Meat: You are what you eat

One of these steers may have actually been in my freezer.

I don’t remember exactly what prompted us to start buying grassfed beef from small ranchers eight years ago. I’m guessing it was some combination of the general, growing awareness that feedlot cattle live horrible lives and the acquiring of the rather gross information that when you buy a package of ground beef at the grocery store, the contents could contain bits from hundreds of those ill-fated bovines.

Yuck.

I was a (mostly) vegetarian for a few years in college, and for a handful of years after. Part of it was because I thought it was healthier, but mostly it was because as a poor student and as a poor single reporter working at a small town weekly newspaper, my food dollar went much further buying beans and rice.

But I’m an omnivore. I love fruit, I love veggies, I love bean and rice, and I love meat! Beef, pork, lamb, poultry, even goat once in a while (goat curry…yum!), it’s all good.

Now, if you believe at all that you are what you eat and eating healthy food is important to being healthy, then you should really be concerned with what your food eats. If you avoid junky processed food (or are at least intending to), then why would you eat meat that was raised on a junk food diet? That’s what you get if you buy feedlot beef that was raised on grain.

Furthermore, if you understand that when you feel stressed, it does more than affect your mind and your thoughts–it affects your body, then why would you want to eat an animal that spent most of its life subjected to chronic stress? Would you go in a restaurant and order your steak medium-rare with a side of cortisol (stress hormones)? Really?

We bought a quarter-share of a grassfed steer for a few years from a small ranch in eastern Washington. Then we became apartment dwellers for a few years before buying our current home. This is our fourth season buying a quarter share of a grassfed steer from another small family ranch, this time just east of Seattle. We could not be happier. Here’s why:

Healthy fat. Meat has fat. You can trim it from the edges all you want, but there’s fat in there. And toxins from pesticide exposure and whatnot just love to accumulate in fat.  Fat is not bad. We need fat. But it must be healthy fat! Grassfed beef is lower in fat (including saturated fat) than its grainfeed peers. Plus the fat it does have is higher in healthy omega-3 fats (from all that tasty grass!), vitamin E and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a nutrient that has been associated with lower cancer risk.

Food safety. The nasty strain of E.coli bacteria that can be so deadly when it turns up in your hamburger is a phenomenon you can thank grainfed industrialized beef for. When cattle are fed grains, it affects their digestive systems in a way that lets this bacteria go on a happy growing spree. Not so happy for us. Every time I hear about some huge beef recall because of E.coli or because of sick “downer” cattle being thrown into the food supply (this happened a few years ago with the beef that the Seattle School District purchased….gross!), my fingers cannot fly fast enough across my keyboard to send my beef people an e-mail that says, basically, “Thank you, thank you, thank you for doing what you do. It is such a good feeling to know I can always feel good about eating your beef.”

Great taste. I have read that some people don’t care for the taste of grassfed beef. All those healthy omega-3 fats can give it a different taste than grainfed beef. With the grassfeed beef we bought several years ago, we did notice a slightly different taste on some cuts. But the beef we’ve currently buy each year has been consistently, unbelievably fantastic. Year after year. When we went to Buenos Aires last year, we ate a lot a beef, because Argentina is justifiably famous for its beef. It was amazing stuff. But after our first few perfectly-cooked steaks, we realized, “Hey, our beef at home is as good as this. Wow!”

Humane treatment. I am not opposed to killing animals for food, clearly. But I see no reason why an animal that will end up on my plate deserves to live most of its life in a crowded, dirty, frightening setting eating food its body was not designed to eat. I also see no reason why it should be killed in such a large-scale factory setting that it’s easy for an animal to not be truly dead before it moves further down “the line.” The beef on my plate comes from an animal that was allowed to live a normal life, grazing on pasture, with tons and tons of room to wander about. And it was conceived the old-fashioned way, instead of with the help of a turkey baster, if you get my drift (and I think that you do).

Family farm. I would much rather place my hard-earned food dollars in the hands of a family farm (or other small farm) who is working hard to make a living do the right thing than I would in the clutches of big agribusiness, which chases its dollars with little regard to the animal, the environment, food safety or anything I hold dear.

Environment. Growing a huge monocrop of anything is bad for the environment, I don’t care whether you’re talking about corn or cattle. If you have ever driven through a part of the country that has feedlots, it should be very clear that something is very, very wrong with that picture. Grassfeed beef requires good land management, so what’s good for our bodies is also good for the environment.

Local economy. Having the bulk of our food grown in a limited number of locations is a bad idea. For one thing, transporting food for hundreds or thousands of miles burns a lot of fuel. And what happens when that food can’t be transported? A few years ago, I-5 was flooded an hour or so south of Seattle. Nothing was getting through for days. I clearly recall how I nearly hyperventilated when we went to Costco and they had no lettuce! I think I actually got a little light-headed. Of course, the lettuce, which came from California (or even Mexico, at that time of year), was trapped. I had just finished reading Barbara Kingsolver’s “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” so I felt kind of guilty for my addiction to lettuce with a side of fossil fuels. Anyway, my point is that a robust local food system is very “green” in the good times but can be absolutely vital when something goes wrong with the transportation system.

Beyond organic. Our beef is not “organic.” That’s because the regulations for certifying pasture land, and therefore the beef raised on it, as organic are a huge obstacle for many small farmers, especially if they lease some of their land. That’s where knowing the people who grow or raise your food is so beneficial. I correspond with them regularly, I know how they raise their animals, I trust that the cattle are eating grass that has not been sprayed with chemicals and that they are slaughtered in as stress-free a way as possible. I don’t need an organic stamp on that.

We also buy a half of a pig from another local farm who lets its pigs live a normal, happy, social pig life (pigs are very social, so the way they are treated on industrial hog farms is especially cruel and stressful). One thing I really like about our pork people is that they also raise chickens, eggs and vegetables for farmers markets and a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) subscription program. Their little farm south of Seattle is diverse, they way farms used to be.

When we buy cuts of lamb, we get them from a similar source in the eastern part of the state that delivers to drop points in the Seattle area. We eat little chicken, and usually resort to buying mainstream organic chickens from Costco, which we don’t see as ideal, but it’s better than many alternatives.