During the past few weeks, there has been an onslaught of questions about the beef supply chain and how beef is arriving in our grocery stores. Accurate answers to many of these questions are difficult to come by because there is so much uncertainty surrounding our current pandemic.
Last week, I had the opportunity to sit down for a Zoom conversation with a dairy cattle nutritionist to answer some of the most frequently asked questions about beef. We discussed a little bit of running and covered several bases for including beef on our plates.
10 Beef Questions Answered
I’ve elaborated on several of Dr. RBZ’s beef questions below. You can also go to her site to watch our conversation. Click these questions to skip to the respective section for answers.
- Can beef fuel training and running?
- Do Registered Dietitians like beef?
- Are beef cattle given hormones?
- Why do they give antibiotics to cattle?
- Is red meat unhealthy or unsafe?
- Is there a beef shortage as a result of COVID-19?
- What percentage of farms are owned by corporations?
- What kind of fat is in beef?
- What is the difference between grass-fed and grain-fed beef?
- Does feeding corn harm cattle?
Can beef fuel training and running?
I’ve frequently shared how beef is the primary protein on my plate while training for and running ultramarathons. It’s a nutrient-dense food that provides several macro- and micro-nutrients needed for building and maintaining healthy muscle. However, beef isn’t the only food on my plate.
Through my work with registered dietitians, I’ve learned that our focus should be on the whole plate. It’s not just one food or one meal that builds a healthy diet. Most meals, my plate is reflective of the US Dietary Guidelines with a mix of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and dairy alongside my protein.
Do Registered Dietitians like beef?
Through my work and engagement on social media, I’ve had the opportunity to connect with several registered dietitians across the country. Something I’ve learned is they are just like you and I – they love food. And those who base their practice on science understand that all foods can fit as part of healthy lifestyles.
Something we have in common is recognition of the importance of balance and moderation. Amidst a world of extremes those principles can be difficult to obtain.
As part of those conversations, I’ve been able to share my story of how beef fuels my performance and answer several of their questions about how cattle are raised.
Are beef cattle given hormones?
I often hear questions or concerns about the use of hormones in beef cattle and how that impacts the health of the animal or the safety of beef. Every living thing contains hormones. Any hormones used in cattle do not impact the safety of beef or dairy products. I’ve written before on how hormones are used in beef cattle for estrous synchronization as part of reproductive management.
The more common type of hormone use in cattle people often ask about involves using estrogens to promote lean muscle growth, instead of fat, in feedlot cattle. This is an example of one tool farmers and ranchers use to be better stewards of our resources. By improving the amount of feed required per pound of muscle gain, we’re able to make progress toward improved sustainability when raising beef.
Why do they give antibiotics to cattle?
One important tool in keeping cattle healthy includes working with our veterinarians to use antibiotics for treating disease. This works alongside best management practices such as low-stress handling, vaccine programs and proper nutrition for the animals.
Antibiotics can be very expensive. Farmers and ranchers also want to use antibiotics properly because we need them to remain viable for years to come. We must use them at the right time in the right amounts with the oversight of veterinarians. And before an animal is marketed or harvested for beef, the animal must reach the proper withdrawal period to ensure the antibiotics are no longer in the animal’s system. To ensure this, there are strict requirements for record keeping and USDA testing of meat and dairy products to ensure there are no harmful residues.
Is red meat unhealthy or unsafe?
Over the past several decades, we have vastly improved our understanding of food safety, health and nutrition. As a result, our food supply is safer than it has ever been and continues to improve. We’re able to ensure that through more stringent testing along the supply chain and through proper food handling and preparation at home.
Many people may suggest that we need to go back to eating like our parents or grandparents did. No way I’d want to do that. We’ve vastly improved the consistency and safety of our food supply. Even during the coronavirus pandemic’s panic buying, we’ve continued to have food available in our grocery stores, even if there were temporary disruptions in distribution. We don’t have to cook our steaks to well-done in fear of them making us sick. And we have the opportunity to choose from a vast number of options on the menu every day.
Is there a beef shortage as a result of COVID-19?
We do not have a beef or cattle shortage. As a result of social distancing regulations we’ve had a drastic shift in where consumers are purchasing food. We’re not out of beef, but there have been temporary disruptions in the distribution of stocking shelves as the supply chain works to shift food from restaurants and food service to primarily grocery stores.
