What's the Beef?

How to choose wisely so that you can have your steak, and eat it too.

Photo by  Annie Spratt  on  Unsplash .

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been asked if I’m a vegetarian. The first few times I thought it was a joke. Then I realised that it was an actual thing, that there was some kind of impression that I made on people that led them to this assumption.

The irony is, it couldn’t be further from the truth.

I grew up on a beef farm in rural Western Australia. My parents were scientists from the city who decided that they wanted a sea change just before I was born. Originally they tried their hand at a few other things on our land, but in the end they settled on producing beef.

So eating meat, particularly beef, is akin to a ritual for me. It’s just an accepted part of my life.

But growing up with it means that you become a connoisseur, you become a lot more discerning, and therefore a lot fussier than the average person. You get to know all the ins and outs of production, why things are done in a certain way, and when someone is skimping somewhere. You know just how you like it and you’ll do anything to find beef that’s been produced in that way.

My parents, as I said, were both scientists, Mum a zoologist, Dad a marine biologist. So neither of them specialised in agriculture.I studied life sciences at university level which taught me a lot about ecological systems and how they work. Just add agriculture into the mix and you have agroecology, which is what I specialised in for my university Honours degree — this was despite declaring at 17 that I didn’t want to follow in their footsteps or specialise in agriculture. Famous last words. 

Agroecology is a paradigm that’s historically been used by scientists and researchers to understand how agriculture can produce more than just agricultural products. In some instances, agriculture can also create the beneficial environmental and social outcomes that we call ecosystem services.

The approach that my parents took when they moved onto the land was an agroecological one, although it was such a small field way back then that I’m not sure they’d heard of it. Basically, they worked within a farming framework to restore the health and biodiversity of the land that they were farming, in a way that was both better for their conscience and also their wallet.

One of the key aspects of this was implementing improved pastures and rotational grazing systems.

We’ve probably all heard a lot about “grass fed” beef in the last couple of years, meat and our consumption of it being one of the hot topics of the moment. But how many of us really know what it means or why we should be eating it?

That’s what I’ll be exploring here — from the health reasons for increasing our consumption of it to the environmental and ethical reasons.

Grass fed beef and health

Meat is an incredibly nutrient dense food source. It contains a range of vitamins and minerals that are important to human health, including vitamins A, B6, B12, D, E + iron, zinc and selenium. Plus protein and fats.

But there’s a big difference between grass fed beef and conventional grain finished beef. Which, by the way, is a relatively recent way of fattening up cattle, broadly implemented in USA in the 1940’s, which really gained momentum in the wake of the Green Revolution.

There’s a difference in terms of vitamins and minerals — grass fed beef is significantly higher in antioxidants, particularly b-carotene, vitamin E and glutathione. This makes it more nutritionally valuable, but also increases its stability, extending shelf life.

Grass fed beef is also lower in overall fat and, most pertinently, intramuscular fat. Intramuscular fat has a strong positive relationship with LDL cholesterol, meaning that you’ll be consuming more of the bad stuff in animals with a high marbled fat content.

Conversely, grass fed beef contains a greater proportion of conjugated linoleic acids (CLA’s), which have been shown to modulate body composition by reducing the accumulation of adipose tissue (i.e. white, undesirable fat that’s associated with a range of health issues) in various animal species. They also show positive effects at reducing carcinogenesis, onset of diabetes, and atherosclerosis.

The Perfect Ratio

Perhaps most importantly, though, is the difference in Omega 3:6 fatty acid concentrations between grass fed and grain finished meat.

Essential fatty acids act as the precursor for different vital pathways that perform various roles in the body. If they’re not undertaken, things don’t work quite as well.

The two essential dietary fatty acids to human health — which we cannot synthesise from food — are a-linoleic (aLA) acid and linoleic acid (LA), which are omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids respectively. Both are found in red meat; beef is a particularly valuable source of them.

There are other omega-3 fatty acids used by the body that can be synthesised from aLA, though it’s estimated that there’s only a 5% conversion rate. The majority of the omega-3’s that we need must come from our diet.

