How to Buy Better Beef:
Do you know how to buy the best beef? We’re not talking the best cuts or perfect prime rib- we’re talking about meat without strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, without food made in a lab, and from cows who were able to live like actual cows. If you aren’t sure what beef labels mean or if you haven’t really thought about this before, then read this post! While you’re at it, our posts about Buying Better Dairy and Buying Better Poultry should be helpful as well! :) This is part of a series of detoxing your life in a year, each month with new tips on how to get rid of chemicals you consume!
Guide to Beef Labels:
All dairy, beef and even chicken are said to have improved health benefits when coming from grass-fed farms. Research shows grass-fed beef helps lower cholesterol, is higher in Omega-3′s, lower in unhealthy fats, and higher in Vitamins A and E. Some studies have shown it can also help fight cancer and lower the risk of diabetes.
The USDA’s regulation of “grass-fed” says they need to have continuous access to the pasture “during growing season”, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t in overcrowded pens the rest of the year. If your meat has a USDA “process verification shield” grass-fed label, it means it was grass-fed for at least 6-12 months, but possibly fed grain after that.
Also, just because it’s grass-fed doesn’t mean it’s organic. The grass could have been sprayed with pesticides, or the cows pumped full of antibiotics or hormones. Some third party labels have higher standards, so if you really want to make sure, look for a label from the American Grass-Fed Association or the Animal Welfare Approved stamp.
For this label, look for “100% grass fed” or “grass finished” beef. Some grass fed cows are “grain finished” before slaughter and lose the good Omega-3’s!
Cattle must be fed an organic diet (which includes NO sewage sludge, yeah… seriously) and cannot be administered antibiotics or growth hormones. Just because it’s organic doesn’t mean it’s grass-fed, but should be if it says both on the label. Organic beef could have been fed certified organic grains, but the animals were not given antibiotics or hormones and live in a pesticide-free environment.
rBGH (also known as: rBST):
You may see beef labels saying it’s from cows “not treated with rBGH” (bovine growth hormone) or “no hormones administered.” This is given to trigger the release of a naturally occurring hormone in cows to increase growth and get them to slaughter weight faster. The USDA says it’s completely safe for consumption, but it’s been banned in all of Europe, Japan, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand because their studies show it has a negative impact on human (and animal) health- including links to breast and colon cancers. To me, if it’s banned everywhere else, I’m going to try to avoid it. You can read more about rBGH and its negative impact on your health here.
Raised without antibiotics:
This implies just what it says: that antibiotics were not given to the cows. The producer must submit documentation supporting the claim, but unless otherwise noted, isn’t independently verified. I would only trust this claim after doing some research on the company or if there’s a third party verification label.
Unless it’s flavored meat, it sure as heck better say “natural.” This disallows the use of artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives, and allows only “minimal processing.” Don’t be fooled by things labeled “all natural”- they could be filled with antibiotics, hormones, sewage sludge, etc.
Instead of looking for “natural” on the label you could look for “naturally raised,” which means the animals were not given antibiotics, artificial hormones, were not fed animal by-products, and didn’t receive anything to make them grow bigger-faster-stronger. Don’t believe a company’s claim without a third party verification sticker. This is definitely not as good as organic, but if that’s not an option you could opt for naturally raised.
Finely Textured Beef or FTB (affectionately known as “pink slime”):
In 2012 our Facebook walls were plastered with viral videos of “pink slime.” Companies who produce “pink slime” have started labeling this as “FTB” or “Finely Textured Beef” (you may also see “Lean Finely Textured Beef”). They claim it really IS 100% ground beef, but if you (don’t believe them or) want to avoid it, look for that label. [This label is new, so not all “FTB” beef will be labeled yet.]
The problem was that FTB was (and still is) treated with ammonia to destroy E. Coli and Salmonella. A company called Beef Products found a way to extract lean meat from scraps that otherwise would’ve been discarded. These scraps are from a part of the cow that harbors high levels of bacteria. This meat is treated with ammonia, flash-frozen, and compressed to help eliminate pathogens. Some say calling it “ground beef” is mislabeling and misleading, since it’s made from connective tissue and fat instead of meat muscle. I will stay away since it’s not organic or grass-fed, and also because those videos were pretty icky. What’s your stance on FTB?
Third Party Certification Quick Guide:
Look for these labels to verify packaging claims and to ensure humane treatment.
The AWA is among the most strict, and supports family farmers who raise their cattle outdoors on pasture or range, with high welfare standards. They also prohibit the use of preventative antibiotics and growth hormones. Hooray!
