There’s More to Like About Grass-Fed Beef


FROM Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Westchester County and Sparky’s All-American Food in New York to Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago and Acme Chophouse in San Francisco, more diners are switching to rich, juicy and tender grass-fed beef, which is fast losing its reputation as tough and tasteless but good for you.

My own delicious research shows the industry has taken giant steps. When I wrote about grass-fed beef in 2002 there were about 50 producers, and most of what they raised was not very good. Now there are about 1,000 of them, and after I grilled rib-eyes from 15 producers for friends, it was clear that more of them are learning to get it right.

Four of the steaks — the ones from Tallgrass Beef, Laurel Ridge Grass Fed Beef, U.S. Wellness Meats and Whippoorwill Farm — brought back memories of the beefy flavor meat had before cattle were stuffed with grain in feedlots. Nine of the other ones appealed to those who do not like a deep beefy taste and prefer a milder flavor not unlike that found in most corn-fed beef today.

While none of the steaks melted in my mouth — steaks seldom did until they became filled with fat from corn-feeding over the past 50 years — they were quite tender.

Only two of them were the tough and tasteless grass-fed beef that people had come to expect.

Ranchers of grass-fed beef say they have made great strides in the last few years by relearning what came naturally before the era of the feedlot, then building on it. They use heritage breeds that thrive on grass rather than on grain, as well as crossbreeds developed with advanced genetics.

They have relearned the science of rotating pastures and determined which grasses provide better nutrition in a region like the Northeast, where pastures are not endless, as they are in the West.

Humane, nonstressful slaughter is considered even more important than in the conventional cattle industry, where the practice is being slowly adopted.

And, finally, they are aging the beef longer to tenderize it more.

“The meat people got from us this year is better than what they got from us last year and not as good as what they will get from us next year,” said Tom German, owner of Thankful Harvest in Holstein, Iowa.

But producers are still on a learning curve, and grass-fed beef is not always consistent.

Some producers improve tenderness by feeding the animals grain for several weeks before they are slaughtered; some restaurateurs say it is easier to please customers with this grain-finished meat.

Melissa Benavidez, who owns Sparky’s All-American Food with her husband, Brian, has been so overwhelmed by the response to their grass-fed burgers that, on occasion, they have had to settle for beef that was finished with grain.

“We’ve been doing rock ’n’ roll concerts, and people who haven’t eaten hamburger in 20 years say they are going to try it,” she said. “Even vegetarians.”

Galen Zamarra, chef and owner of Mas in New York, chooses 100 percent grass-fed beef for meatballs, steak tartare and braising. But for steaks and roasts he wants beef that has been grain-finished.

“Pure 100 percent grass-fed is better for animals, more sustainable,” Mr. Zamarra said. “But as far as texture, customers don’t like it.”

Yet at Acme Chophouse, grass-fed beef accounts for 60 percent to 80 percent of the orders. Thom Fox, manager of the restaurant, said it had improved considerably since he opened four years ago.

“In the beginning customers complained,” he said. “The first thing they react to is tenderness. If you get past that they say they like the robust flavor.”

In fact, there is not enough grass-fed, grass-finished beef to go around.

Finishing animals on grain for 15 to 30 days is still a far cry from agribusiness cattle, which start out on grass but are fed corn for their last four to six months.

Research suggests grass-fed beef is likely to be lower in total fat, contain higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids useful in reducing the risk of heart disease and have a higher level of C.L.A., conjugated linoleic acid, which, in animal studies, reduces the risk of cancer.

But the loose definition of grass-fed beef makes it difficult for people looking for alternatives to figure out just what they are buying. There is no regulation defining the term, and the Department of Agriculture has proposed letting cattle be called grass-fed even if they were raised on hay in a feedlot and never set hoof in a pasture.

The American Grassfed Association, which represents producers of 100 percent grass-fed animals, says a true grass-fed animal is put on pasture as soon as it is weaned and eats grass as long as it is available. When there is no more fresh grass the animal is fed hay and silage. Hormones and antibiotics are forbidden.

Jo Robinson, a writer who has spread the word about the benefits of pasture-raised animals, recognizes the quandary. At her Web site , Ms. Robinson writes: “Meat from an animal that has been able to graze in its last few months of life is still nutritionally superior to feedlot beef, even if the animal has also been given some grain. It’s a matter of degree.”

But my tasting showed that with 100 percent grass-fed beef you can have it all: sustainable, more nutritious beef with clean, juicy, beefy flavor. (Because the beef has less fat, though, it must be cooked at lower temperatures and for less time.)

“Consumers need to understand there is a difference,” said Ed Doyle, owner of Real Food, a consulting firm that works with restaurant management in Boston. “Grass-fed beef is not an alternative to commodity beef; it’s its own product with bolder flavors.”

