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Organic, Natural, Grass-fed or Conventional: What is the right choice?

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.

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Posted by on May 4, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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Your Burrito with a Side of Deceit

Some of you might have recently been exposed to Chipotle’s two minute commercial entitled “Back to the Start” featuring Willie Nelson singing “The Scientist” when it played during the Grammys last week. I could address the fallacy involved in the symbolism that is supposed to represent modern day agriculture as a factory, how infeasible it would be to try to produce enough food for the world if we used the practices they seem to endorse or the simple facts of humane handling of livestock, but I’ll save that for another time. I do want to share with you an experience I was privileged to have this past summer involving Chipotle.

Last July, I had the opportunity to tour a large processing facility with a small group of ranchers that raise all-natural Global Animal Partnership (GAP) approved cattle that are processed at that plant. Once we got there we met a VP of procurement from Chipotle that would be touring the facility with us. As we went around the facility I stayed close, asked questions and listened to his questions of the plant managers. While touring the facility, he was mainly focused on traceability from the live animal to box. The handling facilities impressed us all including him. I know the cattle that were qualifying for the all-natural label going through that plant were not fed in the environment shown in the commercial and that did not seem to matter.

Don’t get me wrong, the feedlots that I have seen that are shipping to that facility are first class and they and their producers use the best handling practices available. They are feedlots in the Midwest and the cattle and beef have to be shipped the same as any other beef. They are the type of feedlots that Chipotle seems to be campaigning against in their commercial.

To quote Chipotle’s website, “When we started purchasing naturally raised beef in 1999 we could hardly find any suppliers that met our standards. We’ve put a lot of work into poking, prodding, convincing, and occasionally applying guilt to ranchers in order to get more and more suppliers to meet our naturally raised standards.”

For Chipotle to imply that their cattle are grass-fed or their beef producers changed their practices because they had an ethical problem with modern production is simply false. I understand that they display dairy cattle in the commercial but most of the public don’t know the difference. All-natural cattle are raised like most of the animals in the country with the only exception that they don’t receive antibiotics or growth promotants, which is a growing niche that is sold throughout the country and internationally. It should be noted both the antibiotics and growth promotants that are used in production are FDA approved, tested and used within the guidelines set out by both the USDA and the FDA to unsure that they are safe.

Some producers have never used implants and they produce their cattle naturally because that is what fits their environment and their cattle’s genetics. Some of these people raise natural for the premium that exists. Simply put they didn’t have to “apply guilt” to ranchers but offer a premium which is what they did. I’m not sure if Chipotle only buys GAP approved cattle but if they do people should understand that most progressive operations use the practices set forth in those guidelines, and there is a large premium for getting approved.

I can understand Chipotle’s desire to set themselves apart but to do it by demonizing the entire livestock industry is completely unreasonable. The best thing we can do as farmers is display our operations to the public every chance we get. And to vote with our dollars. I for one will not be returning to Chipotle again. Qdoba serves the same product minus the deceit.

 
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Posted by on February 22, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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Hormones and the Transportation Security Administration

This fall as I was making one of my frequent trips through the security check point at the Denver International Airport, I was waiting in line to have my boarding pass inspected behind a young man who was about 6’ 9” tall. The officer doing the inspecting commented that he would probably be the tallest man to pass through security that day, so being the person that I am I made a comment to the effect of “from the tallest guy to the shortest.” (Side note: I’m dressed in what is normal attire for me, cowboy hat, boots and starched jeans.) To which the officer replied that I would be what is considered normal height before they started putting all those hormones in beef.

So, I was faced with a choice. Do I inform him that the use of hormone implants started in the 1970s which would be more his generation? Do I tell him that 4 ounces of beef from an implanted steer contains 1.6 nanograms (ng.) of estrogen while his soy latte has 30,000 ng. of estrogen? Or do I hand him a fact sheet from Feedstuffs Foodlink on antibiotics and hormones? No, I just controlled my temper and walked on through security because of my distaste for body cavity searches.

This is a problem I run into often in my travels. “Civilians” have little understanding of agriculture and most have little understanding of biology, but they have strong opinons about their food. The simple fact that hormones like estrogen and testosterone are naturally occurring in all mammals, in both sexes and in many other food stuffs seems to escape them.

For my part, I blame professional athletes for their use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) and the media for misinformation about the industry. I can understand their banning in sports and the public’s disgust that they might be eating a steer that would look like Barry Bonds or Jose Canseco. But the fact is that the use of growth promotants in the beef industry is much different than PEDs in sports. In the industry, implants and protocols are subjected to a set of rigorous tests and standards by the FDA and beef is inspected by the USDA at every juncture to assure safety. A steer might be implanted for 100-200 days. In sports, performance enhancing drugs are not FDA approved, used at high levels and used over a period of years.

I hope that you clicked the link above and got to read the facts about hormones and antibiotics. Feedstuffs Foodlink provides a wealth of information that can be used in these conversations. Also as you explain that the hormones and antibiotics in beef production are FDA approved, tested and most importantly metabolized before slaughter or give them the information about the amount of estrogen in raw peas (2700 ng/4 ounces) or soy oil (168,000 ng/3 ounces). Please remember that they have probably been convinced that these things are healthier than beef and have consumed them in large quantities, making them slightly hormonally imbalanced. So have patience, it’s not their fault. It’s just their time of the month all the time.

 
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Posted by on January 23, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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