The AGA requires cattle have constant access to the outdoors and a diet 100% from forage. They prohibit confinement, antibiotics, and hormones. Two thumbs up! :)
This label also has pretty high standards, including no hormones, disallows preventative antibiotic use, no animal by-products in feed, etc. You can read more here. They also have very high standards for their grass-fed label, and is one I would trust.
These labels both ensure your animals were better off than in factory farms and overcrowded feedlots, but their standards aren’t as high as the others. Access to the outdoors isn’t required for many animals, but they have certain standards for indoor environments. To their credit, both disallow hormones and non-theraputic antibiotic use, which is obviously a good thing!
Remember, welfare information isn’t just valuable to animal lovers- the more your cows were able to live like cows should, the healthier the meat will be for you!
Finally, before I get into some recommended tips and brands for you,
What’s Wrong with the Meat in my Grocery Store?
If you haven’t picked up on this yet, the “conventional” way [read: factory farms] of raising cows isn’t cutting it. Research has shown that meat found in your grocer’s aisle has MRSA, E Coli, Penicillin (which can cause life-threatening reactions to those allergic), and Ivermectin, which is a wormer that can cause neurological problems in humans.
Please don’t think these antibiotics are helping you secretly fight off your yearly Spring sinus infection either… 30 million pounds of antibiotics are given to livestock yearly, and one of the results is more strains of drug-resistant bacteria are being created. For my local NC friends, here’s a fun fact: Animals in North Carolina consume more antibiotics in a year than the entire American public.
Believe it or not, I’m not trying to scare you here. I do want you to be aware that your meat might not be what you think it is, and that paying the extra for organic meat is worth the cost. If I can’t buy what I consider good meat then I eat vegetarian. See how to get “complete protein” through veggies in the links below!
Beef Buying Guide:
This buying guide is pretty short and sweet (for once- yay!) Look at the labels above, see what your grocery offers, mathemetize what you can afford, and buy it. I try to always buy grass-fed, USDA-certified Organic beef. If that’s not available, I opt for one or the other, or a naturally raised or rBST and antibiotic-free meat.
Here’s my priority list:
- Organic + Grass-fed
- Grass-fed (with third party certification)
- Naturally Raised (with third party certification)
- Raised without antibiotics (with third party certification)
- Hormone-free (and if they don’t have at least this, then I won’t buy any beef!)
Some brands I have found are Organic Prairie (organic), DK Naturals (organic + grass-fed), anything at Whole Foods (no hormones or antibiotics), and Earthfare’s Food Philosophy says all their fresh meat is hormone-and-antibiotic-free. Don’t assume Trader Joe’s meat is up to these standards unless it specifically says! Costco has the best prices with their organic, grass-fed choices like Organic Ranchers and other brands like the Kirkland brand and Verde Farms, which are organic but not grass-fed, or grass-fed but grain-finished. What brands have you found that work for you?
You may have heard that grass-fed tastes and cooks a little different than what you’re used to, so here’s an article to help with that! I personally haven’t had any trouble and still think it’s delicious. :)
Your best option is always going to be finding a local farmer, finding out how they raise their animals, and buying their products. If your one of my Piedmont Triad friends, you should check out Summerfield Farm’s Grassfed Beef!
Here are some resources to help you find a farm that meets your standards:
Local Farm Resources:
- Local Harvest– use this to find CSA’s, grass-fed dairies, restaurants serving local food, etc
- Eat Wild – find a local grass-fed farm
- Eat Local Grown
- American Grass Fed’s search for “beef“
- Farmstand App – see who’s coming to your local farmer’s market!
- Search for your own local Farmer’s Market Delivery service or CSA pick-up. Here in NC I have loved using Backyard Produce and The Produce Box.
In the comments, let me know any questions you have, brands you like, or your thoughts on this topic!
Sources and Interesting Reading:
Should you even eat red meat?:
- Mark’s Daily Apple – Will Eating Red Meat Kill You?
- American Heart Association- Eat Less Red Meat
- Harvard Medical School- Red Meat and Heart Disease
How gross is our meat?
- Mark’s Daily Apple- What You Should Know About Beef Production Claims
- The Green Guide- Decoding Supermarket Labels
- Food Renegade- Beef Labels
- Brady’s Idaho Beef- What is Grass-Finished Beef?
Grass-fed vs Grain-fed
- Mark’s Daily Apple- Differences Between Grass-fed and Grain-fed Beef
- Chris Kresser- Grass-fed Trumps Grain-fed
Meat Buying Tips:
Plant Protein Information:
- Fit Sugar- What is a Complete Protein?
- Greatist- 12 Complete Proteins Vegetarians Need to Know About
- No Meat Athlete- Protein- A Primer for Vegetarians
The Fit Tutor’s Pinterest Boards: