From Grass to Grill
If this is your first foray into the world of grass-fed and pastured meats, welcome. If you are a "seasoned" meat connoisseur, welcome back. All the wonderful news about grass-fed meat has finally begun to take hold. When we first began selling pasture-raised lamb, beef, pork and poultry, it seemed that every new prospective customer required an introduction to the many benefits of raising animals on grass. We lectured nonstop about why keeping animals out in the fields-rather than confined to a feedlot-was not only more humane, but also better for the environment and the consumer. Raising animals on pasture and marketing them directly helps ensure the environmental and financial sustainability of small farms like ours, and keeps valuable agricultural businesses thriving in our community. It contributes to local food security by guaranteeing availability of wholesome, clean food, with relatively little impact from the larger world's troubles. The viability of our business means that we can afford to continue farming our beautiful land, rather than being forced to sell it to a developer to carve into housing lots. Best of all, we can assure people that this meat is decidedly safer and more healthful to eat.
Today, we hardly have to explain anything. Even our new customers are so well-informed about the benefits of small-scale sustainable farming, the importance of keeping livestock on pasture, and the hazards of factory-farmed foods that now they are teaching us, sharing articles, news clips and research reports with every visit.
Among the many glories of being a grass-fed meat producer is that the good news about our work just keeps coming. We were pleased when we learned that grass-fed meat was a source of omega-3 fatty acids, which have been linked to blood pressure reduction, healthy brain function and the slowed growth of many types of cancer. We were thrilled when research showed that products such as ours were also a source of conjugated linoleic acids, or CLAs, which preliminary research has linked to improved immune systems and lowered risk of tumors and heart disease, earning it the moniker "the cancer fighting fat." We were elated to learn that grass-fed meat was much less likely to be contaminated with a virulent strain of E.coli, and ecstatic when studies showed grass-fed meat contains antioxidant vitamins.
All this research emerged a few years ago. Yet even today, the positive findings just keep coming. A July 2005 report released by the USDA Agricultural Research Service showed that properly managed pastures were able to store two to three times more carbon in their soil than fields that were left unmanaged, used for hay, or left unharvested. While carbon dioxide is critical to sustain life on this planet, excessive atmospheric carbon contributes to the greenhouse effect. Another study released by Iowa State University shows similar findings, indicating that grazed pasture is the ideal land use for storing carbon. Simply put, raising animals on well-managed pasture helps to reverse the greenhouse effect. The USDA-report also shows that proper grazing management helps preserve topsoil, reminding us that when we farm in harmony with Mother Nature—our health, our communities, and our planet will continue to reap the benefits.
In a world fraught with environmental degradation, withering rural communities, social inequities, chronic illness and declining food quality, it seems safe to say that we can each begin to have an impact on restoring our personal and planetary health simply by thoughtfully choosing the food we eat. Selecting graded meat is a fantastic beginning.
How to know you're getting the real thing
With so much good news about raising animals on grass, there has to be a "catch" someplace. And there is. As grass-fed meat has grown in popularity, many companies are touting "pseudo-grass-fed" products, using clever names and labels that dupe consumers into thinking they are buying the real thing when in truth, they're still getting industrially grown, factory-farmed meat. Some of the potentially misleading words employed are "all-natural," "free-range," "prairie-raised"—the list goes on and on. Of course, many legitimate pasture-based producers use these same terms as genuine descriptions of the work they are doing. But increasingly, there are a number of industrial meat companies that use these ambiguous terms on their labels, capitalizing on consumers' growing concerns about the problems associated with factory farming.
In order for grass-fed products to truly deliver the benefits described above, lamb and beef must be completely grass-fed. Poultry and pigs are omnivores which mean they will require some grain in their diet, but they, too, should still be pastured, out roaming the fields. Once you've experienced true grass-fed and pastured meat flavors, your palate should be able to tell you when you've been snookered. Grass-fed and pastured meats will be firm, not mushy; their respective meat flavors will be more pronounced. Still, it takes time to be able to readily recognize the flavor and texture differences.
Until then, Jo Robinson, creator of Eatwild.com, and author of Pasture Perfect, insists that the only way to know for sure is to seek out the producers themselves. She encourages consumers to call the phone numbers on the meat packages of meat claiming to be grass-fed. Ask specifically where the animals are raised, what they are fed, and how they are managed.
Most importantly, ask what these animals are fed in the final weeks of their lives. Animals that are primarily raised on grass, but then finished on grain, lose the nutritional, environmental, and social benefits that pure grass-fed meat offers.
Finally, ask if you can visit the farm. Provided you are respectful of their time and busy schedule, legitimate pasture-based farmers will usually welcome your visit to see their operation. An industrially based factory farm will not.
Better still, try to buy your meat directly from the farmer. Pasture-based farms sell their products at farmers' markets all across the country. Many of them are also listed in the farmer directory at EatwiId.com, as well as on several other Internet directories. If you are unable to meet a farmer face-to-face, try visiting a locally-owned food co-op or health food store. Often these shop managers will inspect each farm before agreeing to carry its grass-fed and pastured products in their stores. Grass-fed meats are increasingly available online, either from farms that ship their meats directly, or through grass-fed meat purveyors that market cuts exclusively from farms that they've inspected. If you choose to use one of these online sources, take the time to call them first, asking them to explain their production or selection standards making sure they're providing the quality you expect.