When you see meat that’s labeled “grass-fed,” it means that after these animals are weaned, they eat only grass—and whatever other green stuff they might find growing where they graze—for the rest of their lives. During the winter, when nothing much is growing in the pasture, the animals can be confined in pens and fed dried grass (hay). But during the green season, they have to be allowed to roam around freely and graze..

Is Grass-Fed Beef Better for You?

What’s the alternative? Well, virtually all cattle start out eating grass. But when they’re 6 to 12 months old, most of the cattle that are raised in the U.S. are eventually sent to feed-lots, where they eat corn and other grains for the balance of their lives. It turns out that feeding cows grain instead of grass fattens them up quickly. (The same seems to be true of people!) The end result—in the case of the cows, that is—is meat with a higher fat content, and animals that are ready for slaughter sooner. 

Ironically, the term “corn-fed” used to be a good thing—signifying well-marbled, flavorful beef. How times have changed! 

Is Grain Unhealthy for Cows?

Critics point out that grain is not a natural diet for cud-chewers like cows and that feeding corn to cows causes digestive problems and generally makes them sickly. (Even though humans are not cud chewers and have completely different digestive systems, there are those that argue that a grain-based diet makes us sickly as well.) Most grain-fed cattle get antibiotics mixed into the feed to help keep them healthier—which has definite downsides. (See my article, Antibiotics in Meat.)

If you’re fattening your cows on corn, you also can keep them in a feed lot where you simply fill up tubs with the grain. This allows farmers to keep lots and lots of cows in a relatively small amount of space. For grass-fed cows, you need, well, grass—and lots of it. Instead of standing around in crowded feedlots, grass-fed cows get to be out there where the antelopes roam for at least part of the year. Even though the cows have to work a little harder for their supper, a lot of people feel that the pasture lifestyle is a whole lot nicer and healthier for the cow.

Is Grass-Fed Beef Any Safer?

Labeling regulations and certification programs are helpful but if you want the details on how your food is being raised, there’s really no substitute for knowing your farmer.

One of the ways that we humans defend ourselves against food-borne pathogens like E. coli is by bathing our food in stomach acid, which kills most of the bacteria. Advocates of grass-fed beef claim that a grain-based diet acidifies the digestive tract of the cows, which encourages the growth of E. coli that are more tolerant of acidic environments and, therefore, more dangerous to humans.

However, this widely-believed theory has not borne up well under scrutiny. Analysis of beef products in the marketplace consistently finds the same rates of bacterial contamination in the grass-fed meat as in the grain-fed meat—including the most dangerous strains. I’m afraid that until they invent a cow that doesn’t poop, E. coli will always be a threat.   



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