Grass-fed beef is slowly gaining popularity based on its principal of feeding their cows only grass on the pastures they are free to roam. In the documentary Food, Inc. the problem was presented that the main source of food for most of America's meat is grain and corn; and ruminants (animals with 4 stomachs like cows) are naturally only able to properly digest grass. Thousand Hills Cattle Company would like your vote in supporting cattle raising like it should be; on pastures.
Basically, there are two parts to cows being raised: calving ranches and feedlots. Calving ranches raise cattle roaming on pastures for months or even years, depending on the buyers and sellers needs. They are then rounded up and sold in auctions, either to butchers or feedlots.
Feedlots are where the differences in today's beef production lie. Feedlots can house up to 37,000 animals, keeping them in pens and feeding from a trough supplied with grain and corn by huge dump trucks. Over 80% of America's annual beef is slaughtered by four huge corporations (www.farmsanctuary.org). Rich Blair, a ranch owner, contemplates "in my grandfather's day steers were 4 or 5 years old at slaughter. In the 50s my father slaughtered at 2-3 years. Now we do it at 14-16 months. Hell, my dad made more on 250 head than we do on 850" (Power Steer, Michael Pollan.) The science of raising cattle has altered the feeding regime so greatly it's now able to produce a 1200 lb cow from an 80 lb calf in 14 months. Pretty amazing that it used to take 60 months.
Science has made this possible by feeding corn and grain to fatten up the cattle at a drastic rate. In addition to completely changing the cow's natural diet, they also pump synthetic estrogen, protein supplements, liquid vitamins, and liquefied fats into the diet every day. Because of their inability to properly digest corn and grain, many cattle become extremely sick, resulting in the industry solving the sickness by adding pounds of antibiotics to their daily diet.
There are huge problems, however, like the antibiotics showing up in the meat Americans consume. This is such a huge problem that the FDA is opening an inquiry to appease many scientists who have linked these traces in the beef (and dairy products) to major problems like early maturation in girls and low sperm counts.
Here's another interesting fact: the e.coli virus has adapted and learned to survive in new ways because of the unnatural diet being fed to cattle. Ruminant's stomachs are neutral in ph and the e.coli virus (a common intestinal virus in cows) can survive in a neutral ph. When humans consume the infected beef, the e.coli are killed by the acidic environment in our stomachs. However, with the heavily accepted corn diet of today, cow's stomachs have become drastically over-acidic (one of the many sicknesses "solved" with antibiotics) so the e.coli virus has adapted to an acidic environment, rendering our own protection from it useless. Remember the spinach scare? The infected spinach was contaminated with cow feces because of where it was grown.
Today many small beef companies are trying to change beef production to its original form. Many companies are certified grass-fed only, and many companies raise cattle for the bulk of their lives on grass and switch them to corn to "fatten" them in the last month.
Companies like Thousand Hills Cattle Company warn when buying organic meat, be sure and check the sources because many organic companies still use the huge feedlot system feeding organic corn and grain, and without allowing free range grazing on grass. Feedlots are unsanitary if they are overcrowded, like most are, with the cows literally living in their own feces. So much fecal matter is caked on the cows when they are sent to the slaughter-house that their carcasses are passed through a steam room and then sprayed with a antimicrobial spray to kill any parasites living in the feces.
As appetizing as this sounds, Americans owe it to themselves to research more and stop living life through glazed eyes full of marketing campaigns to keep us sheltered from the real truth. You can make your voice heard and vote for healthier foods each time you eat them!
1 lb of ground beef at Target on 119th and Metcalf: $4.99. Remember the advice about paying more for your food from Michael Pollan, "who would you rather pay your money to?" (The grocer or the doctor?) In Overland Park you can also buy grass-fed beef at the Overland Park Farmer's Market.