The answer to the question, “Is grass fed beef better than conventional beef?” is an absolutely, positively, resounding, billboard-screaming, all capital letters, YES.
Why is it better? How much time do you have?
If You Support Destroying Rainforests, Buy Conventional Beef
In the “olden days”, when beef cattle were raised only on farms and ranches, the cattle ate the grass available to them. As long as the farmer wasn’t allowing the cattle to overgraze his fields, or getting greedy by razing forests to make pasture lands, there was no serious hazard to the environment.
Feedlots, where most of our beef comes from today, is a totally different story. In a feedlot, cattle are fed grains (which in and of itself is problematic, but we’ll get to that later). These grains, usually a blend of corn and soybean, come partially from the US, but also have to be imported from South America.
Where does a densely forested nation such as Brazil find room to grow soybeans? They transform the Amazon rainforest into soybean fields. Try to imagine these figures: a medium-sized feedlot of 37,000 cows requires 25 tons of grains every hour. Some feedlots are as large as 100,000 cows – try to imagine the amount of grain these beasts require on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis.
If You Like Getting Fatter, Buy Conventional Beef
One of the excuses the meat industry uses for feeding grain to the feedlot cattle is a matter of taste – our taste. When cattle eat grass, they tend to be leaner and not as fatty. Just like Dr. Atkins warned us, carbs mean fat, and cattle eating grains are eating a diet made up exclusively of carbs.
The numbers speak for themselves. Grass-fed ground beef is 65% lower in saturated fat, and New York strips are 35% lower than conventional beef (Source: Time Magazine, June 2006).
If You Can’t Wait to Get E. coli, Buy Conventional Beef
Many people think that beef contaminated by the deadly E. coli bacteria, which kills about 52 people per year, is a result of poor slaughterhouse techniques. This can sometimes be true, but a 2009 study showed that cattle are usually contaminated with E. coli at feedlots first (Source: Food Safety News, November 2009).
The problem is that feedlot cattle are usually standing ankle-deep in their own manure. Remember those 100,000 cows crammed into one feedlot mentioned earlier? All that manure has to go somewhere. Usually, the only place it goes is down – right onto the ground where the cattle stand and lie. That manure is a breeding ground for disease, including E. coli.
If You Like Your Beef Seasoned with Antibiotics, Buy Conventional Beef
Livestock in the United States, including cows, chickens, pigs, and other animals we eat, are responsible for consuming roughly 15 – 17 million pounds of antibiotics per year (Source: PBS’s Frontline).
The good news about livestock downing all those drugs is that they are less likely to get sick and pass their diseases on to us. The bad news is that “superbugs” resistant to our current antibiotics are evolving rapidly. That means that bacteria such as E. coli and salmonella will get harder and harder to effectively treat with antibiotics.
If You Want to Do Something Good for Your Body, the Environment, Local Farmers, and Animals, Buy Grass-Fed Beef
Here’s a few facts about what happens when you buy locally grown, grass-fed beef:
- The animals you’re eating are more likely to have experienced more humane treatment
- You support local farmers instead of huge corporations
- You eat less fat, and are less at-risk for heart disease
- You are less likely to get food poisoning
- You do not contribute to deforestation
- You reduce your carbon footprint
To make the switch to grass-fed beef, start by avoiding meat at fast food joints and most restaurants. Restaurants almost always provide feedlot beef because it’s cheaper. (By the way, this goes for other types of meat, too, not just beef – let’s not even get started on mass-produced chickens.)
Upscale, health-oriented grocery stories such as Wild Oats, Whole Foods, and EarthFare are likely to offer at least some grass-fed options, and other supermarkets are starting to catch on, too. Local farmer’s markets also sometimes offer grass-fed options.
Alternatively, seek out a local farmer and buy directly from him or her. This will remind you that the food you eat doesn’t magically appear in the supermarket; it starts with a live animal, and you owe it to yourself to know where that animal came from.