Why I Eat Locally Produced, Pasture-Raised Meats

Allright, let’s talk turkey here.

Actually, let’s talk cow.

This is all about why I eat locally produced, pasture-raised beef*, even though it is much more expensive than the CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operations) or “feedlot” produced, factory farm meats available at every Walmart, Safeway and Kroger’s in the country.

My first reason is this: money isn’t everything.

Yes, I pay a higher price for the meat that I feed my family, my friends and myself, and I am proud to. I do this, because I think it is more important to spend a little more money up front to the farmer who raised those animals, and support local, humane agriculture and purchase a product that is not only much, much tastier and of higher quality, but is healthier and safer for us to eat.

Yes, I said it. Healthier and safer.

You don’t believe me?

Well, then hold onto your hats, because I aim to prove it to you.

First of all let’s talk about cattle. Cows, I mean. Those big critters that get ground up by the thousands so McDonald’s can sell tasteless hamburgers by the billions.

What did cows evolve to eat? (This is a rhetorical question–I don’t expect every city-dweller reading this essay to know the answer, as I am about to give it to you, so be patient.)

They evolved to eat grass. They are ruminants, which means they have a four-chambered stomach. One of these chambers is called a “rumen,” which is endowed with communities of symbiotic bacteria which help the cow digest that which would make us humans very sick if we tried to eat it: grass. Other rumimants include sheep, goats, deer, bison, antelope, and even giraffes. They “rumenate,” which means they regurgitate their food, chew it again (this is also known as “chewing cud”) and then swallow it, at which time, the symbiotic bacteria go to work pre-digesting much of the cellulose in the grass–which is the part of the plant that would make you and I very sick if we tried to eat it in any amount.

Rumenants are amazingly well-adapted at turning grass into energy and flesh. However, this process is not very fast–it takes cattle three to four years to grow to full weight on a pasture, however, when fed grass, these animals tend to be quite healthy and sturdy beasts. Their meat, is also of a different quality than the meat of an animal raised on the feed given on commercial feedlots. It is lower in saturated fat than grain fed beef, (and thus, is lower in calories) and it contains a higher percentage of healthy Omega 3 fatty acids than CAFO beef. In addition, it has higher levels of beta carotene and vitamin E than beef exclusively fed on corn and animal by-products and has significantly higher levels of Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA), a nutrient associated with lowering cancer risk.

You see, the food that is given on feedlots, which are feces-filled pens into which hundreds of cattle are crammed, is made primarily of corn, but is also supplemented with fat (often tallow–which is the rendered fat from cows), protein, which often comes from chicken litter–which is made up of chicken feces and feathers, chicken or pig blood, and other unsavory ingredients. Yes, I know that tallow, feathers, and blood are all foods that come from animal sources, which, if you think about it, means it probably shouldn’t be on the menu of an animal that is herbivorous. Yeah, making herbivores into carnivores creeps me out, too, which is why I will go out of my way to avoid CAFO meat. (My source for this information on exactly what feedlot cattle eat comes from Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma. However, the chapter which contains this information is based upon his New York Times article, “Power Steer,” which is available online. I highly suggest that you read that piece if you are in the least bit concerned with how animals are raised in CAFOs.)

I remember when my grandfather, the farmer who raised pastured Hereford cattle that were supplementally fed with field corn he grew himself, and molasses, read about feeding cows corn supplemented with fat and protein rendered from the waste of slaughterhouses. He said, shaking his head in disgust, “That is a damned stupid idea. Something bad will come of it.”

He was right. Something bad -did- come of it. BSE, bovine spongiform encephalitis, otherwise known as “mad cow disease.” It is a disease that, as near as scientists can tell, came about from turning cows not only into carnivores, but cannibals. (At least the practice of feeding cattle rendered cattle blood and protein was stopped in the US in 1997 in response to the BSE outbreaks in the UK; however, it is still allowable to feed calves cow blood, and all cattle -fat- derived from other cattle.)

Cows did not evolve to eat grain, much less grain that has been mixed with rendered fat from their own species, with rendered blood from their own or other species. Although cows will come to full weight in a remarkable seven months, when fed this fat-laden diet, they do not thrive on it. They get sick quite easily, in fact, with various illnesses, such as “bloat,” which comes about when the rumen fills with gas from being unable to properly digest corn. When a cow has bloat, the stomach expands, like a great balloon, and presses on the cow’s lungs, and will suffocate the animal, unless a long hose is pushed down its throat to relieve the pressure.

