The Rise of Grass-fed Red Meat

Greener Pastures: Health-conscious people are going against the grain and opting for grass-fed beef and bison — lower in fat and higher in taste
C. Roy Inc. in Yale is a family-run processing plant and shop that gets its animals from farms that don’t inject them with antibiotics or hormones. From left are Dick and Nancy Roy, their daughter, Jennifer Lossing, and her husband, Brian. In front is their daughter, Kate. At left are grass-fed meats from their retail shop, which is in the same location as the processing plant. Opposite: The processing room, where everything is cut and wrapped to order. // Photographs by Paul Hitz

Planning a more heart-healthy diet in the new year? Consider putting red meat on your plate — grass-fed red meat.

Grass-fed beef and bison, both low in saturated fat and high in omega-3 fatty acids, are commanding a growing consumer base. Michigan, which boasts ample acreage of high-quality pasture, is home to a host of farms raising grass-loving ruminants, along with a range of retailers and restaurants satisfying consumer demand for tasty, healthful, humanely raised meat.

Alex Young, co-owner of Zingerman’s and chef at Zingerman’s Roadhouse in Ann Arbor, raises cattle on pasture land (and a bit of grain) at his Cornman Farms, which supplies the Roadhouse with herbs, produce, and meat. He says his interest in grass-fed beef began five years ago while visiting a friend in New York City.

“He had an old book on grass-fed beef that explained that the natural omega-3s, which are quite high in cows, go to almost zero when they’re grain-finished,” he says. “I started shopping around for grass-fed beef wholesale. [Eventually], we got the idea to do it ourselves.”

Customer response at the Roadhouse has been “really, really good,” Young says. “I think a lot of customers were looking for better meat, and since we started doing our own meat we started selling a lot of it.”

It’s not hard to understand why meat rich in saturated fat, antibiotics, and hormones — in other words, the vast majority of beef sold at U.S. restaurants and supermarkets — might be viewed as less than appetizing by an increasingly health-conscious public. 

As Michael Pollan writes in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, the 2006 bestseller that became the bible of the eat-local movement, “‘You are what you eat’ is a truism hard to argue with, and yet is, as a visit to a feedlot suggests, incomplete, for you are what what you eat eats, too. And what we are, or have become, is not just meat but [commodity] corn and oil.”

As Pollan notes, feedlot-raised cattle eat a diet primarily composed of industrially farmed corn. Such a diet causes cows to reach slaughter weight faster (as do the growth hormones they’re typically given), increasing profits, and producing the marbling fat that renders the meat high in saturated fat.

But nature designed cows’ digestive systems to process grass, not grain, and overcoming that nature wreaks havoc not only with the animals, which require a steady dose of antibiotics to ward off the diseases that result from a grain-heavy diet, but with the environment and our health, too.

For meat lovers, knowing how most meat is produced can be a real appetite killer. The good news for Redcoat Tavern devotees is that red meat from animals raised on a grass diet is actually good for you. (Redcoat offers grass-fed burgers.)

In fact, finding grass-fed is getting easier. Whole Foods Markets sell it. So does Western Market in Ferndale. Natural Local Food Express, which opened in July 2010 in Plymouth, practically owes its existence to grass-fed beef.

“About nine years ago, I got an email from my daughter regarding a website on factory farming,” says Garry Kuneman, owner of Natural Local Food Express. “So I started searching for local farms that raised animals outdoors, and started finding farm after farm after farm. Then I started selling grass-fed beef at farmers markets and getting requests for other meats. People were thanking me for having those quality products and I thought, ‘Well, I should open a store.’ ”

Kuneman gets much of his meat from C. Roy Inc. in Yale, a family-owned processing plant that opened in 1924. The USDA-inspected plant slaughters a few dozen animals each week, supplied from up to 40 Michigan farms, says co-owner Nancy Roy. None has been given antibiotics or hormones, and the plant boasts not a single outbreak of E. coli in its history.

“We want you to eat healthy meat, and we want you to have it taken care of well,” Roy says. “That’s our pride — to make sure the animals are taken care of. We do not want them to feel any harm; we do not want them to feel upset. I think more people want something that is very healthy for their family;  grass-fed is wonderful.”

Bison offers health-conscious meat lovers another savory option. Bison contains more omega-3s than even salmon, and Michigan is home to numerous bison farms.

“The demand is booming,” says Rick Cushman, co-owner of Cushman Bison Farm north of Cadillac. “People say it tastes like beef; I think it tastes better.” Cushman recommends cooking a bison burger with a teaspoon of olive oil. The leanness of bison and grass-fed beef means they’re often better cooked a bit slower at a lower temperature, and it’s important to avoid over-cooking. Firmer than grain-fed meat, grass-fed holds up well in meatloaf, for example.

Be prepared to pay more for quality. Grass-fed ground beef can retail for about $6 a pound, and a pound of ground bison can command a couple of dollars more than that. But farmers say that because grain-fed meat contains so much more fat than grass-fed, the price difference per amount actually consumed is much less. And you’ll get what you pay for. Grass-fed isn’t just more healthful, it also tastes better, Young says.

“[Grass-fed animals] have deeper flavor,” he says. “A big part of it is that they live longer. Just the idea of them living in a pasture their entire life is much better than living their entire life in a feedlot.”

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