Since starting Paleo we have become increasingly mindful of our food choices and also much more aware of the various descriptions given to food production and what they really mean. Terms like ‘organic’, ‘natural’, ‘grass-fed’ and ‘free-range’ do not necessarily guarantee that what we are eating is the best that we can get for our health, for the animal, or for the environment.
At the 2014 Savory Institute Conference, Daphne Miller reminded us how the label ‘free-range’ does not automatically mean that chickens are reared in a particular way – see the picture below. See also this article. Chickens raised on pasture, for instance at the inspirational Free Union Grass Farm in Virginia – see how they raise their poultry here and here – is surely preferable and scratching around a field eating a myriad of bugs, grains and scraps seems a much more fitting way for a chicken to spend its life. The effect of stressful conditions and overcrowding has an impact on the quality of the eggs and meat as well as having consequences for our own health in addition to that of the chickens – see the second photo below.
As for chickens, so with cows. How can we guarantee that the conditions they are raised in are not only beneficial for the cow, but also for our health and for the environment? These issues were explored in the recent Horizon programme Should I Eat Meat? but I felt the programme to be superficial and clearly agenda-driven (see my review here and here). It left the viewer with the impression that a) eating factory-farmed chickens is the best we can do for our health and the environment and b) eating more than 100g of red meat a day will make you ill (and wreck the environment). Sadly it failed to fully discuss the many beneficial effects of pasture raised meat and the importance of ruminants to our ecosystem.
Upon starting Paleo, it very quickly became clear that great importance is placed on 100% pasture raised meat. I wanted to find out as much as I could about it and also to secure a reliable source. My search has taken me a while, but more about that later. Let’s firstly look at why pasture raised meat is the best choice we can make.
Grass fed meat is healthier for us
Pasture raised meat is higher in Omega-3s. Omega-3 is an essential fatty acid that we need to obtain from our food as the body cannot make it. This polyunsaturated fat is anti-inflammatory and so has many benefits such as protection against cancer, arthritis, and heart disease. It is especially important for brain health and Omega-3 supplementation could be beneficial for those with Alzheimer’s and other neurological diseases – see here. The Omega-3 to Omega-6 ratio is important as an excess of Omega-6 (from sources such as vegetable oils) can conversely cause inflammation. The longer cattle are fed grain, the more the Omega-3 is reduced:
“When cattle are taken off Omega-3 rich grass and shipped to a feedlot to be fattened on Omega-3 poor grain, they begin losing their store of this beneficial fat. Each day that an animal spends in the feedlot, its supply of Omega-3s is diminished.” See here.
It is believed that the diet of our Paleolithic ancestors was roughly equal in Omega-3 to Omega-6, whereas the average Western diet has ratios of 15:1 in favour of Omega-6 – see here. Therefore, it would make sense to eat foods that are well balanced and rich in Omega-3s.
Pasture raised meat is higher in CLA (conjugated linoleic acid). This fatty acid is found in the meat and dairy products of ruminant animals and is thought to be protective against cancer, heart disease and general inflammation. See this excellent article on the benefits of CLA by Caveman Doctor.
Pasture raised meat is higher in Vitamin E, an antioxidant that may be beneficial in protecting against cancer, heart disease and inflammatory conditions such as Alzheimer’s – see here. Levels are 3 times higher in pasture raised animals than in grain fed animals. A 200g serving of meat provides 1.6mg out of the recommended 15mg per day, so while it is important to ensure additional food sources of Vitamin E, it still compares favourably with grain fed meat (and when taken together with other advantages).
Pasture raised meat is higher in B Vitamins, as well as minerals calcium, magnesium, and potassium.
For additional information on the health benefits of pasture raised meat, see the following articles:
A review of fatty acid profiles and antioxidant content in grass-fed and grain-fed beef
Health Benefits of Grass-Fed Products
The importance of the ratio of omega-6/omega-3 essential fatty acids.
A Study Of The Nutritional and Health Benefits of Grass-Fed Beef
Grass fed meat is healthier for the animal
As in the case of humans, raising cattle on the food that they have evolved to eat seems like a perfectly simple and sensible idea. A cow’s digestive system has evolved to process grass, not grain. A natural, pastured diet for a ruminant must surely be the healthiest option for the animal and conversely for those that consume it. There is some evidence that the larger feedlot system of finishing cattle is becoming popular in the UK with cattle numbers in the thousands finished over a 3 month period with grain and supermarket by-products such as bread and biscuit meal. Ingredients from the bakery, confectionery, pastry and breakfast cereal industries may also be used to finish.
