Is Irish Beef Grass Fed?

Eating a paleo diet in Ireland

I’ve recently started eating a paleo diet. More specifically, the auto-immune protocol AIP paleo diet to help with my auto-immune disease; ulcerative colitis. The paleo diet recommends eating pasture fed meat including grass-fed beef and lamb. Living in Ireland, this posed a question for me. If I buy Irish beef or lamb, is this grass fed? No labelling to guarantee this is available in Ireland, as is available in USA and more recently in the UK (pastureforlife.org). But is this just a cultural issue? Growing up in Ireland, everywhere you go, you see cattle and sheep out grazing and at the right time of year, inevitably when you’re in a rush, you get stuck behind a trailer full of silage or bales of hay. In fact, when I first heard the term grass-fed beef, I laughed – what else would a cow eat?! So with no labelling to help me decide, I did what any sensible person would do, I googled it. But alas, the internet failed me! All I could find were like-minded people, asking the same questions but with no definitive answers. Being a physicist, I carry out research, daily, as part of my job. Basically I know my way around pubmed, so I decided to carry out my own research. Then with the help of the kind folk in bord bia, teagasc, Irish farmers association, Kerrygold and universities up and down the country, despite my lack of farming knowledge and with only a very basic understanding of nutrition and metabolism,
I’ve come up with some answers!

  • Irish Beef is 80-100% grass fed
  • Irish cattle spend ~300 days/year outside at pasture
  • Irish cattle have to come indoors in winter because
    1. the wet, cold weather
    2. grass doesn’t grow in winter
    3. trampling the wet ground could ruin (poach) the grass for the following spring
  • When indoors, Irish cattle eat 80%-90% dry grass (hay) or preserved grass (silage)
  • Grain or concentrates may be required to supplement indoor feeding (10-20%)

 

Summary

Irish beef is 80-100% grass fed.  Irish farming practices favour 100% grass fed. Irish cattle animals remain at pasture for ~300 days of the year but must be brought inside during the cold wet winter months because grass stops growing and trampling the wet damp ground can ruin or ‘poach’ the grass for the following spring. During these winter months, animals are predominantly fed 80-90% hay/silage harvested by the farmer during the year, specifically for this purpose. However, if the harvest of hay and silage isn’t sufficient or depending on the length of the winter, feed must be supplemented with grains.

Buying Irish beef will always give you beef that is 80-100% grass fed. Buying Irish beef in late spring, summer, autumn and early winter is almost a guarantee that the beef will be finished on grass. If buying Irish beef during the winter months, the likelihood is some grain (10-20%) will have been used to supplement the grass feed in the finishing diet.

Overall, because of the culture of Irish farming, despite not having a 100% grass-fed sticker and even when 10-20% grains are used when required for winter feeding periods, Irish beef is a very different product to the grain fed beef that made grass fed beef so popular in the US. In fact, others recommend always buying Irish beef products when available simply as compared to US and continental practices, the proportion of time on pastures is bound to show up in the nutritional quality of the meat [1]. Intuitively, this makes sense to me too. If I was to follow a diet, lifestyle or exercise regime 80-90% of the time, I would expect to reap most if not all the benefits. Wouldn’t cows be just the same?

So why eat grass-fed beef?

Over the past 20 years, the health benefits for eating grass-fed beef/lamb/dairy is increasingly evidenced in scientific research. Grass fed beef has less fat and therefore fewer calories compared to grain fed beef, so making this simple switch could save a person 1000’s of calories a year [2].  Compared to concentrate/grain fed beef, grass fed beef has 2-6 times more omega3 (the good fat, mostly associated with oily fish and linked to prevention of heart related diseases, depression and cancer). What’s more, grass-fed beef has an omega3:omega6 ratio of 2:1, a ratio optimal for human health [3] [4] [5] [6] [7].  And why is this? 60% of the fatty acids produced in the chloroplasts in green grass are omega-3s, so by feeding cattle food that’s good for them, they in turn become good food for us. But the good news doesn’t stop there. Conjugated linoleic acid or CLA, a known cancer fighting/preventative agent is also two to five times more abundant in grass fed beef compared to a grain fed counterparts [2] [5] [6] [7] [8]. What’s more, antioxidant vitamins and minerals such as vitamin E, beta-carotene (used in the production of vitamin A) are more abundant (3-10 times) in grass fed beef [2] [5] [7]. These vitamins are known for supporting the immune system and may fight against the development of heart disease, cancer, dementia, alzihmers as well having anti-aging properties [7]. And probably the most important point of all, the benefits are passed on to consumers of grass fed beef [9].

