Truth be told, I’m not a big meat eater. I usually cook fish or chicken and occasionally make some all-beef tacos. But I do love a good steak. And I wonder as I survey the choices at the meat counter of my favorite grocery store if fear-factor movies like “Food, Inc.” which questions cattle raising practices in our country should justify my lack of confidence in grilling a sirloin for dinner.
That’s why I was excited to visit Alan Adams' family farm in Sandwich, Illinois -- about 2 hours from Lake County. The farm and its 1840’s homestead has been in Alan’s family for 7 generations. Alan and his wife run the farm alongside his son, Russ and family. For nearly 60 years, the farm has also been home to beef cattle.
Alan said the cattle earned their way onto the farm because they were able to feed on land that was either too fragile or too rough to raise crops on. To run a farm, efficiency and sustainability are key. That means a farmer needs to utilize all the resources available to him. A cow’s stomach is unique in that it’s like a big fermentation tank, breaking down products that would normally go to waste. In addition to grass, Alan’s cows eat byproducts of vegetables from the local Del Monte cannery and husks of corn from the nearby seed corn plant – products that would normally be wasted. Alan mixes these with a vitamin/mineral supplement and tops it with molasses to make it, well, yummier. The way he explained it reminded me of the smoothies I make for my kids -- chock full of delicious fruit but hiding nutrient-packed green veggies inside. . . Shh!
Because Alan both breeds and sells his cattle for market, I was curious about the use of hormones on his farm. He said hormone injections are given to cattle twice during the growing process, once at 3 months of age and again shortly after. The hormones influence the pituitary gland to grow faster, thereby increasing the cow’s chance of growing to a healthy weight. This means the cow can better avoid illness that might be due to slow growth and avoid the use of antibiotics. Cows cannot be sent to market with antibiotic residue in their systems. So, in addition to reducing the need for antibiotics, hormone use on the farm is a method of resource management and sustainability. Each cow eats approximately 1 acre of grass each week and drinks tons of water in its lifetime. Those are resources that would be wasted if a cow became sick or died. Keeping cows healthy is an important way that Alan stewards his land resources responsibly.
But, as a 40-something mom of rising teenagers, I spend more than enough time with hormones -- and not in a good way. Should I be concerned about adding even more hormones to my life? According to a recent report from the University of Nebraska, the amount of estrogen remaining in a 3oz piece of beef by the time it arrives at the grocery store is 1.9 nanograms -- only slightly higher than the amount of naturally occurring estrogen from a cow that was not given hormones, 1.3 nanograms.
In fact, many of the foods we commonly eat contain even more estrogen than meat from cattle – even those that receive hormone injections:
Sources: Food and Drug Administration; Hoffman and Evers; Scanga et al.; FSIS-USDA; Dr. Harlan Ritchie, Michigan State University; NCBA
Below is a great visual from Joan Ruskamp who blogs at FarmMeetsFood.com. She uses M&M candies to show the difference between hormone treated cattle and other naturally occurring estrogen sources.
According to her visual, the average person has 13 times as many hormones as a 3 oz. serving of cabbage just to regulate his/her body functions. And a woman of childbearing age has 178 times this many nanograms occurring in her body helping her function.
So clearly I need to limit my cabbage consumption if I’m concerned about increased estrogen exposure (Not a problem!) But do I need red meat in my family’s diet? According to Jodie Shield, Med, RDN author of “Healthy Kids, Healthy Families,” red meat is high in protein, Vitamin B12, Calcium, Vitamin D, and Iron – important nutrients that help build strong bones and muscles, fight infections, and produce energy. But what about the link between red meat consumption and high cholesterol, heart disease, obesity and colorectal cancer by the World Health Organization? According to the USDA’s Food Guide Pyramid, our biggest dietary concern should be the amount of dietary fat we consume daily. Choosing lean cuts of red meat and following the serving size guidelines of 2-3oz per serving, while incorporating a wide variety of other protein sources into our meal plan, helps address these concerns and keep our meals interesting.
So now I’m much more confident that my beef is safe and that farmers like Alan Adams and his family are doing their best to use land and animal resources in a sustainable way. I’m far less confident that I’ll be able to fire up the grill or stick to that 2-3 ounce serving size recommendation, but that’s a blog for another day.
Genevieve is one of the Illinois Farm Families 2014 Field Moms. Throughout the year she visits Illinois farms to learn more about where food comes from. Following each visit, the Field Moms share their thoughts by blogging about what they experience on these farms. Want to learn more? Read Our Story: Chicago Moms Meet Farmers.