Where’s the Beef? Exploring Sustainable Food Choices

Confession: I have become a bit obsessed with cows as of late. You can ask Michael, but I think we’ve discussed cows every day for the last month.

Obviously, we’re in rural Wyoming and the Platte Valley is home to lots of cattle ranches. My daily commute to work offers picturesque views of rolling ranch lands with cows happily roaming and grazing. I see more cattle and wildlife than other vehicles or people which makes for a pretty peaceful drive (just watch out for deer). The ranchers know my jeep and we wave; the simple joys of country life to which I’ve become accustomed.

Over the last couple of years, given the growing conversation surrounding factory farms, meat production and the BIG business of the food industry (as well as a slew of intriguing food focused documentaries on Netflix), like many people, I’ve started to get a little more curious about where the food I eat comes from. Specifically, I’ve become uneasy about buying no-name, generic, meat products from the grocery store. The dilemma in our small town is that we have one, not-so-great grocery store that doesn’t offer many organic or free range options when it comes to produce or meat. Sometimes there are free range eggs but it’s rare. And when there’s zero labeling on a nice little package of meat, I can only guess at the kind of life the animal had, or whether it’s chock full of antibiotics. Bottom line: I have no idea where it came from. This thought has been nagging at me every time we’ve bought meat for the last couple of years.

One day, as I cooled down after a run on my favorite dirt road with a bunch of cows staring at me in that way they do, I felt frustrated with the irony of the situation. I am surrounded by all these pasture raised cattle and I am still buying beef in the grocery store with no clue where it’s sourced. More and more, it just began to feel wrong. I looked one of the cows in the eye. “What’s your story?” I wanted to ask him. “Where do you go from here?” He just kept chewing on his grass and staring at me. No help there.

Buying Packaged Meat

Buying packaged meat at our local grocery store

A local cattle rancher happened to come to my yoga class in town one night and we got to talking after class about all things beef (as you do at a Wyoming yoga class). I asked him to tell me about his cattle operation. He explained that their cows are free ranging and entirely grass fed. They don’t use any pesticides or chemicals on the land. They only use antibiotics if the cows get sick which rarely happens. This all sounded great to me! Sign me up! How do I get beef from him?

Unfortunately, that is not the end of the story.  Like most cattle operations, as I’ve come to learn, his calves are then sold to feedlots where they are fattened up with grain (usually genetically engineered corn and soy) and then slaughtered and processed for sale. More on feedlots in a minute. I was disappointed to find out that most of the cattle ranches in this area, and in the country, work that way.

Enter Shreve Stockton into this story, an author whose book, The Daily Coyote, I read a couple of years ago. I was immediately drawn to her writing, given that she is another soul who picked up her life and moved to Wyoming on a whim. I followed Shreve’s blog on and off for the past couple years and was excited to learn she had started her own beef company, called Star Brand Beef just north of us a few hours away. Her mission is to keep livestock out of feedlots and provide humanely raised, pastured, stress free, grass finished beef –  free of GMO’s and antibiotics. I was ecstatic at the possibility of buying beef from her, a local source that I trust (and a real person that I’ve talked to!). Michael got on board and we’ll be heading up north to meet Shreve and pick up our beef in the coming months.

Shreve is hugely knowledgeable on the topic and I’ve been picking her brain this last month with lots of questions about the conventional beef industry, feedlots, the environment, and product labeling. Like most people, I feel like I had a pretty good, general understanding of these issues, but it was not until recently that the magnitude of these facts really started to sink in. I am mostly writing this blog to simply share some of my key learnings because I think they are important:

  • There is an important distinction between beef labeled “grass fed” versus “grass finished.” All cows are grass fed to start, but unless they are labeled grass finished, they were fed grain (corn and soy) in feedlots for the last 3-6 months of their lives.
  • Why is grain so bad? Cows are ruminants which means they have special stomachs designed to digest plants, not grains. Corn and soy wreak havoc on their digestive system causing all kinds of health problems, which are then often counteracted with antibiotics and feed additives like Zilmax to try to keep the cows healthy.
  • Feedlots offer a stressful, horrendous environment for cows – in the worst cases, they are crammed together in small pens with little to no room to move around, they are standing in their own shit, and are often bloated, sick and full of infections.
  • Cows will die within two years in a feedlot due to liver failure because the unnatural grain feed is so hard on their systems.
  • Grass finished beef, compared to grain finished beef is more lean and higher in Omega 3’s including EPA and DHA, as well as conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a cancer fighting agent, and it has more antioxidants, vitamins (like A and E) and minerals.I don’t know about you, but that sounds better to me than meat that’s been treated with all kinds of drugs.

I have a vivid memory at 17 years old, while traveling to Mexico on a high school service trip, of seeing one of the biggest commercial feedlot operations in the country out the van window. If you’ve ever driven the I-5 in California between San Fran and L.A, you know exactly what I’m talking about. The Harris Ranch, or “Cowschwitz” as it has been referred to, made my jaw drop – thousands of cows crammed together, standing in their own excrement, being fed GM grain, awaiting their slaughter, and then being served to you in that In n’ Out burger you love so much. The Harris Ranch supplies its beef to the vast majority of grocery stores across the country.

