A Rancher Explains Why Grassfed Meat Matters

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Nicolette Hahn Niman

Nicolette Hahn Niman › Nicolette Hahn Niman is an attorney and livestock rancher. Much of her time is spent speaking ...


Consumers are increasingly aware that few animals these days are raised on Old MacDonald’s farm.  Grim factory farms – where animals are continually confined, crowded, and fed a steady diet of drugs – have been depicted in best-selling books like Eating Animals and popular movies like Food, Inc.  They are the source of well over 90 percent of the meat, eggs, and dairy products produced in the United States today.

What has not yet been fully appreciated, however, are the tremendous benefits of farm animals on grass.  Consumer demand for foods from free ranging, pasture-raised animals, while growing, remains modest.  This is likely because these foods cost more and are harder to find.

But pasture-based foods are worth your time and money.  Here are the top seven (yes, seven) reasons why.

1.  Taste.  Obviously, taste is highly subjective.  But many chefs, food professionals, and serious homecooks feel strongly that the flavors of foods from animals raised on pasture is richer, more vibrant, and, well, just tastier.  For myself, I have found a huge difference in eggs, butter, milk, and cheese from hens and cows raised on pasture.  Animals on grass have more complex and varied diets, enriched by grazing and foraging.  They also exercise, which has multiple positive effects on an animal’s body.  Meat from animals raised outdoors is not mushy, bland, or flaccid.  Animals raised on grass have a real connection to the land and the seasons, which comes through in the food.

2.  Nutrition.  Numerous studies have documented a notable – sometimes substantial – difference in the nutritional quality of foods, depending on how they were produced.  A few examples.  The Union of Concerned Scientists’ report “Greener Pastures,” which reviewed and summarized dozens of studies on pasture-raised food, concluded that grazing dairies produce food that is higher in both the beneficial fatty acids ALA and CLA, an effect that was particularly pronounced in cheese from pasture-raised animals. 

Likewise, a 2003 Penn State study found a dramatic difference in the nutritional qualities of eggs from pasture-raised hens: “On average, we saw about twice as much vitamin E and 40 percent more vitamin A in the yolks of pasture-fed birds than in the caged birds,” the lead researcher reported. “The longer the animals were on pasture, the more vitamins they produced.”

Research done by Clemson University and the Department of Agriculture has found that grassfed meats have more calcium, magnesium, potassium, thiamin and riboflavin.

3. Health.  In addition to higher vitamin and mineral content, grassfed meats are healthier in terms of fats.  Clemson University’s research found that pasture raised meats have less fat, more good fats, and lower bad fats than conventionally raised meat.  Pastured meat is lower in the saturated fats linked to heart disease, higher in total omega-3s, and has a better ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids.

4.  Safety.  The large, crowded herds and flocks in confinement operations are especially vulnerable to disease.  My book, Righteous Porkchop, which traces the animal confinement industry’s origins and rise, notes that in the 1920s, when poultry farmers first started raising larger flocks in confinement, death loss quadrupled, jumping from 5 to 20 percent.

That’s exactly why industrial animal operations became hooked on drugs.  The federal Food and Drug Administration recently reported that 80 percent of all antibiotics used in the United States annually these days are used in animal operations.  People eating foods from these operations, as well as people having contact with the facilities, are at risk.

Research by Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health and others has connected the livestock and poultry industry’s drug overuse with the rise of antibiotic resistant diseases, such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).  A University of Iowa study found that 49 percent of pigs and 45 percent of farmers at confinement operations in Illinois and Iowa tested positive for it.  However, when the researchers examined pigs and farmers at pasture-based pig farms they found no MRSA. None.

The situation is similar at egg operations.  European research has found that compared to battery cage egg production (the most common conventional method), the odds of Salmonella enteritidis contamination were 98 percent lower in free-range systems; for Salmonella typhimurium—the most common U.S. source of Salmonella poisoning—the odds were 93 percent lower in organic and free-range systems; and for the other Salmonella serotypes found, the odds were 99 percent lower in free-range birds.

5.  Environment.  My own work related to animal farming began as the Senior Attorney for Robert F. Kennedy’s environmental organization Waterkeeper in New York.  Agriculture is the United States’ number one source of water pollution, and industrialized animal operations are a big part of the problem.  As an environmental lawyer, I read literally hundreds of studies and reports about the water, air and soil contamination caused by concentrated animal operations.

The existing body of international and American research clearly shows that industrial operations are a serious environmental hazard.  Manure piles and collection lagoons continually leak to groundwater, run off to rivers and streams, and volatize to the air.  Contaminants include pharmaceuticals, pathogens, nitrogen, phosphorous, and hundreds of chemicals.  From an environmental perspective, industrial animal production is a dead loser.

But the research also shows plainly that well-managed traditional farms posed little or no environmental problems, and can even offer environmental benefits like carbon sequestration in fields.

6.  Animals.  Like many modern Americans, I was raised on storybooks filled with depictions of farm animals scampering through green meadows, carefully taken care of by family farmers in overalls.  Growing up in Michigan, I’d also spent time on several idyllic farms, where animals played, munching on the grass and napping in the sun.  So seeing pictures and videos of modern confinement facilities was a rude awakening.  As Waterkeeper’s lawyer, I toured the insides of dozens of operations, and flew over and drove near hundreds more.  I came to regard the industrial way of raising animals as the single greatest injustice humans have ever imposed on animals.

I agree with those who feel that it is morally appropriate to raise animals for food, but I consider the treatment they are subjected to in industrial operations wholly unacceptable.  As I wrote in Righteous Porkchop, “[T]he industrial system simply asks far too much of our farm animals.  It gives them nothing, or perhaps worse than nothing, in return for taking their lives. … Animals raised for our food should be provided a life that is worth living.”

7.  Farmers.  Some people see videos of factory farms and simply swear off eating animal products.  Unfortunately, this doesn’t help support those farms that are doing things the right way, so it does little to positively change the food system.  Moreover, about three-quarters of people who try vegetarianism eventually abandon it, so it’s also unlikely to lead to a lasting positive change in a person’s diet.

If that minority of people who do pay careful attention to how their food is produced abandon meat, those animal farmers and ranchers who are doing the right thing lose the support of those few consumers who understand the need to pay more for foods produced with care. The good farms disappear and nothing is left except vegans and factory farms.  All of us can, and should, examine our diets and look for ways to cut back on industrial foods and increase consumption of foods produced responsibly and healthfully.

Finally, on the whole question of whether to simply avoid foods from animals or shift to pasture-based foods, let me say this.  The world needs food systems that are environmentally benign, produce healthy foods, and treat animals respectfully. Advocating that people stop eating meat does not advance these goals. Creating a demand for food from pasture based farming, on the other hand, advances all three.

Do you think grassfed matters when it comes to buying meat? Share your thoughts with us in the comments.

Photo Credit: Staci Strauss