COMMENTARY

Where's the healthy beef?
Consumers who want the highest standards should choose grass-fed and organic, says this industry insider. 

By Angela K Jackson-Pridie
President, Organic Grass-fed Beef Coalition

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June 2, 2005: We have finally approached a time when organic food is in high demand and sustainable agriculture is a growing practice in America’s heartland. This was needed years ago, before we contaminated our food supplies to the point that we can’t guarantee purity under any circumstance. It was mentioned a few times in passing conversations that the Midwest model is not a good candidate for producing organic grass-fed beef products because of cross-contamination issues and industrial production practices. The fact is that small farmers in the Midwest are in a better position to produce beef organically, and the young farmers replacing the aging ones seem to have a stronger sense of environmental stewardship. Physicians and researchers now publicize and promote the benefits of a healthy diet, free from chemicals, drugs, preservatives, antibiotics and synthetic additives. Many consumers shopping for healthier foods are falsely led to think that the all-natural beef at the local supermarket is the answer to healthy red meat. But there is a huge difference between the all-natural beef at the grocery store and organic beef and other choices available within the organic meat market.

All-natural grain-fed beef does not have a quality verification system in place to ensure the purity of the meat. If the mother cow is treated, the chemical or medicinal substances pass right through to the calf fetus or through the milk to the nursing calf. Then when the calf gets older, it could be fed a GMO grain like Round-Up Ready or BT Rootworm corn. If the corn is resistant to being sprayed with the Round-Up herbicide and not affected, one can’t imagine what happens during the digestion of this corn in the ruminant system of a calf. A typical grain-fed animal is finished hard on grain (usually corn) the last 180 days before slaughter to fatten them up. This means the consumer is getting a hardy dose of whatever was last fed to that “fat” calf through residual amounts found in the meat.

All-Natural grass-fed beef has proven to be lower in calories, fat, and loaded with vitamins and minerals. It is great choice for a healthier lifestyle and eliminates the chances of by-products in the feed. However, animals are still susceptible to illness, worms, and lice because pest and disease resistance has not been bred into the herd. There is no guarantee that the pastures are chemical free and the cattle are free from insecticides like Pour-on, which soak into the skin, enter the bloodstream, and permeate through the meat.

The highest standards for meat purity in the U.S. are guaranteed through the National Organic Program. There two types of organic beef – grass-fed and grain-fed. Grain-fed organic beef is finished on grain, is more expensive (due to high feed costs) and has a lower overall vitamin nutrient value compared to grass-fed. However, it only takes 16 months on average to get an animal to slaughter weight. Nobody can guarantee cross-contamination has not occurred from carryover from adjacent farms in organic crop production for grain-feed, even with 25 foot buffers in place. Some organic farms have mixed operations—both organic and conventional. Poor handling could result in cross-contamination of feed. As a solution to this, grain-fed organic beef producers are transitioning to 100 percent organic, improving feed storage facilities, enlarging feedlots, adding pasture, shortening the finishing process and harvesting their own seeds and hay.

Organic grass-fed beef is the most time-consuming and difficult system to put in place because it take years for a farmer to produce animals that convert grass to energy for good weight gain combined with disease and pest resistance. In addition, the organically allowed weed-control process is largely a creative and manually intensive one. Cattle have to be rotated, inspected, and monitored frequently in the pasture for parasite load and illness. Culling rates are much higher due to animals falling prey to illness, parasites and poor gain. Farmers are also faced with having to produce tender, tasty, marbled cuts of meat as quickly as possible on a forage-only diet which take up to 30 months; much longer than grain-fed livestock. Producers who take the time to implement this type of system are widely supported for offering the greatest benefits for sustainable agriculture, the environment and the health of the consumer. Organic grass-fed beef systems are promoted through the newly formed Organic Grass-fed Beef Coalition.

The Organic Grass-fed Beef Coalition is a new group of northern plain’s producers who are working on a system that offers a “real” premium to the organic grass-fed beef producer, promotes grassland and pasture preservation, educates the supply chain, and conducts research for building a valuable U.S. organic grass-fed beef product through a “collaborative learning” team approach. The grassfed beef industry, as a whole, is competitive. But, for most part, organic producers work together well and support each other regardless of their production model. For more information, visit www.organicgrassfedbeef.org or call Angela at 712-568-3433.