I found this “Fact Check Brochure” produced by Harris Ranch which basically denounces/downplays all the claims that grass fed beef is healthier and genetically modified corn is unsafe to eat, among other things. The opening paragraph (next to the lovely photos of cows grazing in a lush green pasture) made me laugh with its glossy rhetoric about sustainability and stewardship. It’s PR spin at its finest, and I am absolutely fascinated by the language and marketing used by some of these companies, which is a whole other beast of a topic to explore.

A timely and good example of these marketing strategies is the announcement made by the Canadian restaurant chain, Earls, last week that it would become the first chain in North America to serve only Certified Humane beef. The document linked provides a long list of seemingly strict protocols for cattle ranchers to follow, which sounds great right? And yes, some of the protocols are based on legitimate standards developed by individuals like Temple Grandin so it is possibly a step in the right direction, but Certified Humane unfortunately does NOT mean no feedlots and no grain. A little more research reveals that “Certified Humane” is simply the trademark of a non-profit organization called Humane Farm Animal Care that creates its own standards and auditing systems. Because the government has failed to regulate the industry, organizations like this are popping up all over the place, creating a lot of confusing and misleading information. By slapping an official sounding certification on their brand, Earls suddenly stands out as a shining beacon in otherwise murky waters. It was a smart marketing move that speaks directly to those consumers who are beginning to ask more questions about where their food comes from, but it was largely just that – a marketing move.

“What does it matter?” Someone said to me recently, “Why should I worry about it or spend more money on organic anything? Everything gives you cancer, we’re all gonna die of cancer eventually anyway.”

I think that’s just a lazy, negative and sad argument, but some people do argue that there’s not enough hard data on the long term effects of GM crops on humans to get too concerned, but here’s what I know from my research: the cows and other livestock in feedlots are a hell of a lot more sick than the ones being pastured. Period. And that matters. What you choose to fuel your body with matters. The insane amount of obesity, heart disease, diabetes and cancers affecting people in America today is not a coincidence. We’re absolutely fooling ourselves if we think otherwise. Diet and nutrition are paramount and at the end of the day, don’t we all just want to feel our best physically and mentally? Don’t we want to take steps and make change in this industry to lead to overall improved health? I truly believe in the saying “You are what you eat” and in this case, you are what the cow eats.

Saratoga Cows

Snapped this happy mama and baby on my run this past weekend in Saratoga

I have come to the decision that I want to know that the beef I eat came from a humanely raised cow that was healthy and happy and entirely grass fed. It’s better for the animal, for me, and for the environment. And it feels like the right decision for me. And if you’re anything like me, you might be wondering what you can do now that you know some of this information, or maybe you’ve known some of these facts for awhile, but it’s time to actually act on that knowledge.

Here’s my suggestions for some things you can do:

1. Talk about it – get the conversation going with your family, friends and coworkers.

2. Get curious about where the meat you eat is sourced. Ask at your local grocery store, or your favorite restaurant. Do some research online. I had a great conversation with our Chef at the ranch about the beef we serve to our guests.

3. Check out some of the intriguing documentaries out there like Food Inc. and Forks Over Knives.

4. Eat less meat! The majority of us need to eat more plants anyway. Take meat out of your diet a couple days a week and see how you feel. You might be surprised. Another interesting finding: two people I talked to that eat grass finished beef told me they don’t need to eat as much meat as they would with grain fed beef.

5. See if there’s anywhere in your town where you can purchase grass finished beef. Spend the extra money and see how you like it!

6. Read labels carefully – it’s a slippery slope for sure and not just with meat, but just because something is labeled “all natural” or “grass fed” for example, doesn’t necessarily mean you’re getting the whole truth.

7. Find a farmer! Check out websites like Eat Wild, or Local Harvest to help you source organic, grass finished meat or other foods in your area.

8. Better yet, order your beef from Star Brand! I wholeheartedly believe in what Shreve is doing, and if you’re interested in buying humanely raised, 100% grass finished, delicious beef from a real live person who cares a whole lot, she makes it super easy to do. Her beef is available for purchase once a year in the spring and she delivers it personally across the U.S to a bunch of major cities. Here’s her route this year.  Go in with some friends or coworkers and you’ll be surprised how affordable it is.

And finally, be sure to check out Shreve’s Kickstarter campaign, which she launched to help fund the purchase of her own reefer trailer (essentially a freezer on wheels) so she can expand her delivery area and offer more routes across the U.S. She has a few days left and is SO close to reaching $20,000, a huge feat! She’s got some cool Wyoming inspired rewards in exchange for your support. You can even adopt a cow!

Thanks for reading, and please let me know your thoughts or questions on the subject. I am very open to discussing and continuing to learn more.

Change is possible when we get curious and creative, think critically and keep the conversation alive and evolving.

And to close, a picture of little me, making hamburgers with Dad. I would stand on a chair at the counter and he put me in charge of making the patties, a job I loved, clearly! And he used to say “Where’s the Beef?!” in this funny way that always made me laugh, hence the title. 🙂



Making burgers with Dad 🙂



1 Comment

  1. Ryan
    May 12, 2016 / 10:58 am

    Just in case you don’t know where Dad got that from… :O)

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