What’s the Beef?


A version of this story ran in the May 2012 issue.

Times are tough these days for Texas producers of grass-fed beef. Grass grows poorly, if at all, during the worst drought in recorded history. Costs skyrocket as forage suppliers—upon whom grass-feeding producers have to rely when grass won’t grow—raise rates as high as the invisible hand will allow. As the land hardens, cattle are corralled into barns, watered and fed bales of expensive hay and alfalfa, which alter the sublime taste that a select group of consumers fetishize as a carnivore’s ambrosia. Lord only knows how these changes influence those magic omega-3/6 acid ratios that grass-fed devotees treat as the fountain of youth.

I take zero pleasure in the economic demise of anyone who plays by the rules. That said, the grass-fed game has enjoyed such a long run of popularity—based largely on overhyped assumptions—that the industry was due for at least a distilled dose of truth in advertising. The current situation provides an opportunity for a critical assessment of the pervasive (and sometimes dangerous) mythology of grass-fed beef.

We’re told that grass-fed beef is safer to eat than grain-fed beef. Specifically, we’re told that there’s no E. coli in grass-fed beef because it’s natural for cows to eat grass (forgetting, of course, that corn is a grass). In 2006 Nina Planck wrote the following about E. coli O157 in The New York Times: “It’s not found in the intestinal tracts of cattle raised on their natural diet of grass, hay, and other fibrous forage. No, O157 thrives in a new—that is, recent in the history of animal diets—biological niche: the unnaturally acidic stomachs of beef and dairy cattle fed on grain, the typical ration on most industrial farms.”

In an age of horrific food scares (pink slime!), this assessment was eagerly accepted as gospel. But it’s wrong. As I reported in a 2010 Slate article, “scientists [between 2000-2006] showed in a half-dozen studies that grass-fed cows do become colonized with E. coli O157:H7 at rates nearly the same as grain-fed cattle. An Australian study actually found a higher prevalence of O157:H7 in the feces of grass-fed rather than grain-fed cows.”

While it’s true that overall rates of E. coli are much higher in grain-fed cattle, E. coli O157:H7—known for being able to kill us—congregates just as effectively in grass-fed as grain-fed cows.

We’re also told that grass-fed systems are more ecologically sound than Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, where cows are herded into giant feedlots. This claim is true in some respects, certainly when it comes to manure run-off from CAFO poop lagoons. Considerable evidence, however, questions the overall comparative environmental benefit of grass-fed cattle. In 2008, a study conducted by scientists at Canada’s Dalhousie University found that, pound for pound, grass-fed cattle emit 50 percent more greenhouse gasses than their grain-fed counterparts. The reason is threefold: grass-fed cows produce significantly more methane than grain-fed cows (through burps), they take longer to reach slaughter weight, and, as demand grows, producers are growing grass with synthetic fertilizers to minimize ranging stress. These hidden pitfalls of grass-fed production are routinely overlooked by a foodie media eager to offer a guiltless alternative to industrial beef.

Then there’s the matter of land. It takes anywhere from two to 20 acres to raise a single cow exclusively on grass. This land requirement has already resulted in a region the size of France being carved out of the Brazilian rainforest to accommodate grass-fed cattle. Figures released by Greenpeace in February 2009 confirm that beef continues to be the largest driver of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. Such biodiversity loss is immeasurable. Nicolette Hahn Niman, the noted vegetarian advocate for grass-fed beef in California, has said that what’s happening in the rainforest has nothing to do with her cows in California. Fine. But let’s say all the confined cows in the United States—98 million—were raised on grass (on, say, 10 acres per cow). The result would make Hahn’s California cows matter: They would occupy half the land in the United States.

Finally, there’s the matter of human health. I’ll concede that the magical omega-3/6 ratio—which is critical for the proper balance of fatty acids—in grass-fed cattle is much healthier than in grain-fed cattle. But so what. You can find similarly impressive fatty acid profiles in flaxseed. Flaxseed, moreover, was not found to dramatically reduce one’s lifespan. Beef was. As The Daily Beast reported on a seminal Harvard University study, “The survey of 110,000 adults over 20 years found that adding just one three-ounce serving of unprocessed red meat to their daily diet increased participants’ risk of dying during the study by 13 percent.”

The case I make here is ultimately superseded by the fact that cows are sentient beings with rich emotional lives that deserve moral consideration. We should not be raising, killing and commodifying them at all. The reality, though, is that we’re in the midst of a food movement that speaks eloquently of community, localism, fairness and justice, but won’t touch the issue of animal ethics with a locally sourced 10-foot pole. So it seems necessary to reconsider our relationship with grass-fed beef on the grounds of ecological responsibility and human health. Maybe one day we will worry more about the integrity of our diet than that of the cows we eat.