Grass-fed Beef: Is It Green, Humane, and Healthful?
By Gene C. Sager Professor of Environmental Ethics, Palomar College



"Grass-fed" has now become a food buzz word. Advocates contrast grass-fed beef to beef produced by Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) and claim that grass-fed beef is greener, more humane, and more healthful. But just how green, how humane, and how healthful is it? We need to evaluate grass-fed beef from a variety of angles and by comparing it to several different kinds of meat production, beginning with the much maligned CAFO (feedlot) mode of production.

CAFO beef are fed mostly corn and soy during the last 6 months of their lives; grass-fed consume only grass and hay. Production of corn and soy for beef cattle (instead of for humans) is a very inefficient use of resources. Grass-fed is in some ways less resource-costly. CAFO cattle are confined in feedlots and given antibiotics and hormones; grass-fed are free-range and are given antibiotics and hormones. 

CAFO feedlots collect vast amounts of manure in a small area, causing air pollution when the wind blows and water pollution when it rains. Grass-fed cattle are natural manure spreaders, and if not overgrazed, distribute fertilizer throughout the pasture. 

CAFO beef has high levels of cholesterol and saturated fat but low levels of omega fats and vitamin E. Grass-fed has less cholesterol, less saturated fat, more omega fats, and more vitamins. Grass-fed also contains conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which may be an anti-carcinogen.

Grass-fed methods of beef production are better for the environment, better for the cattle, and better for the consumer¹s health. Better than CAFO beef production, that is. We need to take a closer look to determine whether grass-fed beef is, in itself, a wise food choice.

How Green is Grass-fed Beef? If grass-fed beef is a truly green product, it would surely be organic. However, there is much confusion on this score. Consumers tend to assume that grass-fed is organic; the perception is that grass-fed is "natural" so it must be organic. Here, we enter the murky waters of certification and labeling. The reality is most governmental and independent organizations that certify and label meat products do not require grass-fed to be organic.   

The American Grass-fed Association (AGA) label on a package does mean it is organic. The published standards of AGA do not indicate that the beef is organic. The Eatwild organization lists farmers who produce grass-fed beef, but the published standards for earning an Eatwild listing does not include the organic requirement.

How can a grass-fed product fail to be organic? Sometimes herbicides like Grazon P&D and Redeem R&P are sprayed on the hayfield or on the pasture itself to control the weeds. The herbicide toxins will eventually travel up into the flesh of the cattle as they eat and also down into the groundwater and eventually into our wells, streams, lakes, rivers, and oceans. Many grass-fed farmers in Canada and the United States have to grow hay (or buy it) to feed their cattle. The pasture grasses die back or are covered with snow during cold months. Although not as inefficient as growing corn to produce beef, grass-fed methods are inefficient in that they often require not only a pasture but an additional field to grow hay. 

The inefficiency of all beef production ‹ that is, its resource-intensity ‹ is nowhere more evident than when we take a look at a slaughter house. Whether the animal was finished by CAFO methods or by grass-fed methods, the slaughtering and meat packing process involves vast amounts of energy and water.

Anyone who has seen cleaning crews working at a slaughter house knows what a messy business it is. Workers must wield high-pressure hoses that shoot steaming hot water and chemicals. Automated clean-up requires even more power and water. By comparison, preparing broccoli or spinach for the market is a simple process.  

Refrigeration is an essential part of beef production and storage, and the electricity and fossil fuels required is in stark contrast to getting a product like pinto beans on your shelf. Once the beans are dry, no refrigeration is required. 

Because grass-fed beef production requires more grazing land for longer periods of time, it exacerbates the problems that grazing has always caused. Whereas CAFO cattle are grazed before going to the feedlot, grass-fed require pasture their entire lives. So, is grass-fed beef green?

By my reckoning, CAFO beef is not green at all, so I hesitate to say that grass-fed is "greener." Grass-fed is not organic, and its production is inefficient because of the large amounts of land, water, power, and fossil fuels required. Thus grass-fed amplifies existing grazing is-sues: loss of rainforests and other lands, erosion, wildlife habitat problems, and the use of public lands for grazing.

All analogies are somewhat faulty, but we need to compare the CAFO-to-grass-fed change to a parallel change. Arrowhead¹s pint-size plastic drinking water bottles have a new "Eco-Shape;" they are "designed with an average of 30% less plastic, to be easier on the environment." Is this a real green contribution, or is it a small change to a product that is still unfriendly to the environment?  Perhaps grass-fed cattle are cows with a new "Eco-Shape" but still a serious problem for the environment.