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

Grass-Fed Basics

by Jo Robinson

Factory Farming . Since the 1960s, most of the meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products in

the U.S. have been mass produced. Old McDonald's Farm has been replaced by large

confinement facilities that produce a year-round supply of meat, chickens, eggs, and dairy

products at a reasonable price. Although the food is cheap and convenient, factory farming

is creating a host of problems, including:

• Animal stress and abuse

• Air, land, and water pollution

• The widespread and unnecessary use of hormones, antibiotics, and other drugs

• Fewer independent farmers and more low-paid farm workers

• The loss of small family farms

• Food with less nutritional value

Unnatural Diets. Animals raised in factory farms are given diets designed to boost their

productivity and lower costs. The main ingredients are genetically modified grain and soy

that are kept at artificially low prices by government subsidies. To cut costs, the feed may

also contain "by-product feedstuff" such as municipal garbage, stale pastry, chicken feathers,

and candy. Until 1997, U.S. cattle were also being fed meat that had been trimmed

from other cattle, in effect turning herbivores into carnivores. This unnatural practice is

believed to be the underlying cause of BSE or "mad cow disease."

Animal Stress. A high-grain diet can cause physical problems for ruminants-cud-chewing

animals such as cattle, dairy cows, goats, bison, and sheep. Ruminants are designed to

eat fibrous grasses, plants, and shrubs-not starchy, low-fiber grain. When they are switched

from pasture to grain, they can become afflicted with a number of disorders, including a

common but painful condition called "subacute acidosis." Cattle with subacute acidosis

kick at their bellies, go off their feed, and eat dirt. To prevent more serious and sometimes

fatal reactions, the animals are given chemical additives along with a constant, low-level

dose of antibiotics. Some of these antibiotics are the same ones used in human medicine.

When medications are overused in the feedlots, bacteria become resistant to them. When

people become infected with these new, disease-resistant bacteria, there are fewer medications

available to treat them.

Lower Nutritional Value. Switching grazing animals from their natural diet of grasses to

grains also lowers the nutritional value of the meat and dairy products. Compared with

natural grass-fed meat, meat from animals raised in feedlots contains more total fat, saturated

fat, cholesterol and calories. It also has less vitamin E, beta-carotene, vitamin C, and

two health-promoting fats called omega-3 fatty acids and "conjugated linoleic acid," or

CLA. Milk from dairy cows raised in confinement is similarly low in these nutrients. A rarely

discussed outcome of our modern "advances" in animal science is inferior food.

Caged Pigs, Chickens, Ducks and Geese. Our chickens, turkeys, and pigs are also

being raised in confinement. Typically, they suffer an even worse fate than the ruminants.

Tightly packed into cages, sheds, or pens, they cannot practice their normal behaviors,

such as rooting, grazing, and roosting. Laying hens are crowded into cages that are so

small that there is not enough room for all of the birds to sit down at one time. An added

insult is that they cannot escape the stench of their own manure. Meat and eggs from these

animals are lower in a number of key vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids.

Environmental Degradation. When animals are raised in feedlots or cages, they deposit

large amounts of manure in a small amount of space. The manure must be collected and

transported away from the area, an expensive proposition. To cut costs, it is dumped as

close to the feedlot as possible. As a result, the surrounding soil is overloaded with nutrients,

which can cause ground and water pollution. When animals are raised outdoors on

pasture, their manure is spread over a wide area of land, making it a welcome source of

organic fertilizer, not a "waste management problem."

The Art and Science of Grassfarming. Raising animals on pasture requires more knowledge

and skill than sending them to the feedlots. In order for grass-fed beef to be succulent

and tender, for example, the cattle need high-quality forage, especially in the months prior

to slaughter. This requires healthy soil and careful pasture management, which keeps the

grass at its optimal stage of growth. Because high-quality pasture is the key to high-quality

animal products, many people who raise animals on pasture refer to themselves as

"grassfarmers" rather than "ranchers."

Back to Pasture. Since 2000, several thousand ranchers and farmers across the United

States and Canada have stopped sending their animals to the feedlots. Instead, they are

keeping the animals home on the range and feeding them food that is as close as possible

to their native diets. They do not implant the animals with hormones or feed them growthpromoting

additives. They are content to let the animals grow at their normal pace. Animals

raised on pasture live very low-stress lives. As a result of their superb nutrition and lack of

stress, they are superbly healthy. When you choose products from pastured animals, you

are eating the food that nature intended. You are also supporting independent farmers,

protecting small farms and rural communities, safeguarding the environment, promoting

animal welfare, and eating food that is nutritious, wholesome, and delicious.

To learn more details about the benefits of choosing products from pastured animals, read

Pasture Perfect by Jo Robinson and explore the wealth of science-based information on

© 2006 by Jo Robinson