Beef has come to seem a hazardous substance. If years of warnings about the dangers of saturated fat and heart disease weren't enough, Eric Schlosser's book Fast Food Nation (2001)—with its graphic and disturbing picture of the inhumane working conditions of meatpackers and the contamination from criminally rushed slaughtering and processing—made clear that it is unwise if not foolhardy to eat beef ground by anyone but yourself. Then an article last year by Michael Pollan, in The New York Times Magazine, told us that corn-fed beef, the presumed gold standard for tender, luxurious steak, is far from wholesome. It isn't very good for the people who eat the fat-streaked meat that corn produces, and eating corn is terrible for cattle, which are ruminants meant to chew grass. Corn leaves their digestive tracts susceptible to E. coli and other pathogenic bacteria. Almost all cattle raised for beef are force-fed corn (which costs less to buy than it does to grow, thanks to federal farm subsidies), and the resulting stress makes it necessary to keep them on high doses of antibiotics. "Finishing" for corn-fed beef takes place on vast feedlots, where cattle raised in many parts of the West are trucked to a miserable end. This force-feeding provokes moral hesitations like those raised by that notorious product of force-feeding, foie gras. At least geese are designed to eat corn.
Whatever the current troubles of McDonald's and other burger purveyors, beef remains America's most popular meat. Many meat lovers, alarmed by Schlosser's book and Pollan's article, have decided to go organic—a choice always to be applauded, for the benefits that chemical-free farming brings to the environment and the health of farm workers, and a choice made easier by the adoption last October of a national organic standard. But organic, vexingly, will not necessarily satisfy people who care about flavor and freshness. Once the food industry saw there was a profit to be made, "organic" stopped being a guarantee of attention to flavor or individual care. In the case of beef, "organic" can mean "raised in confinement and given organic corn." And a last-minute legislative provision passed in February, allowing farmers to give livestock non-organic feed and still certify their meat as "organic," threatens to rob the term of all credibility.
There is an alternative: grass-fed beef. Ideally this refers to animals raised in open pastures and fed grass and silage all their lives after weaning. Grass feeding results in far lower levels of saturated fat and high levels of both omega-3 fatty acids (more commonly found in fish, and thought to help prevent heart disease) and the newest darling of the nutritional world—CLA (conjugated linoleic acid), polyunsaturated fat that may help prevent cancer. These benefits, and also higher levels of antioxidants, appear in all food from all animals that eat grass, milk and cheese as well as meat.
As with "organic," though, the lure of a new market willing to pay a premium has led to fudged definitions. Some meat producers use "grass-fed" to describe animals that are raised in pens on industrial feed, including corn, and finished on rations of grass in feedlots far from home. A similar confusion still surrounds "free-range," which can refer to animals that roam where they please or to animals kept in barns and allowed to range in circumscribed yards. No one regulates the use of these terms, and given how many years it took to achieve a national definition of "organic," it may be a long time before anyone does. Determined beef lovers in search of true grass-fed beef have encountered uneven availability and, occasionally, the necessity of buying an entire side of beef at a time (which requires both a very large freezer and the skill to cook lesser cuts). Economic inefficiency and shipping costs lead to higher prices—the usual tariff for more healthful, less industrial food.
The search is worth it. Grass-fed beef tastes better than corn-fed beef: meatier, purer, far less fatty, the way we imagine beef tasted before feedlots and farm subsidies changed ranchers and cattle. I recently visited two ranchers and the founder of a cooperative, all of whom have taken the purist approach to grass-fed beef. Each has managed to meet three big challenges facing ranchers who want to avoid sending their animals to a feedlot: finding slaughterhouses that will accept and process just a few animals at a time and treat them humanely; supplying meat year-round, although grass is seasonal; and selling both prime and secondary cuts. Each offers an easy way to order true grass-fed beef, a step that should lead to a conversion experience. To ensure satisfaction I offer a foolproof recipe for brisket—my mother's.
Any reservations I have about the ethics of eating meat recede when I visit a farm or ranch run by someone who cares deeply about animals and how they live. Culling and, yes, killing a portion of a herd seems a natural way of helping a group of animals and their habitat to thrive. This paradox struck me when I rode last summer in the old tan Suburban of Dale Lasater, a rancher in Matheson, Colorado, an hour or so southeast of Denver. Lasater, a gentle, witty, contemplative man, appears briefly in Fast Food Nation as a corrective model for the beef industry. His father, Tom, himself a third-generation rancher, moved from Texas to Colorado in search of affordable land, and in the 1950s took the heretical step of making his ranch a wildlife sanctuary, refusing to kill predators and pests or, later, to use fertilizers and herbicides. This, he hoped, would allow him to restore nutritive grasses and water reserves to the parched, depleted land he had bought, and to protect the ranch from developers in Denver and Colorado Springs. The Lasaters were influenced by the ideas of Allan Savory, a guru of grasslands management, who advocated a careful rotation of pastures to allow the natural regrowth of grasses.