Real Meat - Real Food: What to Eat and Why - Nina Planck

Real Food: What to Eat and Why - Nina Planck (2016)

Chapter 3. Real Meat


Historically, farming was an uncertain proposition, with the constant risk of uneven harvests due to droughts, floods, and locusts. But in the 1940s and ’50s, the second-oldest profession became much more predictable. Farmers achieved more reliable crops and vastly bigger yields with three key technologies: chemicals, laborsaving equipment, and breeding. Genetic experts designed highly productive, disease-resistant plants and animals, from corn to beef cattle, which mature quickly and efficiently. With these new methods, farms overflowed with cheap food.

Conjuring up images of bursting grain silos to feed the world’s hungry, the masters of this technological boom called it the Green Revolution. It’s a flattering moniker, but misleading, because the side effects were nasty. Chemicals employed to achieve huge yields included powerful pesticides, nitrogen fertilizers derived from World War II bombs, synthetic growth hormones, and antibiotics. Like traditional factories belching out smoke, factory farms also produce unsavory waste: noxious manure lagoons, pesticide drift, and nitrogen runoff polluting rivers and streams. The methods of the Industrial Revolution had been applied to farming.

Before long, the Industrial Farming Revolution begat a counterrevolution. In my view, this was a truly green revolution—environmentally sound, humane, and healthy. In the 1970s, food co-ops and health food shops in Berkeley, California, started selling organic and whole foods, and chefs like Alice Waters at Chez Panisse and Nora Pouillon in Washington, D.C., started to buy local and seasonal foods. Small farmers like us, using ecological methods, began to sell directly to a newly conscious public at farm stands and farmers’ markets.

At first, this new market was mostly for fruits and vegetables. Although some farmers (like my family) kept a cow or chickens for home use, most of us were growing fruit, vegetables, herbs, and flowers for local markets and chefs—not meat and dairy. That was partly because processing, transporting, and selling foods such as beef and butter is more costly and complicated than taking cucumbers to market.

But there were also cultural reasons, I think, for the emphasis on produce. In the early 1970s, vegetarians claimed the nutritional and environmental high ground. As my friend Joann wrote in 1990, “So vigorously has the vegetarian movement pursued the twin themes of whole food and rejection of animal products that in the minds of most people, to be committed to whole foods or organic gardening without being a vegetarian takes some explaining.”

Fans of organic and local foods have sometimes been outright hostile to meat. In 1982, we started a farmers’ market in Takoma Park, Maryland, and it soon grew popular. When we invited Forrest Pritchard, a young Virginia beef farmer, to the farmers’ market in 2001, a few customers objected—loudly. Letters to the editor were heated. The farmers’ market was for vegetarians, they protested. (Er … we thought it was for farmers.) But times change. Today, in addition to writing bestsellers on farming. Forrest does a brisk trade in grass-fed beef and pastured poultry, and in 2004, members of the Takoma Park food co-op, after an emotional debate, voted to start selling natural meat.

No one—vegetarian or omnivore—who cares about farming, nutrition, or ecology can afford to ignore animals. Animal products account for the majority (51 percent) of American agriculture, about one hundred billion dollars in annual farm sales. The average American eats 186 pounds of meat annually, including beef, poultry, lamb, pork, and veal, and almost 600 pounds of milk, cheese, and ice cream. Unfortunately, most of these foods are produced on large industrial farms with methods that degrade the environment and diminish nutrition. The question is not whether one should be able to buy meat at farmers’ markets, but what kind of meat.

Today many farmers like Forrest raise animals with humane and ecological methods for local and national markets. Farmers’ markets, food co-ops, and specialty shops sell beef, lamb, pork, game, poultry, eggs, milk, butter, and cheese to go with the seasonal produce. Appearing in supermarkets and casual restaurant chains, brands like Niman Ranch organized hundreds of independent family farms to raise beef, pork, and lamb the traditional way. Niman Ranch became mainstream and its founder, Bill Niman, left the company. He and his fellow grass farmers now raise fine grass-fattened beef for white-tablecloth restaurants.

In the 1970s, the food world was splintered. There were vegetarians and meat lovers, gourmands and environmentalists. Often they had little in common, but today we all rally around slow and local foods—slocal foods, as I call them. (Slow Food is the very American name of a group born in Italy as a protest against fast food. Dedicated to traditional foods, Slow Food has chapters all over the world.) Today, vegetarians who learned about heirloom tomatoes twenty years ago are discovering raw milk cheese, health-conscious people are asking how pastured eggs have more omega-3 fats than industrial eggs, and steak lovers are listening to animal rights advocates who decry factory farms.

Farmers like Elliot Coleman, a former vegetarian, speak out in favor of the cow and its role on the farm. As I pondered this cultural shift, I discovered something curious about animals. Every ecological farm—even a vegetable farm—needs them. When I was little, it never occurred to me that we imported horse manure from local stables for soil fertility. Our own cow and chickens simply left their manure on pasture; we didn’t compost it for the zucchini. Much later, I learned that the ideal farm builds soil fertility from its own resources—a bedrock principle of organic and biodynamic farming.

The mixed farm is best. In addition to fertilizer, animals provide meat, milk, and eggs, and—amazingly—require very little in return. Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of animals—grazers and omnivores—and each has its place on the farm. Grazers, such as cattle, sheep, and goats, live on grass and other vegetation. With four stomachs, a special system of fermentation, and help from beneficial bacteria, ruminants convert forage that is literally indigestible to humans (grass is mostly cellulose) into high-quality fat and protein. Ruminants work this magic even on marginal land, where the soil is poor or cannot be tilled because it is hilly, rocky, or marshy. Grassland animals also contribute significantly to carbon sequestration, which counters global warming.

Omnivores such as pigs and chickens can also convert plants to protein and fat, but they need more nutrients—namely, complete protein—than pasture has. Along with grass, they eat kitchen scraps, field stubble, and wild foods. The adaptable pig will eat almost anything, from acorns to whey to coconut. Poultry, too, are cleanup animals, eating grain, grass, insects, worms, and leftovers including eggshells and sour milk.

On ecological farms, animals also provide labor. By labor, I don’t mean animals trained to serve, such as border collies herding sheep or draft horses at the plow, but when animals intended for market—that is, to be eaten—do useful farmwork. Pigs, for example, like to root; they clear brush and trees like bulldozers. They will snuffle happily for corn the farmer buries in cattle bedding, and, as they forage, the pigs aerate the straw and manure, creating rich compost. Cattle improve poor pastures by grazing, which increases plant diversity, and goats will clean up a thorny hedgerow. Geese and turkeys roaming a vineyard keep weeds down, eat insect pests, and build soil fertility with manure—three economic benefits to the farmer before she so much as collects an egg, butchers a turkey, or bottles the wine.

Fertilizer, weed and pest control, improving pasture, turning whey and old sweet corn into bacon and eggs—these are some of the virtues of keeping animals. Even if the farmer never slaughters her cow or chickens, they will work without instruction or complaint—grazing and pecking are instincts, after all—and there will be butter and eggs for the vegetarians. Animals on grassland benefit the farm ledger, saving the farmer money otherwise spent on feed, fertilizer, and vet bills.

