Friday, February 12, 2010

Grass Fed Meat

Like many animal lovers, the issue of whether or not to eat meat is a difficult one for me. On one hand, I do know that animals have feelings and the way the livestock are treated that become the meat you find in your average supermarket is horrible. On the other hand, I like meat, I'm not sure that eating animals is inherently wrong (I don't think animals worry about death the same way we do, but I suppose there's no way to know for sure), and I don't believe much of the rhetoric put forth by the more extreme vegan activists. For example, the idea that if you are vegan, you aren't doing harm to any animals, or that a vegan diet is the best thing you can do for the environment really don't convince me. As an ecologist I am well aware of the ecological damage caused by ploughing up the land and planting a monoculture crop soaked in pesticides, which makes it difficult for me to believe that people who base their diets on grains and soybeans have their hands clean.

In comparison, a responsible rancher can mimic the natural state of the prairie with large animals grazing the native grasses and many other native wildlife species living alongside them. Of course, there are irresponsible ranchers who overgraze their land, though it seems to me, just by observing them in person, that overgrazed ranches are still more biologically diverse than cornfields.

This only works, of course, if you eat meat from animals that aren't fed grain themselves. This benefits not only the environment, but the animals themselves, since they get to live more natural lives. Ruminants like cows and sheep are not built to eat grain. It does terrible things to their digestive systems, which are amazingly complicated and specialized grass-fermentation machines. Pigs and chickens are more generalized in their diets, and therefore tolerate a corn diet better than cows, but are still healtheir, and I would argue, happier when allowed to roam free and eat the varied diet they were meant to. Humans, after all, are generalists too, just like pigs, but probably would not enjoy an all-corn diet either.

Therefore, I have chosen to buy only grass fed meat and pastured poultry. I haven't yet extended that rule to eating out, since grass fed meant is almost impossible to find at restaurants, but I don't eat out often anyway. Today I recieved my latest order from Slanker's Grass Fed Meats, which is where I get most of my meat from. The ranch is located in North Texas, and I prefer it over my next best choice, one of the Austin farmer's markets, because I can order it over the internet and have it delivered UPS. This way I know what they have in stock ahead of time and can order in bulk easily. The farmer's market is good, and I would probably go more if I actually lived in Austin, but often once I get there the meat vendors are out of most things, and it would be a pain to haul 100 lbs of meat from there to fill up my chest freezer.

Ordering meat and having it delivered may seem weird, but it comes frozen solid in these insulated boxes that act as a cooler. It seems to work out just fine. In the summer maybe the edges of some of the cuts arrive a little thawed, but that's about it. That meat would stay at least refrigerator-cold for much longer than the three days it takes to get to me.

He always has beef in stock and usually has chicken as well. Occassionally he'll have lamb, pork, bison, and goat meat too. I don't agree with everything he says on his website (I don't think the only thing wrong with CAFO's is that they produce an inferior product, though I understand that he doesn't want to badmouth his fellow cattlemen, and I don't think that meat should form the basis of the human diet, though I do understand that he is out to sell a product here), but doing business with him has always worked out just fine for me. Ordering in bulk makes it cost about the same as buying it from the farmer's market (maybe even slightly cheaper), even with shipping, and much cheaper than buying the organic beef at Whole Foods (and grass fed is actually better than organic, you can feed organic corn to a cow and call it organic beef). Let's see, this last order of 130 lbs of meat, minus the bulk discount, plus shipping, came out to about $4.77 a pound averaged out. Not bad, especially considering I splurged on a bit of lamb. However, this is merely my favorite source of grass fed meat. The farmer's market or some other rancher may be more convenient for you. It really depends on where you live and how far you're willing to drive.

I have nothing against vegetarians (and actually I think it's a pretty good idea), just the ones that think their diets make them automatically morally superior to all omnivores. Mainly I'd like to encourage my fellow omnivores to consider switching to grass fed meat. Yes, it is more expensive. I compensate by eating less meat, which is probably better for me anyway (makes me eat more vegetables). I incorporate a lot of vegetarian meals into my weekly routine and when I do eat meat I try to stretch it out with a lot of vegetables, making the vegetables take center stage with the meat as an accompaniment, rather than the other way around. I also try to buy more of the cheap cuts, the shoulders and shanks and ribs, and braise them in my crockpot until tender. Grass fed meat is much tastier, which helps a little go a long way, but some people say it tastes "gamey" or "fishy" and that it isn't tender. I would say that means they're just too used to the fat, unhealthy, bland tasting corn fed cows. I also think "marbling" is way overrated. Intramuscular fat is considered to be unhealthy for humans, so why want that in a cow? I wonder if it's really a marketing gimmick to make corn-fed cows seem more desirable. Tenderness is achieved more reliably by cooking the meat properly than how much marbling it has.

Now I have a freezer to organize.

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