By Dr. Mercola
Most of us benefit from high-quality animal protein. But what constitutes "high quality"? One key factor that has a tremendous bearing on the quality of the meat is whether or not the cattle was raised on pasture, opposed to a confined animal feeding operation (CAFO).
Joey Jones has been involved in the grass-fed beef market for over 17 years. He created the GrassfedNetwork.com—an online resource with ongoing monthly trainings for livestock producers, in which they learn how to improve the way they raise animals on grass.
While he grew up as a city kid, Joey got involved with ranching while attending college at Texas Tech University.
"In West Texas, I was doing that in a county that had the second largest feedlot. The smell of that was just horrendous as most of us have smelled... When the wind was blowing from that direction, it didn't matter what part of town you were in; the entire city could smell it.
That smell isn't a natural smell. I only know that now, from working with naturally raised animals that simply don't have those smells. Those smells are sick animals."
About 18 years ago, Joey and his wife started an organic co-op, which also offered grass-fed beef. The more involved he got, the more he realized that many of today's farmers have forgotten how to raise animals on grass only, which is what led him to create Grassfed Network.
Definition of Grass-Fed
There's a lot of confusion about the term "grass-fed," and in many cases, it's an abused term like the word "natural." Some producers of beef will misuse this term because the rules around it are still somewhat undefined.
Most all calves are fed grass for a certain amount of time. This is one factor that allows less scrupulous producers to get away with calling their beef grass-fed. The key to a truly grass-fed product is actually the finishing. Optimal beef is both grass-fed and grass-finished beef.
"The only way to know any product that you're buying, whether it's produce or meat, is really to know the source of that product, and know their practices,"
Joey says. "It is true that all animals are fed grass at some point unless they're dairy animals; there are actually dairy animals that never see a blade of grass...
But almost all beef animals are going to be on grass at some point in their life. It definitely is the grass-finished product that you're after. And they're difference is big."
Joey recounts one test he performed with one of his clients, who had a herd of animals raised on grass. The animals were finished for two different grass-fed meat buying organizations.
One of the organizations accepted dried distillers grains with solubles (DDGs) as a supplement. DDGs are the corn that has been processed in a refining process that removes the starch, leaving only the dry matter from the corn.
Since there's no starch, it technically qualifies as a grass-fed feeding supplement. The other did not accept DDGs. So one group of the animals got about two pounds of DDG a day, whereas the other group only got grass forage.
"When we processed those animals and sold them, we took a meat sample from both groups," Joey says. "In that three-month period... [the DDG-fed] group had no health benefits left whatsoever in the meat. The group that didn't get those DDGs still had all the health benefits that we expect from a grass-finished product."
Some of the benefits of grass-fed and grass-finished beef include higher levels of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) and other healthy fats. As Joey notes, "Many times the health benefits reside in the fat more than the meat itself and the muscle tissue."
It also has a more balanced ratio of omega-3 to omega-6. Modern food, in which processed foods and vegetable oils dominate, has led to a dramatic increase in omega-6 over omega-3.
Compared to a century ago, we now have 100,000 times higher intake of omega-6, which does not bode well from a health perspective. Substituting processed vegetable oils with healthy animal fat is a good approach that will help optimize your health.
Most Grass-Fed Beef Sold in the US Is Imported...
Surprisingly, most of the grass-fed beef sold in the US is actually imported from Australia and New Zealand1 Some grass-fed beef is also sourced from countries like Mexico, Nicaragua, Brazil, and Uruguay.2
Joey believes the primary reason for the import of grass-fed beef is that it's cheaper to grass finish in those countries than to finish on grain. The beef market in the US is for grain finished animals predominately, so there are very few grass-fed producers compared to conventional producers in the US.
When the demand for grass-fed is realized by the beef industry, the numbers of producers will increase and the demand can most certainly be met by US producers. In Australia, 70 percent of all Australian cattle are pasture-raised and finished, and many of the grass-fed cattle operations are indeed massive. Such is not the case in the US at the moment.
"There are not a lot of large-scale producers of grass-fed beef [in the US] though there are some," Joey says. "I think people will probably misunderstand what large-scale is. Most producers are going to have 100 or less head of animals.
They're only slaughtering one or two animals a month and so on, and direct it to the farmer's market or something like that... But some of these operations do much, much more – 30 heads a month or 3,000 head a year...
Their primary difference is going to be in the last 90 to 120 day of life. Beef animals for the most part are going to be raised on grass. Although in a commercial operation, calves start getting supplemented with grain as soon as they get separated off from their mothers.
There's grain introduced very early on in the animal's life. Although they're out on grass, they're getting supplemented to a large degree by grain, whereas a grass-fed animal – a true grass-fed animal – is only going to have grass or forages throughout their life. Any growing plant is a forage for livestock."
According to Joey, the grass-fed market only makes up about three percent of the US beef ranchers. Fortunately, that number is growing. Overall, grass-fed beef sales have been increasing by about 20 percent a year for the last six years. It's the only growing segment of the beef industry as a whole.