It’s too bad that industrial agriculture has no use for the traditional role of animals. When hyperproduction became the chief goal of agriculture, we took animals off lush rolling fields and into dark and crowded factories, stuffing them on grain sprayed with chemicals, and feeding them growth harmones. As we’ll see, the consequences for animal health and happiness, the environment, and the quality of the meat, poultry, and eggs we eat are unhappy, indeed.


Down on the factory farm, the idea is to bring animals to market weight quickly and cheaply. To that end, traditional animal husbandry has been replaced by industrial methods: cheap, often unnatural food, fattening diets, antibiotics, steroids. The less space for animals to move around, the better; exercise wastes precious feed calories, and that costs money. Whether the farmer keeps cattle, pigs, or poultry, the motto on industrial farms is the same: sit down, shut up, and eat.

Fans of the species Bos taurus make the enthusiastic, but not unreasonable, claim that cows changed the world. “The history of what we think of as civilization is, with very few exceptions, a story intertwined with cattle, a narrative pulled along by oxen, a growth nurtured with butter and cheese,” writes M. R. Montgomery in A Cow’s Life. Whether raised for labor, milk, or meat, the genus Bos shares a long history with humankind. From the aurochs to the Aberdeen Angus, many Bos species have made themselves useful and (not by accident) have also been successful at spreading progeny. Except for small pockets—above the Arctic Circle, some tropical spots—Bos covers the globe.

This comes as no surprise because keeping cattle is easy. All a ruminant needs is grass. From Ireland to Argentina to New Zealand, cattle are traditionally raised on pasture, and until recently U.S. cattle were raised chiefly on grass and hay, too. In the 1950s, however, beef farming changed sharply, thanks to a surplus of cheap corn and soybeans. Ranchers saw that cattle gained weight faster on grain, and unlike grass, grain is available all year. Today most industrial cattle are fattened on grain—a dramatic change in evolutionary terms.1

With more marbling (intramuscular fat) than grass-fed beef, “corn-fed” beef was promoted as tender and soon regarded as superior. Grass-fed beef is as lean as a skinless chicken breast, while feedlot cattle are about 30 percent fat by weight—technically obese. Indeed that’s the goal. To win the label USDA Prime, beef needs a certain amount of intramuscular fat between the twelfth and thirteenth ribs. To achieve this, a steer must wear a layer of fat, an inch or more deep, beneath the skin. Later, this excess fat is usually trimmed away by butchers and cooks in search of the lean meat we demand. We’ve made cattle too fat for our own taste.

The new grain diet had unforeseen consequences. Grains give cattle an acid stomach. When calves are weaned and begin eating grain instead of grass, they become ill. The more acid gut of grain-fed cattle increases the risk of illness from E. coli in people. Finally, grain-fed beef is less nutritious than grass-fed beef, which has more conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), omega-3 fats, B vitamins, vitamin E, glutathione, beta-carotene, calcium, and potassium.

The insults to beef cattle don’t stop there. To prevent illness and speed weight gain, industrial cattle are fed antibiotics. Antibiotic use in farm animals has increased ten- or twentyfold since the 1950s.2 Overuse of antibiotics leads to drug resistance. For farmers, that means using ever-stronger drugs to fight pathogens. For doctors, it means that common antibiotics no longer work on human patients. The Campaign to End Antibiotics Overuse says that “antibiotic resistance is reaching crisis proportions, resulting in infections that are difficult, or impossible, to treat.” The American Medical Association opposes the use of human antibiotics for nontherapeutic use in animal farming, and the European Union bans human antibiotics in animals as growth promoters.

Industrial cattle are treated with growth hormones (also called steroids) to fatten them faster. The natural hormones estradiol, progesterone, and testosterone and synthetic hormones zeranol and trenbolone acetate are typically implanted in the ear. Environmental estrogens (as opposed to those made in the body) are called endocrine disruptors because they alter the body’s natural hormonal balance. Excess estrogen is linked to reproductive cancers including breast, prostate, and testicular cancer, and since 1950, such cancers have risen sharply. Breast cancer is up 55 percent, testicular cancer up 120 percent, and prostate cancer up 230 percent. According to Dr. Samuel Epstein, a professor of environmental medicine at the University of Illinois School of Public Health and the founder of the Cancer Prevention Coalition, “the risk of breast and other cancers only increases with the uncontrolled use of hormones in meat.”

A grave risk from eating industrial beef is mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy. Again the culprit may be what factory farmers force these herbivores to eat. In addition to grain, cattle may be fed less wholesome things: rendered poultry and pork, chicken litter containing feathers and manure, and—most disturbing—parts of other cattle unfit for humans.

Turning cattle into carnivores and cannibals could prove ruinous. In Britain, where mad cow disease devastated the beef industry, cattle probably contracted BSE from eating infected cattle or sheep with scrapie, the ovine version of the disease. Mad cow disease, which appears in similar form in many species including deer and cats, is caused by deformed proteins that leave spongy holes in the brain. The result is drooling, dementia, paralysis, and death. The rare human version, called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, is similarly grisly and always fatal.

In 1997, the United States banned the feeding of cattle meat and bone meal—the parts most likely to carry BSE—to other cattle. Only two months before the first U.S. case of BSE surfaced in 2003, the FDA reported three hundred violations of the feed ban and the General Accounting Office estimated many more. Even if it were perfectly enforced, the feed rule—like the brain of a mad cow victim—is full of holes. In 2005, bovine fat and blood were still permitted, along with restaurant leftovers, or “plate waste,” which means cattle eat the beef with broccoli someone didn’t finish. Ground-up pigs and chickens were also still permitted as cattle feed. Because pigs and poultry are themselves fed cattle parts, that means infected cattle matter can end up in cattle feed. In Britain, BSE was brought under control only after a total ban on feeding mammals to cattle.

No one knows how many American cattle have BSE, but observers fear it is already common. Japan tests every market-bound animal for BSE, and Britain tests every animal older than twenty-four months. In 2005, the United States tested thirty-seven thousand of thirty-seven million cattle slaughtered: 1 percent.3 If mad cow disease worries you, choose grass-fed, organic, or biodynamic beef.

Humans have been raising pigs for at least ten thousand years and hunting wild boar for much longer. Despite being shunned by two great religions, pork is the world’s most popular meat. The pig has the distinction of being the only mammal whose skin we eat. “Who can resist the crackling from roast pork?” asks the food writer Anne Dolamore.4

Crackling! The word is sure to make southerners wistful about Grandma’s Sunday dinners. Perhaps more than any other animal, the pig is associated with its fat. Irish legend tells that Saint Martin created the pig from a piece of fat, and lard is traditional in many cuisines, from Europe to China to Indonesia. On the island of Borneo, pork, lard, and rice make up the typical dinner, and the fat of wild boar—only its fat, not lean meat—is considered the unique source of physical, sexual, and spiritual vitality. In nineteenth-century America, lard was the fat of choice for frying and baking. Well into the twentieth century, “lard ruled the kitchen and the palate,” says the culinary historian Bruce Kraig.5 Unlike other animal fats, lard makes a dish on its own. A Tuscan specialty, lardo, is nothing more than a ribbon-thin square of lard, cured with salt and rosemary.

That people love pork is no mystery—it’s delicious. Pigs are popular with farmers, too: they eat anything, fatten easily, breed quickly, and work hard. Indeed most farms have more pig labor than pig tasks, and the working pig is happy rummaging through forests, old orchards, and hedgerows.

