Beef: What To Buy

Black and white cows on a farmland

When I first discovered the concept of eating real whole foods and eschewing food products created in factories that come in bags and boxes, it seemed so simple. I thought I’d finally come onto a simple way to tell what you should eat and what you shouldn’t. And it definitely simplifies the issue, but it’s still not easy to know what is best to feed your family.

Take meat, for instance. It would seem that buying raw meat at the grocery store or the butcher shop is about as real food as it gets. Unfortunately there are a lot of issues beyond the fact that you are buying meat in its “natural” form.

For instance, how was the cow that provided that ground beef raised? Was he allowed to roam on green pastures and eat grass as God and nature intended? Or was he raised on concrete floors or in a crowded feedlot?

What was that cow fed? Did he feast primarily on fresh green grass and clover supplemented with hay and vegetables? Or did he munch on genetically modified corn and corn husks, soy, spent brewery grain, spent distiller’s grain, cotton byproducts, old candy wrappers, beet and citrus pulp, and peanut shells?? {source}

Was that cow fed dangerous steroids to make it provide more meat when it goes to market?

Is the ground beef filled with preservatives and artificial colors to keep it looking fresh longer on the grocery store shelves?

You can ask many of these same questions of the chicken, pork and fish you buy.

Suddenly eating “real food” got a lot more complicated!!

Organic… all natural… grass fed… grass finished… local… sustainable… hormone free… Some days I think I need a master’s degree to decipher the lingo!

What are cows SUPPOSED to eat?

The first thing to understand is this: In nature cows graze on grass. Their 4-part stomach is designed to digest such roughage. Feeding them grain makes them sick, which then causes them to need antibiotics, which pass through to our food. ICK!

To completely understand the issues with conventionally raised beef, I couldn’t explain it better than Mark does in this post: The Problems with Conventionally Raised Beef. In a nutshell, cows raised on pasture provide beef that is more nutritious for us to eat. And they also reduce the risk of putting antibiotics and growth hormones into our bodies.

But even within the realm of raised grass-fed beef, there are different categories. For example, some beef is grass-fed but grain-finished. Some beef is grass-fed and grass-finished. Some grass-fed cows are raised on small farms where they roam freely for many hours of the day. Some grass-fed cows are raised on huge factory farms and only have access to pasture for short periods of time during the day.

Just because it says “grass-fed” on the label doesn’t necessarily mean it was raised the way you think it was. View the USDA requirements for grass-fed beef, if you’re interested. They are a bit vague, as you can see.

I do want to say this, though. The big factory farms in the midwest are often owned and run by single families making a living honestly and should not be villainized. I might not necessarily want to make their meat a mainstay in my diet, but I do want to be careful not to make it out like they are evil. That is also why I shy away from using the term “family farm” to denote a small, sustainable farming operation.

Katie tries to shed some balance on the meat situation with her post: Where does your meat come from?

This is a complex issue, obviously.

What I Buy

For our family, I generally buy grass-fed beef in bulk from local farms. It is easy to do here in Pennsylvania, you have to understand. There is a dairy farm behind my neighborhood, and there are hundreds of farms within two hours of my home; most are small and family run. Are they all created equal? Of course not, but I have a lot to choose from.

I used to scout out farms on my own, but now I use Philly Cow Share for convenience. Philly Cow Share is a mom owned and operated business that connects local farmers with their consumers. They source all their meat from farms that use sustainable farming practices and claim to produce grass-fed meat with no added hormones or antibiotics. They are not necessarily organic, but some are. In my mind, that is the ideal.

But we don’t live in a perfect world, do we?

When I run out of my stock of meat in my freezer, I shop at a natural foods store that carries locally raised beef or I stop into my local butcher shop. Sometimes I will pick up a package of meat at the grocery store, but it is rare that I do not buy organic when shopping at a conventional store.

I won’t lie to you. Buying nutritious grass-fed beef from sustainable farms is not cheap, and I’m not here to judge you if that is not your choice or your situation does not afford you that option. But if you’re interested in making the switch, here are some options.

Where to Find Healthy Beef

The first step toward finding healthier meat is to get out of the grocery store. 

There are a few ways to do that.

1. Find a local farmer. Buying beef in bulk can save you a ton of money. Check out EatWild.com to find local farms in your area. If you don’t have enough storage space, split a side of beef with a friend. Or see if you have something like Philly Cow Share in your area. We did invest in a standing freezer just for storing our meat in bulk. It was definitely a worthwhile investment. Not only do I buy beef in bulk, I also buy pork and chicken. Our freezer is always least half-full!

2. Join a CSA that sources their food locally. We think of CSAs for vegetables, but many CSAs also provide meat. To find one, ask around. If you’re not sure who to ask, LocalHarvest.org is a great place to start.

3. Shop the Farmer’s Market. This isn’t the most economical method, but you might discover a local farmer who will let you buy in bulk, and it’s a great way to try his products before committing to buying a half a cow.

4. Find a local butcher. I shop often from my local butcher (they are actually members of our church!) I think most of his beef is corn-fed, but it is at least raised within 100 miles of here, and I like to support a local business when I can.

If you must shop the grocery store . . .

I do try to buy organic when I shop at the grocery store, and this is why. I realize the animals still may be raised in less than ideal conditions (many times they are still in crowded conditions and don’t get a lot of fresh air and grass) but at least the organic certification does not allow them to use growth hormones and antibiotics. Organic feed also means that they did not receive genetically modified grains (corn and soy are the most common) or animal by-products in their feed, nor can they be raised on pasture using persistent pesticides or chemical fertilizers. {source}

However, if the price precludes you from purchasing organic meats and you don’t have local sources available, buy the conventional stuff and prepare it well and be thankful we have the luxury of food choices such as these.

You are still better off buying fresh meat and cooking it yourself than eating out or ordering fast food.

I would personally advise you to try to eat meat less often if you are eating conventional meat, but I don’t think it’s the end of the world.

Meat: Good | Better | Best

Good: fresh meat from the grocery store, prepared well and eaten sparingly (once a week as most)

Better: organic meat from the conventional grocery store

Best: meat from local farms, preferably grass-fed and raised without antibiotics, growth hormones, pesticides, chemical fertilizers or genetically modified grains

Whew! Got all that? LOL!!

I know, it is a lot to consider. But if you think about all those chemicals at work in our bodies over time . . . well, that is why the organic movement is gaining ground.

OBLIGATORY DISCLAIMER: I am by no means an expert on, well, anything, so of course you should do your own research and come to your own conclusions.