What's the Beef? Know What You Are Buying
By Claudia Watson
Special to The Pilot
Every day, there are new reports to demonstrate the health advantages of eating grass-fed beef. But before you buy it, make sure it is both grass-fed and grass-finished.
This type of beef comes from pastured cattle that forage for their lifetime solely on annual and perennial grasses and legumes. They do not receive any grain, ever.
There are an abundance of sites on the Internet that advertise grass-fed beef, but it is only when you read the fine print that you see the real story. Just because the site or package label states the product is "organic," "free-range," "all natural," or "grass-grown," this does not mean it is grass-fed and grass-finished beef.
Some beef producers take their animals off grain rations only for the last few weeks, or they may be fed a grass-based diet while continuing supplementation with high levels of grain or other materials. Other producers finish, or -fatten, their animals for 90 to 120 days on grain before slaughter. None of these methods produces the health benefits of truly grass-raised and grass-finished beef.
Traditionally, all beef was grass-fed beef, but in the U.S. today most of it comes from cattle that spend their life in a confined animal feeding operation, a highly mechanized operation that provides a convenient, and often cheap, supply of food. It is estimated that more than 90 percent of all beef consumed in the U.S. has been finished in a feedlot during its last 90-120 days.
Years ago, a grass-fed and -finished steer was 4 to 5 years old at slaughter. Today, young calves are sent to feedlots where their diet is switched to high-energy grain, soy and other supplements to fatten them and marble their flesh.
The animal also is given growth-promoting hormones and a continual stream of antibiotics to keep it "healthy" and alive in confinement until it is slaughtered at 14 to 18 months.
Grain - An Unnatural Diet
Cows, sheep and other grazing animals are able to convert grasses into food they can digest because they are ruminants, meaning they have a rumen, or a multi-compartmented stomach that converts high-fiber grasses into protein and fat and allows them to thrive.
Switching a cow, or other ruminants, from grass to grain is so disturbing to the animal's digestive tract that it can kill them if not done gradually. They can get feedlot bloat, caused by copious amounts of gas that forces the animal's belly to swell against its lungs. Without immediate relief, the animal will suffocate.
Feeding corn to cattle also can cause chronic bellyaches, called acidosis. If acidosis is not treated, it makes the animal very ill, leaving their immune system vulnerable to many diseases. If acidosis is left unchecked, it can kill the animal.
Public health can also be affected. Since the 1990s, there have been numerous recalls of beef for possible E. coli 0157:H7 bacteria contamination. When cattle's digestive system becomes more acidic, it favors the growth of E. coli, which has killed and sickened people who ate undercooked ground beef.
Grass-fed and -finished beef may reduce your chances of illness, but people eating grass-fed beef should still practice all the safe handling techniques recommended for grain-fed beef.
Providing a healthy diet and good environment for grass-fed beef requires skill and careful pasture management. High-quality grasses must be -maintained at optimal growth for forage and pasture areas rotated to keep the soil, and herd, healthy.
In addition to the type of forage used to raise beef, the beef breeding stock, types and levels of -mineral and vitamin supplementation and the length of time spent in pasture before slaughter determine the quality, leanness, juiciness and flavor of grass-fed beef.
The American Grassfed Association, http://www.americangrassfed.org, which audits and certifies many grass-fed and grass-finished farms, provides dietary protocols.
Another advantage of pasture farming is the humane treatment of animals. Unlike the factory farms where cattle are packed together or subjected to cruelty, grass-fed beef farmers adhere to the most rigorous and progressive animal care standards in the nation, and many are -certified as Animal Welfare-approved, http://www.animalwelfareapproved.org.
Cattle fed on grass produce beef that is lower in overall fat and saturated fat, calories and cholesterol than grain-fed beef. A steak from a grain-fed feedlot -cattle has more than double the fat of a similar cut from grass-fed cattle.
Grass-fed and -finished beef also -contains higher levels of beneficial -vitamins and nutrients such as vitamin E, beta carotene and vitamin C, and is also richer in healthy fats, including omega-3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA).
Research shows these elements are -crucial in reducing cholesterol, -diabetes, cancer, high blood pressure and other life-threatening diseases.
When cattle are taken off grass and shipped to a feedlot to be finished on grain, they immediately begin losing omega-3 levels. The animal's body -chemistry also changes and there are -differences in the fatty composition that often contribute to the "off" or "gamey" flavor of the meat. So if you want to avoid that flavor, be sure the beef you purchase is grass-fed and grass-finished.
If you are interested in providing healthy meat to your family's diet, get informed. Visit websites of the producers, read their production protocols, but even better, get to know your producer and ask questions.
For more information on grass-fed beef and a listing of farms in this region that offer the product, visit www.Eatwild.com.
This winter, meat may be purchased locally from Hilltop Angus Farm of Mt. Gilead, www.hilltopangusgrassfed.com, at the Moore County Farmers Market on Thursdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Morganton Road, next to the National Guard Armory.
If you'd like to sample grass-fed beef, try a burger at 195 American Fusion Cuisine or Ashten's, both in Southern Pines.
Claudia Watson is a freelance writer and many be reached at email@example.com.
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