Sadly, this is not the picture of pigs on factory farms. Raised indoors in crowded pens, they cannot pursue their natural impulse to root. Concrete or slatted floors allow for easy removal of manure, but they also cause arthritis and deformed feet. Pressure from eaters and animal-rights activists means that nine states have banned the ultra-cruel tiny gestation crates where sows give birth—in confinement. Factory pigs are deficient in vitamin E and selenium, antioxidants found in pasture.6 Confined pigs are subject to infections, including a fatal form of gastroenteritis; to stave off illness, farmers feed them antibiotics. A strain of salmonella found in swine is resistant to an important antibiotic, fluoroquinolone.7 (Growth hormones may not be used in pigs.)

Under the stress of crowded conditions, pigs bite each other’s tails and cause infections. To preempt tail biting, factory farmers snip off the tails with wire cutters (without anesthetic), leaving a hypersensitive stump which pigs work to keep away from the teeth of other pigs. This is called avoidance behavior. That’s the theory, anyway, but a British study in 2003 found that tail docking increases tail biting.8

A happy chicken is up with the dawn, lays an egg in the late morning, and when the farmer opens the little chicken house door, she heads outside to hunt for insects in the grass. The occasional dust bath—rolling around in dry soil, fluffing the dust under her feathers—keeps her free of pests. At dusk, the hen goes inside on her own, safe from predators, to her dinner of grain and oyster shell. That’s how our chickens lived at Wheatland Vegetable Farms. Their contented cooing as they settle for the night is one of my favorite sounds.

I once visited a battery chicken house in Maryland. It is not a memory likely to fade quickly. Dark and dusty, the barn smelled of ammonia—the sharp, unmistakable odor of uncomposted chicken manure. Stacked in long rows, the wire cages were shorter than my arm and half as deep. Three hens cowered in each cage, with no room to move around. “These cages were built for nine hens,” said the farmer, with some pride.

Because they never see the light of day, factory hens lose the natural rhythm essential to egg laying. Instead of sunlight, artificial lights tell their bodies when to lay eggs. With no room to move, nest, or forage, a hen has nothing to do but eat, drink, and drop an egg through the wire on a narrow tray or conveyor belt. California banned eggs from caged hens in late 2014 and several large buyers of eggs, such as McDonald’s, Burger King, and Unilever, have announced they will phase out caged eggs.

Chickens require complete protein, and a good source is insects, grubs, and worms. Factory chicken feed often includes protein from less savory sources: poultry parts and feathers, rendered cats and dogs, beef fat, and cattle bonemeal. In crowded battery egg operations, pathogens thrive. Salmonella can make its way into factory eggs, usually via cracked shells, but occasionally before they are laid. If the flock is known to be infected, eggs go to the “breakers” market rather than being sold whole. Breakers are pasteurized and made into liquid egg products for restaurants.

Chickens raised for meat—broilers—are also crammed in dark barns. A typical factory chicken barn is eighteen thousand square feet with twenty to forty thousand birds. At the lower density of twenty thousand birds, that’s less than one square foot per bird. Crowded like this, chickens become aggressive and peck each other, so farmers cut their beaks off when they’re chicks. Birds are confined and the temperature is kept warm because exercise and generating body heat burn calories, and speedy weight gain is the goal.

To combat rampant campylobacter, salmonella, and E. coli, farmers feed broilers antibiotics like fluoroquinolone, with now familiar effects on antibiotic resistance. Strains of E. coli and salmonella no longer respond to tetracycline, and some campylobacter bacteria are resistant to Cipro, the antibiotic of choice for food-borne illness. In 1989, researchers showed that more antibiotic-resistant strains are found in confinement hens than in free-range birds.9 In 2000, the FDA proposed to ban fluoroquinolone for use on poultry, but the effort has been stalled by drug companies. Meanwhile, two large chicken producers (Tyson and Perdue) stopped using fluoroquinolone voluntarily, and McDonald’s says it will phase out chicken raised on routine antibiotics by 2017. If a bird does happen to carry pathogens, the meat can be contaminated (usually from stray fecal matter) on high-speed evisceration lines. Industrial agriculture, of course, has the answer: your chicken breast is bleached with chlorine.


Researchers tested four chicken brands—two conventional (Tyson, Perdue) and two antibiotic-free (Bell & Evans, Eberly)—for strains of campylobacter resistant to the antibiotic fluoroquinolone. Tyson and Perdue had stopped using fluoroquinolone a year before the test, showing that strains persist.






Bell & Evans




SOURCE: Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, 2005.

Apologists for industrial farming repeat one argument like a mantra: this food is cheap, and people want it that way. But the real costs are seldom reckoned. According to Environmental Health Perspectives, “Industrial agriculture depends on expensive inputs from off the farm … many of which generate wastes that harm the environment; it uses large quantities of nonrenewable fossil fuels; and it tends toward concentration of production, driving out small producers and undermining rural communities.”10

Small and independent farms are disappearing. The beef, pork, and poultry industries, once made up of thousands of family farms, are increasingly concentrated. In Iowa, the number of hog farms dropped from 64,500 in 1980 to 10,500 in 2000, while the number of hogs—about 15 million—stayed level. Cornell University predicted that New York State would lose 6,000 dairy farms in fifteen years.

When counted honestly, the financial costs of industrial agriculture mount quickly. Every American foots the bill to clean up water polluted by manure lagoons. The EPA says that wastewater from farms contains nitrogen, pathogens, heavy metals, hormones, and antibiotics. Excess nitrogen has created a “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico the size of New Jersey. Eighty percent of the American grain crop, which requires heavy doses of nitrogen and pesticides, is fed to livestock, even though they could be eating grass. Industrial cattle eat corn, wheat, soy, and cottonseed oil because this feed is subsidized. From 1995 to 2004, taxpayers spent ninety-one billion dollars on these four crops alone.

The dismaying fact is that industrial farming is a net loss. As Richard Manning writes in Against the Grain, in 1940, the average American farm used one calorie in fossil fuels to raise 2.3 calories of food. By 1974 (the most recent figures available), the ratio was 1:1, before adding the cost of processing food or transportation. Today a farmer spends thirty-five calories in fossil fuels to produce just one calorie of feedlot beef and sixty-eight calories for a calorie of pork.

No, Virginia—this food ain’t cheap.


All flesh is grass.


Joel Salatin is an irrepressible evangelist for traditional animal husbandry. Salatin believes the assembly-line logic of industrial agriculture has turned farmers from independent yeomen into “serfs,” slaving for food industry masters to produce cheap food, fast. A strapping man with charisma to spare, Salatin surprises no one when he rejects the role of serf. He prefers to raise beef, poultry, and eggs as God intended. An enthusiastic Christian, capitalist, libertarian, and environmentalist, he likes to count former vegetarians among his customers. “We especially appreciate former vegetarians,” he told me gleefully, “because they’re making up for lost time.” When I’m on his farm, or at a farmers’ market where I can buy his meat, I’m one of them.

