Bigger is better right? Cheaper and faster is best, right? Not so. When considering how the majority of farmers grow their cows, chickens, pigs, and turkeys you’d think we were getting a more quality product. But the truth is the bigger, cheaper, and faster the animal is grown, a less quality product is the result. Why pay the price for free range animal products? The ones grown in feedlots are much bigger and grow faster.
Today’s cow, for instance, is initially let out to pasture and grazes on grass and alfalfa for the first few months of its life. This is just as God intended and developed their stomachs for digestion. The four stomachs that a cow has have a neutral pH (unlike us humans who have a very acidic stomach). The neutral stomachs and the fact that they have four of them, allows the cow to properly digest the grass and alfalfa. However, in most of the cattle industry, after a few months of grazing, the calves are then put into feedlots where they are quickly fattened up. These feedlots are crowded, unsanitary conditions. The cows can’t move much which is one way they fatten up quickly (kind of like us couch-potato humans). They are also now fed huge amounts of corn, soy-based protein supplements, growth hormones, and antibiotics (given because of the unsanitary, close-quarters and to keep their stomachs from getting infections because they are not used to digesting the food they are now given).
In these conditions, a calf will grow from 80 pounds to over 1,000 pounds in about one year. Typically a pasture raised cow takes 4-5 years to mature. This is an unnatural weight gain and the end product meat, milk, cheese, and yogurt that we are eating is unnaturally higher in fats, has much less Omega 3 fatty acids compared to the pasture-naturally raised cow meat, and will contain trace amounts of the hormones and antibiotics that were given to the cow.
There is also some evidence that other hormones like epinephrine and cortisol will be higher in the meat when a cow is stressed prior to or during slaughtering. Epinephrine when released into the blood stream in response to stress will break down glycogen that is stored in the muscles and liver. This response then results in a sudden convergence of glycogen to glucose (sugar) when adequate oxygen is present. However, in a slaughter house there are again crowded conditions, limited fresh air, increased stress as electric prods are used to move animals along, and the cow’s muscles build up with lactic acid as a result. This buildup of lactic acid results in a higher pH level in the meat and changes the composition and quality of the product and we in turn are eating this “altered” meat. This negative effect of high stress response has been shown in many studies and among different types of slaughtered animals.
Electric goads are often used as a means of control and movement of the pigs at the slaughter plant, causing an increase in adrenaline compounds in the blood and an increased rate of glycogenolysis, the breakdown of glycogen to glucose, ultimately resulting in a poor meat quality.
D’Souza, D. N., F. R. Dunshea, R. D. Warner, and B. J. Leury. 1998. The effect of handling pre-slaughter and carcass processing rate post-slaughter on pork quality. Meat Sci. 50:429-437
Another huge concern is of deadly E. coli 0157:H7 bacterial infection risks with beef consumption. Grass-fed, pasture raised cows will have a neutral stomach pH and will not grow this bacteria. Cows raised in feedlots will develop acidic stomachs and intestines which is an ideal environment for this bacteria to grow. Michael Pollan author of “In Defense of Food” and “Cooked” describes what occurs in a cow’s body when raised in feedlots and fed corn diets:
“Perhaps the most serious thing that can go wrong with a ruminant on corn is feedlot bloat. The rumen is always producing copious amounts of gas, which is normally expelled by belching during rumination. But when the diet contains too much starch and too little roughage, rumination all but stops, and a layer of foamy slime that can trap gas forms in the rumen. The rumen inflates like a balloon, pressing against the animal’s lungs. Unless action is promptly taken to relieve the pressure (usually by forcing a hose down the animal’s esophagus), the cow suffocates.”
“A corn diet can also give a cow acidosis. Unlike our own highly acidic stomachs, the normal pH of a rumen is neutral. Corn makes it unnaturally acidic, however, causing a kind of bovine heartburn, which in some cases can kill the animal but usually just makes it sick. Acidotic animals go off their feed, pant and salivate excessively, paw at their bellies and eat dirt. The condition can lead to diarrhea, ulcers, bloat, liver disease and a general weakening of the immune system that leaves the animal vulnerable to everything from pneumonia to feedlot polio.”
This deadly bacteria showed up in the 1980’s and now can be found in most feedlot cow intestines in the U.S. Because we changed how cows are raised and fed, we now have a deadly bacteria on our hands.
Each year in the United States, E. coli infections cause approximately 265,000 illnesses and about 100 deaths. Approximately 40 percent of these infections are caused by the strain E. coli O157:H7, a strain that is part of the shiga toxin-producing group of E. coli bacteria (STEC). The other 60 percent of E. colicases are caused by non-0157:H7 shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC). http://epi.publichealth.nc.gov/cd/diseases/ecoli.html
What about labels?
When at the grocery store, how do you know what’s what?
- Grass fed beef: cows received 80% of their food from grass, hay, or pasture.
- Organic: food the animal was fed was certified organic feed. This does not mean grassfed.
- Free-range or pasture raised: the animal had access to a pasture and was never confined. There are no regulations to the size of the pasture. This does not mean that the pasture was organic either – so be cautious. You want that label on there too.
- Grass fed, organic beef: cows were given organic grass, hay, and pasture land to graze on at least 80% of the time.
It can be confusing when you read meat labels at the grocery store. You are looking for organic, grassfed, free-range, hormone-free, antibiotic-free meats.
What about nutrition?
Grassfed meat is lower in overall fat and saturated fat compared to cornfed beef. Grassfed beef also has almost double the amount of healthy Omega 3 fatty acids compared to cornfed beef. A 2010 publication in Nutrition Journal showed:
Research spanning three decades supports the argument that grass-fed beef has a more desirable SFA lipid profile as compared to grain-fed beef. Grass-fed beef is also higher in precursors for Vitamin A and E and cancer fighting antioxidants compared to grain-fed contemporaries. Grass-fed beef tends to be lower in overall fat content, an important consideration for those consumers interested in decreasing overall fat consumption. A number of clinical studies have shown that today’s lean beef, regardless of feeding strategy, can be used interchangeably with fish or skinless chicken to reduce serum cholesterol levels in hypercholesterolemic patients.
A review of fatty acid profiles and antioxidant content in grass-fed and grain-fed beef. Nutrition Journal 2010, 9:10
So ultimately, bigger is not better. And, cheaper and faster is not best. For organic, grassfed, free-range, hormone-free, antibiotic-free meats: