Anyone visiting the local grocery store or even a neighborhood meat market will notice that when it comes to buying steaks and hamburger meat, the choice has become less simple. Today, instead of lumping all beef products under one label, one encounters variations such as “grass-fed,” “organic,” and “free range.” As the farming industry is shifting away from mass production since sustainability and quality are increasingly valued by discerning consumers, the diet and the environment of livestock raised for meat are both important considerations.
Grass-Fed Beef vs. Corn-Fed Beef: What Is the Difference?
Cattle belongs to the mammalian suborder of ruminants, along with deer, sheep, and goats. These animals usually have four stomachs, and their digestive system is specifically designed to break down grass and foliage. Grass is the natural food item for cows, but many farmers have chosen to offer corn instead because corn is cheaper and fattens the cows up more quickly. In fact, whereas cattle were once slaughtered at four to five years of age, the push to produce cheap meat means that today, most cattle who eat grain are slaughtered at only fourteen months! What is done cheaply and quickly is rarely done well.
What Risks Accompany Corn Feeding?
Since corn is not a natural food item, cattle must be forced to eat the corn using inhumane methods similar to the process of creating foie gras. Besides the ethical question regarding humane treatment of animals, there are a couple of distinct health risks that are avoided with grass-fed beef. Since the cow’s digestive system is not suited to digest grains, there is an increased risk of E. coli bacteria infections. The Food Revolution Network explains that grains tamper with the natural acidity in the cow’s digestive system, which then encourages the growth of this dangerous bacteria. Undoubtedly, the increase in E. coli infection can be traced to forcing grain into the cattle’s diet.
Additionally, the stress of force-feeding and living in cramped, dirty environments requires measures to prevent the cattle from dying before they are processed. Hormone treatments as well as frequent antibiotic treatments may keep the cows alive, but there are serious consequences when hormones and antibiotics are added to the human diet. Antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections are becoming more common, and scientists agree that the increased levels of antibiotics in our food supply is at least partly to blame.
What Are the Benefits of Choosing Grass-Fed Beef?
Cattle raised on natural food sources are typically treated more humanely and live in far more sanitary conditions than their counterparts. Besides avoiding the risks inherent in consuming cattle raised on corn, there are a number of health benefits that can be gained. A study published in the Nutrition Journal found that omega-3 fatty acids, the fatty acids that benefit the heart, are found in much higher levels in cows that ate their natural food source. Overall, their meat is also less fatty, which means it is healthier. While there is some debate over which tastes better, there is no doubt that there is far more depth and variety in flavor when cattle eat greens rather than grains. Many more sophisticated palates appreciate the less-generic flavor that a natural diet creates in the meat.
The race to produce faster and cheaper foods has slowed as consumers are recognizing that the cheaper products come with many hidden costs. More people are aware of the detrimental effects antibiotics, hormones, and mass production used in farming have on the environment as a whole and on individual health. When presented with these choices in our local grocery stores, consider more than the accompanying price tag. Choose the healthy option and much more than pennies will be saved.