So you always buy free range chicken and you make a point of selecting outdoor reared pork. Looked at from any angle naturally produced meat is better for the environment, creates higher standards of animal welfare and produces safer, more nutritious food. But beef is beef right? After all Cows eat grass don’t they? We have all seen them cheerfully grazing in fields of lush pasture or lying contentedly chewing the cud in the shade of an old sycamore tree. Surely beef is one meat that is almost by definition ‘free-range’?
Well yes and no. In most of Europe open grazing is still overwhelmingly the model used for beef production. But in North America 95% of beef is produced using an intensive farming system called a ‘feed-lot’. Typically cattle are pastured until they reach their ‘entry weight’, about 300kg. This occurs shortly after weaning at anything from 6 to 12 months. At this point they are moved to a confined animal feeding operation known as a CAFO or more colloquially a feed-lot.
Basically that means a pen containing dozens, hundreds or even thousands of cattle. Here they are fed a specialised, high calorie diet of mainly grain, but with vitamins, minerals and a regulated dosage of growth hormones included. This diet causes the beast to deposit fat which gives a desirable marbled character to the beef, but above all the animal gains weight. In only three or four months in the feed lot cattle will add an extra 180kg, greatly increasing their value on the fat stock market. This system produces the greatest quantity of beef in the shortest possible time, but there are consequences
First of all the beats are kept in high density pens, knee deep in mud and their own effluent without sight of grass. So forget those bucolic images of happy grazing cows.
In the feed-lot they are fed grain, lots of it. A diet of maize, barley, soya beans or other grain help the beasts to gain up to three pounds (1.5kg) per day. But since it takes roughly seven pounds of grain to produce one pound of beef that adds up to an awful lot of grain. And guess where that grain comes from? Increasingly it is imported from developing nations. Often it is grown on virgin land cleared from primal forest or bush. Next time you hear a statistic that an area of rainforest the size of Belgium is being lost every year, remember all those burgers you ate last year.
So it’s bad for the cows and bad for the planet but wait, it’s also bad for you.
Corn fed beef is much fattier than grass fed beef, and therefore more calorific. On a 6oz steak the difference is around 100 calories. Since the average American consumes 67lbs of beef each year, that adds up to a whopping 18,000 calories per year.
Grass is rich in Omega 3 fatty acids. Omega 3s are essential for healthy bodily function and cannot be synthesized. That is they only come from our diet. Grass fed beef contains up to four times more Omega 3 fatty acids than grain fed beef.
On the other hand a high ratio of Omega 6 fatty acids to Omega 3 is linked with an increased risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, allergies, depression, obesity, and autoimmune disorders. Ideally the ratio should be no more than 4 to 1. In grass fed beef it is typically 2 to 1, but in corn fed meat that rises to around 14 to 1.
I could go on. Grass fed, as opposed to corn fed beef, is much richer in Essential B and E vitamins, in beta -carotene, in minerals including magnesium, calcium, potassium and in health giving “conjugated linoleic acid” or CLAs, and more. But you get the point.
So why do I care? What exactly, if you will pardon the expression, is my beef? Here in the EU we don’t import much beef from the USA . All those growth hormones and antibiotics used in American feed-lots are banned in Europe in meat for human consumption.
Well to my surprise, only a few miles from my current home in Louth, Lincolnshire, there is one enterprising farmer who is adopting the American feed-lot system for beef production right here in the UK. On a disused air field at Manby, behind high walls of straw bales (no planning consent required) almost 3,000 head of cattle are being fattened up as we speak.
Local residents have complained about the ‘foul stench’ and worry about the impact all that effluent is having on the local water table. (The area is prone to flooding.) East Lindsey District Council admit they have had dozens of complaints.
The animal welfare charity, Compassion in World Farming, which campaigns against factory farming, has called for a thorough investigation of the site claiming that the animals have nowhere dry to lie down..
But it seems there is nothing illegal about keeping cows this way, or selling the beef produced there. Responding to a BBC reporter, the owner pointed out that they are regularly inspected by DEFRA, the Trading Standards Authority and others, even including the Red Tractor certification authority.
I have nothing against the individual farmer, who has recently applied for planning consent for a large expansion of the feed-lot. But surely this kind of factory farming is not the way we want European agriculture to develop?
At the very least consumers should be made aware of what kind of beef they are getting. The evidence shows that, when given a choice, a significant proportion of consumers choose free-range produce from farms that adopt high standards of animal welfare. But as things stand there is no way to tell exactly where your steak came from.
That is why I have started this E-Petition to demand that factory farmed beef is labeled for what it is, and to let producers identify free-range beef in the same way that chicken or eggs are classified. Please sign it if you agree and pass it on. Consumer power only works with the free flow of information.