If there’s one Paleo staple food, it’s grass-fed beef. From the healthy fats (like conjugated linoleic acid) to the high-quality protein to important micronutrients, beef from animals raised on pasture is one of the most nutritious things you’ll ever eat.
As the Paleo movement has grown, it's been exciting to see more and more grocery stores carrying grass-fed beef. But unfortunately, not all meat labeled "grass-fed" actually lives up to its name. If you're buying grass-fed beef (or anything else) from the farmer who raised the steers, you can be sure that you're getting the real deal, but if you're relying on the "grass-fed" label in a grocery store, you might not be.
To help explain the difference, we sat down to chat with Glenn Elzinga of Alderspring Ranch. Glenn has been raising truly pastured beef for 20 years now, and he’s watched the grass-fed label grow from a tiny niche market to a national powerhouse. We talked about the USDA “grass-fed” label, why it doesn't necessarily means what you'd think, and how "grass-fed" can vary from one producer to another. Glenn was also game for some tough questions: what about people who can’t afford your meat? If we can’t get bigger producers in on the grass-fed game, how can we ever change the system?
This isn't intended to make you feel bad if buying directly from a farmer isn't an option for you. Some of the "grass-fed" meat in supermarkets really is grass-fed - and even if it's not quite the same, it's still better than the alternative. And in a grocery store, if you can find meat that's grass-fed and USDA organic, you can get even closer (organic regulations fill a lot of the gaps in the "grass-fed" label). But it's important to be educated about what your food labels do and don't mean, so that whatever you decide, you're making an informed choice about what you eat.
Here’s what Glenn had to say:
Paleo Leap: If I walk into a store, and buy a package of beef labeled “grass-fed,” is it comparable to the beef that you raise?
Glenn: That depends. 20 years ago, when the whole grass-fed thing started it was considered pretty weird. When we started, our neighbors asked “when are you going to put those in a feedlot” – it was just what you did.
At that point, the few people who were doing this crazy thing were true believers, so grass-fed beef was always really grass-fed. It wasn’t always good – it’s hard to raise consistently good grass-fed beef – but the people were passionate about being stewards of the land. Everyone was really into “animal husbandry.” If you take that word apart it’s related to marriage, and that’s how we feel about our animals: their wellness connects completely with our wellness, and it’s not just about food; it’s also about our psyche. If they aren’t doing well, we aren’t doing well.
Most of the documented health benefits of grass fed beef are from studies done during this era.
But now enter corporate agriculture, which encourages producers to look at things very mechanistically: a cow is just a thing that produces protein. From that perspective, a feedlot is “good husbandry” because it results in steers that gain weight well, and it produces a high quantity of food. It's a totally different way of looking at things; you've really lost the essence of grass-fed.
Paleo Leap: So what are some of the ways that “grass-fed” label gets stretched?
Glenn: It’s all possibilities, because I don’t know the producer – so let me just give you a run-down of what can legally happen to an animal even though the meat is verified grass-fed by the USDA:
If you’re “grass-fed” according to the USDA definition you can give antibiotics. And that doesn’t just include therapeutic antibiotics like Baytril for respiratory infections. It also includes subtherapeutic antibiotics [very low doses of antibiotics that aren’t intended to treat any specific disease]. These are put in the animals’ food, or even for steers on pasture, antibiotics mixed with hay or water are put into basins called creep feeders that you can drag around with a tractor. Subtherapeutic antibiotics prevent disease in confinement situations and they improve the rate of weight gain, so they increase profit margin.
I think there are two big issues with antibiotics: 1) increase in antibiotic resistant bacteria; and 2) the impact of antibiotic residue on our gut microflora. At Alderspring Ranch, we don’t use subtherapeutic antibiotics. If an animal gets sick, first we try to deal with it through holistic management, by reducing stress, or providing different food. If we can’t help that way, then we do give antibiotics so the animal doesn’t suffer, but we don’t try to sell that meat as grass-fed organic.
[As a footnote to this: if you're stuck in a grocery store, you can avoid antibiotics by choosing meat labeled organic as well as grass-fed.]
Hormones and hormone implants
This is very common throughout the US cattle industry (except for exports to Europe because Europe has denied any importations with hormones). About 80% of beef cattle are implanted. They shoot a hormone capsule under the skin; it’s a slow-release testosterone mimic to build muscle. Since it’s building the muscle, it permeates all the way through the meat, and if you consume that grass-fed beef, you could be taking in that hormone as well.
We don’t give any hormones.
[As a footnote: in a grocery store, you can get hormone-free beef by choosing meat labeled organic as well as grass-fed.]
