|Grass-Fed Beef The Natural Alternative
Biting into a juicy burger or slicing a filet mignon, few people realize
that beef isn't what it used to be. Before World War II, beef cattle
were raised on grass. It could take four years to fatten a steer.
But then the industry switched to corn, a sort of time machine for a steer.
Today calves start out on milk and grass but then, when six months
old, they're sent to a feedlot. By the time they are about 14 months
old, corn-fed steers weigh enough to be slaughtered. "Corn-fed"
may sound wholesome, as normal as Kansas in August and
blueberry pie, but in fact corn is not healthy for cattle.
Cattle are ruminants. Their digestive systems are designed for grass,
not grain. Fed on corn, they fatten in a hurry--it's similar to force
feeding a goose to make its liver fat. A corn diet can make cattle sick,
sometimes fatally. The animals must have antibiotics to stave off illness
and infection until they weigh enough to be slaughtered, as well as
hormones to promote quick growth. All this saves money for the
growers and keeps the price of beef low.
Corn is a problematic crop, too. It's heavily subsidized by the
government and thus overproduced. It demands vast doses of
pesticides and fertilizers, requiring huge quantities of natural gas
and oil to produce. Toxic runoff from feedlots has become an
environmental hazard, polluting ground water and land.
In addition, corn-fed beef is not good for people, particularly the
people who regularly eat fatty steaks and burgers. Corn-fed beef
is tender, with the marbling consumers have come to expect--and
thus is high in fat, especially saturated fat. A four-ounce serving of
grass-fed beef typically has 7 to 10 grams of total fat, compared
with 14 to 16 grams in the same cut of corn-fed beef. Grass-fed
beef, besides being lower in saturated fat, also contains more of
the beneficial unsaturated fatty acids called omega-3s (similar to
those in fish), as well as more vitamin E. Grass-fed beef also
supplies more conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), another type of
fat that has potential health benefits.
Hormones and antibiotics
And then there's the matter of the hormones in corn-fed cattle.
By the time the meat gets to your plate, residues are very small-
not enough to worry about from a health standpoint. What is
worrying is not the effect on consumers, but on the environment.
Hormones from cattle (and other sources) end up polluting water.
And not all scientists are comfortable with the idea of residues in meat:
the European Union has refused to import American beef raised with
Another problem is the antibiotics used in corn-fed animals to
prevent or treat disease. Again, residues in meat are not likely to
hurt people, but use of antibiotics leads to resistant strains of
bacteria in animals and in the environment. (Thus, if you get sick
from Salmonella, for example, the strain may be resistant to many
antibiotics.) Meat from corn-fed cattle is also far more contaminated
with E coli bacteria, partly because corn interferes with ruminant
digestion, and partly because the animals are crowded together in
filthy conditions. E. coli levels are much lower in grass-fed cattle.
Switch to grass-fed beef?
Grass-fed beef is making a comeback--you may have seen ads for it.
It's certainly more expensive than corn-fed beef, and usually tougher.
But many people find it more flavorful. The famous beef of Argentina
Should you switch? If you eat only a small amount of beef, it hardly
matters if you switch or not, provided you are buying lean cuts and
trimming the meat well. If you eat beef regularly, you might want to
switch to grass-fed, if you can afford it. You'll probably have to
order it on the Internet or via mail-order, though some specialty
markets do carry it now. A typical website charges about $9.50
per pound for T-bone steaks, and $4.50 for round, plus shipping.
Ground beef can cost as little as $3.75 per pound.
Remember these points:
Grass-fed beef is not necessarily organic. If you want your beef
to be both, check the labels.
You should still trim any visible fat, even on grass-fed beef. But
remember that all beef--fatty or lean, grass-fed or corn-fed--
contains the same amount of cholesterol.
Though well-trimmed grass-fed beef is not much higher in saturated
fat than skinless poultry, you should eat beef (and all meats) in
moderate amounts, as part of a diet based on fruits, vegetables,
and whole grains.
Though grass-fed beef is much less likely to be contaminated with
dangerous bacteria, you must still handle it carefully and cook it thoroughly.
While grasslands are more environmentally friendly and humane than
feedlots, grazing has its drawbacks, too. Large herds of cattle anywhere
pollute water, air, and land. And grass takes up a lot of space. In some
countries this wouldn't matter--in Argentina, for example, most grasslands
will grow only grass. But in other countries, grasslands could be better
used for growing crops than for supporting beef cattle. In the U.S.,
grasslands could never support current levels of beef consumption.
The best idea, for our environment and human health, is for us all to
eat less beef and less meat.