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Beef: It's what's (healthy) for dinner

Fri, May 14th, 2010
Posted in Agriculture

News Item 1: March, 2010 - "Food, Inc.," a documentary film directed by Robert Kenner raising serious questions about the overall health of our American food industry, is nominated for an Academy Award.

News Item 2: May 6, 2010 - The President's Cancer Panel Report is released advising consumers to choose food grown "...without pesticides or chemical fertilizers, antibiotics, and growth hormones to help decrease their exposure to environmental chemicals that can increase their risk of contracting cancer."

News Item 3: May 12, 2010 - News breaks that settlement has been reached in a case involving a Minnesota woman who became paralyzed after eating a tainted hamburger from a shipment of meat traced to Cargill, Inc, the giant Minnesota-based agribusiness.

These items, and many more like them, raise a similar and disturbing question:

"What in the world are we eating and what is it doing to us?"

That question-when applied to the beef industry-has serious, and in the case of Fillmore County, local ramifications. A case is being made by increasing numbers of people that the more we know about beef, and specifically about how cattle are being raised and prepared for our markets, the better off and healthier we'll be.

The terms fly at us: organic, natural, grain-fed, grass-fed, grain-finished. Short of getting a degree in agricultural sciences, how's an average, grocery store shopping customer going to figure out what that all means and what's the best choice?

"The terms can get confusing," says Sara Austin, of Hilltop Pastures Family Farm near Fountain, "and even when you hear them, they don't always mean the same thing to all people."

Technically, all fresh meat is considered natural, according to standards set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). But not all natural meat is organic. That certification requires fully-verifiable information on an animal's total history, including their breed history, veterinary care reports, and feed records (from birth to death). It also means that those cattle were born and raised on certified organic pasture, they never received antibiotics or growth-promoting hormones, were fed only certified organic grains and grasses, and had unrestricted outdoor access their entire lives.

Others, including a number of local farms, are focusing on the benefits of grass-fed beef.

"We describe our meat as grass-fed and finished," explains Sarah who, along with her husband, Tom, raises 30 head of cattle and various other agricultural products on their 40-acre farm. "That means our beef cattle eat no grain at all at any point in their lives."

What are the benefits of that? "There's definitely a flavor difference," she says. "In fact, grassfed beef has a flavor! It's juicier and more tender compared to grain-fed beef."

Steve Vicker, who owns and operates Genetic Resources, Inc., in Lanesboro, a seed stock operation specializing in the support and production of Angus cattle, agrees. "I've talked to people who tell me that the flavor of grass-fed beef reminds them of the beef they used to eat back in the 1940s and 1950s before the growth of giant, grain-fed feed lots."

Beyond flavor is the health issue. Studies are showing that organic and grassfed beef offer important cancer-fighting and other health benefits. "It has to do with the good fatty acids found in this type of beef," says Vicker. "It's a more heart-healthy meat." According to Dr. Tilak Dhiman of Utah State University, "...the more we research grass fed products, the bigger the health advantages to grass feeding get."

Despite taste and health benefits, organic and grass-fed beef still remains a small part of the meat business in America; some estimate corn-based, grain-fed production at over 90 percent of the market. Some of that is due to simple economics: grass-fed products cost more.

"That's true," says Sarah Austin. "Producing grass-fed beef is more expensive. It takes longer. It involves things like rotational grazing and monitoring different grasses. There's an art to it. But it is well worth it. Considering just the health benefits, it's like that old commercial used to say, 'you can pay now, or you can pay later.' We believe that the benefits of this type of meat production more than justify the additional costs."

"There is a substantial price difference," agrees Vicker, who has been in the cattle business for nearly four decades. "But people are getting more willing to pay for these products. They're getting more health-conscious. They want to know where their food is coming from and what kind of conditions the animals are being raised in. In the next few years a variety of issues, including health concerns, animal welfare, and pollution control, are all going to come together to expand the organic and grass-fed market. It's happening more and more, and it's only going to get bigger."

It is happening in Fillmore County. Restaurants like Pedal Pushers in Lanesboro get their meat products from places like Hilltop Family Farms. Many CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) now include meat production and have experienced substantial local growth in the past decade. "We can't keep up with demand in our operation," says Sarah. "It's exciting to see."

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