A born sloganeer, Salatin calls his product salad bar beef. He knows the term makes you do a double take. It’s the cattle, of course, who eat at the salad bar, a mix of fescue, orchard grass, red clover, bluegrass—whatever grows in Swoope, Virginia. Salatin’s definition of salad bar beef, however, goes well beyond grazing. Salad bar beef is never fed any grain, corn, soybeans, antibiotics, or hormones. It’s lean, tender, and tasty—never bland or gamey. It’s nutritionally superior to beef fattened on grain, with more omega-3 fats, calcium, potassium, glutathione, CLA, beta-carotene, and vitamin E. It’s seasonal, too. Industrial beef is bred year-round, but on Salatin’s farm, calves are born in late spring, amid the dandelions, as he likes to say—never in icy January.

Last but not least, salad bar beef is slaughtered, butchered, and sold locally. Even when food lovers in far-off cities call the farm to order meat, having read about Salatin’s farm in Gourmet or the New York Times, he refuses to ship his food. Salatin is a purist, to be sure. Fine—the world needs purists. If everyone raised salad bar beef, Salatin says, “City folks could enjoy beef without a guilty conscience.”

Farmers who raise animals on pasture (unlike Salatin, most are modest types) call themselves grass farmers, because “all they do” is grow grass. The method is ingeniously simple: instead of taking feed to animals, grass farmers let animals go to the feed. The most nutritious pasture is fast-growing, adolescent grass. When the animals have trimmed the best of the new growth, farmers move them to fresh pasture. It’s called rotational grazing, and it works, says one farmer, because “grass doesn’t like to walk around, and cows do.” The new thing with grass farmers is called “mob grazing.” Cattle are moved to small paddocks of fresh pasture daily, allowed to devastate every last green thing by chewing or trampling.

Nature is their inspiration. Wild herbivores like zebras travel in herds and move frequently for fresh forage, leaving yesterday’s manure behind—just what grass farmers do with animals. In the wild, flocks of birds follow the zebras, while grass farmers send poultry in after livestock. As the grass recovers from being grazed by ruminants, poultry scratch at cowpats and aerate the manure (so it decomposes) while they grow fat or lay eggs eating protein-rich fly larvae.

Grass farming is profitable. Farmers save on labor, repairs, fuel, oil, seed, fertilizer, pesticides, and vet bills. Grazing makes use of marginal land and produces excellent yields, directly related to pasture health and how often animals move. Cattle digestion is complex, but this general rule applies: cattle gain weight on grain; they make more milk and cream eating roughage, that is, grass and hay. For beef farmers, then, grass means a slower return—cattle fatten much faster on grain—but the farmer also has lower feed costs, more nutritious beef, and a higher price in the right markets. For dairy farmers, grass farming is remarkably efficient. Cream from grass-fed cows contains more omega-3 fats and vitamin A, and spring and fall grass yields significantly more cream. In one survey, Vermont graziers earned more per cow than even the most profitable confinement dairies.

The environment benefits from grazing, too. Industrial grain and soybeans for cattle feed are grown with fertilizer and pesticides, but grass and hay are easily grown without chemicals. Well-grazed pastures have more diverse plants and more humus than fallow land. The constant cutting and regrowth of grazing stimulates dense root growth, improving soil fertility and preventing erosion, and because cows walk around, manure is spread evenly, reducing nitrogen runoff. Grazing also puts carbon where it belongs: in the soil. According to the UK Soil Association, a general transition to organic agriculture would result in a large benefit for global climate change by slashing 1.5 billion tons of carbon each year. Ruminants are critically important. Instead of tearing up Brazilian forests to grow more soybeans to feed animals and vegans, let’s put grazing animals on permanent grasslands so they can replenish soil wealth and trap carbon.

Livestock and poultry that feed on grass are healthier for several reasons. Fresh air and ample room prevent infection and disease. Instead of standing in their own manure, pastured animals move away from it, preventing the spread of manure-borne diseases. Poultry that follow sheep and cattle eat fly larvae in manure before they hatch, reducing fly-borne illness. Pasture itself contains many nutrients for animal health, including beta-carotene, selenium, and vitamin E.

In one study, 58 percent of feedlot cattle and only 2 percent of pastured cattle had campylobacter.11 The Journal of Dairy Science reported that 30 to 80 percent of conventional cattle carry E. coli in their stomachs, but when cattle were switched from a high-corn diet to hay, E. coli declined a thousandfold in only five days.12 In other words, a mere five days of feeding grass and hay to beef cattle before slaughter will restore the stomach to its normal acidity and kill E. coli, which would prevent many cases of contamination in the slaughterhouse. Unfortunately, this sensible, inexpensive practice has not been widely adopted by feedlots.


E. coli is much feared and misunderstood. Large numbers of the bacteria dwell in the colons of healthy cows and humans, where they are quite harmless. Contamination in the slaughterhouse (usually from fecal matter) is how E. coli finds its way into food. If we do eat E. coli, our stomach acid usually kills it. But a relatively new, dangerous form, E. coli O157, evolved in the unnaturally acidic gut of grain-fed cattle. Highly resistant to acid, it can survive in our stomachs, so it’s more likely to make us sick. E. coli O157 is not found in grass-fed cattle.

Farmers, animals, and the environment all benefit from grass farming. What’s in it for steak lovers? We’ve seen that grass-fed beef contains more CLA, beta-carotene, vitamin E, calcium, potassium, glutathione, and omega-3 fats than grain-fed beef. Like game, grass-fed meat has the right ratio of the omega-3 to omega-6 fats, while grain-fed meat is too rich in omega-6 fats. Traditional beef also contains more of the antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin. It contains alpha-lipoic acid, an antioxidant essential for cell metabolism, which also lowers blood sugar and improves sensitivity to insulin. Other foods from pastured animals, including bison, lamb, pork, poultry, eggs, and milk, also contain more omega-3 fats, vitamins, and antioxidants than their industrial counterparts.

Let’s take a closer look at the polyunsaturated omega-6 fat CLA mentioned in chapter 2. Though there is some CLA in pork and poultry, this fat is all but unique to the fat—not the muscle—of ruminants raised on grass; that means beef fat and butter. I’ve touted grass-fed beef and milk for being rich in omega-3 fats and said that grain-fed beef has too many omega-6 fats. CLA is an exceptional omega-6 fat, in that it tends to act like an omega-3 fat. CLA reduces triglycerides and atherosclerosis.13 It also aids weight loss, reduces body fat, and increases lean muscle, apparently by its effects on lipase, the enzyme used to digest fat.14

Other omega-6 fats (mostly in polyunsaturated vegetable oils such as corn oil) promote tumors, but CLA, an antioxidant two hundred times more powerful than beta-carotene, prevents cancer.15 CLA slows the growth of tumors of the skin, breast, prostate, and colon.16 In 1991, Cancer Research reported that CLA is “more powerful than any other fatty acid in modulating tumor development.”17 In 2003, researchers who found a link between cured meat and cancer noted that grass-fed beef and butter were “almost the only sources” of CLA, the only natural fatty acid the National Academy of Sciences regards as showing “consistent” antitumor effects.18 Nutrition and Cancer reported that “a diet composed of CLA-rich foods, particularly cheese, may protect against breast cancer.”19


Make it with grass-fed beef and raw milk cheddar, and serve on a whole wheat bun with ketchup and a fermented pickle.


