In a previous post (A cow named grass-fed) it was noted that animals raised with a significant part of their diet as grass will have a taste quite different from corn-fed (conventional) beef. Why is this? Doesn’t USDA Prime labeled beef mean “taste great”? One would think that the highest level of a grading system for beef would indicate better tasting beef.
Does the grading system take into account taste? Not really, maybe because it depends on individual preferences? I would argue that when the grading system was originally established in the 1920’s, PRIME beef did relate to great tasting (grass-fed) beef. The grading system is based largely on the amount of fat displayed by the carcass. In the 1920’s almost all beef was grass-fed or at least a large portion of their diet was grass. A PRIME animal was a fat grass-fed (grass fat) animal. The taste of beef in the 1920s was probably much different from the beef found in stores today.
So what happened to our beef in North America? With the advent of the grading system and the market now providing an incentive for beef considered PRIME, farmers adapted production to find the quickest and cheapest way to get cattle fat (remember, higher grades based on amount of visible fat). This production mode continues to this day. This model today usually involves:
- Early weaning of large framed calves implanted with growth hormones
- Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO)
- High startch diet – grains (corn)
- Short animal life span (harvested as early as 18 months), on grass for as little as 90 days
- Numerous inputs to maintain animal health, sometimes involving antibiotics and chemical wormers
Compare the above process to what a PRIME beef would have looked like in the 1920’s:
- Small framed calves raised on grass with their momma for up to 10 months
- Forages as a large part of the animals diet over the entire life of the animal
- Harvested at 2 years of age or older
- Little use of inputs such as antibiotics or chemical wormers
Folks today really only know the taste (or lack of taste) of corn-fed beef. When the original grading system was established, those folks really only knew the taste of grass-fed beef.
Does that mean that taste is related to fat? I will cover that in a future post.
So what do you think? What kind of beef would you rather consume comparing the two options above. The good news today, we have a choice between corn-fed beef or grass-fed beef. We encourage you to find a local farmer that you can visit with concerning their production practices.