Other problems have arisen from the practice of raising cows in feedlots. For example, a cow’s stomach, when it eats grass, is naturally a neutral environment, however, when fed corn, it becomes acidified. This gives the cow a really bad case of acid reflux or heartburn, which in severe cases can kill the cow, but more often simply degrades its quality of life.

A worse consequence for that acidic stomach environment, from a human perspective, is the development of strains of e coli which are able to live and reproduce in an acidic environment, including the fatal 0157:H7. The strains of e coli that normally inhabited the gut of cattle was no match for human stomach acid, which, if a human accidentally ate meat tainted with it, would die in the stomach before it could infect the human and make him sick. The fatal strain, however, inured to the acidic stomachs of feedlot cattle, can survive our stomach acid and go on to kill us by either dehydration from severe diarrhea (this especially happens to the very young or the very old) or by destroying our kidneys.

Other diseases sicken feedlot cattle. Because of the crowded and filthy, feces-dust ridden conditions of the feedlot, cattle come down with pneumonia fairly often.

In order to keep animals healthy, to treat the sick animals who are commonly found in the feedlot, and to promote rapid growth in meat animals, CAFO cattle are fed high doses of antibiotics. This misuse of medicine results in the proliferation of resistant strains of bacteria–bacteria who are unaffected by normal doses of antibiotics. (In 1999, 40% of the estimated 50 billion pounds of antibiotics produced in the US went into animal feed.) This affects not only feedlot animals’ health, but it also affects human health, as the number of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria which infect humans rises. The CDC noted in 1999 a continual rise in foodborne bacterial infections, many of which resulted in death, because many of the bacteria were resistant to antibiotic treatment. (The USDA, however, which is at this point, in my opinion, nothing but a spokesperson for the meat industry, is of the opinion that more research is necessary before changing any policies that might limit meat industry profits, even if it is in the best interest of the American public to protect their health.)

Do you see what I mean when I say that the locally-raised, primarily pasture-fed beef that I am eating is both healthier and safer for me and my family to eat? I don’t particularly see the benefit in paying less for food that is not only less healthy for me to eat, but may also be contaminated with antibiotic-resistant foodborne bacteria.

Besides, I know that when I buy beef at the grocery store that the price that is marked is only part of the cost of that meat. I have already paid for a considerable amount of it in the form of taxes.

How so?

Well, the feed that goes to grocery store beef is mostly in the form of corn, which I have already paid for through government subsidies, which come out of my taxes.

The other costs that are not evident in the marked price of that cheap grocery store meat, are the public health issues that result from foodborne illness, the environmental toll taken by the waste runoff from CAFO feedlots, and the fact that the farmers who are growing the corn who are feeding those cows are seldom making a living wage themselves. Oh, and there is also the exorbitant cost of the petroleum that goes into growing each pound of corn those cows eat.

So, you see why I would rather pay a little bit more money to ensure better quality meat for my family and friends, a living wage for farmers, a cleaner, healthier environment and a stronger local economy.

Oh, and there is one other factor we need to put into this equation, and it is, in fact, what got Zak into the habit of eating local meat: taste.

It tastes so much better than grocery store beef. It tastes like the meat I grew up eating, which had a distinct beefiness that most meat from the grocery store lacks. (The same is true of all the locally raised meats–they all taste better and have a much better texture than grocery store meats. Once you taste them, you don’t want to go back.) It tastes, looks and smells so much better than grocery store meat that after the first couple of meals, Zak was sold on it and never looked back to the grocery store meat department again. He has never once complained about how much more we spend on meat than we did before, because it is worth every penny.

To find locally raised, grass-fed meats (and other farm-fresh foods) near to you, check out these links:

Eat Wild
Local Harvest
Farmers Markets
Sustainable Table’s Eat Well Guide
Farm Folk/City Folk

*The truth is–I not only eat locally produced pasture-raised beef, but also pork, lamb, goat, and chicken as well. I just figured it would be easier if I just used beef as the example, because the diseases that each animal can get through being raised in a crowded CAFO are distinct and it would be too confusing to go into each of them. So, to simplify, I decided to just talk about cows.

