I don't usually like to call out my fellow health-minded writers; after all, we are all in this together, right? We are all trying to do our best to help people learn to make healthier choices and lead healthier lives. And while I'm sure the author of the article I read this week about grass fed-beef had good intentions, it got me pretty fired up, and since this topic is near and dear to my heart, I felt I had to address some of the many points in her article that were misleading, misinformed, or just plain false.
The title of her article is "Is Grass-Fed Beef Worth the Money?", and you may have a different answer than me, and that's fine. But I want to make sure you are getting the facts straight before you decide, so here is my rebuttal.
The first definition right off the bat is at least in some part incorrect. While SOME conventional beef cattle may spend a few months of their lives on grass, this is certainly not the norm everywhere - at least not anymore. A good majority of "corn-fed" beef spends at least half their lives in feed lots (also known as "Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations"). They may spend the first few weeks or even months of their lives eating grass, but far from "the majority of their lives," as stated in the article. (It is worth noting that some conventionally raised beef may be finished on grass for a few weeks before slaughter, but if so, it will certainly state "grass-finished" on the package as a selling point.) Most feedlot cattle are also fed a daily ration of antibiotics, and some are also given growth hormones.
"Natural," as she mentions, and as we have discussed before, is really just a marketing term that means nothing since all meat is technically a natural food.
The "Certified Organic" label does have a specific meaning, which she explains briefly, and I also take no issue with her explanation of "Grass Fed." In fact, she does a good job of explaining the discontinuation of the USDA "Grass-Fed" standard, although I could go into a few more political reasons for the change....
Now we get into the nitty-gritty, and here is where I start to seriously take issue with this article. I will start off with a direct quote from the article - she is quoting from the Food Alliance here, a private organization that certifies grass-fed standards, among other things:
“The USDA definition does a good job of defining what grassfed animals can and cannot be fed,” the Food Alliance writes. “But it does not deal with other issues consumers care about—like the use of hormones and antibiotics, confinement of animals, and environmental stewardship.”
(Stay tuned, as I will come back to this quote in a minute.)
The article then goes into a discussion of whether grass-fed meat is higher in Omega-3 fatty acids than conventionally raised beef. While there are numerous studies that suggest this may be the case, others have been inconclusive, so I don't have much of a problem with her stating that "the jury is still out" on this matter.
What I do have a problem with is that she then abruptly concludes the article by saying the best thing to do is just to "choose lean cuts," and not worry about the diet that the cattle were fed!
This is an incredibly simplistic and misleading end to an article on a topic that should cover a LOT more than just fat content if you really want to determine whether grass-fed beef is worth spending extra money on!
What about the issues mentioned in the quote above, which she actually included in the article?!? She doesn't even touch on any of these at all, although they are obviously "issues consumers care about."
Besides the fact that the saturated fat myth has been pretty well debunked by now, ironically enough, by suggesting you choose leaner meats, she is actually supporting grass-fed, since grass-fed beef is usually quite a bit leaner than corn-fed beef anyway!
But now let me cover these other issues which were so glaringly omitted from the article above:
1. Use of hormones and antibiotics
While regulations have been changing over the past few years with regards to the use of hormones in food animals, they are still used today in many feedlots to promote faster growth of beef cattle. It is questionable what type of impact this actually has on humans, but I prefer to error on the safe side. (And yes, for all you picky people who will state that animal meat naturally contains hormones, obviously this is true, but these are not the hormones that most people are objecting to when it comes to meat animals, so let's not get too semantic here, shall we? Testosterone and progesterone may be naturally occurring in beef animals, but zeranol and trenbolone acetate certainly are not!)
When it comes to antibiotics, on the other hand, that is a defined problem now recognized by many scientists and public health experts. The fact is, the vast majority (around 70%) of antibiotics used in the U.S. are fed to animals in confinement, in order to keep them healthy enough to get to slaughter weight (3). Many animals in CAFOs are actually fed antibiotics daily in their feed (Rumensin and Tylosin are two common ones regularly fed to beef cattle). According to the Antibiotic Resistance Project, this overuse is a main contributor to the growth of "superbugs" - antibiotic-resistant bacteria - that we are now seeing even among humans (4).
Some would argue that all of these antibiotics are needed to keep the animals healthy in confinement, so you might wonder just what would happen if they weren't fed all of these drugs?
