Is Grass-Fed Beef Better Beef? A Butcher Takes On The Loaded Question.

Food Republic's new column, Ask Your Butcher, seeks to answer FAQs in the world of butchery. Ethically minded butcher Bryan Mayer — co-owner of Philadelphia's Kensington Quarters, a full-service restaurant, bar, butcher shop and classroom — will tackle a pressing issue facing both meat buyers and home cooks in each column. First up, Bryan explores whether grass-fed beef is better beef.

I was recently standing with a farmer friend of mine on one of his pastures. Spring grasses had started to grow, and he would soon be feeding his herd. "Look at all that delicious green grass," he mused. "To think that you'd want to feed them anything else..."

"Well, there are those who've spent a lot of money convincing people otherwise," I replied. "Those with better PR and marketing."

"Better PR and marketing, indeed," he repeated.

The thing is, PR and marketing can't change the fact that grass-fed beef is better for you, better for the animal and better for the planet. Plus, in my opinion, it just tastes better.

Let's start with what grass-fed beef is. Per the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), whose stated function is to "administer programs that facilitate the efficient, fair marketing of U.S. agricultural products," grass-fed is defined as the following:

Grass and/or forage shall be the feed source consumed for the lifetime of the ruminant animal, with the exception of milk consumed prior to weaning. The diet shall be derived solely from forage and animals cannot be fed grain or grain by-products and must have continuous access to pasture during the growing season.

Seems pretty cut and dry. Ruminants eat grass — that's what they are biologically designed to do — and if you call something grass-fed, well, it should be eating grass and only grass. We'll save the obvious loopholes within this definition, as well as all the other marketing ruses employed by Big Ag and mom-and-pop shops alike, for another post. I'm looking at you, so-called "pasture raised" perverts.

If we were to look solely at these three factors — your health, the animal's well-being and the planet's preservation — grass-fed beef would be a clear winner. There are some key health benefits to eating grass-fed beef, with which grain-fed cattle cannot compete: Grass-fed beef is simply more nutrient-dense. And from the animal's perspective, well, when you feed cattle grain, you're creating some severe stomach issues. Walking around with a stomachache all day is not fun — neither for cattle nor for you. And what about the planet? We might need 20 columns to detail all the wrongdoings of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and feedlots and the detrimental effects of growing all that grain for feed.

There's a lot of science that backs up these three advantages. But really, what the majority of people care about most is whether it tastes good. And in my opinion, it definitely does. Cattle raised only on grass can take on complex flavors, not to mention a richness that grain-fed beef simply cannot (and does not). Add to that the effect of terroir, and — just as with wines and cheeses — you have subtle taste differences based upon geography, instead of some homogenous beefy slab on your plate.

Bryan Mayer (right) works closely with regional farmers to ensure animals are raised as nature intended.

But what about all those 60-, 90- and 120-day dry-aged steaks? They must be delicious; they're so expensive! While I'll never argue about something as subjective as taste, in my opinion, grass-fed beef can be equally or more delicious in significantly less time with less stress on both the animal and the environment. The two biggest complaints I hear are that grass-fed beef can be gamey or tough. I'm not really sure what "gamey" means, other than a description of something tasting like what it's supposed to taste like. As for toughness, well, it can be, if it's not handled properly.

Fortunately, my colleagues and I know how to handle these things. We understand that an animal that is alive longer — at least a year longer than conventional beef — is going to be working its muscles more. That work is allowing flavor to develop. We understand that the animal is going to need to be hung or aged a little longer. But not aged in the way you're probably accustomed to. Not after it's been cut up into many different parts, shipped all over the place and stuck up on a shelf — but rather as a whole carcass, so as not to disrupt science doing its part in terms of enzymes and gravity, adding flavor and tenderness. These are but a few factors that add to the incredible flavor grass-fed beef can and should have. And while grass-fed beef can certainly be leaner than grain-fed beef (and fat does contribute to taste), there are so many other factors adding to that flavor profile. After all, grass-fed beef is no one-trick pony (or cow).

Grass-fed beef has a lot to overcome, but you can help. Imagine reading the same book or watching the same movie, over and over. The Godfather aside, that's pretty boring. But that's what you get with the homogenous taste of the meat most of us eat, in my opinion. Our taste buds have become accustomed to it. We need to retrain them, so that not everything tastes like chicken and so that we start using the word "gamey" only to describe how you feel after playing Grand Theft Auto for 24 hours straight.

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