But of course, nothing is ever all good news. On the flip side, grass fed beef can have a stronger and less palatable beef flavour than grain fed counterparts [4]. And because grass-fed beef is leaner, potentially older and potentially more exercised, consumers often report grass fed beef is tougher and again less palatable [3] [10] [11] [12]. Interestingly though, the perception of taste is strongly related to what you grew up with, so if you grew up eating grass-fed products, you’ll probably think that’s the tastiest. If not, switching to grass feed may take some getting used to. [13]

How are cattle farmed in Ireland?

Cattle in Ireland are raised in outdoor pastures, for all but typically 2-3 winter months so typically spend 300 days per year out on pastures [14]. Bringing cattle indoors for the winter months is necessary for 3 reasons 1) the cold wet weather, 2) grass is not growing and 3) trampling around on the wet muddy ground would ruin or ‘poach’ the grass for the following spring. When indoors, cattle are fed silage (preserved grass) and hay (dry grass), harvested by the farmer throughout the year, specifically for this purpose. In a typical year, the harvest will be sufficient to last the winter months. However, in particularly long winters or if the harvest was poor, grain/concentrate feed, usually made up of 40% barley, 20% beet pulp, 15% distillers grains or rapeseed by-product, 10% maize, 8% beans or soya and 7% molasses and minerals [14] will have to be used, to maintain the cattle until they can return to pasture. Typically, use of feeds is thus the most expensive option and so it is not favoured.

irish lambs in my uncles front garden
Irish lambs in my uncle’s front garden

Farming practices in US

This way of farming could not be more different from American feedlots, where large scale intensive cattle farming mean cattle can be housed in indoors, in confined spaces and fed a grain diet either their whole life or in the months prior to market. Indeed such practices would be illegal in Ireland with EU regulations. To me these feedlots sounds like the battery hen equivalent for cows. The results is cattle that are intensively fed to reach market weight at a minimum cost both in terms of feed and time. Alternatively, grass-fed beef is relatively expensive to produce in the US and so to justify the price difference is labelled as such.

Is Irish beef 100% grass-fed?

So this leaves Irish beef in a grey area. It can be 100% grass-fed, nature (weather) permitting. However, there is the possibility that for a number of weeks or months in the winter, grain feed will have been used to supplement food supplies usually no more than 10-20% [14]. So will that matter?

Yes is the answer. Research has shown that being completely shifting to 100% grain-fed diet (a practice used to increase cattle weight specifically for market) reduces the polyunsaturated fatty acids (the good fats) by 30% in the first 30 days and by an additional 10% within 80 days [15]. Indeed, any use of concentrates/grains depletes the benefits of previously eating grass. Even the introduction of hay and silage (dry/preserved grass) can slightly reduce the nutrient quantity [7] [8]. As diet has such an immediate effect on beef, the counter-argument may hold merit that if the cattle has been predominantly grass-fed and finished on grass, the benefits of grass fed diet would dominate, although this needs scientifically verified.

What beef should I buy?

So back to the original question, when in a supermarket/butchers what beef should I buy?

All Irish beef products will have been fed grass for 80-100% of its life, spending the majority of its life (typically 300 days/year) out on pasture. This is significantly more time out on pastures than continental European beef or even UK beef [1] [13]. So if all these buying options are available to you, buying Irish will probably have optimal grass-fed benefits. Otherwise if you’re in Ireland and not sure, shop at your local butchers. Not only is this supporting the local community, your butcher will have a host of knowledge so by asking some simple questions such as “are any of these cuts from an animal fed 100% grass?” and if not “have any of these animals been finished on grass?”. Honestly, they will be able to give you the best advice.

How do I know I’m buying grass fed beef?

Grass fed beef actually even looks different from its grain fed counterparts.

Grass-fed Beef Grain-fed Beef Beef Reaching End of Shelflife
Creamy yellow fat White fat
Dark purple red Bright pink red Dark brown red

The first most notable thing to look for is the colour of the fat. Look for cuts were the fat is a creamy yellow colour rather than white (a sign of a grain fed diet) [2] [3]. Also the meat should have a dark purple red colour, whereas grain fed beef will be a bright pink red colour [2] [5] [12]. Think of it like a good red wine. Because this is a bit counter intuitive. Yellowing edges and darkened red may look like meat reaching the end of its shelf life, but the dark purple red of grass fed beef shouldn’t be confused with the darkened brown red colouring of meat that occurs when actually reaching the end of its shelf-life. In fact, in the remarkable way that nature can work so well when we work together with nature, all the antioxidants that occur naturally in grass-fed beef actually increase the shelf-life of grass fed products [7].

But finally, if you still can’t figure it out, it’s those winter months and you must buy your meat at the supermarket, chose leaner cuts particularly for mince products. This is because most of the benefits of grass-fed beef are the fat content (omega 3s, CLAs) so if you can’t be sure, leaner products will reduce your consumption of omega 6 , which occurs in higher ratios (1:12) in grain-fed beef [2] [4] [7].