19 Comments

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  1. Very well said, as usual. :-) Pasture raised meats do taste soooo much better. I also think that you have a little more lee-way with pasture raised meats. You don’t have to worry so much about bacteria and disease and undercooking meat. It’s just better in every way imaginable. We also have pasture-raised buffalo here- you should give that a try if you ever get a chance. It’s fantastic!

    Comment by Erika — May 19, 2006 #

  2. I love bison. We have a bison ranch here in southeastern Ohio, so we eat it fairly frequently. It is really, really good.

    Comment by Barbara — May 19, 2006 #

  3. dear barbara, marry me. oh wait, i’m a girl and you’re married and i’m hetero. never mind. i love love love your site. i think i’ll propose to your site instead.

    Comment by flory — May 19, 2006 #

  4. ps. i am kidding, but what i do is love your writing.

    Comment by flory — May 19, 2006 #

  5. [...] Here’s a wonderful post about local beef from Barbara Fisher at Tigers and Strawberries: Link [...]

    Pingback by lowmileagefood.com » It’s OK to Spend More — May 19, 2006 #

  6. It’s true, it’s all true.

    I remember the first time I tried free range chicken, and I couldn’t get over how much more flavorful it was. There was an article I read… years ago, and you know I can’t remember who wrote it or where it came from… but the author’s point was that the reason why we say so many things “taste like chicken” is because factory farmed chicken has become so tasteless. It’s lost its distinctiveness.

    And your points regarding meat are also true for eggs. We buy our eggs from the farmers market or other local sources, and yes, they’re more expensive, but they’re just so much better. My husband gets a huge kick out of knowing the names of the chickens that laid our eggs. Plus, it’s nice being able to make a proper caesar salad or egg nog without having to fear for my life.

    Comment by Bomboniera — May 19, 2006 #

  7. I hear all that you’re saying and agree with you, but I get frustrated about the higher cost because people who make very little money, which has recently included myself, simply cannot afford to consistently buy the better beef. This is not the fault of the farmers and certainly not a reason NOT to buy their products. If anything it would be a reason to go vegetarian until you can afford to buy the good stuff, but here is my main “beef” so to say. I’ve been running into articles here and there, especially about chickens, where the whole “free range” movement is being co-opted by factory farms. Basically the chickens are raised in a giant barn, packed in tight with all the other chickens. There is a door at the end of the barn that leads to a 5′ x 5′ area outside. This qualifies them for “free range” status and allows them to label their meat as such. What’s worse is that the chickens are prevented from going out into even that tiny space until a certain age ( I can’t remember why this is so ) and as a result they never even go out into that tiny little area…ever…because they are frightened to. They have never been outside in their lives and so don’t dare to even when given the opportunity.

    grrrr…so even if you spend the extra money there is a chance you are basically getting factory farmed meat.

    Ultimately the soloution to a dilemma such as this is to just buy your meat at the local farmers market. I am only venting my frustration at the corporate sneakyness that is creeping into the organic, free range, and natural product markets.

    Comment by Benjamin — May 19, 2006 #

  8. Benjamin–I agree with you. Which is why I don’t buy from grocery stores, at all. I don’t trust anything that is raised in large enough quantities to be sold in a grocery store to really be anything but a variation on factory farmed meat.

    Yes, buy direct from the farmer when you can–that is what I do. All the time. I either buy at the North Market in Columbus, where the farmers of Bluescreek Meats have a stall, or I buy from the farmers market here in Athens. That is where all of our meats, poultry, and eggs come from, and the food is much better tasting, and I always know that my money is going to the farmers, not so some corporation which are perverting the ideals of actual sustainability.

    Everyone else made good points, too!

    Flory, I would marry you, but then, I would be a bigamist. ;-) I hear that is a bit of a problem for the legal establishment….not to mention Zak. He might not want to share me.

    Bomboniera–I remember how chicken should taste, because I grew up on the chickens my grandparents raised and they were so much better than the poor factory farmed chickens that you get at the store.

    I think that is part of why I am so adamant about buying meats from farmers–because they taste -right-. Like they are supposed to. Not like…mush.

    Real chickens taste more chickeny–there is no way around that. It is just true.

    Comment by Barbara — May 19, 2006 #

  9. Thank you for a great article. I guess I am lucky, i can buy my produce at the farm “next door”. And yes I prefer to pay a bit more for good beef of better quality, just don’t eat it everyday – variation is key.

