There are a lot of conflicting opinions, suggestions, studies, and recommendations about whether we should eat meat, what kind of meat we should eat, and how much of it to eat. It can get confusing out there! My two cents: start by being curious.
Ultimately, we are all on our own nutrition journey just doing our best to use the information we have to find what works for us. If you’re curious to start learning about where your meat comes from, here are 6 questions to ask about meat before you buy.
*Most of these questions and answers are focused on cows (since grass-fed ground beef is one of our superhero foods!), but they can be applied to any other meats, fish, eggs, or dairy products that you eat.
1. What did this animal eat?
If you are eating another creature, you are also eating whatever that creature ate.
Cows are ruminant animals. This means that they evolved to eat grasses. But strangely enough, most cattle on conventional farms in the USA eat mostly grains. Why is this a problem? Feed containing grains, corn, and soy (which themselves are grown with pesticides) can cause inflammation in cattle. This inflammation is then passed on to our bodies when we eat the beef from these cows. Inflammation can cause or contribute to all sorts of uncomfortable reactions in the body, such as gastrointestinal problems, fatigue, allergies, psoriasis, etc.
Cows gain weight much faster on feed, which is great for the business’s bottom line but not so great for the cow’s health or ours.
Organic feed doesn’t pass on the same chemical residue from pesticides that conventional feed does, so organic beef is better than conventional, but corn and soy are still not cattle’s natural food. Grasses are the most natural food for cattle. Cows who spend their lives on pasture eating a variety of grasses are far healthier and happier than conventionally raised cows, not to mention their meat yields unparalleled health benefits. Check out our other blog post to find out more about grass-fed and grass-finished beef and how to read those labels.
Another issue with conventionally raised cattle is the use of antibiotics. Antibiotics are given to conventional cattle at a far higher rate than they should be because the confined feeding lots have high rates of disease. Antibiotics that cows eat are passed on to our bodies when we eat their meat. Unnecessary antibiotics can harm our gut health, which you can read more about in our article about antibiotics.
*Our vote: buy grass-fed, grass-finished meat!
2. How did this animal live?
How an animal lives its life determines the quality of its meat: where fat is in relationship to muscle, what type of fat is present, and the flavor of the meat. This question poses an ethical dilemma: is it right for any animal to live a miserable life so that we can pay less for its meat?
In the US, conventionally raised cattle are kept in crowded lots called CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations). They have very little space to move around which makes them stressed and more prone to disease. Packing tons of animals into a small space means lots of feces and opportunities for diseases to spread. More disease means more antibiotics and other drugs that get passed into our systems when we eat these animals. These cows do not get to graze on pasture like they are meant to do. Instead, they eat corn and soy-based feed out of troughs. In addition to this lifestyle affecting our health down the line, this is a sad and cruel way to raise cows.
Pastured or grass-fed and grass-finished cattle have room to walk and graze. Ideally, they are rotated through a series of pastures, so they regularly have fresh grass to eat. Pastured cows are less prone to disease since they are not confined in close, filthy quarters. The life of a grass-fed, grass-finished cow is better for the cow and better for us!
As consumers ask for meat that has been treated well and turn away from meat produced in CAFOs, well-raised meat will become more common. The more we ask, the more businesses will have to respond.
*Look for “grass-fed” and “grass-finished” on labels and ask questions of your grocers, butchers, or local farmers.
3. How did this animal die?
Being curious about our food isn’t always comfortable, but I find it is always worthwhile.
I know: it’s uncomfortable for many of us to think about the death that is part of our food. We’ve been so disconnected that we often don’t even consider that the neatly packaged ground beef we toss into our cart was once an animal that someone killed. But it’s an important element to consider and an essential step in the cycle of life.
Because of the sheer volume of beef produced in the US, industrial slaughterhouses can be savage places. The faster they process an animal, the more profit they will make on it. So time-pressures can lead to less-than-ideal practices. Although there are laws on humane slaughtering, they are not always enforced.
Animals that are kept calm and comfortable before slaughter produce much better meat and are not stressed in the last moments of their life. While slaughterhouses do have rules for handling animals, again, they are not always enforced.
Small butcher shops and farms that sell directly to customers generally take better care of their animals in life and in death and are willing to answer questions about how their animals are raised and slaughtered.
*Get curious about local meat providers! Is there a local butcher in your town? Or a local farmer who works at a smaller scale and takes good care of his or her livestock?