 

Future Work

So that’s the end of the research I was capable of doing. And although I’ve got some answers, there’s three pieces of the puzzle I would really love if those with the knowledge, capability and funding could do.

  • Carry out an audit of farming practices in Ireland to put definitive numbers on the minimum and average time at pasture and maximum and average proportion of grain feed used to supplement the grass-based diet.
  • Armed with this information, it would then be great if we could scientifically evaluate the nutritional quality of Irish beef that meets the average standard, the minimum standard (i.e. minimum time at pasture and maximum grain feed) and the 100% grass-fed standard all when finished indoors and alternatively when finished at pasture. This nutritional information could then be compared against the published American USDA Food Composition Database for both grass fed and grain fed beef.
  • Finally and hopefully, this work would then prove the equivalence of Irish farming standards to 100% grass fed beef and allow Irish beef products to be marketed with this equivalence stamp so that Irish beef standard products could command the inflated prices deserving of grass-fed beef.

 

References

[1] G. Harvey, “Grass-fed nation,” http://www.telegraph.co.uk/food-and-drink/features/forget-free-range-is-grass-fed-and-pasture-raised-better-for-ani/.
[2] J. Leheska, T. L. J. Howe, E. Hentges, J. Boyce, J. Brooks, B. Shriver, L. Hoover and M. Miller, “Effects of conventional and grass-feeding systems on the nutrient composition of beef.,” J Anim Sci, vol. 86, no. 12, pp. 3575-85, 2008.
[3] M. Blanco, C. I. G. Ripoll, P. Albertí, B. Panea and M. Joy, “ Is meat quality of forage-fed steers comparable to the meat quality of conventional beef from concentrate-fed bulls?,” J Sci Food Agric, 2017.
[4] H. Warren, N. Scollan, E. M, S. Hughes, R. Richardson and J. Wood, “Effects of breed and a concentrate or grass silage diet on beef quality in cattle of 3 ages. I: Animal performance, carcass quality and muscle fatty acid composition.,” Meat Sci, vol. 78, no. 3, pp. 256-69, 2008.
[5] C. Realini, S. Duckett, G. Brito, M. Dalla Rizza and D. De Mattos, “Effect of pasture vs. concentrate feeding with or without antioxidants on carcass characteristics, fatty acid composition, and quality of Uruguayan beef.,” Meat Sci, vol. 66, no. 3, pp. 567-77, 2004.
[6] D. Pighin, A. Pazos, V. Chamorro, F. Paschetta, S. Cunzolo, F. Godoy, V. Messina, A. Pordomingo and G. Grigioni, “A Contribution of Beef to Human Health: A Review of the Role of the Animal Production Systems,” Scientific World Journal, 2016.
[7] C. Daley, A. Abbott, P. Doyle, G. Nader and S. Larson, “A review of the fatty acid profiles and antioxidant content in grass-fed and grain-fed beef,” Nutrition Journal, vol. 9, no. 10, 2010.
[8] T. Dhiman, G. Anand, L. Satter and M. Pariza, “Conjugated linoleic acid content of milk from cows fed different diets.,” J Dairy Sci , vol. 82, no. 10, pp. 2146-56, 1999.
[9] A. McAfee, E. McSorley, G. Cuskelly, A. Fearon, B. Moss, J. Beattie, J. Wallace, M. Bonham and J. Strain, “Red meat from animals offered a grass diet increases plasma and platelet n-3 PUFA in healthy consumers,” Br J Nutr, vol. 105, no. 1, pp. 80-9, 2011.
[10] G. Mezgebo, A. Moloney, E. O’Riordan, M. McGee, R. Richardson and F. Monahan, “Comparison of organoleptic quality and composition of beef from suckler bulls from different production systems.,” Animal, vol. 11, no. 3, pp. 538-546, 2017.
[11] E. Moholisa, A. Hugo, P. Strydom and I. van Heerden, “The effects of animal age, feeding regime and a dietary beta-agonist on tenderness of three beef muscles,” Sci Food Agric, vol. 97, no. 8, pp. 2375-81, 2016.
[12] P. Dunne, F. O’Mara, F. Monahan, P. French and A. Moloney, “Colour of muscle from 18-month-old steers given long-term daily exercise,” Meat Sci, vol. 71, pp. 219-229, 2005.
[13] C. Sanudo, M. Enser, M. Campo, G. Nute, G. Maria, I. Sierra and J. Wood, “Fatty acid composition and sensory characteristics of lamb carcassses from Britain and Spain,” Meat Science, vol. 54, pp. 3339-46, 2000.
[14] Bord-Bia, Personal communication, http://www.bordbia.ie.
[15] S. Duckett, D. Wagner, L. Yates, H. Dolezal and S. May, “ J Anim Sci,” Effects of time on feed on beef nutrient composition, vol. 71, no. 8, pp. 2079-88, 1993.

 

 

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