Here are just a few of the illnesses and health problems attributed to cattle (and other ruminant animals) fed on a diet of grain, as mentioned by Dr. Mel Metzin, staff veterinarian at a feedlot mentioned in the book, The Omnivore's Dilemma:
- Bloat (potentially leading to suffocation if a vet doesn't intervene to relieve the pressure)
- Liver disease
- Abscessed liver
- A weakened immune system (and resulting susceptibility to other feedlot diseases) (1)
Not exactly. The truth is, ruminant animals evolved to feed on a diet of grass, and eating solely grain will eventually kill them if they are allowed to live much longer than a typical feedlot animal's lifespan of 1 1/2 to 2years. (On the other hand, cattle fed exclusively on grass take about 4 years to reach slaughter weight, which is one of the main reasons conventional beef is raised on corn, and also why grass-fed beef tends to cost more.) Breeding programs are in the works to increase cattle's tolerance to a grain-based diet, but it's a slow process, and currently most feedlot cattle still suffer from many health problems.
Due to all of these issues (and more), the European Union has actually banned the routine use of antibiotics in food animals, but the U.S. has yet to follow suit.
Feedlot animals are also prone to carrying diseases such as E. coli, a bacteria which is nearly non-existent in the stomachs of grass-fed animals (2). A recent study by Consumer Reports found that more than twice as many ground beef samples from cows that finish their lives in crowded feedlots were tainted with superbugs compared with the group largely raised on pastures (5).
2. Confinement of animals
Some of the issues attributed to confinement are actually more likely related to an unnatural diet of grain, and most have been addressed above, but obviously the spread of disease is much more prevalent when hundreds or even thousands of animals are confined together in close quarters. If one would agree that the natural habits of an animal would involve plenty of space for roaming and exercise, it's not much of a stretch to find the tight confinement of most feedlot animals at least somewhat unethical.
3. Environmental stewardship
This is perhaps one of the most troubling aspects of CAFOs, as it is one aspect that affects everyone - whether you eat meat or not. Even if you're a die-hard vegan so you aren't exposed to antibiotic or hormone residue in meat, animal feedlots are still polluting our waterways, soil, and oceans at an alarming rate, and there's no getting around this fact. "Dead zones" associated with runoff from chemical farming and feed lots are forming in the oceans near coastlines, and numerous health issues "downstream" from many of these factory farms have been reported.
So, is grass-fed beef worth the money?
I guess that depends.....
It depends on how much you care about things like environmental problems, antibiotic-resistant "superbugs," and the health and well-being of your food before you consume it. If these things are not high on your list of priorities when it comes to the food you eat, then you probably won't care to spend a few extra dollars per pound on your steaks.
But if you do care, I seriously hope that you will take a good look at the way your food is raised, and make choices that reflect this when you buy beef - and other meats as well.
Oh, and one more thing before I wrap up. I'm sure someone will accuse me of being "elitist" and point out all the people who can't afford grass-fed beef, and complain that those of us who tell people to choose higher quality and more ethically raised meats must be wealthy snobs, etc.. To those, I would offer a simple solution: Just stop eating meat (or at least eat less of it)!
If you feel ethically conflicted over eating conventionally raised meats (which many people do, once they understand how their meat is being raised), but you find that grass fed and organic meats are not affordable for you, why not simply choose to not eat meat at all? There's no law that says you have to eat meat! It is, after all, just about the most expensive source of protein you can buy. It is also extremely resource-intensive, and if not raised in a sustainable manner, destructive to the environment. On top of all that, many studies point to the fact that meat-heavy diets (at least when it comes to conventionally raised meats) are not all that healthy for us.
Personally, when I was a broke post-grad just barely scraping by, I ate hardly any meat at all. However, I do enjoy good grass-fed meats on occasion, especially when they come from a local farm I am able to visit and see how the animals are raised (by the way, buying in bulk - e.g. 1/2 a cow, and splitting with another family or friend if needed can be a great way to save money on high-quality grass-fed meat). So when I'm able to afford it, I eat grass-fed. When I'm not, I simply choose to eat less meat.
Please note that I'm not saying your only options are buy grass-fed or go vegan, I'm just saying there are plenty of other viable options for those who find grass-fed meat too expensive.
I hope that you will take the time to do some research for yourself, and make an educated decision the next time you buy meat. And I hope this post has helped you to realize there is a lot more to consider when it comes to the grass-fed question than just fat content!
To your health (and education),
1. The Omnivore's Dilemma, By Michael Pollan, 2006.
4. World Health Organization - Global Report on Antimicrobial Resistance
5. How Safe Is Your Ground Beef? - Consumer Reports, December 2015.