Alpha-lipoic acid, essential for metabolism; lowers blood sugar and improves insulin sensitivity

CLA, an omega-6 fat that fights cancer and builds lean muscle tissue

Omega-3 fats, which prevent obesity, diabetes, and heart disease

Stearic acid, a saturated fat that lowers LDL

Vitamins E and A


Fiber, folic acid, and B vitamins


Lycopene, an anticancer agent


Omega-3 fats and vitamin A

Enzymes and beneficial bacteria


Vitamins B and C and enzymes

Grass farming is nothing new, of course. Some thirty thousand years ago—before we settled down to farm—we were proto-shepherds, corralling and herding flocks for meat and milk. The patron saint of modern grass farmers is André Voisin, a French dairy farmer and biochemist who wrote the classic work Grass Productivity in 1957. The sequel, Soil, Grass and Cancer, is a compelling treatise on grass and health. His chapter titles are all poetry, yet each one is also a scientific gem. “The Soil Makes the Animal and the Man” sums up his philosophy of soil fertility, animal health, and good food, while “The Estrogens of Grass” explains why spring grass boosts milk yields.

In a lament called “No Attention Is Paid to the Origin of Milk Used in Experiments,” Voisin reminds us that many studies are useless without knowing, say, how putting cows on quality clover affects the nutritional quality of the milk. His own research showed that good Gruyère, a hard cheese made high in the Swiss Alps since 1100, depends on milk from grass-fed cows. Leave it to the Cartesian French to define precisely what makes a great cheese.


Let chefs and food critics gush over the sensual pleasures of butter and cream; they are much more eloquent than I am. This chapter is devoted to their unsung health benefits.

All natural fats—polyunsaturated, monounsaturated, saturated—perform important roles in the body. The popular fable, in which saturated fats are the villain, is mistaken. We’ll look at these taboo fats again later, but for now, these are the headlines: saturated fats fight infections, aid digestion, and extend the use of the critically important omega-3 fats. Without saturated fats, the body cannot absorb calcium or build cell walls.

You wouldn’t learn any of this from reading government and other establishment advice about what to eat. Lean meat and unsaturated oils are king and queen of the official dietary kingdom. In 2005, the U.S. government revised its dietary guidelines, and among the key recommendations were these: “Most meat and poultry choices should be lean or low-fat” and “most of the fats you eat should be polyunsaturated or monounsaturated.”

The 2015 advisory panel on the federal dietary guidelines still advised Americans to eat less red meat, dairy fat, and saturated fat, but the panel quietly dropped old advice to keep total fat intake below 35 percent of calories, a belated admission that low-fat diets failed to produce any health benefits and even contributed to a decades-long national carbohydrate binge.

Fat is still largely verboten. Indeed the word fat itself seldom appears in official advice, except in the terms low fat and nonfat. The graphic to accompany the 2010 dietary advice, called “Choose My Plate,” does not even mention fats or oils, implying that the ideal meal is fat-free. The section on that key micronutrient, fats and oils, on the USDA dietary guideline Web site is now simply titled “Oils.” The USDA’s selective exclusions of “fat” are not only misleading; they are a willful rewriting of dietary history. Of the “common” oils listed by the USDA—canola, corn, cottonseed, olive, safflower, soybean, sunflower—all but one (olive) is a modern oil with a brief history in the diet. These oils have been “common” for perhaps one hundred years—if that long—while we’ve eaten animal fat for three million years.

“After several decades of vilifying fat and cholesterol, it is now realized that life is not so simple,” writes Nichola Fletcher in “Hunting for Fat, Searching for Lean,” an essay for the 2002 Oxford Food Symposium, a prestigious gathering of food thinkers. From the Stone Age until recently, fat was the measure of good eating. Fletcher quotes a wistful seventeenth-century peasant: “If I were a king I would drink nothing but fat.”

By the middle of the twentieth century, all that had changed, and fats were considered dangerous. Then something curious happened. Just as we began to cast a suspicious eye on fat, we made farm animals—particularly beef cattle—fatter by feeding them grain. Moreover, by depriving cattle of the grass that gave their meat omega-3 fats and CLA, we changed the kind of fat attached to our steak. The result was beef with more fat, and more saturated fat—the very things medical wisdom now considered killers.

The experts are right: fats are important to health. But we’ve pointed the finger at innocent fats and overlooked the culprits. The industrial diet contains fewer omega-3 fats, less CLA, more refined vegetable oils, and (infinitely) more trans fats than our ancestors ever ate—a perfect recipe for diabetes and heart disease. Fletcher concludes that the traditional fats in fish, wild game, and grass-fed beef and dairy are best: “Old fat fine,” she says simply. “New fat nasty.”

In a moment we’ll take a brief tour of the fats found in beef, pork, and poultry. Before we do, it’s helpful to understand two things. First, all fats are a blend of three fatty acids: polyunsaturated, monounsaturated, and saturated. But for convenience we describe the fats by the predominant fatty acid. Thus we call beef fat saturated, even though it also contains a good amount of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. Second, the more saturated the fat, the firmer it tends to be, and the better for cooking. Chemically, saturated fats are more stable when heated than monounsaturated fats, and polyunsaturated oils are the least stable, and thus easily damaged. This is important, because damaged fats are unhealthy.

With those things in mind, here’s a fresh look at the benefits of the old-fashioned farmhouse fats.

Not long ago, fast-food restaurants made french fries in beef fat, because it’s mostly saturated and monounsaturated and thus stable when heated. For health, beef fat was better than the polyunsaturated vegetable oils they use now, which are easily damaged by heat, becoming rancid and carcinogenic, especially when used repeatedly. A few food lovers remember the superior, savory flavor of french fries made with beef fat.

Beef fat is typically 50 to 55 percent saturated and about 40 percent monounsaturated oleic acid, the same fatty acid found in olive oil, which lowers LDL while leaving HDL level. Much of the saturated fat is stearic acid, which also lowers LDL. As we’ve seen, the fat of grass-fed beef is a rare source of the anticancer omega-6 fat CLA, which also builds lean muscle. Beef from cattle raised on grass also contains significantly more polyunsaturated omega-3 fats than industrial grain-fed beef.

We once regarded lard as an economical health food. Americans remember eating lard sandwiches with fried onions on homemade bread during the Depression. In lean times, Asians ate a soup of lard (rich in vitamin D) and soy sauce (made of fermented soybeans rich in B vitamins). Like all hardship dishes, it’s almost nutritionally complete.

Lard is about 50 percent monounsaturated, 40 percent saturated, and 10 percent polyunsaturated, which makes it mostly (60 percent) unsaturated. As with beef, the amounts vary with the diet of the pig, which is not a fussy eater. In the tropics, for example, where pigs eat coconut, pork is a source of lauric acid, a powerfully antimicrobial saturated fat all but unique to coconut oil. Lard contains about 44 percent monounsaturated oleic acid and 12 percent saturated stearic acid, which lowers LDL.

One of the traditional American cooking fats, lard has a neutral flavor to suit any dish, sweet or savory. (Those who don’t eat pork tend to cook with beef and poultry fat.) Lard makes superb, flaky pie crust and biscuits. Because it’s mostly unsaturated, lard is relatively soft at room temperature, and it melts and mixes more easily than the more saturated beef fat. To make it firmer and to extend its shelf life, most commercial lard is hydrogenated, the same process used to make solid margarine from liquid vegetable oils. Like all hydrogenated fats, hydrogenated lard contains unhealthy trans fats.