Is Grass-fed Beef Humane? The full concept of humane treatment of livestock covers a wide variety of issues such as confinement, stress levels, diet, drugs, and. Handling questions include prodding, castration, and identification (branding and tagging). Transfer (as in trucking cattle to the slaughter-house) and method of slaughter are perennial issues. Surely, we would hope the beef we buy comes from cattle that are treated well throughout the production process, not just in regard to confinement and feed issues.

Grass-fed beef production is clearly more humane than CAFO production, especially because the animals are not confined in a feedlot. Cattle are ruminants; confinement in a crowded dirt plot with 100¹s or 1,000¹s of other animals stifles their natural behaviors. 

But apart from the comparison to CAFO beef, is grass-fed beef a humane food choice?  The first red flag I saw when researching the certification standards of grass-fed organizations was the brief mention of humane treatment in the published materials from the American Grass-fed Association.

The AGA standards statement devotes several pages to feed issues but only two lines deal with humane treatment. AGA says grass-fed farmers should "support" humane handling, transfer, and slaughter. (Standards Statement 3.3.1) These three aspects of humane treatment are complicated processes and such cursory reference to these issues means little importance is attached to them.

An example of an issue relating to humane treatment is the problem of transferring cattle in trucks or trains. Almost all beef production, whether grass-fed or not, involves the transfer of cattle to the slaughterhouse, usually by truck. No matter how careful the driver, the animals are liable to suffer from extreme stress, thirst, and exhaustion.

Let us look at one more humane treatment topic ‹ the method of slaughter. The Humane Farm Animal Care organization (HFAC) inspects slaughterhouses and will not certify a farmer who uses a slaughterhouse that fails to meet HFAC standards. Cattle are usually stunned with a captured bolt pistol. If it does not render the animal unconscious by the time it reaches the bleed rail (the next stage after the kill) it has to be re-stunned.

HFAC rules state that if more than two animals in 1,000 are still sensible when they reach the bleed rail, the slaughter plant receives a warning and must re-evaluate its pistol or handler. Plants often apply a head restraint before stunning, and sometimes this apparatus is faulty.

In general, the moral issues relating to slaughter involve both the problem of the pain caused to the animal in this process, and the issue of the right to deprive the animal of its life. For some of us, a 2 in 1,000 error margin is too big a risk; the animal may agonize in the throes of dying. There is also this general moral position which cannot be ignored: taking the life of an innocent sentient being is never right. For a person holding this principle, slaughter is never humane.

Is Grass-fed Beef a Healthful Food Choice? Advocates of grass-fed beef point out that it has many nutrients: iron, calcium, protein, and a range of vitamins. It also contains omega fats and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). Grass-fed is somewhat lower in cholesterol and saturated fat than CAFO beef.

By comparison to CAFO, grass-fed sounds like a health food, but one would think a health food would be organic; as we saw, grass-fed is not necessarily organic. Grass-fed does contain cholesterol and saturated animal fat, which most people try to avoid. Perhaps these flaws offset the advantages offered by the iron, vitamins, omegas, etc.

In fact, the advantages, the "good contents" of grass-fed can be found in other products, even in non-meat products. There is abundant iron in beans and lentils; for iron and many other nutrients, try quinoa. Nuts, dark leafy greens and whole grains are rich in vitamin E (a vitamin supplied by grass-fed beef).

Essential fatty acids are available in flax, avocados and many oils such as olive, safflower, and sunflower. Of course, we do not need to consume all of these foods at one sitting or even in one day; our bodies use the nutrients as needed, storing some of them for future use.

Research on CLA (conjugated linoleic acid) is still sparse, but in any case there are well-known cancer-fighting vegetables readily available, notably the Brassicaceae family of plants which includes broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower. Modern researchers affirm that a well-balanced vegetarian diet provides adequate nutrition, including all of the "health food" nutrients of grass-fed we enumerated above.

In Conclusion I am afraid the bottom line is this: All beef production is a complex, messy, and inefficient business. Compared to producing vegetables and grains, beef production involves more energy and other resources, including the power for refrigeration of the product; and if grass-fed production grows, we will face a global problem of grazing space, as it replaces other land uses.

Finally, we have to consider a range of issues about humane treatment, issues that arise only in relation to animal products. So we need a comprehensive approach to grass-fed beef ‹ one that asks," All considered, is grass-fed beef a good wise food choice? "

Gene Sager is Professor of Philosophy at Palomar College. He enjoys teaching and writing about contemporary moral and spiritual topics; he has published articles on such issues as diet and the environment, simplicity, aging, and nature-deficit disorder. His favorite occupation is moon watching.


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