I was on a first date the other day when my date, who is very health and fitness conscious, was telling me about a discussion she had with a friend about organic beef. Apparently they had decided that it was healthier for you because it was “organic”. Little did she know, she hit one of my ‘hot button” issues and got my typical one minute speech on the fact that there is little difference in nutritional values just differences in how the cattle are raised. I didn’t go through the entire subject since I think I spooked her with my passion on the whole subject, but I’ll go through it for you here.
Organic. Organic farming involves using only what comes about naturally. They fertilize with compost or manure. The cattle generally don’t receive antibiotics or hormones. They can receive qualifying vaccinations and synthetic medications if cattle are sick. Feed must also be from an organic source, probably the hardest part if you don’t produce your own feed. It is a system that is similar to the “Ole’ McDonald’s Farm” from 1900 that most people picture when they think of farming.
While it is sentimental way to do things, it is higher cost with decreased production. It also requires a lot of record keeping and cost with the verification of practices to qualify for the “organic” label. Simply put, while it is an emotionally appealing system, it is not economical way to produce beef in the quantities needed for current populations. If all agriculture switched back to this system there would be a lot less food available, meaning a lot more hungry people in the world that just can’t afford it.
Now I have no problem with people who make the choice to raise their animals organically and go through the USDA defined process for “organic” verification. I do have a problem with those who demonize the entire modern agriculture system in order to market their product (I’m looking at you, Joel Salatin). These folks believe that their method is the best way to raise beef and some produce a good product which is liked by a small group of Americans that are willing to pay the extra cost for the process.
While organic farmers might believe that some agricultural practices are harmful, USDA and FDA tests and approves of all these systems and products. So the opinion that what they are doing is safer and healthier is just a theory with little or no scientific evidence. If you want that product and are willing to pay extra for it, I’m glad you have the choice. It’s free enterprise at work. But if you produce it, please promote your product and system for its own virtues rather than demean the rest of us for using technology.
Natural. This practice is harder to define because USDA hasn’t put an exact definition on what “natural” is. The accepted definition is cattle that haven’t received any antibiotics or hormones. They are vaccinated giving them resistance to prevalent diseases. The majority of cattle are verified through an affidavit at the producer level and stringent specs at the feedlot level, though some retailers are requiring a third party audit all the way through the system for verification.
These are the steaks that I personally buy. For hamburger, it really doesn’t matter as long as it has the right fat content for me (80-20). It is not due to any health concerns, but because the product tends to eat better since implants tend to have a small effect on tenderness. It is just a more consistent product and eating experience in my opinion. Scientifically the difference is not significant but with my cooking skills it helps.
Grass-fed. These are cattle that are never fed concentrates (grains). They are developed to finish weight on total forage. The flavor is much different and it tends to be tougher than grain fed beef because of decreased fat and age of the animal. Grass-fed can also be kind of hit or miss. A savvy producer will graze steers on high energy forages like alfalfa, clover, wheat or barley during the finishing stage to get them to marble. This is basically feeding them grain without harvesting it and yields a product with more fat, but some producers use typical forages so the cattle have a gamey taste (in my opinion) and are tougher. There is a health benefit with the increased Omega-3 fatty acid ratio compared to grain fed. I eat sushi and other fish dishes to get my Omega-3s, at least then I enjoy eating it.
This is another system from days past. It was used extensively in the 1800s and is still used today in Brazil, Australia, and Argentina. If prepared correctly (cooked very slowly), it can be very good but it takes a lot of time to produce and prepare. It would take millions of additional cattle and acreage to maintain production in this system.
Conventional. This is the typical method of producing beef in the US. A steer will be vaccinated as a calf, receives antibiotics if he is sick, is fed ionophores to improve feed efficiency and lessen risk of coccidiosis, and probably be implanted at the feedlot. Any products that he received have withdrawal periods that will be adhered to in order to eliminate any possibility of residue in the meat. He will be slaughtered in a USDA inspected facility and come to your plate as a healthy individual who produced a wholesome beef product. His beef might have a small difference in hormone levels but as I pointed out previous, it is a minuscule amount of difference.
So what is the right choice? That’s up to you. All of these methods are safe and produce iron rich, high protein delicious beef. Grass-fed is the only product with a nutritional difference. The method that you (the consumer) prefer is available and that is your choice. The greatest part of this country, in my opinion, is that freedom. If you want a safe, price-competitive product, you can eat conventional. If you want to pay more for the practices that suit you, you can eat organic, grass-fed, or natural.
You can feel good about any of those choices because a grand majority of producers, feeders, packers and retailers care deeply about how beef is produced and the animals producing it (more on that next week). And you can receive the health benefits of beef in a balanced diet.
So whatever your choice, on behalf of cattle producers everywhere, I hope you enjoy your steak.