The eco-conscious carnivore

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A meat-lover's guide to making choices that maximize personal and planetary health.

"do YOU WANT REGULAR, GRASS-FED, OR ORGANIC?" asks the clerk behind the meat counter. It's winter, and I've been craving a warming, substantial food like brisket.

"What's the difference?" I want to inquire, though I anticipate the groans of impatience from the queue behind me.

I suspect that I'm not the only consumer for whom buying meat has become a complex issue — but one worth taking the time to sort out. Although the benefits of a mostly vegetarian diet are well established, beef remains the single best source of vitamin B12, a nutrient that's necessary for the synthesis of red blood cells and maintenance of the nervous system. It's also an excellent source of zinc, phosphorus, and iron.

As it turns out, the meat that's best for you is also what's best for the planet. "The healthfulness of meat and the way it's produced are very closely linked," explains Jennifer Wilkins, Ph.D., R.D., a food and society policy fellow in the division of nutritional sciences at Cornell University. "Nutrition, health, and the health of the environment are all interconnected."
against the grain

MOST OF THE MEAT Americans consume is raised on feedlots. The typical industrial feedlot located in the Midwest slaughters 10,000 to 20,000 cows every week. It's a system dedicated to economy and efficiency, not ecology.

"It all comes down to money: how to raise the most meat in the least amount of time for the least cost," says David Wallinga, M.D., director of the food and health program at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in Minneapolis. "But there are health implications for that model — for the cow, for the environment, and for us."

Because crowded conditions increase the likelihood of infections, the cattle are routinely given prophylactic antibiotics. To fatten them up quickly, they're often dosed with growth hormones and fed a steady diet of grain and corn, which is harder on their bodies than their natural diet of grass, and may introduce the added risk of pesticide residue. Also, the manure produced by so many animals pollutes local watersheds and creates volatile gasses, which foul the air.

But the issue that's receiving the most attention is mad cow disease, aka bovine spongiform encephalopathy. Cows can pick up the disease when they eat parts of infected animals, and the disease is transmissible — and lethal — to humans. New regulations banned the use of meat and bone meal in cattle feed in 1997. But critics charge that the FDA's and USDA's inspection oversight is weak and filled with loopholes, and the beef industry still only tests about 1 percent of its cattle for the disease. Thanks to such controversies, more than 60 countries have completely or partly banned the importation of American beef.

Antibiotic resistance doesn't get headlines, but "it could be a looming public health problem," says Wilkins. "The nonmedical use of antibiotics in animal agriculture may be threatening [antibiotic] effectiveness for treating human diseases, by creating conditions for the emergence of resistant bacteria."

All in all, it's a big price to pay for a 79-cent hamburger.
organic solution

THERE ARE ALTERNATIVES to the feedlot system. Case in point: Prather Ranch, located in Northern California's lush Butte Valley at the base of the Siskiyou Mountains. Founded in 1964, Prather Ranch raises cattle that are certified organic by the USDA. To achieve that status, the cattle cannot be raised with hormones or antibiotics; the feed must be organic, with no manure or mammal content allowed; and the land must be organic as well, meaning it's been free of designated pesticides and chemicals for at least three years.

"We are committed to sustainable practices," declares Doug Stonebreaker, owner of Prather Ranch's direct retail arm. "Unlike at feedlots, we don't pollute our watersheds, and we rotate the land so it remains healthy. With these practices, we'll be able to keep cattle on these 15,000 acres for generations, and the land will remain healthy and intact."

While production of organic meat is still very limited, sales are on the rise; organic beef sales soared 80 percent in 2004 from the prior year, according to the Organic Trade Association. Although organic beef, poultry and fish cost more — organic beef can run up to $6 per pound, about double the cost of its conventional cousin — such products will be the largest growth category in organic food over the next few years, according to OTA forecasts.

"I recommend that people buy organic if they can find it," says Marion Nestle, Ph.D., a professor in the department of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University. "While all meat contains some saturated fat, which can put you at a higher risk for some diseases, organic meat does not have antibiotics or hormones. And it is clearly better for the environment."

If it's true that "we are what we eat," then the same goes for cattle. If we consume their meat, we need to care about what they're fed and how they're raised. "We don't exist in a vacuum," says Wallinga. "Our health is a reflection of the health of the world we live in — what we eat, what we drink, and what we breathe."
THE KINDEST CUTS

To become a more health-savvy meat consumer, you must master the label lingo likely to confront you when you shop. Here are some key terms and concepts.

Organic: Produced in strict compliance with the standards of the USDA National Organic Program. No antibiotics or hormones are permitted, and feed and land must be certified organic as well.

No Hormones and/or No Antibiotics: Raised without growth-promoting hormones and/or antibiotics, but not necessarily organic or grass-fed. Often less expensive than organic meat, this is a good choice when organic is hard to find or for shoppers on a budget.

Grass-Fed Only: Cattle are fed grass instead of grain or corn, which results in meat that is leaner, lower in fat and calories, and higher in vitamin E and antioxidants. Grass-fed beef also boasts a healthier ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids. Hormones and antibiotics are rare but may be used.

Natural: Minimal processing with no artificial additives.

Certified Humane: Ensures humane treatment of animals. The animals are allowed to engage in their natural behaviors, and are raised with sufficient space, ample fresh water, and a diet free from added antibiotics or hormones.

USDA Grades: These voluntary labels refer to how much marbling (or intramuscular fat) the meat has, as well as to color and maturity. The higher the grade, the younger and more tender the meat, and the greater the fat content. Prime tops the list and is found almost exclusively in restaurants, followed by Choice, Select, and Standard, the designations can be misleading: It is almost impossible to find a USDA Choice cut of grassfed meat, which by its nature is very low in fat — yet a lesser grade may still be an excellent piece of meat.

Unlabeled: A growing number of producers try to do right by their animals and the land, but for various reasons use no labels, organic or otherwise. If you have questions about what you're buying, ask your butcher, or contact the producer directly to find out how the animal was raised.
LEAN ON ME
Choosing the best-raised meat doesn't complete the decisionmaking process. Other considerations include picking the leanest cuts and preparing them in the healthiest ways.

* To find the leanest cuts, look for loin or round on the packaging, such as in sirloin, tenderloin, top round, eye of round, and round tip.
* Before cooking meat, trim off excess fat. This can reduce the fat content by up to 50 percent. Also, avoid adding any fat.
* Instead of frying, use low-fat cooking techniques like broiling, grilling, and roasting.
* And finally: "Remember that a serving size is 3 ounces," says Jennifer Wilkins, Ph.D., "equal in size to a standard deck of cards."

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By Dayna Macy

Illustration by Lealand Eve

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