Soya is an additional ingredient of cattle feed and is also used to feed pigs and chickens. There has been clearance of huge areas of rainforest in South America to grow soy:
“Soy production has already destroyed 21 million hectares of forest in Brazil, and 80 million hectares, including portions of the Amazon basin.” Food For Thought – Soybean Endangers Brazil Amazon Rainforest
Health problems for cows fed on grain include acidosis as a result of feeding increased amounts of carbohydrates – see here. Feedlot bloat may also be a problem: ‘most frequently caused by indigestion caused by acidosis’ – see here.
In addition to their diet, it would make sense that ruminants are more contented in their natural environment as opposed to spending extended periods of time in feeding lots. The ability to move around in the open air on pasture and not be crowded in small spaces must surely reduce stress. As with humans, minimizing chronic stress improves health.
Grass fed meat is healthier for the environment
The digestive process of ruminants produces manure which increases soil health and biodiversity. Healthy soils result in healthy plants, healthy animals that eat those plants and healthier humans that eat those animals. When we raise and grow our food, soil health is critical and poor soil quality has detrimental effects on a wide variety of flora and fauna. Ruminants fit into this natural system and we tamper with this at our peril. Grazing animals can also make the most efficient use of large areas of grasslands unsuitable for growing crops – particularly important if we are to feed a continually expanding population.
The importance of using pasture raised ruminants to heal the soil fits within a wider concept of ‘holistic management’ as advocated by the Savory Institute. Holistic management ensures that decisions are based on objectives which take into account such things as economic, social, cultural and environmental factors. By mimicking the movements of vast herd of ruminants across the land that would have taken place thousands of years ago, responsibly managed livestock has been shown to improve soil health and reverse desertification in many parts of the world. Conversely, removing grazing animals from the ecosystem has resulted in problems for the environment (and our health).
Realising that we cannot extricate ourselves from the whole and make successful decisions without taking into account these things is a vital step in the production of our food. What we feed cows is what we feed ourselves, is what we feed the soil, is what we feed the environment and subsequently all the repercussions that this has. Seeing this ‘bigger picture’ is also a central objective of the Permaculture movement:
“Permaculture is the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive systems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems. It is the harmonious integration of the landscape with people providing their food, energy, shelter and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way.” Graham Bell, The Permaculture Way.
“Permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labour; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single product system.” Bill Mollison
Farmer Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms also encourages this holistic thinking and advocates multi-use farming systems that are based around the most efficient use of the land and the livestock – see his video on pasture raised cattle here and read notes from his talks at the Savory Institute Conference here.
How easy is it to find pasture raised meat?
Although we have access to high quality, locally reared meat from cows that are fed on grass for most of their life, it has been our goal to find a source of 100% pasture raised meat. However, it was proving to be quite difficult until recently. I began my search 18 months ago: contacting producers, supermarkets, butchers, talking to various people, etc. On my trip to Paleo f(x) 2014 in Austin, I was able to meet some of the US farmers that raise their livestock entirely on grass and find out about the American Grassfed Association. I returned even more determined to find a source of 100% pasture fed meat.
Upon enquiry – and when pushed – many producers that I contacted had admitted to finishing on grain. There is a big difference between meat labelled as ‘grass fed’ (this can mean that for some or most of the animal’s life it was fed grass) and 100% pasture raised (fed on nothing else but pasture and hay or forage). Attending the Savory Institute Conference also opened my eyes to the benefits of responsible livestock management and the inextricable link to both soil and human health – see my notes here. At the conference I was also able to speak to Ben Reid and Sara Gregson from the Pasture Fed Livestock Association and at last an end to my long and convoluted search was in sight.
The PFLA is a fairly young organisation (formed 2009) that promotes the benefits of exclusively pasture raised meat. Membership includes producers, consumers, farmers, butchers and retailers. To join and be promoted by the PFLA, producers or retailers need to adhere to a set of standards and be open to independent inspection. The Pastoral label reassures the consumer that what they are buying is 100% pasture raised meat with no exceptions. The standards relate not only to what the animal is fed, but provide the framework for an ‘efficient, productive and sustainable system of farming’.
The PFLA had some excellent coverage recently on BBC’s Countryfile (not available on i-player at the time of writing) and demonstrated the impressive barcode system they have developed to provide maximum traceability to the consumer.
