I was making bolognese sauce and defrosted a packet of ground beef I’d purchased earlier in the month just for this purpose, having chosen the grass-fed, “organic” ground over the less expensive option because, well, I read that grass-fed beef is healthier  and better for the ecosystem, I’m not going to stuff anything made with antibiotics and growth hormone into my kids, and anyway, feedlots are gross . . . we all saw Food, Inc, right?

I added the meat to a minced yellow onion, garlic, celery, and carrot mixture that had been softening in hot virgin olive oil, stirred until it was cooked through, sprinkled in about a half-teaspoon of salt and lots of ground lemon pepper, wandered out back to cut a few springs of flat-leaf parsley, Italian oregano, thyme, sage, and savory to add to the mixture, stirred in a small can of tomato paste, a large box of Pomi crushed tomatoes, a generous splash of Half and Half, and brought the mixture just to a boil. Reducing the heat, I covered the pot so all those marvelous flavors would have a chance to meld in that mysterious stovetop alchemy.

It was then I went to tidy up and saw – my mistake? oversight? Does anything on this label strike you as . . . odd?


“Product of USA, Australia, Canada, and Uruguay.” What the he&#!? Was this a well-travelled cow that traipsed over 12,000 miles so I could feed my family spaghetti bolognese? Or had I actually just browned a bovine melting pot of creatures from all over the globe? Either way, I was pretty shocked. Had I looked at the label more carefully at the store, I definitely would have waited and bought more local grass-fed ground somewhere else.

Probably, anyway. But why? Unless I want to pasture and slaughter my own cow, our meat has to travel. I can find local grass-fed beef in town, but it’s double the price, and the cows have to travel from Santa Cruz County to a certified humane processor in Central California – 600 mile round trip on a diesel truck. The argument can be made that grass-fed beef shipped on a slow boat from from Uruguay carries a lower energy cost per pound. Throw carbon footprint and local food sourcing vs. CAFO options in with sorting out while sorting out natural, organic, and grass-fed designations, and it’s pretty obvious that there is no clear best choice.

So what’s the beef on beef? Start with beef production – with how the animals are raised for consumption. Here are a couple of excerpts from an FDA report to the Food Marketing Institute that help to understand how those conditions are regulated, starting with the explanation of a “natural” designation on meat and poultry:

The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) requires these to be free of artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners, preservatives and ingredients that do not occur naturally in the food. Natural meat and poultry must be minimally processed in a method that does not fundamentally alter the raw product.

Basically anything goes on the production end; as long as it looks like meat when it’s packaged and sold, it can be labeled as natural. Ok. Here are the USDA’s requirement for organic:

“Organic” refers not only to the food itself, but also to how it was produced. Food labeled organic must be certified under the National Organic Program (NOP), which was took effect October 21, 2002. They must be grown and processed using organic farming methods that recycle resources and promote biodiversity – two key elements of environmentally sustainable agriculture. Crops must be grown without using synthetic pesticides, bioengineered genes, petroleum-based fertilizers and sewage sludge-based fertilizers. Organic livestock must have access to the outdoors and be given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic foods may not be irradiated.

So “natural meat” can come from cows packed shoulder-to-shoulder together in feedlots, fed grain grown in sewage-sludge fertilizer, and given grown hormones and antibiotics. Organic meat cannot. There’s a plus for the environment and health on the organic side. But both types can be fed corn, and can be kept in feedlots – a minus on both counts. And here’s another consideration – that organic designation must be applied for and purchased. What about an environmentally thoughtful small-scale rancher who just doesn’t want to spend the money or wants to reserve the right to treat sick cows with antibiotics? That meat cannot be labeled as organic, but it will have less impact on the environment and will be healthier than its industrial ranching counterpart.

Now consider grass-fed meat. Grass is actually a cow’s natural diet, and there are health, nutrition, and environmental benefits to going grass-fed. BUT – there is no official meaning or definition of grass-fed; it can either be natural or organic and from a small farm or a from a large commercial operation, so buyer beware.

Short of eschewing red meat entirely, I have no best-choice answers, only opinions. I’m still completely sold on the grass-fed option. I would have liked to say organic grass-fed, but I’m leery of the idea that “organic” is a label that can be bought and am leaving the door open for smaller, environmentally thoughtful small ranching operations that might be the best overall choice.

Luckily we live in such a savvy, wired world it’s not hard to figure out where the beef at your local grocery comes from. It’s even simple to buy the meat you want online and have it delivered to your home. (You’d drive to the grocery store anyway, right? It all ultimately boils down to economics.)

To borrow from Michael Pollan: eat meat, not too much. Make well-informed choices. And remember, the only “green beef” is beef that’s gone bad.

Here are a few links I found while writing this – they are all excellent references