Biting into a juicy burger or slicing a filet mignon, few people realize that beef isn't what it used to be. Before World War II, beef cattle were raised on grass. It could take four years to fatten a steer. But then the industry switched to corn, a sort of time machine for a steer. Today calves start out on milk and grass but then, when six months old, they're sent to a feedlot. By the time they are about 14 months old, corn-fed steers weigh enough to be slaughtered. "Corn-fed" may sound wholesome, as normal as Kansas in August and blueberry pie, but in fact corn is not healthy for cattle.
Cattle are ruminants. Their digestive systems are designed for grass, not grain. Fed on corn, they fatten in a hurry‑-it's similar to force-feeding a goose to make its liver fat. A corn diet can make cattle sick, sometimes fatally. The animals must have antibiotics to stave off illness and infection until they weigh enough to be slaughtered, as well as hormones to promote quick growth. All this saves money for the growers and keeps the price of beef low.
Corn is a problematic crop, too. It's heavily subsidized by the government and thus overproduced. It demands vast doses of pesticides and fertilizers, requiring huge quantities of natural gas and oil to produce. Toxic runoff from feedlots has become an environmental hazard, polluting ground water and land.
In addition, corn-fed beef is not good for people, particularly the people who regularly eat fatty steaks and burgers. Corn-fed beef is tender, with the marbling consumers have come to expect‑-and thus is high in fat, especially saturated fat. A four-ounce serving of grass-fed beef typically has 7 to 10 grams of total fat, compared with 14 to 16 grams in the same cut of corn-fed beef. Grass-fed beef, besides being lower in saturated fat, also contains more of the beneficial unsaturated fatty acids called omega-3s (similar to those in fish), as well as more vitamin E. Grass-fed beef also supplies more conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), another type of fat that has potential health benefits.
Hormones and antibiotics
And then there's the matter of the hormones in corn-fed cattle. By the time the meat gets to your plate, residues are very small‑-not enough to worry about from a health standpoint. What is worrying is not the effect on consumers, but on the environment. Hormones from cattle (and other sources) end up polluting water. And not all scientists are comfortable with the idea of residues in meat: the European Union has refused to import American beef raised with hormones.
Another problem is the antibiotics used in corn-fed animals to prevent or treat disease. Again, residues in meat are not likely to hurt people, but use of antibiotics leads to resistant strains of bacteria in animals and in the environment. (Thus, if you get sick from Salmonella, for example, the strain may be resistant to many antibiotics.) Meat from corn-fed cattle is also far more contaminated with E coli bacteria, partly because corn interferes with ruminant digestion, and partly because the animals are crowded together in filthy conditions. E. coli levels are much lower in grass-fed cattle.
Switch to grass-fed beef?
Grass-fed beef is making a comeback‑-you may have seen ads for it. It's certainly more expensive than corn-fed beef, and usually tougher. But many people find it more flavorful. The famous beef of Argentina is grass-fed.
Should you switch? If you eat only a small amount of beef, it hardly matters if you switch or not, provided you are buying lean cuts and trimming the meat well. If you eat beef regularly, you might want to switch to grass-fed, if you can afford it. You'll probably have to order it on the Internet or via mail-order, though some specialty markets do carry it now. A typical website charges about $9.50 per pound for T-bone steaks, and $4.50 for round, plus shipping. Ground beef can cost as little as $3.75 per pound.
Remember these points:
Grass-fed beef is not necessarily organic. If you want your beef to be both, check the labels.
You should still trim any visible fat, even on grass-fed beef. But remember that all beef‑-fatty or lean, grass-fed or corn-fed‑-contains the same amount of cholesterol.
Though well-trimmed grass-fed beef is not much higher in saturated fat than skinless poultry, you should eat beef (and all meats) in moderate amounts, as part of a diet based on fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
Though grass-fed beef is much less likely to be contaminated with dangerous bacteria, you must still handle it carefully and cook it thoroughly.
While grasslands are more environmentally friendly and humane than feedlots, grazing has its drawbacks, too. Large herds of cattle anywhere pollute water, air, and land. And grass takes up a lot of space. In some countries this wouldn't matter‑-in Argentina, for example, most grasslands will grow only grass. But in other countries, grasslands could be better used for growing crops than for supporting beef cattle. In the U.S., grasslands could never support current levels of beef consumption.
The best idea, for our environment and human health, is for us all to eat less beef and less meat.