4. How did this animal impact its environment?
Looking out for our family’s health includes looking out for the health of our planet. We want our grandchildren to inherit a world that is whole, healthy, and beautiful. Our food choices today can have a big impact on whether or not that vision comes true.
Ruminant animals like cows are supposed to graze on pastures, not stay in one place all the time.
Conventional livestock farming contributes to pollution and relies on monocropping (the practice of growing a single crop year after year on the same land–primarily corn, soy, and grains) which strips the soil of its nutrients, uses petroleum-based fertilizers, and contributes to erosion. These farming practices deplete our soil, pollute our waters, and use a lot of energy. We’re also using much of our farmland to feed animals rather than people when these animals would rather just eat grass anyways.
Pastured livestock is an essential part of regenerative farming. In fact, many eco-minded agriculturalists say that properly managed grazing can improve soil fertility and pastures’ root network. Their manure helps to build back healthy soil that can remove carbon from the atmosphere and support healthy ecosystems. When cattle have plenty of pasture to roam, the ecosystem benefits! They also eat grass which we can’t eat ourselves. It’s a win-win!
*Look for grass-fed, grass-finished labels on beef, or find a regenerative farm in your area. Pastured beef is an environmentally friendly choice as well as a healthy one for our bodies.
Choose food that is grown in a way that supports a healthy planet for the next generations!
5. Who prepared this meat for me?
Today, it’s common for most of our food to come partially or completely prepared for us. What a privilege! But this comes with some hidden costs. We talk a lot about the sneaky additives in prepared food, but there’s more than that hiding under the label.
Large meat corporations prioritize profits, so they cut corners on just about everything else, and this corner cutting (and blatant disregard for the consequences of their business) is pretty well-documented.
Slaughterhouses and packing facilities have a terrible record of human rights abuses. They often exploit immigrant workers and other vulnerable populations, paying them less-than-fair wages and ignoring safety precautions. Slaughterhouses have some of the highest rates of work-related injury from repetitive motion and the combination of sharp tools and time-pressure.
Much like the way that humane slaughtering regulations are often unenforced, human rights abuses slip under the radar at large production slaughterhouses.
This can seem like too big of an issue for us as consumers to impact, but we can have a say! Choose to support local butchers if you have them in your area. Butcher shops are usually more than happy to answer all your questions, too, whether they’re about which meats are grass-fed or how to cook a particular cut of meat.
You can also skill-up, learning some basic butchery at home. This can help reduce costs too, as you take on some of the labor that you would otherwise be paying for. No no, I’m not asking you to slaughter a chicken! Start small! Cutting a whole chicken into parts isn’t too difficult, and you get a lot more versatility and bang for your buck.
*We can start to shift the ways our kids will eventually shop by supporting fair systems of labor and shorter supply chains now.
6. Am I using this meat respectfully?
Respectful cooking goes hand in hand with healthy cooking! But what does it mean to cook respectfully?
First, recognize the value of your ingredients. It took a lot of work to get that steak to your kitchen! Someone raised the animal, fed it and watered it, and helped it heal if it got sick. Then, someone slaughtered and processed it into cuts. Someone packaged it and shipped it to the store. And now you brought it home. It took many people, lots of time, and a lot of resources to get to you!
Second, cooking respectfully means not wasting anything and cooking whichever cut you have appropriately. Familiarize yourself with as many parts of the animal as you can. We are used to eating a small range of cuts: steaks and sirloins, breasts and thighs. But all parts of the animal have nutritional value. Bones can be used to make broth rich in minerals and healthy fats. Organs like the liver have nutrients that can’t be found in the meat.
An extra bonus to getting to know less popular cuts of meat is that they often cost less. While grass-fed steak is certainly more expensive than conventional steak, grass-fed beef bones are usually cheaper than the meat. Buying quality usually means spending more, but it’s worth it, and there are always ways to be creative and thrifty.
Lastly, enjoy the meal! If you’ve taken the time and effort to cook a meal, be sure you pause to be grateful for the food and the nourishment it is providing. That one should be easy!
Knowledge Is Power
There are a lot of issues with our food system, and no single person can change it overnight. But if we all start by getting curious, we can shift the needle towards healthier, happier food.
As you start to ask questions and learn more about your meat, you may find your buying and cooking practices changing. Roll with it! And be patient as you learn and adjust. It can even be a way to connect with your kids and teach them about the world as you discover new things yourself.
Stay curious! Now that you know the 6 questions to ask about meat, what other questions do you ask about your food? We’d love to hear from you and learn from your journey, too.