Insecticides and parasiticides
These are very common in confinement situations, but many grass-fed producers also use them, even if the steers are truly pasture-raised. You can force-feed them to the animals, or pour them over the back. Pouring them on is the nastiest to my mind, because it’s also intended for internal parasites, so the stuff soaks through the skin and right through the meat. I guess it bothers me because I’m a ribeye guy and that ribeye is right on top of the back, getting a good hit of these pour-ons.
On our farm, we don’t use any chemical insecticides or parasite treatments. These chemicals aren’t allowed under the “organic” label. We just move the animals a lot, because it breaks the life cycle of the parasitic organisms. It’s called rotational grazing.
For example, flies lay their eggs in manure, but when the eggs hatch as flies, all the steers are gone to a different part of the pasture so the flies can’t bother them. We just don’t have fly problems. I’ve seen places where the flies are so thick that the steers are forced to be always running trying to get the flies off their back, and it’s almost always a confinement issue. With the rotational grazing, the population of flies just doesn’t build up, because the animals are always roaming around – just like bison used to do in the old days before settlement.
Selling cull cows
Cull cows are older mother cows. They’re no longer useful for producing a calf or milk, so they’re culled from the herd. For beef cows, they can be as old as 18; for dairy cows, they’re typically younger. Commercial dairies can “burn out” these cows in 3 years, but I have a friend who runs a biodynamic certified organic dairy and his cows are productive until far older because they’re not “pushed” for production with grain or hormones.
These cull cows may be technically grass-fed, so producers can sell them for a premium price. But since they’re so old, the meat can have some off flavors and tenderness issues; it can be tough, and it just isn’t always good eating. Also, I wouldn’t eat a liver from an older cow (it’s been filtering stuff for a long time). We don’t sell cull cows; they just don’t provide consistently good meat.
“Grass-fed” cattle have to have access to pasture during the frost-free season. For us, that’s 90 days.
“Access to pasture” just means that the feedlot gate is open. And for the other 275 days of the year, grass fed steers can be in a feedlot just like regular steers, except that their rations must be non-grain vegetable matter. You can feed them anything “foraged,” so they get a lot of crop residues, especially from sugar beets. Once you’ve distilled out the sugar from the beets by cooking them, what’s left is basically a very fibrous, ground-up beet. They’ll dry that in big driers and pelletize it and sell it as livestock feed.
They’ll also get corn stocks, soybeans, potato waste, turnips, and winter wheat or rye in the pre-grain stage. All of these feedstuffs fit very well into the industrial agricultural model. All of these feedstuffs can be, and probably are, raised with pesticides, weed killers, and petroleum-based fertilizers.
Or fish meal: did you know that “grass-fed” cows could be eating fish meal? Because technically, it’s not a grain. It gives you faster weight gain, but you’ve lost the essence of grass-fed. [Note: Glenn also provided a comprehensive list of things that grass-fed cows are and aren’t allowed to eat; it’s here if you want to check it out.]
Our grass-fed steers eat grass and other stuff in the pasture with the grass – like dandelions or clover. Sometimes I’ll just sit out in the pasture and try to learn from them. They’re creatures of habit, but they also like diversity: they’ve developed this innate sense of balance for what they need. A lactating mom is going to eat different plants, because she has a developed discernment about pasture and can tell what species she needs. When you stick these cows in a feedlot, you’re losing the cow’s innate ability to maximize her own wellness.
Abuse and cruelty.
“Grass-fed” doesn’t address animal welfare at all. Some kinds of livestock handling can be painful and stressful for the animal, even though it’s still “grass-fed.”
This is really counterintuitive to us – stress makes a cow sick just like it makes a human sick. All the health problems that stress causes in humans – coronary disease, autoimmune disease – these things happen to cattle too when they’re stressed in a confinement situation. You get tough beef that way too; it’s unpalatable and chewy.
It’s really important for us to be able to go hang with our steers; when we walk out there they don’t run from us. They come to us! We can even pet a lot of them, because we’ve treated them right.
Summing it up
A lot of producers take “grass-fed” to the limit of the USDA regulation, to the point where you’ve lost the essence and the nutritional benefits of grass-fed. That’s my big concern: that people are paying more (sometimes a lot more) for a product that is nutritionally the same as regular commercial beef.
Paleo Leap: It sounds like the commercialization of the “grass-fed” label is creating some pretty big problems. But if we can’t use economies of scale, how can we bring this kind of food to everyone?
Glenn: I think it would be possible if more farmers were doing it. That’s really what we have to do as producers: we have to convince other producers. This is a model that they’re already involved with – all the animals start off grass-fed. All my neighbors are already grass-fed producers until the cattle get loaded on trailers and sent to Kansas to a feedlot.