Not only is it crucial that we consume them, they must also be consumed in the correct quantities relative to each other. Ideally, you would have them in anything between a 1:1 to a 1:4 ratio, in favour of omega-6. The standard western diet is typically characterised by a ratio of 1:15 in favour of omega 6.

The reason why this ratio is important is because fatty acid derivatives are synthesised by some of the same enzymes. Since the amount of enzymes available to undertake a specific task at any one time in the human body is finite, an excess of one or the other types of fatty acids interferes with our metabolism and reduces our body’s ability to incorporate the correct fat ratio in our cell structure. When we consume an excess of omega-6 fatty acids, it causes inflammation.

Inflammation has been identified as the root cause of a large number of chronic diseases. Specifically, studies have shown a significant relationship between the fatty acid ratio and depression, pre and post-natal brain development and function, anxiety, age-related memory loss, post-natal depression, risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, atherosclerosis, heart attack, cancer, rheumatoid arthritis — the list goes on. In every single of these conditions, a higher omega 3 to omega 6 ratio has been shown to be reduce the risk and/or the symptoms, while a lower omega 3 to omega 6 ratio has been shown to increase them.

Beef is an important source of dietary fats, particularly grass fed beef, which has been to have a more favourable fatty acid profile than grain fed beef. The concentration of omega 6 fatty acids in beef varies very little across different feeding systems, but the omega 3 fatty acid concentration is much higher in grass fed beef. One study demonstrated that, on average, grass fed beef produces a 1:1.53 omega 3:6 ratio, while grain finished meat produces a 1:7.65 ratio respectively.

Studies have shown that consumption of beef increases serum levels of omega 3 fatty acids. So it’s not just that it’s in the meat — we actually absorb it as well.

How Come Grass Fed Beef is Higher in Omega-3 Fatty Acids?

It’s a pretty simple mechanism, really. In the same way that our cell structure is higher in the derivatives of omega-3’s when we ingest more of them, so too for cattle. Because grass is higher in the precursor lipids to omega-3 fatty acids than grain, silage, hay, and haylage, cattle and other herbivores, will have the ability to build more of them. In fact, increasing the proportion of grain in cattle’s diet has been shown to directly suppress in a linear manner the omega-3 fatty acid levels in meat. 

Grass Fed Beef and Carbon Sequestration

Welcome to one of my pet topics. I’ll try to keep this brief but bear with me, because it does get a little bit technical.

I mentioned agroecology before, and this is where it really comes into play. Agroecological approaches to farming rely on an understanding of the natural functioning of ecological systems. Producing grass fed beef profitably is done by mimicking the actions of natural perennial grassland ecosystems through rotational grazing systems.

You see, when large herbivores graze in the wild, they don’t just wander around one little patch of grass their whole life. The move around in migratory patterns, following the seasons, to optimise their food source since different climates are conducive to different levels of productivity in grassland ecosystems. This can be observed in the African Serengeti with wildebeest, zebra and antelope, and in many other grassland ecosystems in the world.

The result of these migratory patterns is intense periods of defoliation in relatively small areas at a time as the herd moves in a steady trajectory, followed by a rest period of six to 12 months, until the herd moves through same area again, during which time the grass regrows and the process is repeated.

The plant’s ability to provide the remaining parts of its structure with energy is compromised once the aboveground part of the grass plant, which performs the crucial role of providing the whole plant with energy via photosynthesis, has been eaten. It therefore must shed some of its biomass in order to compensate and maintain energy stasis.

This root shedding, known as root turnover, along with rhizodeposition, releases organic compounds from the roots to feed beneficial soil bacteria, and acts as the mechanisms by which carbon enters into the soil structure. Thus unlike cropping systems, soil organic carbon (SOC) content is increased by correct grazing management

Once broken down into even smaller particles, SOC then becomes a part of the soil structure. In the right conditions, it is incorporated into small soil sub-structures such as phytoliths, effectively rendering it inert for periods of time that can range from decades to thousands of years. Because of their stability, this type of carbon sequestration offers an incredibly viable option for removing and storing carbon from the earth’s atmosphere.

