How meat gets to your plate
Organic beef is raised without antibiotics or growth hormones. The nutritious benefits that await on your plate reflect the careful feeding of cattle destined to be organic.
The question is no longer, “Where’s the beef”? Now the diner getting ready to tuck into that steak or roast may well ask, “Where’s this beef from”?
Canadians are re-examining their eating habits and preferences, including whether or not to eat meat. For a growing number of people who eat meat, the origins of the meat they are eating—where animals were raised, what they were fed, how they were treated both during their lives and at the time of slaughter—are as important as how well-marbled, juicy, and tasty that steak is.
It’s dining with both a conscience and a heightened interest in health. Following publication of books such as Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation (Houghton Mifflin, 2000) and Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma (Penguin, 2007) and the release of movies such as Food, Inc., we have become acutely aware that how our food has been raised or grown affects not only our personal health, but also the health of our planet.
The issue is a complex one that involves an industrial food production system, once touted as the saviour of a burgeoning and hungry world population, which seems to have lost its way. We are allegedly the best-fed people in the world, yet we suffer from a multitude of diseases such as diabetes, chronic hypertension, and morbid obesity.
We blamed carbs, we blamed fats, we blamed animal products such as eggs and meat. But meat can be an essential part of a healthy diet—and it doesn’t need to be just chicken or fish. Red meat is a healthy option too, particularly for women during their menstruating years when they need more iron in their diets than men do.
When meat is on the menu, make it organic, grass-fed, and sustainably, humanely raised. The way we have been raising meat has not only created huge environmental problems, but
has also produced food that isn’t very good for us.
Take beef, for example. Cows are ruminants, they eat grass. Like any other creature, they are happiest and healthiest when they are eating a diet that suits them. But roaming the range to eat the tasty greens underfoot is time-consuming, and time, when it comes to industrial food, is money.
We have created a system whereby cattle, once they reach a certain age, are herded together in feedlots and fed grains, primarily corn and soy. These make them grow faster, but they’re alien to the cow’s digestive system, setting the animal up for indigestion or worse.
That, coupled with the stressful and crowded conditions of a feedlot, make it a sure bet the animals will get sick. To prevent that, they are given antibiotics, which eventually end up in our systems and also in the soil and the groundwater where the animals are kept.
Greening the industry
Consumer demand for safer meat products has led to the growth of Canada’s organic meat industry. Canada’s organic standards are stringent, and when you buy organically certified meat, you are assured that it is meat that has met all the organic requirements, says Mark Hills of Hills Foods. His company sells exotic and organic meats to consumers, restaurants, and food stores throughout the Vancouver area.
Cattle raised for organic meat are not given antibiotics or growth hormones. They do receive preventive medical care such as vitamins, minerals, and vaccines. Their feed is 100 percent organically produced and is free from animal byproducts.
Certified organic beef producers must also comply with strict production, animal welfare, and processing requirements to an organic standard set by a certifying body. Furthermore, organic beef production requires an audit trail and an annual third-party (independent) verification.
Grain-fed versus grass-fed
Hills says most of the organic beef he sells is grain-finished, because that is what consumers demand. However, grass-fed and -finished cattle offer a cleaner, leaner meat. Both types of meat contain saturated fat, but grass-fed cattle produce meat with higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids and lower levels of omega-6 fatty acids in a healthier ratio than cattle fed grain.
A 2009 study compared the nutrients of grass-fed and -finished beef with standard grain-finished beef. Researchers found that grass-fed and -finished beef is lower in fat, and higher in beta carotene, calcium, magnesium, potassium, vitamin E, and the B vitamins thiamine and riboflavin.
Grass-fed beef is higher in conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a substance that research is showing may be a cancer fighter. Grass-fed beef is also lower in the saturated fats that have been linked to heart disease.
Seek out 100 percent grass-fed and -finished beef for the healthiest option. It takes longer to bring a grass-fed animal to full weight, hence the higher price. But it’s a price worth paying, both for your own health and the health of the planet.
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Vincent Stufano, executive chef at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler, offers these tips for getting the best texture and flavour from your organic meats:
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Feeding and finishing (fattening) cattle
Virtually all calves in Canada begin life grazing with their mothers on pasture and grassland throughout their first spring, summer, and fall. Depending on their weight, they are eventually switched to a high-energy grain feeding program.
In western Canada cattle are finished with barley-based feed that creates white-coloured fat. Cattle finished in central and eastern Canada are finished with corn and barley.
To be certified organic, cattle must be fed strictly organic certified feed that’s been harvested and processed in organic certified facilities.
What it means
|fed grain feed|
start out on grass as calves; switched to grain to facilitate weight gain
|grass-fed||fed only grass or forage||grass-fed most of their lives, but may be finished on grains for the last 90 to 160 days before slaughter to facilitate weight gain|
|fattened on grain|
may be grass-fed and/or grain-fed during their lifetime; are fed grain for the last 90 to 160 days before slaughter
fattened on grass
may be grass-fed or grain-fed during their lifetime; are fed grass for at least the last 90 to 160 days before slaughter