Find a farmer or butcher who sells “leaf lard” (the abdominal fat that surrounds the kidneys), which has superior, finer texture for baking. Cut the lard in pieces and run it through a food processor. In a heavy pan, melt it over low heat or bake at 325 degrees Fahrenheit until the fat has melted, about twenty minutes. Strain the fat into a glass jar and chill rapidly to keep it clear. The crispy bits are delicious; Italians call them ciccioli and eat them with bread or polenta. Lard keeps for months in the refrigerator.

Poultry fat is as diverse as poultry and the foods the birds eat. Mostly monounsaturated—and thus fairly heat-stable—poultry fat is also suitable for cooking. Duck and goose fat are traditional in Jewish kitchens and justly honored by French cooks, especially for roasted potatoes. Chicken fat—schmaltz, the Yiddish word for fat—is a staple in Jewish recipes, including chopped liver and crispy gribenes (chicken skin fried in chicken fat). I once met a man who grew up eating homemade gribenes at the movies. (Think kosher pork rinds.)

Poultry fats also contain a few saturated and polyunsaturated fats; again, the diet of the bird affects the composition of the fat. Pastured chickens and poultry fed fish oil or flaxseed oil have more polyunsaturated omega-3 fats, while tropical chickens, like pigs, eat the saturated fats in coconut oil. Typically, chicken fat is about 40 percent monounsaturated oleic acid, which lowers LDL. Goose fat is mostly monounsaturated, too (56 percent), as is duck fat (46 percent). Turkey fat contains 38 percent oleic acid, 22 percent polyunsaturated fats, and 22 percent saturated palmitic acid, which lowers total cholesterol and LDL.20

We have seen that saturated fats fight infections. All poultry fats, particularly chicken fat, also contain palmitoleic acid, an antimicrobial monounsaturated fat. That’s why chicken soup—not skinless chicken breasts—is known as the Jewish penicillin: those pale droplets in chicken broth boost your immunity.

So the next time someone eating a poached skinless chicken breast tells you that your choice of beef, bacon, or roast chicken with the skin will send you to an early grave, this is your reply. First, explain that beef contains stearic acid, which lowers LDL, and that pork and poultry fat are mostly monounsaturated, just like olive oil. Second, say that natural saturated fats like margaric acid in butter—as opposed to industrial saturated fats, or trans fats—are linked to less heart disease. In the heat of a dinner party debate, you will probably remember only one good thing about saturated fats. Make it this one: they are powerful immune boosters. Once upon a time, I used only olive oil. When I added butter, beef, and coconut oil to my diet, I stopped getting sick. And yes, the chefs and food critics are right: my dishes were much tastier, too.


Hannah Bantry,

In the pantry,

Gnawing at a mutton bone;

How she gnawed it,

How she clawed it,

When she found herself alone.

—Mother Goose

A man of appetites, with the constitution of an ox, Winston Churchill lived to ninety smoking cigars, drinking champagne, and relishing bone marrow. The English have long considered unctuous bone marrow on toast a delicacy as well as a tonic for the malnourished. In 1990s London, the signature dish at St. John—the celebrated restaurant near Smithfield, the wholesale meat market that clatters with butcher hooks in the small hours—was Roast Bone Marrow and Parsley Salad. Chef Fergus Henderson, dedicated to elemental, frugal, and traditional English food, made “nose to tail” eating fashionable.

Marrow may be the oldest and simplest dish ever. Stone Age hunters devoured it even before they went for the raw meat. In Latvia, successful hunters still celebrate by eating the raw bone marrow on bread with salt, pepper, and onion before they divvy up the kill. Organ meats—also called offal or variety meats—have a similar poor-relation reputation, coming in second to more glamorous cuts of pure muscle, such as a T-bone. Yet this distinction between classy steak and down-market liver and bones—not to mention beyond-the-pale parts, like brain and thymus glands—is recent. Dishes built on bones and variety meats fill old American and European cookbooks, and our taste for these foods goes back long before that.

“Since prehistoric times, man and other primates have killed for the valuable fats present in brain, tongue, and marrow,” writes the food historian Nichola Fletcher.21 “Red meat, although prized, was once secondary.” Native Americans sometimes returned from buffalo hunts with nothing but tongue. Loren Cordain, the expert on Stone Age nutrition, writes, “There is absolutely no doubt that hunter-gatherers favored the fattiest part of the animals they hunted and killed.”

One reason our ancestors preferred organ meats and bone marrow is the sheer desire for fat. Fat is tasty for a host of reasons: because fat kept us alive during long winters, because without fat a woman cannot get pregnant, because fats are essential for digestion. But the particular fats in the oddball cuts are perhaps even more important. They are not, as many people believe, mostly saturated. “Brain is extremely high in polyunsaturated fats including … omega-3 fatty acids,” writes Cordain. “The dominant fats in tongue and marrow are the cholesterol-lowering monounsaturated fats.”

Eating bone marrow had a profound effect: it separated us from our ape cousins and helped make us uniquely human. The human brain grew very large relatively quickly on a diet of long-chain polyunsaturated fats found in bone marrow (and fish, as I describe in chapter 4). Polyunsaturated fats, so vital to brain and visual development, are considered the main factor in our astonishing leap ahead, brain-wise, over other primates. They were still eating mostly fruit, leaves, and insects, while early humans went for fat.

It’s too bad that bone marrow is underappreciated. I like to roast beef or lamb shanks and scatter the hot meat on a watercress salad before tossing the bones in the stock pot. Tearing thin shreds of meat off the bone like Hannah Bantry is the fun part; it feels so primitive. Perhaps you don’t fancy the role of the clawing, gnawing Hannah—who, let’s admit, is cast as slightly uncivilized. Another way to get at the nutrients in marrow is by making broth from bones. A staple of most cuisines, stock adds flavor to starches, richness to soups, and depth to sauces. Fresh stock, which lasts several days in the fridge and freezes well, is also convenient; a bowl of hot consommé with bread makes a quick meal. “Stock is everything in cooking,” said Escoffier. “Without it, nothing can be done.”

It’s also affordable. If you would like to eat well on not very much money, buy soup bones. Broth made from the lesser cuts—necks, knuckles, wings, feet—is rich in minerals including calcium, magnesium, and phosphorus, all in a form that’s easily absorbed. Joints are particularly rich in gelatin, called a “protein sparer” because it helps the body use the smaller amounts of incomplete and low-quality protein found in plants. That’s why stock is a staple of protein-poor cuisines. Wartime ads for Bovril bouillon cubes in Britain featured a cow made of vegetables because a bit of Bovril (essentially, reduced beef stock) could stretch even vegetables into the nutritional near-equivalent of meat. Stock is also famously good for convalescents. A South American proverb says, “Good broth will resurrect the dead.”


Cancer is on the rise, and, like heart disease, it has many causes. Damage to DNA increases with age, for example, so our long lives may be one reason for higher cancer rates. Is our diet killing us? My guess probably won’t surprise you: I doubt that foods we’ve eaten for millions of years cause cancer. Indeed, cancer is rare in groups where wild meat is eaten liberally. I tend to suspect industrial foods and environmental chemicals.

