Skip to main content

But WHY is organic beef safer?

In case you missed it, this How Safe Is Your Ground Beef? from Consumer Reports should upset you. It's everything that's wrong with the US food system in one easy-to-understand (sort of) article and hits the nail on the head. But there's more to the story...especially if you didn't make it to the end or skimmed...when it comes to how these animals get to you. And definitely more than some critics have implied--that if you simply wash your hands and cook your meat completely you'll avoid problems. Never mind that "dangerous pathogens lurking in our food supply" issue. So, apologies, we're going to have to get into the gritty details of the dysfunctional US slaughter system. First, a few words about animal health though.

It's almost obvious that organic and grassfed meats would harbor fewer germs than the conventional counterpart. Organic and grassfed livestock systems are, by nature, more concerned with animal health conditions...and especially using typical grazing behavior as a benefit for animal nutrition and health. Ruminants were designed by nature to eat plants in a field. They love corn, too. It makes them fat and tasty. But it makes them prone to diseases and changes their body chemistry and metabolism in ways that allows germs to survive and flourish vs standing out in a field chewing grass. These two details combined--greater oversight and management coupled with a more natural diet--puts conventionally raised beef otherwise at a disadvantage. (I'm using "beef" since that's the article topic, but we could be having this conversation about chicken or the way we'd like to raise our lambs in the future.)

Points to Consumer Reports for being willing to discuss livestock processing. It's a topic nobody wants to talk about until we all start complaining about the horrible conditions and wondering why it isn't different. Well, it's not better because nobody wants to talk about it. A handful of companies own most of the meat supply and slaughter them in facilities that handle large amounts of product in a short time. But let's talk about an issue related to meat-packing consolidation that also affects food quality and food safety...the hole, locally, left by all that beef being raised on factory farms for conventional slaughter in the consolidated supply chain. If you're a pasture-based farm grazing your animals happily, good luck finding a facility who can process your herd/flock.

A word of explanation here--there are several levels of inspected slaughterhouses. If you're a deer hunter, you may be familiar with custom processing locations where you must be the owner of the animal and get your cubed pieces, steaks, sausage back in a package marked "not for resale." It's for you and your immediate family. There are state-inspected slaughterhouses where an animal can be sold within the state (or, in some cases, neighboring states due to recent changes in law). Then there are federally inspected facilities which allow the animals slaughtered there to be sold in every state.

My complaint is actually less about the problems associated with USDA inspectors being "bought" by the major meatpackers (not that they're wrong in tackling that issue) and has more to do with the lack of processing networks for--as Consumer Reports found--safer meats. The farm-to-table movement has rightfully taken off and put the focus on producing food that is grown locally and comes straight to your table. But for items that need further processing, the obstacle can be huge. It's one thing to pick veggies and bring them to your farmer's market. It's another to get your eggs candled and inspected/washed or your wool carded. We lack these basic infrastructure pieces in the US to the point where I've very seriously said the next step for the food movement needs to be rebuilding the network of butchers, wool mills, and sorting facilities. It's suddenly hip and cool to be a farmer. But the farmers need support roles. They need help on the farm. Don't get me wrong, I want to be my own boss...but I also feel for the growers who can't get anyone to shear, pick, or paint the barn for them. The rural drain is real and, as you see here, it's hurting our food safety and integrity.

One proposed solution that has gotten "hot" is on-farm slaughter where farms do their own processing. That has its own drawbacks, but I understand the attempt to argue for them. It's an alternative to the corrupt and rotten current system so why not? Definitely not something we would try on our farm for a variety of reasons--prey animals present in an area also being used for slaughter has the potential to attract predators and nuisance animals are already a concern for farmers. My opinion, personally, is that we need more fully inspected mobile slaughter facilities...essentially a processing plant on wheels that can come to your farm for a day and do your slaughtering. Eliminates the stress of travel on the animals and has so many advantages for the smaller, pasture-based farmer. But, again, not every state or region has approved this yet or is fully taking advantage of it. If you're thinking of running this type of operation in the Midwest, I'd love to talk you about potential future collaboration!

So, yes, grassfed and organic beef is great. It's safer, healthier, and better for the planet. But keep in mind that your farmer may have driven it hours to a handling facility for slaughter. Time in travel which stresses the animals and makes them less tasty from stress hormones. We have a conventional food system which is convenient and quick for getting mass-produced food to our grocery. But as we've learned here, efficiency cannot come at the cost of making us ill or the simple quality of the product. Ever make fun of mass-produced junk from overseas? We have the same thing going on with the US food supply and that's not going to change unless more people step up to rebuild our food system away from the post-WWII industrial model.

Comments