Meat processing plants have had to slow production to prioritize employee health. This has resulted in slower lines processing fewer animals and, in some cases, temporary closing of plants for employee testing and sanitizing. We still have abundant protein in cold storage to meet consumer demand.
During this time, we may see fewer selections of beef cuts to choose from, but as long as people can refrain from panic buying, we’re not going to run out of beef in grocery stores. Purchase limits in stores are intended to prevent panic buying and ensure everyone has the opportunity to purchase food.
Our agriculture economists from land grand universities have been great resources for information on the supply chain during the coronavirus pandemic.
- Beef Marketing Margins – Jayson Lusk, Purdue University
- The Road from Farm to Table – Purdue University
- Meat Production Threatened With Disruption – Darrell Peel, Oklahoma State University
What percentage of farms are owned by corporations?
Cattle farms and ranches across the country look very different depending on the resources are available. No matter where you’re at, the vast majority of these cattle farms and ranches are family owned and operated.
According to the USDA Ag Census, over 91% of US beef cattle farms and ranches are family owned and operated. Many of these farms may have a corporate designated tax structure as good business practices. This is often to ensure that a family doesn’t lose the business when a parent passes away, or so that multiple generations of a family can be involved. No matter the size of the farm or ranch, there are people working with those crops and animals to raise quality food, fiber and fuel for all of us.
What kind of fat is in beef?
Like most other foods, beef consists of different types of fats. Most often we focus on saturated and unsaturated fats. Through the years, diet trends have told us saturated fats in our diet are bad, therefore, beef is bad for us. Nutritional science is far from black and white.
In fact, beef does contain a good amount of healthy fats and more than 65% of the cuts found at most retail counters in the US are lean cuts as defined by the US Dietary Guidelines.
The fat around the outer edge of beef or between muscles often contains a higher percentage of saturated fat. If you want to reduce your intake of saturated fat, you can trim that fat off your beef. The fat within the muscle (seen as white streaks or dots within the meat) is called marbling. This consists of higher percentages of unsaturated fat (often perceived as healthier) and contributes to the flavor and tenderness of good beef eating experiences.
What is the difference between grass-fed and grain-fed beef?
Grasses and forages are a major component of the diet for all cattle for the majority of their lives. In fact, most all beef cattle spend the majority of their lives on pasture. It’s the final finishing stage of their lives where they may spend 4-5 months in a feedlot on a higher energy diet that contains a higher percentage of grains like corn.
Labeling on beef infuriates me because many marketing labels have no standardization or clear definition. Whether or not you choose beef labeled as “grass-finished” instead of conventionally “grain-finished” you should know that farmers and ranchers work with their veterinarians and nutritionists (like Dr. RBZ) to ensure cattle are handled properly and receive a diet that meets all of their nutritional needs. Buy whichever beef you enjoy.
There is no biologically significant nutritional difference between conventional “grain-finished” beef and beef that is labeled “grass-fed” or “grass-finished.” Some marketers may claim grass-fed beef has a higher content of omega fatty acids or CLAs. But the truth is you’d have to eat upwards of 40 servings of beef in order to meet your daily requirement of OFAs. If you want more omega fatty acids in your diet, eat fatty fish. Not beef.
Does feeding corn harm cattle?
No. I’ve written a lengthy blog post to answer this question. The bottom line is cattle’s digestive system is very different than ours. Rather than being an acid-based stomach like humans’, theirs is based on fermentation. This allows cattle to digest a wide variety of plant materials, breaking them down into the nutrients they need.
Corn is a great source of readily-available starch for cattle nutrition and the plant grows well in this country. However, corn is only a portion of the cattle diet. The majority of their diet consists of grasses, forages, plant byproducts (distillers grains, portions of the cotton or soybean plants we don’t eat) and many others. Cattle are not meant to only eat grass. If someone tells you that, they’ve bought into the marketing and do not understand ruminant nutrition.
What questions do you have you beef?
I really enjoyed my conversation with Rosemarie and I hope you are able to watch the video for our entire conversation. The above is only a portion of our beef Q&A.
Dr. Rosemarie Burgos Zimbelman is a dairy cattle nutritionist in Arizona. You can find Dr. RBZ on Instagram and her website.
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