The suggestion that animal foods cause cancer took root in 1965, when Dr. Ernst Wynder of the American Health Foundation said that animal fat and colon cancer were linked in the United States and elsewhere. “Unfortunately,” said the lipids expert Mary Enig, the consumption data Wynder cited for the United States were “mostly processed vegetable fat,” not animal fat.22 If Enig is right, Wynder’s conclusions were unfounded. Enig says that other data undermining the link between animal fat and cancer were neglected or ignored over the years. In 1973, for example, National Institutes of Health researchers looked at diet and cancer in Japanese Hawaiians. “They actually found that the highest risk relationship came from macaroni, green peas, green beans, and soy,” writes Enig. Yet the authors concluded colon cancer was linked to beef.

Because cancer is on the rise and red meat is a regular part of diets in most of the industrial world, many researchers have examined a possible link between eating red meat and cancer. Lately, it looks rather weak. In the 1990s, three studies with rats found no relationship between red meat and cancer, but two called for more study on fat itself, as opposed to lean meat. The first study concluded that lean beef did not cause colon cancer.23 In the second, researchers who fed cancerous rats lard, olive oil, beef, chicken with the skin, or bacon found that beef did not promote tumors.24 A third group reported that their data “do not support the belief that red meat consumption increases the risk for colon carcinogenesis.”25 They, too, fed rats with cancer various fats (corn oil versus beef fat) and various proteins (lean beef versus milk protein). Rats who ate beef had significantly fewer colon tumors.

Other human studies don’t seem to support the link either. In the 1998 Australian Journal of Nutrition and Dietetics, researchers reviewed many published studies, asking “Does Red Meat Cause Cancer?” They concluded that “any true effect of meat is likely to be small, or even an artifact of a decreased consumption of fruit, vegetables, and cereals among high meat consumers.”26 Other researchers reviewed five studies including eighty-three hundred deaths among seventy-six thousand people. The subjects included a large number of vegetarians. There were no differences between the vegetarians and omnivores in death rates from stomach, colon, lung, breast, or prostate cancer.27 In 2003, a team led by Dr. Walter Willett, the prestigious epidemiologist at the Harvard School of Public Health, followed more than eighty-eight thousand women for eighteen years and found no evidence that eating meat was associated with breast cancer.28

Other studies, however, have shown a link between meat and cancer. Some researchers suspect that cured meat, not meat itself, is responsible. One of the world’s largest studies on diet and health is the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC). For cancers of the colon, rectum, stomach, and upper digestive tract, EPIC found fish was beneficial, red meat harmless, and preserved meat harmful.29 Two studies in Argentina, where people eat a lot of red meat, linked cured meat and colon cancer. Others reported that preserved meats (cold cuts) were linked to cancer, while lean meat was beneficial.30 Yet another study found that total meat intake was unrelated to colon cancer and large amounts of cold cuts increased the risk.31

In 2015, the World Health Organization reported that large observational studies—not clinical trials—found a link between processed meat (such as hot dogs) and colorectal cancer, but stressed that the risk is so slight most people should not worry about it.

If cured meat is to blame, the actual culprit may be nitrite, which improves the flavor of cured meat, preserves its pink color, and prevents bacterial growth. Nitrite in various forms has been used to preserve meat since the Middle Ages. Scientists say that nitrites are harmless at the levels we eat them, but at high temperatures nitrites are converted to nitrosamines, which may cause cancer. Nitrosamines are “powerful DNA-damaging chemicals,” writes Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking. “Yet at present there’s no clear evidence that the nitrites in cured meats increase the risk of developing cancer.” The use of nitrite has fallen drastically since the 1970s, and fairly small amounts are used now.

McGee is a scientific man, an accomplished cook—and a moderate on meat. “To the extent that meat displaces … vegetables and fruits that help fight heart disease and cancer, it increases our vulnerability to both,” he says. In addition to nitrosamines, two other carcinogens are formed when meat is cooked at high temperatures.32 McGee suggests that we eat vegetables liberally and cook meat gently.

To that good advice, I would add: never burn the fat (if it’s smoking, it’s burning) and cook meat rare. Even better—if you have a taste for it—make steak tartare and eat it raw. After all, our ancestors ate everything, even fish and red meat, uncooked for about three million years before they first used fire, only 250,000 to 350,000 years ago. For raw meat dishes, such as steak tartare, try using frozen beef as a precaution against parasites, or use grass-fed beef. Today there is a lot of nitrite-free bacon and salami in shops.

If not meat, what dietary factors might account for the rise in cancer? For me, the simplest approach is to ask what’s new in the diet, and fats are key. Industrial foods contain too many omega-6 fats and too few omega-3 fats, an imbalance that promotes cancer, according to omega-3 experts, including Dr. Andrew Stoll and Dr. Artemis Simopoulos.33 Wild game, grass-fed meat, and grass-fed butter—until recently, the only kind—contain omega-3 fats and CLA, the powerful anticancer fat.

Another major factor in cancer is lack of antioxidants, including vitamins C and E and the hundreds of compounds in fruits and vegetables. The interactions of foods are mightily complex. Here’s a curious one, again from McGee: fruit, vegetables, and acidophilus bacteria in yogurt appear to diminish the effect of the carcinogenic compounds formed when meat is burned. Anyone—vegetarian or omnivore—who eats a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables and lacto-fermented foods is doing the right thing.

One other hypothesis about cancer and fat deserves more study—especially because some research exonerates lean meat. Modern life is rife with carcinogens, from plastics to pesticides. Stone Age humans certainly had their worries, but persistent environmental toxins weren’t among them. Some believe that cancer comes not from animal fat itself but from the “bioaccumulation” of carcinogens in the fat. As toxins travel up the food chain, they become more concentrated, and they lodge in fat. A feedlot steer contains a great deal of grain, most of it grown with chemicals, which means you ingest more chemicals from a steak than from a slice of bread. Any toxins in the beef fat, in turn, accumulate in your fat, which might explain the rise in fat-related cancers. As ever, the sensible thing is to avoid foods laden with chemicals.


Buying and cooking grass-fed and pastured meat and poultry takes some care. Here are the essential facts about the labels grass-fed, pastured, and organic, and some kitchen tips.

First, I should mention that I’ve served Rob many lackluster dishes made with pastured and grass-fed meats. Either the flavor was off (usually gamey poultry) or the steak was not marbleized, or the pork was dry. Many were poorly butchered. Happily, quality is improving.

Find a farmer or butcher who cares about quality. Our friend Bill Niman raises “grass-fattened” beef on his ranch in Bolinas, California, and recruited a network of ranchers to raise beef to his exacting standards. His method, according to his environmentalist (and, oddly, vegetarian) rancher wife, Nicolette Hahn Niman—who wrote a wonderful book called Defending Beef—consists of British breeds kept only on grass, raised to maturity (two years), and slaughtered seasonally, just after peak grass season, for maximum fat. In 2010, Bill and Nicolette generously sent luscious beef to our wedding. Now it’s in such demand, we’d have to eat somewhere fancy in the Bay Area to enjoy it.

Grass-fed applies to ruminants: cattle, sheep, goats, and game. It means animals were raised on grass and hay, but how much varies widely; the term is not legally defined. Ideally, fresh pasture makes up the bulk of the diet, and when there’s no grass, animals eat hay. Some farmers add a dollop of sorghum silage, which many would regard as a grass-based diet, or corn silage. However, silage is fermented—sort of like sauerkraut for cows—and fermented foods, like grain, give cattle an acid stomach. Purists never feed silage, grain, corn, or soybeans to ruminants.

