Why should I pay more for grass-fed beef?  —Nathaniel T, Washington

For starters, corn-fed cows are on drugs, and not in the Summer of Love kind of way. Most cattle ranchers focus on getting their cows fat as quickly and cheaply as possible. That means stuffing them with growth-inducing synthetic hormones and corn-based feed instead of letting them roam and graze on grass as nature intended. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, these unnatural animal feeds can also contain: same species meat, diseased animals, feathers, hair, skin, hooves, blood, plastics, and manure or other animal waste. This grody (corn-based) diet wreaks havoc on cows’ stomachs, causing ulcers and acidosis. Just to keep cattle alive until slaughter, ranchers have to hop them up  on daily doses of antibiotics, which you the consumer then ingest. With so many people exposed to antibiotics through feedlot meat, bacteria that infect humans can grow resistant to antibiotic treatments.

Genuinely pasture-raised, grass-fed beef comes from healthier, leaner, and more humanely treated animals. It’s higher in vitamin A, conjugated linoleic acid, and Omega-3 fatty acids, and lower in saturated fat and cholesterol. Your risk of getting E coli-induced food poisoning or mad cow disease from grass-fed beef is lower, and cows allowed free range naturally fertilize their pastures, creating healthy land that actually removes CO2 from the air.

Not all grass-fed products are created equal—the USDA doesn’t monitor antibiotics, hormones, confinement, husbandry, or welfare when it grants the right to use the words “grass fed.” Your shopping alternative? The American Grassfed Association (AGA) works with small-scale ranchers nationwide (find one near you: americangrassfed.org) who exceed USDA standards. AGA is now working with the Food Alliance to develop its own stringent, inspection-based, USDA-and-then-some label. In the meantime, Rebecca Spector, Center for Food Safety’s west coast director, suggests consumers look for packages labeled as both USDA organic and grass-fed, as an extra precaution.

Seafood is one of my favorite things about summer—what can I eat without depleting the oceans or ingesting mercury?—Marina L, Massachusetts

Some fish do contain high levels of mercury, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and other toxins, so the first thing to do is download a fish guide for your wallet—try the Environmental Defense Fund’s Pocket Seafood Selector (edf.org), or the Blue Ocean Institute’s guide (blueocean.org/seafood). Both address health and sustainability issues. Or try this nifty trick: text “FISH” and the name of the species you’re considering ordering or buying to 30644. Sustainability details and a health advisory will shoot back instantaneously via text. It’s also a good idea to look for the Marine Stewardship Council seal, as well as terms like line caught, diver caught, and sustainably caught. And if you’re near the coast, ask your waiter or grocery store which fish are local—you’ll be supporting small-scale fishing operations and eliminating the need for fuel-intensive shipping. Be polite but persistent in asking how your fish was snared—even if your server can’t answer your questions, the restaurant will get the message that sustainable fishing methods matter to their clientele. 

Story by Tobin Hack. This article originally appeared in Plenty in July, 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008