People may intuitively understand that local, grass-fed ground beef is safer than conventional ground meat, but I doubt that they understand just how much safer it really is, and why.
There are three basic reasons why it is safer.
First, cows are ruminants and evolved to eat grass. Unfortunately, cows that are raised in the conventional food system are not fed grass, but rather, grain. And lots of it. The digestive systems of ruminants are not designed to process large amounts of grain, and the grain-based diet causes abnormal changes in the acidity of one of the animal’s stomachs, called the rumin. This abnormal acidity allows for the proliferation of harmful bacteria like E. coli in the animal’s digestive system, and during the butchering process this harmful bacteria often finds its way into the meat.
Second, when in nature, cows roam over wide areas and spread their manure and urine on the ground in a way that the ground can easily absorb and which serves to fertilize the soil. In the conventional food system, this process does not occur. Instead, cows are raised in large feed-lots, called Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO’s). These feedlots have no grass but are simply fenced-in dirt yards in which the animals have no ability to roam. The animals stand in one place and so drop their manure and urine also in one place. The ground cannot absorb such a constant bombardment of waste, therefore, the waste collects. Ultimately, the cows stand and lay all day in their own feces, which becomes caked on their hides. As a result of their grain-based diet, such manure is often contaminated with harmful bacteria like E. coli. During the process of slaughtering and removing the hides, the harmful bacteria often contaminates the meat.
Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, conventional ground beef does not come from just one cow. Large corporate meat-packing plants slaughter several hundred cows per hour. Meat from many many cows is combined together in large machines that grind the meat into ground-beef for things like hamburgers. The ground beef that comes out is not from just one animal, but from all the animals whose meat went into the machine–possiblyhundreds or even thousands. It takes only one to spoil a party, and only one infected cow can spoil a hamburger. The more cows, the greater the chance of infection.
The conventional beef industry has certain means of attempting to kill the bacteria in its meat, including by injecting it with various chemicals like ammonia to disinfect it, however, such methods are not entirely effective and almost certainly present health problems of their own. See New York Times article.
Local, pasture-based, grass-fed beef does not suffer from any of these problems. The cows eat grass that their digestive systems can easily digest without fostering the growth of harmful bacteria. The cows roam over a wider area and spread their manure in a manner that the ground can accommodate. The local farmer processes fewer animals, and he likely processes them in a way that rarely combines meat from different animals. The only way that a hamburger from his meat is contaminated is if the one cow that produced the meat was infected, which is itself extremely unlikely given the natural conditions in which the cow lived. After all is said and done, that farmer can save his ammonia for washing dishes.
For these reasons, grass-fed, pasture-based beef is not merely safer than conventionally raised beef. It is HUNDREDS of times safer. So think of that next time you’re about to order your McDonald’s Big N’ Tasty.
Image source: Picture taken by Grant Cochrane, whose portfolio may be viewed here.
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