More from Mark Schatzker

Published on: 21:37PM Jun 20, 2010

By Steve Cornett  

This grassfed beef thread has been interesting. You’ll recall that it started with an off-handed comment I posted about Mark’s book. I tend to be a little defensive toward feedyards and fed beef, and that showed through, I suppose. 

So then Mark replied and then I posted a new set of comments and so now Mark has replied again. I’m enjoying the give-and-take, and in the modern world, it doesn’t waste anything but bytes and pixels to let everybody have his say. 

So here, again, from Mark.

Thanks once again to Steve Cornett for continuing the discussion of my book, although I feel like we’re talking in circles. As I stated last week, I’m not against all grain fed beef. If memory serves, I even posted a photo of a delicious steak that came from a steer that ate—gasp!—grain before it was slaughtered. (But not much grain, mind you.) I refer countless times in the book to good grain-fed steaks—Chianina beef in Italy, Basque Country beef in France, Kobe and Matsusaka beef in Japan.

However, I also committed the grave sin of stating that the very best steaks I have ever eaten have been grass-fed. Everyone associated with the commodity beef industry seems to think I’m part of some socialist conspiracy to confiscate land and outlaw the growing and feeding of corn. Allow me to officially put that myth to rest. I know better than to mess with cattlemen. All I want is to eat good steak. Is that so wrong?

As far as that New York Times story goes, I saw that one, too. And you’re right--$8/pound is a lot for ground beef. Why, that’s almost as much as Niman Ranch is charging ( (Do they realize they’re not selling grass fed beef?) The company I mentioned last week, Tallgrass Beef, sells its ground for  $6/pound. I think it tastes great, and most nutritionists will tell you that’ it’s healthier.

If, however, you’re one of those people who’d rather buy ground beef on sale at Wal-Mart or Food 4 Less or Save-A-Lot, I will not step in your way. If you think the best food is the cheapest food, you are entitled to that opinion. But you’re probably wasting your time reading a book about a guy who travels the world looking for the best steak. Why, the money I spent on plane tickets alone could have bought me several tons of extremely low quality ground beef.

Now let’s talk for a moment about beef and health.

At the end of Steve’s blog, he states “the FACT of the matter is that grainfed is actually a little healthier.” He’s referring here to a study hat was sponsored by the NCBA and which a lot of people in the grain-fed beef world have been very excited about.

Unfortunately, Steve, the NCBA, and everyone excited by the study are confused about what this study means. How do I know that? I phoned up the study’s lead author, Stephen Smith of Texas A&M, and asked him.

For those of you who haven’t read it, here’s what it said. Stephen Smith and his colleagues found that if you feed Angus steers on corn for 12 months, their beef is higher in a monounsaturated fat called oleic acid. When this particular beef was fed to a group of 27 men five times a week for six weeks, there was a very smallimprovement in their cholesterol.

So here’s a question: When was the last time any “grain-fed” Angus steer spent 12 months in a feedlot? This is a crucial distinction, because when Dr. Smith tested beef from cattle that had only been in a feedlot for eight months—still a long time on feed by conventional standards—he didn’t find the beneficial effect.
So it’s not “grain-fed beef” that’s “healthier.” It’s a peculiar and extremely rare type of grain-fed beef that’s “healthier,” a type of beef almost no Americans are eating right now.

Here’s something else you should know about that study: It hasn’t been published yet. The people who wrote it may be scientists, but until the findings are reviewed by other scientists, published in a scientific periodical—preferably a reputable one—and the results are duplicated by others, you can’t call it science. Doing so is irresponsible. So far, no other scientists than the ones that did the study have given it their stamp of approval.

But there’s a bigger picture problem here. There is more to beef than oleic acid. Grass-fed beef, for example, has more omega-3 fats. It’s also denser in vitamins and antioxidants. And if it’s oleic acid you want, feeding an Angus steer is a silly way to go about getting it. It’s a lot easier—not to mention cheaper—to run out and buy a bottle of, say, canola oil, or some almonds. In fact, one could easily conclude from Smith’s study that the healthiest beef would be a grass-fed steak with some olive oil poured overtop.

Finally, health schmealth. My number one concern, as we all know, is flavor. And my guess is that those Angus steers that spent an entire year on corn would taste darn good. A lot better, certainly, than a typical commodity steak, not because they’re more marbled, but because the cattle were a little older. Those steaks would taste like steak, not veal. But here’s what else they would be: expensive. They might even cost more than New York City grass-fed Highland.

Good luck finding such a steak. I suggest you fly to Japan, where cattle spend more than two years on feed. I ate a lot of steak in Japan. The fat is so unsaturated it washes off your hands with warm water and the morsels of steak burst in your mouth. It’s delicious stuff. I’d say it’s some of the better beef I’ve ever eaten. But it’s not as good as the best grass-fed steak. Not by a long shot. That, of course, is my opinion. And I stand by it. 

Steve Cornett is editor emeritus at Beef Today. You can reach him via e-mail at [email protected].