Scanning the list of producers that the PFLA have on their website, we were lucky enough to find a local farmer, John Price. However, he had very recently moved farms so I set about looking up ‘John Price’ on the internet (which is quite a common name in Wales). I asked around if anyone knew where he farmed and made quite a few phone calls (including one to a bemused accountant and another to an equally bemused farmer) but no luck. I was beginning to think that my search was doomed. PFLA came to the rescue again and managed to get his new number and we finally went to see him last week.
We met John and Patsy Price and their three children at Cwmnewynydd Farm on a warm September evening. The Prices farm around 242 acres and raise Belted Galloway cattle and Welsh Mountain sheep. The cattle graze from the lowest ground on the farm in the Usk valley to the highest part of the open hill on the Brecon Beacons and John kindly took us up on the quad to see the cattle grazing in the dip of the valley in the distance. It was a truly spectacular view (see the photos below). The cattle are born and raised outdoors, eating only pasture all year round and the hardy breed is especially suited to stay out on the hills throughout the winter. Belted Galloways are thought to originate from crossing the ancient Galloway cattle native to Scotland and the Dutch Belted cow (Lakenvelder) in the 17th and 18th Centuries. As John explained, legend has it that the drovers easily lost sight of the Galloways during the long winter nights due to the darkness of their coats. To solve this problem, the farmers decided to cross some of them with the Belted so that the distinctive white belt around their middle shone out at dusk, and made them easily seen by the drovers. Watching the cattle up there on the mountains really did put things into perspective. It was a very special evening.
We bought a selection of meat and John explained how the barcoding system works. By scanning the code we were able to access web pages that told us the herd number, animal number, breed, sex, date of birth, abattoir and processing details, as well as all the information about the farmer and farm. It is a very impressive system. Other than raising the cattle ourselves, this felt the closest we could possibly get to the source of our meat.
Finally, after such a long journey we come to possibly the most important question of all. What does it taste like? We cooked some rump steaks and served them with a roasted squash and some Swiss chard from the garden sautéed with garlic. The meat was tender and the flavour superb. The fat tasted delicious – rich and buttery and quite unlike the fat from a ‘normal’ steak. I am so looking forward to trying the other cuts that we bought.
Thinking about how good it tasted – as well as all the other benefits – I wondered why it is that pasture raised meat is not more popular. I have always believed that consumer demand for this will grow, but the PFLA is looking for more producers so it seems that the problem is with finding producers rather than generating consumer demand. Why is this?
During the course of my search, I have had some debate about the way in which grain finishing is able to bulk up the carcass quickly and whether the carcasses of pasture raised cattle can favourably compare to those of grain finished (in terms of the amount of meat and fat present and the ‘bulk’ of the carcass). I have compared two carcasses side by side but I can only speak purely as a consumer and of course cannot claim to have knowledge of raising or selling cattle. My response was that even if that were the case we have to redefine what we think is a ‘better’ carcass and look at quality not quantity. I was pleased to see this following sentence in the PFLA standards:
“Pasture-Fed systems often require a fundamental change in perspective on the part of the producer and they are likely to require a similar change in the way animals are judged in competitive events.”
This seems to me the heart of the matter. A change of perspective is indeed needed. Not just for producers, retailers or judges, but for any consumer that cares about the food they are buying.
Our transition from hunter gatherers to farmers and the health problems associated with this change are the subject of much debate and are discussed elsewhere on this site. Paleo does not seek to replicate a hunter gatherer lifestyle but only to use it as a template and as a possible solution to some of the many problems that we encounter in 21st Century living. Of course, raising and eating animals or vegetables for food is something that would have been completely alien to our Paleolithic ancestors. However, with this necessity comes a responsibility that we must take on and nowhere is this responsibility heavier than in how we feed and raise the sentient beings that we eat. This accountability stretches from the pasture to the plate and beyond to the long-term consequences for our health and the environment. However, why complicate things more than we need to? If we attempt to mimic nature as much as is practically possible then perhaps we can ensure a positive outcome. Feeding cows their natural diet instead of industrially manufactured grain produce and the by-products of the bakery and confectionery industry is a fantastic start. Support 100% pasture raised producers!
With greatest of thanks to John and Patsy Price and Ben Reid at the PFLA.
Read more about the Savory Institute’s concept of Holistic management here and here.
Want to buy 100% pasture fed? The PFLA website has a list of approved suppliers, with many offering mail order, selling at farmers markets or directly from the gate.