On the subject of beef

The Ontario grass fed cow came off of a feedlot, was now grain finished and graded AAA. You may be surprised to find out that this could be the description for a cow that was raised in another province and conventionally fed on corn. Beef is a complicated industry and although there has been forward momentum in regulating it there's also been an opportunity to exploit some of the changes. In this section you can read about diets, breeds and how to ask the right questions when buying beef.

 

 

 

100% Grass Fed:

This is a term that should hopefully mean exactly what it says "this animal was exclusively raised on grasses and other wild plants", however this is an unregulated term. Retailers and producers like to use this term because it differentiates from products that simply say "grass fed", or "grass finished", by saying it is a grass only diet. The issue is that there is no regulating body that certifies it as such in Ontario, and the term could be false, but by asking a few questions about the farm, where it is and confirming that the animals only ate grasses you can feel better about consuming meat labeled this way.

A/AA/AAA/Prime Grades:

This letter system represents the Canadian beef grading system for quality. The letters from A up to Prime indicate the higher levels of fat marbling in the beef, with Prime being the highest and most prized. The Canadian grading system will automatically remove all carcasses with yellow fat from the four high quality grades, which typically means that pasture raised, and grass-fed cows do not get graded for this reason. In healthy cattle, cream/yellow fat colour occurs when cattle graze green pasture. This results from the ingestion and absorption of yellow pigments that are present in plants. These pigments have been identified as carotenoids, with beta-carotene being the major component responsible for fat colour in cattle. The four quality grades that are commonly seen in supermarkets, are derived from white fat, and grain-based diets. What this means to the consumer is that if they want pasture raised beef, it will often look different in appearance to grocery store beef and will also be ungraded, but this should not cause concern. When not using the traditional grading system as a measure of high quality, the consumer should look for a darker muscle colour, yellowish fat, firm texture and a prominent smell.

Angus Beef:

Most consumers today are likely to recognize the term angus beef, or certified angus from steakhouses to fast food chains, with the marketing suggesting that this a measure of higher quality. The term Angus does not mean that the beef is organic, pasture raised, or of a higher grade than any other type of beef. Angus is the name of the breed of cattle that was specifically bred from cattle indigenous to Scotland and has become popular because of its ability to put on intramuscular fat, or “marbling”. Many cows today are cross bred with angus for this trait, but angus in and of itself does not mean anything other than the breed, with certified angus beef being that which is guaranteed to have at least half of its genetic material traceable to the original angus sources.

Corn Fed:

Corn fed is a term that let's the consumer know that the animal has had corn as a primary source of the calories in its diet. Many consumers are now looking for alternatives to corn fed animals because in North America corn is very often a GMO cash crop, that provides very poor nutritional density to the animal, can use a lot of synthetic fertilizers in its production and gives nothing beneficial back to the land. In addition, corn derivative diets provide little to no complexity of flavour to the beef itself other than sweetness, and when dry aged will often bring out notes of popcorn. In animals like cattle, where corn can be the primary diet this also means that the animals are not getting the full range of vitamins and nutrients necessary for them to feel full, so they will put on weight quickly because they don’t stop eating. When we eat animals raised in this manner the same can be said because we are not getting the benefits of a nutrient complete diet either.

Grain Fed:

Grain fed is a term that means a part, or a large part of the animal's diet was made up of grains. Grains encompass a huge variety of potential feeds such as millet or barley, but the term is often used to market animals that have been penned and fed on a diet of soy and corn, which are cheap to produce with chemical fertilizers and are potentially imported from overseas without much oversight. These grains provide very limited nutritional value to the animals and therefore us when we consume them. Grain fed is not necessarily a bad thing; many pastured animals are fed some grains, but it is important to ask which grains, what do those grains do for the animals, and where/how were they grown.

Grass Fed:

A term that is subject to a lot of "greenwashing” and is unregulated - there is currently no qualification for how the term is used. What this means is that an animal may have had a small amount of grass in its diet at some point in its life, but the term could still be used to describe the product. All cows during the first period of their lives eat grass and can then move to a feed lot to be fattened on corn or some similar grain, but could still be termed grass fed beef. Consumers should be careful when buying products that call themselves grass fed because this is no clear indicator of ethical treatment, nutritional density, local farming, or flavour. Research shows that a cow whose diet truly was primarily made up of grasses and foraged plants can be lower in total fat content, have more heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, more omega-6 fatty acid (linolenic acid), and more antioxidant vitamins, such as vitamin E.

Grass Finished:

Almost exclusively used to describe beef, this means that the animal was likely switched from a grain-based diet, and onto a grass one for the last 100 days of its life, but is also used to describe an animal that exclusively ate grass, more often referred to as 100% grass fed beef. The possible reasons you would want to do this, if it where being switched from a grain based diet would be flavour, texture, and marketing.

Kobe Beef:

Simply put Kobe beef is a variety of wagyu, but it is considered the best of the four wagyu breeds. It is very selectively breed and controlled.

Milk fed:

This term is usually used in context to veal, although sometimes lamb, and what its stating is that the young cows are primarily on milk diets. The reason this matters is because it suggests the cows are not being removed from their mothers, and that the diet they are getting is very rich and good for their health. In commercial veal production there is a desire to remove calves from their mothers milk because the milk is valuable.

Ontario Beef:

Foodland Ontario defines Ontario beef as “Ontario beef will be born, raised, slaughtered and further processed in an approved facility in Ontario. When there are not enough calves born in Ontario to meet the demand for beef, calves may be sourced from within Canada. This beef will be raised, slaughtered and further processed in Ontario. This would return more than 80 per cent of the direct costs of production to Ontario’s farmers and economy.” The potential issue with this is that the length of time a cow must be “raised” in Ontario is not defined and could be as little as 24 hours, so long as its slaughtered and further processed in the province, it also doesn't describe what creates or who certifies that there are not enough calves in Ontario. Like many of our food laws, they are loosely written and rarely enforced. The practice of transporting livestock between provinces and doing this is far more common than people know and is also prevalent in other industries like pork, and lamb. Buying from a reputable butcher, or directly from a farm is sometimes a far better assurance that you beef is from Ontario than a label in a grocery store.

OTM:

"Over Thirty Months", or "OTM" refers to cows that over thirty months of age at the time of slaughter. The reason this distinction is made is because of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), commonly known as mad cow disease, which is an incurable and invariably fatal neurodegenerative disease in cattle and spread to humans is believed to result in variant Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease (vCJD). Because mad cow resides in the animal’s spinal column all cows over the age of 30 months at the time of slaughter must legally have their spines removed to be inspected and therefore older animals cannot be purchased for bone on cuts, such as a T-bones. The truly unfortunate side of this is that you are unlikely to find these animals available even though we have the inspection process and older animals have much more flavourful meat and especially those that have been allowed to live and feed on pasture. A six- or seven-year-old cow that has been pasture raised will likely show remarkable texture, colour and depth of flavour and should be made available to consumers, but most older cattle invariably end up being ground and sold to the fast-food market. The only time you may come across this is from a specialty butcher, or on the farmers plate, but it is something worth trying if you are interested and is by all accounts safe because of the inspection process.

Wagyu:

A Japanese beef cattle breed, derived from native Asian cattle. 'WAGYU' refers to all Japanese beef cattle, where 'Wa' means Japanese and 'gyu' means cow. Wagyu itself is a catchall term for Japanese breeds, of which there are four, all of them are prized for their texture, flavour and most of all for their high level of intermuscular fat, or "marbling". There is such thing as Ontario wagyu, which is a growing industry in Canada. Wagyu cattle are fed a grain-based diet, which usually contains rice.