Carrie and I are on a budget, just like most people. So why do I willingly spend additional money on “grass-fed” and “pastured” meats? A few years ago, I made a lot of changes to my diet. In the process of trying to lose a significant amount of weight, I wound up doing a ton of research on food quality and nutrition. What I learned about how food is produced in the United States changed my eating habits forever.
First, I think it’s important to understand what the terms “grass-fed”, and “pastured” mean, and what kinds of foods they refer to.
The USDA backed off the term “grass-fed” a couple of years back, but that doesn’t mean that “grass-fed” is insignificant. “Grass-fed” refers to cattle and other ruminant animals, whose natural diets would consist of, well, grass. Typically in this country, most of the conventionally raised beef is, in contrast, “grain-fed”. We’ve been taught to believe that grain-fed beef is better, but it is not. First, cows are not meant to eat grain. When they do, they fatten up more and faster. This means beef producers can produce more beef, and get it to market quicker. It’s about economics; not health. Feeding cattle grain also makes them sick over time. This ushers in the need for antibiotics and the like. So, we can feed cows grain, which makes them fat and sick, but we can slaughter them sooner and maybe turn a bigger profit. You, the consumer, can find cheap beef at the grocery store. However, it’s coming from sick animals that had to be pumped full of antibiotics, which you then consume, as well.
In contrast, grass-fed animals are fed their natural diet of grass and other naturally foraged plants, such as clover. These animals take longer to raise, which does result in higher costs for the farmer, which yes, gets passed down to you as the consumer. But, your beef came from a healthier animal that was able to eat what it was supposed to eat, and probably required less medical intervention in the form of antibiotics, if any at all.
Now we come to “pastured”, or sometimes you’ll see “pasture raised”. This term refers to meats (beef, chicken, lamb, etc) as well as eggs (I’ll talk about eggs another time!). An animal that has been “pastured” has been allowed to roam free in a field, and eat what is out in that field. I hate to break this to you, but the majority of the meat and eggs that we consume in this country do not come from quaint family farms with a pretty red barn. They come from feedlots, or CAFO’s, which means Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation. On feedlots, thousands and thousands of animals are crowded into a very small space. There have been as many as 100,000 cattle on 1 square mile of land. As you can imagine, that many animals in that kind of cramped quarters leads to a lot of sickness and disease. They literally stand around in their own excrement all day.
To add to the “ick” factor here, there are serious environmental concerns when it comes to feed lots. All of those sick animals in a small amount of space produce a huge amount of waste. The environmental impact is so significant, that the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) actually has to regulate feed lots. You can read some of the details here.
One thing I learned earlier this year that was significant to me: for beef and other meats, the term “pastured” was important, in addition to just looking for “grass-fed”. Back in October, Carrie and I went on a little weekend hiking trip to Hocking Hills. Looking for something to do on Saturday night, we stumbled upon a farm-to-table dinner being hosted on a local farm, Pastured Providence. Paul and his wife Heather pasture raise beef, pork, turkey, chicken, and more. Before the delicious and entirely locally sourced dinner, Paul gave a little tour of his farm and explained a bit why both grass-fed and pasture-raised is important. Why? Because meat simply labeled “grass-fed” could be still coming from a feed lot operation, where the cattle are fed alfalfa pellets instead of corn. This beef could be labeled “grass fed”, but it still isn’t quite what I’m after.
Enter: grass-fed, pasture raised meats. Granted, you will not find this kind of meat in your grocery store. But you will find it being raised on idyllic- looking, small, most family run farms all over the United States. Carrie and I were able to find such a farm not far from us. Canal Junction Natural Meats is a family run operation outside of Defiance, Ohio. We visited the farm with the kids back in November. The owners, Ralph and Sheila Schlatter, had no problem with letting us walk around a bit with the kids. We saw with our own eyes the pastures and winter quarters for the cattle, hogs, and chickens. They have a small store where you can purchase the beef, chicken, and pork that they raise on their farm. They also handle large bulk orders. I ordered a 1/4 side of beef around Thanksgiving time, which resulted in 90-100 lbs of beef for us.
We had purchased a 6 cubit ft. freezer in anticipation; and this proved to be plenty of space. About 5 months later, and I would say we’re roughly halfway through our supply of beef.
In my late teens and early 20’s, I was a Vegetarian. I don’t love the idea of eating animals, but I do believe that nutritionally, an omnivore diet is best for humans. I also care about the environment, and try to do things to reduce our carbon footprint. I think that eating grass-fed, pasture raised meats are a significant part of both of those things. I hate the idea of our money going to support feed lot operations who effectively mistreat animals for the sake of profits, and deliver to consumers an inferior, less healthy product. I’m more than happy to support small, local farmers, like the Schlatters, whose business practices show both respect for animals and the earth.