Is that steak from the grocery store safe?

If you want a good reason to stop buying grocery store beef and switch to locally raised, grass fed beef, then just read this recent article in the Oregonian. It will literally turn your stomach. You have been warned. It is seriously very gross.

Even though the USDA has inspectors at the plants, there is simply not enough inspection actually happening, and the companies are allowed to police themselves when it comes to safety and cleanliness. The industrial food industry only cares about their bottom line, and to hell with your health, and the health of the animals in their CAFOs. Expecting them to make sure their product is safe just seems silly to me. Unfortunately, one of the only ways many people can avoid contributing to the industrial meat nightmare is to simply stop eating meat.

This sort of disgusting contamination is the reason I avoid beef from grocery stores, and fast food restaurants.  It all comes from the same few places, and you can trace all that meat back to a poor cow standing in its own excrement, and being fed grains that it was never meant to eat, thus making it sick.  The answer to this problem for the industrial meat industry is simply to add antibiotics to the feed. Oh yeah, and can't forget growth hormones. Sounds tasty huh?

When a cow is fed all grains instead of grass, what it was meant to eat thanks to years of evolution, it alters the chemistry inside their gastrointestinal system. When this happens their stomachs become breeding grounds for Ecoli O157:H7. You know, that nasty bug that strikes down people who eat contaminated foods like undercooked hamburgers. This bacteria can't survive inside the guts of healthy, grass eating cows well enough to become a major problem. Scientists know this, but the food industry wants fat cows fast. Cheap government subsidized grains like corn and soy are their way to obtain the biggest bang for their buck.

There is another way to go about producing meat for humans to eat. It doesn't involve vast, excrement laden patches of desolate land. It only involves some pasture, and a farmer. Turning back the clock isn't always the best way to go about doing things, but in this case it most certainly is. I buy a half steer from a very small rancher in Sandy, Oregon. He's been raising cows on grass, hay during the winter, clean water, and sunshine for many, many years. In fact he's at least in his 80's and is still out there proudly taking care of his herd every single day. Instead of selling his steers at auction where they are then taken to a CAFO who knows where, he sells to his neighbors, and friends. Not only is this better for him financially, but it's better for the environment, and the people eating the end product: healthy grass fed beef full of lots of healthy things like Omega-3 fatty acids, and CLA or conjugated linoleic acid. This website explains the breakdowns between grass fed and grain fed animal products nicely.

I don't know about you, but I'd much rather a local farmer get my hard earned money than some giant corporation. The money stays in the community rather than lining some rich CEO's pockets. Plus the animals raised by those farmers are treated well and live in an environment they like: pastures with lots of fresh, green grass. Their waste isn't polluting the ground and being stored in stinking manure ponds. The grasses and other plants actually thrive if there is enough space for the cows to move around from pasture to pasture. When most anti-meat people talk about cows being big polluters, they lump all cows together, when in fact it is the CAFOs that are polluting, not Betsy the cow happily munching grass and making compost that she spreads around herself.

So how does one go about getting grass fed beef? Well there are stores that sell it, but it can be very costly to buy it by the cut. The best way to do it is to get yourself a freezer if you can (check out freecycle and craigslist for low cost and even free units) and buy in bulk. I buy half a steer each year, and that feeds me and my husband, plus a ravenous teenager who lives with us part time, for an entire year. Bigger families might want to buy a whole steer. If you can't handle buying that much, you can always split the costs and the bounty with friends and family. Though you'll have to fight over all the steaks. ;)

Eatwild is a great resource to find locally raised grass fed meats and other foods. Just choose your state and then you can peruse the farms and ranches alphabetically. The other way is to check Craigslist under Farm and Garden for small farmers who are selling their stock. When you buy an animal from the farmer directly, you'll have to pay for the "hanging weight" of the animal. This means everything on the animal including the bones. Depending on who you are buying from, a mobile slaughter service will come out to the farm, slaughter and weigh the animal, and then the farmer can tell you how much you will have to pay him. The butcher then takes the animal back to their facility to be butchered, then cuts and wraps it into the portions you prefer. Prices will vary by rancher or farmer. They should be up front on what is included in the per pound price. For example: my rancher includes the fee that the mobile slaughter guy charges to come out and do his job with the total I pay to him. Then I have to pay the butcher the cut and wrap fee. This is also done per the pound.

To give you an idea of how much it does cost to buy beef this way, here is the breakdown of what I paid in December, 2013. Keep in mind that the weight will vary. This year the steer I was given was not as large as the year before due to being born later in the calving season than usual.You can ask the farmer/rancher for an idea of how much a steer will weigh, but until they actually get it hung on the scale, it is only an estimate.

Weight of 1/2 steer: 248lbs
Total cost to rancher including the slaughter fee: $714 
That breaks down to about $2.88 per pound.
The cut and wrap fee was $121.52 (248lbs x 0.49 per pound)
That made my total cost $835.52. 
That averages out to $3.37 per pound. 
That breaks down to about $69 per month for beef if you're family is eating 20lbs of it per month. 

If you like steak and have gone to a meat market recently, you know you can pay upwards of $12 a pound for a t-bone steak and about $8 per pound for top sirloin, and that's probably NOT even a grass fed steak. Those are even pricier. Grass fed ground beef is usually $5 per pound or more. A pot roast is usually around $3 or $4 per pound at the grocery store depending, and it is not nearly as good as a locally raised, grass fed piece of beef. When buying direct from the farmer this way, you end up saving yourself a lot of money in the long run. I know it sounds like a lot of money, but my family budgeted this in to make sure we could afford it when it was time for the next steer to become dinner in the fall.

What some families do to get around the sticker shock of buying in bulk, is to save a portion of their tax return to set aside just for that purpose. Or you can save a portion each month to set aside, so that way at the end of the year you have the funds to buy in bulk again. A half steer can last 2 people, who eat moderate amounts of beef, up to 2 years.

Another good thing about buying in bulk this way is that you can choose to use all of the animal. Where as in the industrial meat system, all the "leavings," or all the parts that most consumers don't buy at the grocery store, get turned into mystery meat substances. Gross!

Many people shy away from organ meats like liver and the heart, but those cuts to our ancestors were prized for their nutritional value. You may say "ewww liver!" but trust me... grass fed beef liver tastes NOTHING like the bitter, gross stuff  from sickly CAFO cows you get at a super market. Not to mention you can ask your butcher for all the bones and even the fat. Beef bone broth from a grass fed steer is very nutrient dense, and not to mention delicious and easy to make. Beef fat can be rendered into tallow for cooking and even making candles.

Avoiding eating meat created by the industrial food industry doesn't mean you have to avoid meat entirely. It can be a very healthy food from the right sources. It is great for the local economy because it keeps the farmers who raise the animals in business, and it helps us consumers by giving us healthy, humane options. Grass fed beef isn't just for the mega rich either. With planning, and a little bit of budget managing for healthier foods, many people can afford to eat better sources of meat.