How to Evaluate Grass-Fed Beef Sold at Your Local Grocer
For those of you who do not live near grass-fed producers, one option is to look for grass-fed beef in your local grocery store. Publix, for example, sells USDA organic, grass-fed beef. Joey recommends looking for the country of origin on the label.
"The first thing to do is make sure that it's a US-based product. That's the first step," he says. "It's impossible to know your producer if you're producer is from Uruguay or Australia. And we have no control over how that product is raised in Uruguay and Australia. Their standards are going to be different from ours, and there's simply no way to have an oversight on that.
Once you've established that it's a US-based product, you can find out who the supplier is... There are a number of larger-scale sellers of grass-fed product that are buying from these smaller producers... [C]all in and find out what their standards are and what their protocol is. All of them have different standards for their producers. You want to know what they're allowing and what they're not allowing."
Joey also suggests thinking of grass-fed beef as a seasonal product, just like produce. While this might not be a very popular idea, it has some merit. All foods have a season in which it grows, followed by harvesting and consumption. You could buy it fresh, in season, and then freeze it of course. According to Joey, a steak or ground beef will stay fresh for up to a year if properly vacuum sealed and frozen.
Organic versus Grass-Fed and Finished Beef
It's important to recognize that while the USDA 100% Organic label is good, it's not necessarily a guarantee that the meat has been grass-fed and finished. In fact, the organic label is costly for ranchers, and many actually raise their cattle in ways that provide superior beef compared to beef bearing the organic label. In my mind, a truly grass-fed, grass-finished product is superior to organic.
One argument some ranchers will give is that they have to feed their animals grains because there's no grass growing in the winter. While that may be true in some areas, there are many parts of the US where year-round pasturing is possible. Gabe Brown, whom I interviewed, is even doing it in North Dakota, so if there's a will, there's usually a way.
"It is certainly possible, in many years, to get away with not feeding any hay by extending that grazing season, either by having pastures that are more native, or supplementing pasture with cover crops that will not only provide a grazing medium but also are going to help build soil and organic matter," Joey says. "The term 'organic' simply means that what it's been fed qualifies under the organic label. That can include grains and a number of other things. It doesn't necessarily mean that you're getting the health benefits of the grass-finished product.
As I mentioned earlier, even a minute amount of grain, even though the starch is removed, eliminates the health benefits of the product. Grass-finished is much more important than organic... I also think local is important. We're getting more and more global, and we need to draw back in a little bit and support our local economy. We do that by buying from local people as much as possible. Farmer's markets are great place to find the product. You can obviously talk with producers there, whether it's produce, beef, lamb, or whatever the case may be. I think that's a great start for helping to support our overall economy."
Getting to Know Your Farmer Is the Best Way to Ensure High-Quality Food
To make sure you're getting the highest quality possible, your best bet is to get to know your local farmer or rancher—what his philosophy is and how he raises his herd. If at all possible, visit the farm to see the operation for yourself. Is it a clean and well-run farm? (Granted, you need to understand that "clean" does not mean sterile, when it comes to a farm environment.) Questions to ask include:
Do you give the animals hormones? Are antibiotics used, and if so, when and why? Are the animals confined in a yard or are they fed hay at any point during their growth? And if so, for how long? Are the animals finished on hay or on pasture? What is the pasture mix made of? Regional, native grasses, or coastal hay? At what age is the animal finished? An ideal target for optimal fat content and taste is around 20-24-months, although some producers will go as long as 30 months, which is also fine.
When it comes to taste, several factors come into play, including genetics of the animal, the feed, and any vitamin and mineral supplements it may have been given. Typically, British cattle breeds such as Angus, Hereford, and British White, tend to be favored. Contrary to the CAFO model, smaller animals, also referred to as "heritage-sized" animals, tend to render higher-quality meat. "You're looking for a shorter and wider animal, instead of a tall and leggy animal," Joey says.
Resources for Farmers and Consumers Alike
The Grassfed Network is a resource for farmers who want to learn more about transitioning to raising their animals on grass. The names of these farmers are not released on the website, but there are a number of other organizations that can help you locate grass-fed beef and other organic produce, including the following:
Eat Wild: With more than 1,400 pasture-based farms, Eat Wild's Directory of Farms is one of the most comprehensive sources for grass-fed meat and dairy products in the United States and Canada. Local Harvest -- This Web site will help you find farmers' markets, family farms, and other sources of sustainably grown food in your area where you can buy produce, grass-fed meats, and many other goodies. Eat Well Guide: Wholesome Food from Healthy Animals -- The Eat Well Guide is a free online directory of sustainably raised meat, poultry, dairy, and eggs from farms, stores, restaurants, inns, and hotels, and online outlets in the United States and Canada. Grassfed Exchange FoodRoutes -- The FoodRoutes "Find Good Food" map can help you connect with local farmers to find the freshest, tastiest food possible. On their interactive map, you can find a listing for local farmers, CSAs, and markets near you. Farmers' Markets -- A national listing of farmers' markets.