If you like meat, you’d enjoy a trip to the Lambert-Powell Meats Lab store at Auburn University. They carry eggs, all kinds of cuts of beef and pork, fat packs of ground beef, and sausage in many varieties of traditional spice combinations, including chorizo and fennel-seed-dotted sweet Italian. (The smoked sausage is delicious grilled and smothered in spicy mustard.) They also occasionally offer grass fed beef, which I prefer to buy because it’s produced more sustainably than its conventional, grain fed counterpart.
The distinction between grass fed and grain fed beef is pretty simple to explain, but the differences in the effects of these two production methods on the environment and human health are drastic. Here’s how Heidi Finegan, the Research Associate in the Department of Animal Sciences at Auburn, describes the differences in the production methods:
Grass fed beef is just that, beef that is grown only on forages (the term “forage” encompasses many grasses and legumes). Most beef you buy in the grocery store is finished on grain and considered “regular beef” by many consumers. Generally, beef cattle are raised alongside their mothers in a pasture until they are weaned at 6-8 months of age, weighing around 500-550 pounds. After weaning, they will remain on grass until they reach about 800 pounds. At this point, they will be shipped to the mid-west to enter a commercial feedlot where they will be “finished” on a grain diet until reaching harvest weight at 1000-1200 pounds. This usually takes around 100 days and the average age of harvest beef is 18-22 months. So, the main distinction lies in the fact that some cattle never have grain and are marketed as “Grass fed” while feedlot cattle are grain fed.
Even though the grain-finished method is preferred by the beef industry and many consumers, because it takes less time and results in the flavorful white-fat marbling familiar to meat-eaters, it entails many problems. I won’t go deeply into them, but let me offer a brief list to get your imagination going on some consequences of raising beef on an industrial scale: e. coli, antibiotics, manure “lagoons,” mass-production-style slaughter (or would that be destruction?), fossil fuels, fossil fuels, and more fossil fuels. This week, Jane Brody wrote about beef in her weekly column for the New York Times, and proposed that “a reduced dependence on livestock for food could help to save the planet from the ravaging effects of environmental pollution, global warming and the depletion of potable water.” She quotes Dr. Barry Popkin, an epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina, who says that, “in the United States, livestock production accounts for 55 percent of the erosion process, 37 percent of pesticides applied, 50 percent of antibiotics consumed, and a third of total discharge of nitrogen and phosphorus to surface water.”
And we all know that meat consumption contributes to the high rates of heart disease in the U.S.
Grass fed beef offers many advantages. Heidi says that:
Grass fed cattle are easier to manage, are more cost effective to the producer, and play a key role in sustainable agriculture. Properly managed grazing patterns can help maintain soil productivity and keep forages in healthy conditions where they can protect soil from erosion and fix nitrogen. Local producers can also cut out shipping and delivery costs by keeping cattle on their own property and not sending them to Kansas or Texas. Some negatives to grass fed productions are that it will take a longer amount of time for cattle to reach optimal harvest weight and as the animal ages the tenderness and quality of meat declines.
Some would dispute the point about quality. Many foodies claim that there is a terroire aspect to grass fed beef—that the particular qualities of the forage and soil come through in the meat, and that the flavors of California- and Vermont-raised grass fed beef are different. The distinctness of the flavor of grass fed beef may also be a result of contrast. If you’re used to the water-bloated mass-produced steak from the big chain supermarkets, this beef will be a new experience. Perhaps nutritional content affects flavor too: grass fed beef contains less saturated fat, and more antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids than grain fed beef. Heidi also pointed out that beef is high in zinc, vitamin B, and iron.
If you love a juicy steak, it seems that the best way to go is to buy grass fed, and only on occasion. But grass fed beef is not widely available yet, so when we just need to celebrate with steak and red wine, I’ll buy grain fed New York steaks from the Auburn meats lab. At least I know it’s local and raised with education in mind. My favorite toppings for salt-and-pepper seasoned burgers are Colemans mustard, a tomato slice, and fresh basil leaves. For steaks, simplest is best: I rub them all over with a fresh rosemary sprig (then stick some leaves in the fat-crevices), sprinkle them with salt and pepper, and grill to mid-rare.
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