    Articles like yours read by lots of people will help smaller producers be more appreciated, thus in the end becoming less expensive. Also if more people stay away from questionable meet products, the producers will be forced to change. Ofcourse this will take time, but than the more people protest, the more impact we will have.

    Also more and more bigger companies realize the power of blogging and the negative publicity they can get through us. So keep on spreading the word!

    Comment by Isis — May 19, 2006 #

  10. Gah. Barbara, you make me miss home. I lived in Columbus for a while, very close to the North Market. I loved that place. There is (was?) a little Indian joint towards the back where you could get a huge veggie sampler platter for $4.95. If you went just before 6:00, when they’re getting ready to close, they would just load you down with food. It was enough for dinner and lunch the next day.

    Comment by Bomboniera — May 19, 2006 #

  11. Wonderful post – I, too, only buy meat (of all kinds) from local farmers for all the reasons you’ve enumerated (and prefer to eat less meat and pay more for the high-quality meat I enjoy). Where I feel I run into trouble is eating out, especially in the hole-in-the-wall Mexican, Indian, Vietnamese places I love. Do you have any great strategies for dining out?

    Comment by teri — May 19, 2006 #

  12. I love this post — a friendly, personal, accessible statment that exactly parallels my feelings about the problems with intensively-raised meat.

    Comment by Alexis — May 19, 2006 #

  13. Have you read Raising Less Corn, More Hell, by George Pyle? It talks about the effects of a corn diet on cattle, as well as being a pretty scathing indictment of the current subsidized, corn-based agricultural system.

    I haven’t read Pollan’s book yet (I heard an NPR interview with him, though), but “Power Steer” is definitely a thought-provoking read.

    Comment by Mel — May 20, 2006 #

  14. Great post!
    And, I would add – if eating free-range, pasture-eating cattle is too expensive on a daily basis, eat it less frequently and enjoy the beautiful world of vegetables more often…

    Comment by Hadar — May 20, 2006 #

  15. Amen Sister!!

    Just as a side note – our farmer’s markets here in Columbus accept WIC and other subsidized grocery coupons. You can get your green market coupons wherever you get your WIC cards, so there are options for those who think they can only buy the least expensive beef.

    And, for those in Columbus, Weiland’s sells organic, local, free-range Amish chickens for around $1.50 a pound. They, too, have far superiour health beneifts compared to mass-produced chickens.

    Comment by lisa the waitress — May 21, 2006 #

  16. I wish I could afford the meat at the farmers market. Its pretty easy to say money isn’t everything when you have some. Those that can afford it will eat organic and free range and those that can’t will still have to shop at Safeway.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’d like to always buy the nice stuff and once I’m out of college maybe I’ll be able to. But me individually buying more sustainable food does pretty much nothing to change the system as a whole. By boycotting some goods and buying others, you’re casting a vote as a consumer. But a vote in the market is a fundamentally anti-democratic one. The # of votes you have is based on the amount of money you have. So agribusiness has a lot of votes and a lot of money; working class folks have very little money and few votes; and people that can afford to eat well do but their votes have only created a niche market not an overall structural change.

    Sorry for the rant, obviously people should buy the healthiest food they can afford. But for actual change to occur, we can’t just act as consumers or rely on the federal government. Communities will have to come together and make changes themselves and not wait for corporations or politicians to behave responsibly.

    Comment by mujeresliebres — May 21, 2006 #

  17. Hadar–I should have mentioned that in the post. I, and my family eat less meat now than we used to, out of habit, at this point.

    For example, when I made Thai spicy basil chicken last night for four adults and one teenager, I made one and a half full-chicken breasts worth of meat. That is miniscule compared to the usual portions of chicken Americans are used to eating–a half a chicken breast each, at least. The rest of the dish was vegetables–gai lan stalks, carrots and green beans with a half pound of fresh thai basil, and it was served over steamed rice. The bulk of the meal was the rice and the vegetables, with the chicken not as the star of the show, but in the supporting role.

    I think that this is a healthier way of eating, by and large and we have gotten very used to it, and eat this way most of the time, only indulging in a typical American-style “meat-centric” meal now and again.

    It is also a good way to offset the cost of the meat–eat less of it.

