Ground Meat: The Unsung Hero of Everything Local

By Brian Halweil and Danielle Nierenberg

In July, Brian Halweil of Edible Communities and Nourishing the Planet’s Danielle Nierenberg wrote an op-ed for The New York Times entitled, “The Kindest Cut of Meat is Ground.” The article highlighted the ecological and economic benefits of grass-fed ground meat, particularly its advantages over cuts like sirloin and round—cuts typically considered superior in terms of taste and quality. The article generated substantial feedback, particularly concern from environmentalists and animal advocates who argue that the consumption of meat is inherently bad for the environment and for the welfare of farm animals.

And some comments from readers questioned the affordability of good ground meat, arguing that $8.50 per pound isn’t “well within most Americans’ budgets.” But that price is just one example (of New York grassfed meat) from Dickson’s Farmstand Meats in Chelsea Market in Manhattan, a haven for foodies. This location isn’t representative of the nation’s meat pricing–it’s Manhattan, after all. But we have also shopped New York City Greenmarkets where we found ground poultry, pork, and even beef–all pasture raised–for $5 or $6 per pound.

And buying direct from farmers often gets the per pound price down to $4 or $5–a price that we suspect shoppers can beat in the Midwest, Pacific Northwest, or other parts of this meat-raising country.  Either way, the point remains that ground is often the most affordable cut, wherever you are shopping. And as Jake Dickson helpfully explained, for small farmers trying to make it outside the factory paradigm, healthy sales of lesser-loved cuts can make the difference between economic feast or famine. And that is why it’s so important that butchers like him, as well as restaurant chefs, caterers, foodservice providers and consumers, buy that meat, too.

Eating local, grass-fed ground meat has a wealth of advantages over other types and cuts of meat. If you eat meat and plan to barbeque this Labor Day weekend, you can consider the following benefits of grass-fed ground meat before going to the grocery store:

–Grass-fed meat promotes the conversion of hundreds of acres of industrial grain fields into permanent pastures that reduce soil erosion, improve water quality, and boost plant diversity. According to a study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Land Stewardship Project, pastures have 53 percent greater soil stability, improved passage for runoff, and less nitrate pollution from groundwater than corn and soy fields.

–Polyculture—an agricultural system that promotes nutrient recycling by incorporating native species and reducing fertilizer use—enhances the productive capacity of agricultural land. Small, family-run businesses, such as Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm,  demonstrate that sustainable farming can be very successful: Salatin’s 100-acre farm produces 40,000 pounds of beef, 30,000 pounds of pork, 10,000 broilers, 1,200 turkeys 1,000 rabbits, and 35,000 dozen eggs each year.

–While animal advocacy and other groups are concerned about the suffering of animals raised for human consumption, the ground meat produced from pasture-raised animals typically comes from small-scale farms, where farmers practice better animal welfare standards than large factory farming operations.

–Ground meat produced from grass-fed beef is also healthy (and tasty!)—it is typically leaner and lower in fat than grain-fed meat, and studies have shown that grass-fed animals have higher levels of vitamin A and E and omega-3 fatty acids, which reduces cholesterol and high blood pressure. Additionally, a simple rinsing process has been shown to reduce the fat content of ground meat by up to 50 percent. Frances Robinson, author of “Pasture Perfect,” states that switching to grass-fed meat will save American consumers 16,642 calories per year.

–Small-scale cattle farms such as Minnesota’s Thousand Hills Cattle Companyhave shown that raising grass-fed livestock provides a balance between ecological and economic benefits. This can save farmers from paying thousands of dollars for feed grain, and the pastures easily recover if they are not overgrazed.

–Consumers of locally produced ground meat lend a hand in building their economy, for the money they spend stays within the community. According to a report by the University of Essex, this ensures that farmers keep at least 80 cents for every dollar consumers spend, for local ground meat eliminates the high advertising and transportation costs associated with commercial livestock farms.

Many recipes that call for ground meat are, additionally, less meat intensive than meals prepared with traditional cuts. One reader noted that she and her Indian-American husband have been using local grassfed beef to make keema, an Indian minced meat recipe that includes peas and potatoes, to the delight of their young children.

Although the production of meat has a greater environmental footprint than the production of fruits and vegetables—which is highlighted by the Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition (BCFN) in the Double Pyramid of Food and the Environment—consumers who eat meat can make better choices this holiday by purchasing local, grass-fed, and ground meat.

Brian Halweil is the editor of Edible East End and publisher of Edible Manhattan and Edible Brooklyn. Danielle Nierenberg is the director of Nourishing the Planet.



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