commercial confinement operations results in the loss of small family farms (3). The manure piles up, threatening to poison ground water, unless it is trucked away.
Grass-fed cows are contented, happy and healthy cows. Grain fed cows are sick, unhappy, and often go off their feed to eat dirt (3). Grain fed dairy cows are especially vulnerable to mastitis.
A high-grass diet keeps the contents of the ruminant stomach (first stomach) acidic (low pH), which is not favorable for growth of E. coli bacteria. But in grain-fed animals, the stomach contents are overly acidic (very low pH). While this condition kills most E. coli, those that do survive are a more virulent strain that can subsequently survive the acids in the human stomach, causing illness.
NOTE: E. coli is a normal denizen of the gut of all animal, comprising a large portion of the ‘coliform bacteria’ that clean up the gut after digestion of a meal. But those that evolve to survive that overly acidic ruminant stomach are the ones that cause gastric distress – and even death – in humans.
In fact, the recent problems with spinach (and especially organic spinach) have been traced to a virulent strain of E. coli from the manure of grain-fed beef. That manure (and the virulent bacteria) leached into ground water that was used to water the spinach crops on nearby farms, or carried by wild hogs into the spinach fields (2).
BSE (Mad Cow) risk
To date, the bacteria responsible for BSE has not been found in pastured, grass-fed beef, because they feed exclusively on forage materials. But the grain-based feed for feedlot beef has contained animal materials from BSE-infected animals that can harbor this disease. Humans who eat BSE-contaminated meat risk contracting the human form: Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease.
Because grain is not the natural feed for cattle, grain-fed beeves are weak and unhealthy, necessitating daily administration of antibiotics in the feed of the unhappy animals. Certain antibiotics are also added to the feed to enhance faster growth of the animals.
Human consumers are then exposed to these antibiotics through ingestion of the meat. But grass-fed beef are strong and healthy and do not need these antibiotics, minimizing risk to human consumers.
Naturally-raised, grass-fed cattle are not treated with hormones, but the practice is routine with grain-fed animals.
This practice is used to ‘pasteurize’ many products including commercial grain-fed meats. But the meat of naturally-raised grass-fed cattle is not irradiated.
- Mother Earth News: E.coli Spinach Outbreak Caused by Cows: motherearthnews.com/Sustainable-Farming/2006-09-01/E-coli-Spinach-Outbreak-Caused-by-Cows.aspx
- Eat Wild: Grass-Fed Basics: eatwild.com/basics.html
- Grist Blog: From Cow Poop to Cow Power: grist.org/article/from-cow-poop-to-cow-power-a-journey-in-photographs/
- American Grassfed Association: americangrassfed.org; and from Mercola: articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2017/07/11/brazilian-beef-scandal.aspx
- Food Revolution: foodrevolution.org/blog/grass-fed-beef-2021-update/