Greener Pastures: When It Comes to Beef, Is Grass-Fed Better?

By Patsy Jamieson, "Greener Pastures," March/April 2008

"This is such a wonderful article. I recently watched Food Inc and I am in the process of reading The Omnivore's Dilemma. I find most people just don't want to know where their meat comes from. In fact, I bought the documentary so I...

As I write, there is yet another ground beef recall in the news. So it is reassuring to learn that grass-fed beef provides a “cleaner” alternative to its industrially produced counterpart. Levels of E. coli have been found to be significantly lower in grass-fed than in grain-finished beef. The grain-based feedlot diet creates an environment favorable to the growth of acid-resistant E. coli (the kind that makes you sick). In contrast, the E. coli found in cattle that have been fed grass or hay is acid-sensitive and therefore unlikely to survive the acidic environment of the human stomach. Ground meat is the most susceptible to bacterial contamination. That said, it’s still important to exercise all the same food-safety precautions with grass-fed beef as you would with conventional beef.

But however significant the health advantages of grass-fed beef may turn out to be (currently, research on this topic is still too sparse to say), they are not an excuse to load up on red meat, which is a major source of saturated fat in Americans’ diets. For Kate Clancy, Ph.D., a food system consultant and author of “Greener Pastures: How grass-fed beef and milk contribute to healthy eating,” a report of the nonprofit environmental group Union of Concerned Scientists, the main reasons for choosing grass-fed beef are “the environmental benefits and the lack of antibiotics.”

Presently, grass-fed beef comprises a tiny proportion of overall beef consumption in the U.S. But what if conventional production were to shift toward raising cattle entirely on pastures? Wouldn’t this lead to overgrazing, which could contribute to soil erosion and water-quality problems? Dr. Clancy acknowledges that badly managed grazing has created significant ecological damage, particularly in the arid West. However, she explains that “the key to sustainable beef production would be to use rotational grazing methods. Well-managed grazing actually improves the quality of the soil because the manure going into the soil acts as a fertilizer. The cattle don’t damage the soil, because they are rotated.” Rotational grazing can also play a role in fighting climate change. Healthy grass in well-managed pastures absorbs carbon and helps offset fossil-fuel emissions. Clancy also notes, “When cattle graze on pasture, rather than standing on a feedlot, significantly more methane can be absorbed into the soil.

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