Please note that my reviews will focus mainly on animal welfare but worker treatment and sustainability will be considered as well. I wont be rating any poultry or lamb in this series, just beef. I'll also be splitting up the products into 2 categories, grass-fed and grain finished. I want to make sure that people understand what the differences are between them so I'm including this explanation of the different practices below. Also please note that my reviews, explanations and term usage only applies to beef cattle and not dairy cows which differ greatly.
All cows raised for meat start out on pasture only consuming grass but after about one year they split up and usually take one of three very different paths.
Grain Finished on a Feedlot aka CAFO
Most animals will suffer this fate and be confined to a dirty and dangerous feedlot environment. These cows share their space with anywhere from a few thousand to over one hundred thousand other cows. CAFO cattle are fed a mix of grain and grass for approximately 5 months before slaughter. But because of their disease and bacteria ridden environment they're regularly fed large doses of antibiotics and in order to promote fast growth the cows are administered hormones and other drugs. The large amounts of manure produced on these sites often contaminates ground water and produces foul smells making life untenable around them. For all these reasons and more raising cows on feedlots damages the environment, is dangerous to humans and cruel to animals. While it sometimes saves customers a few bucks a pound on their meat it costs everybody allot more elsewhere. This is why I believe that spending the extra money on a natural and ethical brand of beef is always worth it.
Grain Finished in a Finishing Yard
A small number of luckier cows will enjoy a better existence on a small finishing yard housing less than one thousand cattle. Like industrial feedlots these small operators will also feed a mix of grain and grass for approximately five months before slaughter. But some will feed a more balanced mix of grain and grass that causes less strain on the cows digestive and immune systems. And as opposed to the larger operations many of these finishing yards are clean, well run and do not administer hormones or feed antibiotics to their animals. Other aspects that effect the ethicacy of such meat is the sustainability of pasturing practices and sourcing of finishing grain. Grain feeding will always strain environmental resources more than pasturing, but when these factors are taken into account this effect can be greatly minimized.
This option offers a much lower price point than grass-fed meat while often providing a more acceptable standard of living for the cattle.
Grass-Fed aka %100 Grass-Fed
Finally, a very few and most lucky bunch of cows will spend their entire lives on pasture consuming only grass. In nature ruminants only consume a very small amount of grain at anytime. This food can serve as a very healthy and potent source of energy and nutrition for cattle. But just as we might suffer from eating too many steaks, so do cow's digestive and immune systems suffer when consuming large amounts of grains. Additionally, the growth and transport of grain and hay uses up significant resources and leaves a large carbon footprint. Also with more omega 3s and a very balanced lipid profile Grass-fed beef is considered by most to be much healthier than that of grain finished cows.
When done right grass feeding can remove all the negative consequences of raising cattle and produces a very healthy product. For these reasons grass feeding is thought to be the most humane and sustainable method available, but it can be a big strain on the pocketbook.