This is important piece of knowledge allows farmers to work within the confines of an ecological system to ramp up carbon sequestration by optimising SOC content through rotational grazing systems on-farm.

Given that around 32% of the earth’s natural vegetation is temperate grassland, the scale of its potential contribution to mitigating global warming is pretty significant as well. And it’s been conclusively demonstrated that converting tilled land to permanent grassland can also increase SOC content and long-term storage, which indicates that there is even greater capacity to use this mechanism to deal with one of the biggest threats of our modern age.

Studies have shown that these kinds of adaptive management approaches in agriculture have the capacity to significantly reduce (keep it simple) greenhouse gas concentrations though they must be utilised in conjunction with emissions reductions.

Medium Intensity Grazing Systems

The other boon of this system is that it represents a medium-intensity production system. Not so intense that the animals are confined and cramped — rather, they’re mimicking the way that they would have grazed in the wild. Nor is it so low that farmers can’t make money. (farmers are not price setters!)

It also represents an opportunity to improve soil structure and quality without the need for copious amounts of fertilisers, which tend to degrade soil anyway. Over time, this increases the health and productivity of the ecosystem, which of course helps farmers out as well.

Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) has been running a really great program for a number of years called More Beef from Pastures, to help producers understand how grassland ecosystems work, and how they can improve their soil health and productivity.

You know the other thing I like about it, from a personal perspective? Because the cattle are in small paddocks and get moved around regularly, there’s a stronger connection between them and the farmer. Our cattle are incredibly quiet and will follow whoever’s moving them, either on foot or in the ute, to the gate. They know that they’re about to be let onto fresh grass so they just walk quietly through into the next paddock. Life is a lot more pleasant as a farmer when your cattle are quiet and relaxed. It’s a lot safer as well.

So Where Should I Be Getting my Meat From?

I’m a bit of a food shopping connoisseur. It’s one of my favourite past-times and I’m always on the look-out for a new food shopping adventure. Going to the butcher was one of my favourite things to do — I’d sometimes spend an hour at a time just chatting about meat if it was quiet. Moving to the country at the start of this year was pretty tough because my choices became severely limited, although I’ve finally found a few new favourite places to get my meat from, based on asking questions and building up new relationships.

So that’s my first recommendation — start up a relationship with a good butcher close to home, who you can get to any day of the week.

My second recommendation would be to go to a farmers market, which have grown exponentially in the last ten years on the east coast. There’s one on somewhere in the capital cities every week. Then you should be able to talk directly to the producer, and ask them all sorts of questions. It’s a fun learning exercise as well, because they’ll know the answers to all of your questions.

There also some producers who offer meat boxes online. You’ll generally be buying direct from the producer, and most of the websites that I’ve seen give a detailed description of their farming practices.

For those people who don’t have a local butcher or can’t get to a farmers market, fear not. Grass fed meat is a consumer-driven trend that’s not going away any time soon, so it’s becoming increasingly available in the major supermarkets. However, not all supermarket grass fed beef is made equal, so you need to be picky about who you buy from. I did a bit of digging around to work out who’s doing what, and what standards they’re using to guarantee that their grass fed beef is, in fact, grass fed. Here’s what I found.

Grass Fed Beef Accreditation

When it comes to beef, there’s a plethora of different accreditation schemes that are incredibly confusing and play different roles in regulating the industry. In the last few years, the Cattle Council of Australia has come out with a new one, called the Pasturefed Cattle Assurance System (PCAS). It was devised to set the benchmark for grass fed beef and create consumer confidence where the PCAS logo is used. Producers are independently audited every year against the following criteria;

1. Identification and lifetime traceability

This is what allows producers to support claims that their cattle are lifetime pasturefed. Each and every animal must be individually identifiable and fully traceable. It must be demonstrable that PCAS cattle have been on a PCAS certified property since birth, or bought from another property that has raised them in a manner consistent with PCAS standards, and that they have been directly sold from there to the PCAS property at less than 18 months of age.

