The question of what to eat used to be simple. The food that nature provided to us was all we had, and we ate it. But today the question is not so simple. In fact, it’s deceptive. It’s confusing. Two food items may look identical and yet be very different at a fundamental level.
The subject could never be fully addressed in a single, brief blog post so I’m going to focus on beef for now. When it comes to beef it boils down to one question: what did this cow eat? Did it eat grain or did it eat grass? The answer to this question makes all the difference in the world.
Let me briefly describe the lives of these two cows. The grass fed cow is out on pasture its whole life. It eats grass and clover and whatever else happens to be growing there. It moves about in sunshine and fresh air and experiences life the way nature intended. The grain fed cow lives in a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO). It is packed in closely with other cows, fed grain which fattens it up (grain is not a natural food for a cow), and wallows around up to its knees in mud, urine and feces.
Even if you are not concerned about animal welfare, it should be of interest to you that the conditions these animals live in drastically changes the makeup of the resulting beef. While a pound of CAFO ground meat and a pound of grass fed ground meat may look the same, they are actually quite different.
Grass fed beef is lower in overall fat and calories than CAFO beef. Grass fed beef is higher in Omega-3s than its CAFO counterpart; two to four times higher in this essential fatty acid! Grass fed beef is also three to five times higher in conjugated lineolic acid (CLA), a powerful cancer fighter. This makes the cow who ate grass the clear nutrition winner – grass fed beef is just better for our bodies.
Grass fed is also better for the environment. CAFOs produce huge amounts of manure, which is typically spread out over land to decompose. In small amounts, manure is a great fertilizer. In large amounts, it results in water and soil contamination, particularly with excessive nitrates. This can be poisonous, especially to babies and small children. The contamination also harms and kills aquatic life. Surface water contaminated by hormones fed to cattle have also been shown to alter the reproductive habits of species living there. (Think about that the next time you hear about someone who is having trouble having children.)
Air quality is also impacted, primarily with methane, ammonia and particulate matter (that includes dried pieces of manure). Research has shown that the closer children live to a CAFO the greater their risk of developing asthma. Up to 30% of CAFO workers experience asthma, acute and chronic bronchitis and other air quality related ailments. Just in case you think this is a smear job by PETA or the Sierra Club, all of the pollution information I just shared is from a report from the CDC.
Because the number of animals is much smaller and the amount of land much larger on grass fed operations, there is no such contamination risk. In fact, farms that allow the movement of cattle to follow the natural course that they would on their own achieve fertile fields, a healthy ecosystem and natural biodiversity.
Even if you don’t care about your health, the environment or the health of the people who live near and work for CAFOs, there is one last component to consider. Because animals are kept in such close proximity in an unsanitary environment, sickness abounds. To combat having so many dead animals, CAFO owners use feed containing antibiotics. Therefore the cattle are fed antibiotics day in and day out. It is no secret that this is creating antibiotic resistant bacteria. The CDC and even the CAFO industry itself freely admits this fact, yet the practice continues and is completely legal. (Some recent changes have been enacted to prevent the use of “medically useful” antibiotics in feed, but this to me is a bit like putting a band-aid on a bullet wound.)
Antibiotic resistant bacteria sicken more than two million Americans and kill 23,000 every single year. The more we abuse antibiotics the greater the risk will become. At what point will we decide that being able to kill dangerous bacteria is more important than cheap meat? Every time we buy a CAFO burger, we are contributing to a future devoid of useful antibiotic drugs. Will the next victim be someone you know? Someone you love?
The main objection people have when it comes to making this choice is cost. The purchase price of grass fed beef is just higher. However, when you buy grass fed you are paying the full cost of production at the time of purchase. With CAFO beef there are numerous hidden costs – ill health, environmental damage and antibiotic resistance. You may not be paying that cost when you buy CAFO meat, but understand this…the cost you do not pay when you buy it will eventually be paid by someone.
When you consider the cost of heart disease or cancer or asthma, or attempt to calculate the price tag on cleaning up polluted soil, air and water it should give you pause. What is the cost of the average hospital stay of someone fighting for their life due to an antibiotic resistant bacterial infection? All of this makes spending $6-$9 per pound for grass fed ground beef seem like a bargain.
I could go on forever about why grass fed beef is superior, but to keep it simple just remember that grass fed is better for our bodies, better for the environment and does not contribute to antibiotic resistant bacteria. Two burgers may look identical, but the differences you cannot see are life changing. Grass fed is the First Class choice!
So how do you know if your beef is grass fed or CAFO? To be honest if you aren’t sure, you can safely assume it’s feedlot beef. If a store or restaurant is selling beef that’s grass fed, they are going to label it as such so you understand why there is a price premium. Personally, I prefer buying my beef in bulk from a local farmer. It’s significantly less expensive, I know exactly where it came from and can see the grass fed operation myself (no sneaky slight of hand to pass off CAFO meat as grass fed) and I help support my local economy. Here are a few resources to help you find local grass fed beef in your area:
Remember…grass is class!
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