Grain-finished beef was raised on grass and fattened with grain. I can live with a little silage or grain in my beef—even a wild steer would have eaten a few seed heads—but if you’re a purist, look for the label 100 percent grass-fed.

Pastured applies to pork, poultry, and eggs when animals are raised on pasture. “Grass-fed” bacon and eggs is not correct, because a diet of grass isn’t enough for these omnivores. Like humans, pigs and chicken need complete protein. Pastured chickens eat corn, insects, and sour milk as well as grass. On eggs or poultry, the label vegetarian feed is misleading. It means chickens were not fed other ground-up chickens—and that’s good. But chickens are not natural vegetarians. What it does mean is the birds never went outside; if they had, they might have eaten a grub or two. Free-range poultry and eggs says nothing about grass. It means the birds aren’t in cages, but they may be in barns or on bare dirt. Grass is the key source of beta-carotene, CLA, and omega-3 fats in pastured poultry and eggs.

As I’ve mentioned, there is no single diet for the not-picky, omnivorous pig. Swine will eat different foods on every farm: acorns and apples here, coconut and corn there. Whey-fed pork is popular on dairies because farmers have plenty of protein-rich whey to spare after cheese making. Pigs are sometimes raised in barns on deep straw; this is better than industrial pork, but ideally pigs root outside in meadows or woodland, usually with huts for shelter. Good fencing is the key; it is not easy to keep pigs from running riot. If a local farmer raises pastured pork, count yourself lucky and eat up.


Bev Eggleston of EcoFriendly Foods in Moneta, Virginia, explains how pigs like to live: “Wild hogs are foragers with a great sense of smell; they root with strong snouts. Pig and plow come from the same root word. You will never find a happier pig than one up to his shoulders in dirt, chewing on wild potatoes or other roots. I’ve seen pigs flip big rocks over with their noses, just for fun. Our farmers raise hogs in a setting that allows them to run around and dig. Because pigs literally tear up the landscape, it’s important to use that to the advantage of the farm, not the destruction. The industry’s solution is to put the pigs on concrete; this makes a boring and hard life for the pig. On the other hand, you can’t really put them on pasture and expect the grass to last. The obvious solution is to put the pigs in a place that you want to dig up anyway.”

Organic is legally defined. It means the food was produced without synthetic fertilizer, antibiotics, hormones, pesticides, genetically engineered ingredients, and irradiation. Organic does not mean animals were grass-fed or pastured. Organic beef, pork, and poultry eat organic grain, but most commercial versions are not raised on grass, or their access to pasture is minimal.

Conversely, grass-fed and pastured don’t mean animals were raised to organic standards, but the grass farmer who uses antibiotics, hormones, pesticides, or genetically engineered foods is rare. The label natural says nothing about the animal’s diet. It means the product contains no artificial flavor or color, chemical preservative, or any other artificial ingredient. This weasely term is widely used, and probably useless. According to the USDA, “all fresh meat” qualifies as “natural.”

In the 1950s, when corn-fed beef became trendy, good cooks adjusted their recipes to account for the added fat—or so I imagine. Similarly, you may need to tweak things a bit for lean grass-fed beef. Many people believe that lean meat is bound to be tough, but the grass-farming expert Jo Robinson says that fat marbling accounts for only 10 percent of variation in tenderness. As Bill Niman and other ranchers have discovered, other factors are breed, cut, age, and sex of the animal, calcium levels in the soil, whether the animal was stressed before slaughter, how it was chilled (too cold and it toughens), how long it was hung, and, of course, how you cook it.

“We would no sooner cook salad bar beef like fat beef than we would cook venison like fish,” says Mr. Grass himself, Joel Salatin. The chief risk with grass-fed beef and bison is overcooking. At high temperatures, the proteins in meat contract and toughen. Grass-fed steaks cook in half the time of a grain-fed steak. Other things being equal, the lower the final temperature of the meat, the more tender it will be.

That said, there are two approaches: cook it very quickly and keep it rare; or cook it slowly, with moisture. For steak, the food writer Betty Fussell, an expert on beef, favors quick cooking over high heat. “Rare should be really rare,” she says. “If you like a buttery texture, add a pat of herbed butter to the cooked steak, French-style.” Some cooks marinate steak first. With other cuts, cook it low and slow, with moisture. As with any meat, the less tender cuts, such as chuck steak, benefit from braising.

You may need to make other minor adjustments with grass-fed meat. When you calculate how many people a roast will feed, you don’t need to allow for shrinkage—grass-fed tenderloin, for example, is so lean that very little fat is lost—but the temperature should be lower and the cooking time shorter. When browning grass-fed ground beef for chili or spaghetti sauce, I find it helpful to use a fair bit of olive oil.

Industrial beef is fattier than traditional beef, but with pork, the opposite is true. Commercial pork has been bred very lean—that’s why kitchen tricks to prevent dry meat are often called for—and traditional pork is richer. The industrial pig is typically 56 percent lean, while Bill Niman favors 48 to 51 percent lean pork. A fatter and moderately muscled pig has more flavor.

Many small farmers raise a standard commercial breed like the Large White. A Yorkshire native, the Large White has been a registered breed in England since 1884, and it has proved adaptable on modern farms. It does well in confinement and produces a great deal of bacon and other cuts from its straight back and large loin. Other farmers favor rare traditional breeds like Gloucester Old Spot, Large Blacks, and Tamworths, which are often richer than conventional breeds. A loin of pastured Gloucester Old Spot requires very little doctoring. A little olive oil, salt, rosemary, and a very hot oven will do nicely.

Pastured chicken has a rich flavor and firm texture compared with flabby and insipid factory chicken. An industrial broiler hen grows fast and is slaughtered young—at five to seven weeks; Salatin calls them “race car chickens.” Many farmers raising broilers on pasture choose slower-growing breeds and slaughter at ten to twelve weeks.

Stock made from pastured chicken is superior, too. I suspect that’s because a chicken that gets exercise on well-managed pasture and grows slowly has more gelatin in its joints, more amino acids (protein) in its meat, and more minerals in its bones. In other words, a pastured chicken is a more complex, mature, and dense creature, and that makes for richer, tastier, and more nutritious stock.

Recently, poultry breeds have won more attention from farmers and chefs. The typical commercial chicken is a large-breasted, fast-growing Cornish cross, and many small farmers raise it on pasture. Other farmers raise traditional, slow-growing breeds such as Redbro, Dorking, Delaware, Mastergris, or GrisBarre, which are sometimes leaner, with darker meat and rich flavor. Traditional turkey breeds, once endangered, are also making a comeback. Look for Standard Bronze, Narragansett, Royal Palm, Bourbon Red, and Black Slate.

Cooking pastured poultry is simple: just watch the leaner breeds to avoid dry meat. They benefit from shorter roasting times and the sort of tricks used on wild fowl, such as wrapping with bacon. I’m a fan of traditional turkey breeds, but for roast chicken, I find some of the older breeds a bit too skinny, so I often buy a commercial breed, like a Cornish cross. When raised on pasture, they seem to have the right combination of meat, juice, flavor, and tenderness.