2. No confinement for the purpose of intensive feeding for production

Cattle must not have been confined for the purpose of intensive feeding and have had access to graze in open pastures, with stocking records etc to support. They may be confined for husbandry and necessary management practices, but not for more than a total of 20 days per year and confinement for transport or sale must be less than seven days per journey.

3. Lifetime pasturefed

Records must be kept demonstrating continuous access to graze open pastures & that PCAS cattle have never been fed or had access to cereal grain or grain by-products. Supplementary feeding with grass, legumes & brassicas, soft leaves & shoots, cereal grain crops either pre-grain formation or post-harvest. Routine mineral and vitamin supplements for health and well-being, not increased production purposes, are acceptable.

4. Minimum eating quality standards

Cattle must meet Meat Standards Australia (MSA) requirements, as proven by an MSA Vendor Declaration. This ensures that MSA Accreditation is up to date and that on-farm cattle handling requirements have been adhered to.

5. Lifetime free from hormonal growth promotants (optional)

PCAS cattle that meet this requirement have never been treated with hormonal growth promotants.

6. Lifetime free from antibiotics (optional)

No antibiotic treatment has been administered through feed, water, or by injection. Topical antibiotics are allowed where demonstrated necessary. Vaccines are allowed, as are anthelminthics for the treatment of parasites.

*Producers may produce both PCAS and non-PCAS cattle on the same property, but must first seek PCAS auditor approval before doing so.

This a pretty thorough and exhaustive framework — I was pretty impressed when I took a look at it, as I’d thought there would be more leeway with supplement feeding.

In 2014, Woolworths introduced grass fed beef under their Macro range. All Woolworths grass fed beef is certified PCAS and Woolworths only work with beef that meet option hurdles 5 & 6 as well. If you’re going to be shopping for grass fed beef at a supermarket, Woolworths is my pick.

Coles took almost two years longer than Woolworths to come out with its own grassfed beef range. Coles grassfed beef is regulated by its own framework, which is based on the PCAS one, though there were two major differences that I picked up on. Firstly, they allow feeding of cereal hay, which is an inferior source of omega-3’s, though it can only be used if cut before reaching grain formation stage. Secondly, audits are random i.e. not all producers are necessarily audited each year. Therefore, the producers largely self-regulate. Hmmm — can I smell someone cutting corners to keep costs down…?

Aldi doesn’t even rate, as far as I’m concerned. They have no grass fed framework and no compliance with PCAS.

In fact, they had to admit in 2015 that their so-called grass fed beef are allowed to be supplement fed with grain. This doesn’t just smell a little bit off, it absolutely reeks of profiteering. It’s undermining the work that the Cattle Council has put into the PCAS, consumers desire for an authentic product, and those producers who have actually spent the $$$ to get their farms and cattle PCAS certified.

It’s also taking consumers for a ride because, according to an article published in the Sydney Morning Herald in 2015, Aldi has been charging up to 30% more for beef that’s claiming to be grass fed but isn’t strictly grass fed. 

From the sounds of things, they’ve been pulling their socks up a bit since this made headlines in 2015, but as yet, there’s nothing on their website to indicate adherence to the PCAS or any other similar scheme. 

Ultimately, I still think that working direct with a producer, or with a butcher who does, is a better option if you’re able to make that choice. It enhances the connection that you have with your food, and a greater proportion of the money that you spend is more likely to be going into the pocket of the person producing your food — rather than to CEO’s and marketing departments who have little bearing on the product itself.

I’m not recommending that you eat copious amounts of beef either. Growing up, we ate beef constantly because it was the cheapest healthy option since we produced it ourselves. But it just isn’t feasible for most people, and I believe in eating diversely, since different animals can play different roles in agro-ecosystems.

Rather, what I would hope is that this article has given you fresh insight into how you can make a wiser choice when it comes to choosing your beef.

Lou ChalmerComment