    Lisa–That is another thing I should have mentioned–Ohio farmer’s market vendors, by and large accept WIC coupons for fresh foods. That is something to think about.

    I have never been to that market for the Amish chickens–but I have had Amish chicken in the past–very tasty birds. They taste the way my grandpa’s chickens tasted, when they foraged for bugs and weeds in the garden!

    Mujersliebres–

    When I say “money isn’t everything,” I am not speaking to those who have no money. I -do- very much understand what it is like to have no money and eat beans for weeks on end–it gets tiresome.

    But when I say that–I am talking to the people who -can- afford to buy from the farmer’s markets, but who -do not-. It isn’t just the “rich” who can afford to pay farmers directly, but the middle class can, too. They just don’t, because they choose to spend less on food, and more on other things–clothes, movies, cable TV, gadgets, cars, gasoline to fill those non-fuel efficient cars, and the like.

    Personally, if more people shopped for food based on -quality- rather than -price- the market -would- change. That is how free enterprise works. If people stop eating fast food, the places will either change to reflect the demands of the shrinking market or they will fail and go away.

    It isn’t just low income people who shop exclusively in grocery stores or eat fast food–there are plenty of middle and upper class people who do it too. And they shouldn’t.

    I am not advocating that we wait around for corporations and politicians to behave responsibly. That is why you won’t catch me shopping for corporate organic foods at Walmart, or even at Whole Foods all that often. But every Saturday, I am at the farmer’s market, putting money directly into the hands of my neighbors, and that money stays within the community. That’s why, even though I don’t have to–I commit to growing some amount of my own food.

    That’s why I write about topics like these, to get other people to be aware of the issues and do their own bit to make these changes.

    Here in Athens, you will see a lot of poor and working class people shopping at the farmer’s market, too. It isn’t just OU professors and the other monied folk out there. Students shop there, grandmas on fixed incomes shop there (one of them bought the last of the first strawberries of the season at the market, right in front of me!) and women on WIC use their coupons to buy fresh fruits and veggies from the farmers.

    There are changes happening, large and small, and not all of it is from consumers -just- voting with our dollars. However, if there was a bit more voting with our dollars going on–well, then–there would be other changes afoot as well.

    That said–I do understand and honor your point of view. When I was poor, I shopped at the grocery store, too, and bought cheap meat. I didn’t ever much like it, but I did it. I think that were I ever to be poor again, I would eat more vegetables and beans, and still buy meat from the farmers as a treat, and eat less of it. That is the way my Mom fed us when we were poor, and we turned out okay. No one needs to eat meat every day to be healthy, after all. (Says one who eats less meat than she used to, even though she could afford to eat more.)

    Comment by Barbara — May 21, 2006 #

  18. Fantastic post Barbara! I’ve been hearing so much about Michael Pollan’s book that I’ve really got to get a copy. I admit, it may be a little like opening a door of knowledge that you can’t simply shut and forget about. I have a feeling my shopping habits will change.

    Comment by Kevin — June 12, 2006 #

  19. Good piece, tho I can see a minor issue with it.

    Cows didn’t just evolve to eat grass. They specifically evolved to eat the kinds of grasses that grow in Eurasia. Wheat is a grass. So is barley. So are oats. So’s millet, and a wide range of other large seeded grasses that humans mostly don’t eat in Europe. Eurasia is rich with a huge diversity of grasses, including nearly all of the largest seeded grasses on the planet. So while corn may upset a cow’s stomach, I’d be quite surprised if wheat in season and in proportion would. In fact, cows probably are better off with a small portion of European grains in their diet in late summer and fall. In the wild, that would let them build up solid fat reserves for the winter. The same is likely to hold true for sheep and goats, since they evolved in similar conditions to cows. There’s a reason why fall is the traditional time for butchering animals…

    As far as chickens go, local chicken is always better, and very often quite inexpensive. Buying whole chickens (they’re easy to dismember yourself with practice, and if you don’t care to practice, the seller is usually happy to do it for you at no charge) gives you something like 3-5 meat heavy meals for two for very little money. Save the bones to make chicken stock, and you get the makings for at least another 2-3 meals. Since a pampered locally raised, free range and organic chicken can be had for $10 in many places, that’s a very cost effective way to feed yourself.

    Comment by Emily Cartier — July 14, 2006 #

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