The true economy of scale is at the processing level. We pay about 10 times more for processing, because everything is done by hand. We have to figure as a society out how to maintain that level of care in the butchering and processing, but somehow lower the regulatory bar for small processing houses. That is one of their big expenses - complying with the paperwork associated with a USDA processing.
The tipping point for Caryl [his wife] and me was when we were driving and the kids noticed something that smelled really awful. And it was this feedlot next to us; there were all these cattle up to their bellies in mud. My kids didn’t even know what it was. So I told them, and they said “well, our calves don’t go there, right?” and I had to say “well, they could.” It just killed me. We worked hard to take care of these calves and then we loaded them on a semi and they went out to cow-hell.
When people get their brain wrapped around that at the small producer level, and we can continue to educate people about the wrongness of that stuff, I think we can reach a tipping point where people aren’t going to do that anymore.
Paleo Leap: What about the price of grass-fed beef? What about people who want to support it but they can’t afford to?
Glenn: It’s a big concern for me.
You have to understand that there are huge costs for producing grass-fed beef. I just wrote a check to the state department of agriculture for 5,000 dollars just to use the word “organic” on our labels. We have 70 square miles of rangeland without weed chemicals. And the processing is more expensive, too. Our processing plant kills 4 steers every hour; a Tyson feedlot has a plant that kills 400 every hour. We just can’t compete on that scale.
I think in one sense, it’s really a pay now or pay later scenario. If people aren’t willing to pay upfront now for good food, they’re risking paying a whole lot more down the line for hospital bills. Or worse, they completely lose their quality of life – you can’t put a price on that.
But some people just don’t care. The one time, we were visiting Caryl’s [his wife’s] family, and I was talking to one guy who’s so overweight that he can’t breathe. He has to put a CPAP on every night to oxygenate him enough that he can sleep peacefully. And Caryl said, “Why don’t you try changing your diet? Why don’t you try a Paleo diet or something; maybe you could get rid of that thing, lose some weight, improve your immune system: there’s ways to modify apnea.”
And he just looked at her and said “I’d rather have my cookies.” That just floored me. I just can’t imagine not being able to hike around the mountains anymore, and there are a lot of people who just flat don’t care.
It’s also about consumer choices. Someone who can’t afford grass-fed beef – she may own a plasma TV. And we don’t. It wasn’t a worthwhile investment to us. We’d rather spend our money on good food. I got 7 kids, all girls, and they eat, but we try to get them really good food now, to give them a good foundation and get them into good habits. A lot of people just haven’t made that choice.
People used to pay so much more for food, as a percentage of their income – our food budget is more in line with the figures from the 1930s. Of course, we have a household of 9 and our whole family is gluten-free, but I found it interesting that even though we grow much of our own food, we still have a relatively high cost of food compared to the average American. Even with some creative strategies for sourcing good quality food on a budget, good food is going to cost more. It should.
But you’re right; there are people who do care, and do want to eat better, but can’t afford it no matter what choices they make. And it’s those people I’m concerned about because that issue’s huge; it bothers us. I don’t have an answer. I don’t think the commodification of the “grass-fed” label is the answer; this “grass-fed” beef that’s actually raised in feedlots isn’t going to do it. Maybe then more people could afford that food, but it’s not as nutritious anymore.
I don’t know. I don’t have an easy solution.
Paleo Leap: On a lighter note, do you have a favorite beef recipe?
Glenn: My favorite is brisket. We’ll cover the brisket with an Italian rub: garlic, onions, basil, and oregano, and then put that in a big Dutch oven with the fat side of the brisket up, and add a little water. We’ll throw it in the oven about 500 degrees, so it’s almost broiling. Once it’s browned up nicely, we turn it down to 250, and cook with the lid on for 6 hours. The key is the initial searing, and at least a few hours at 200-300 degrees to break down collagen and fat and meld everything together.
Then we’ll just turn it down even lower, around 180, and let it cook overnight. Briskets are really flexible. Once you enter the slow low-temperature stage, you can keep that brisket in the oven for up to 24 hours. If you want to add a different flavor, you can use a barbecue sauce, wine, or pretty much anything else during that last slow cook stage.
Paleo Leap: Sounds delicious. Thanks so much for talking to us!
As a footnote to this: if this interview inspired you to get meat directly from a farmer, but you don't know where to start or how to find someone in your area, you definitely have options!
If you already have a convenient farmers' market, that would be a good place to check. Or you can try the Eatwild directory here; just plug in your zip code to find a farmer in your area. No time to make yet another stop on your grocery-shopping marathon trip? If you want the convenience of delivery but the assurance that you're still getting the good stuff, you can get grass-fed beef shipped directly from Glenn's ranch by ordering here (affiliate link).