Everyone seems to want everyone else to eat healthy food these days, whether it’s the First Lady encouraging us to make better choices, companies supplementing food with omega 3s, cities banning trans fats, posting calorie counts, or taxing soda. A New York City assemblyman is even proposing a law banning “the use of salt by restaurants in the preparation of food” fining violators $1000. The most effective way to change the way we eat, however, is probably to just let the markets, decide…the farmers and super kind.
Education is vital in altering our eating habits, but so is taste. If you make better food that also tastes better, people will find it and buy it. That’s the driving philosophy of U.S. Wellness Meats, a cooperative of Midwestern farmers who say their grass-fed beef is the key better health.
“Grass fed beef contains CLA,” says Wellness’ founder, John Wood. “Conjugated Linoleic Acid. It helps you lose weight, battle certain types of cancer, diabetes, heart disease and its greatest natural source is grass-fed beef.”
Carol Lorenzen, PhD, who teaches “Principle of Meat Science” and “Meat Investigations” at the University of Missouri, says CLA is indeed abundant in grass-fed beef. “Because of the grass, there are higher levels of certain fatty acids as opposed to grain fed beef. Some studies show that fatty acids like CLA reduce weight and aid in prevention of heart disease,” says Lorenzen who compared cooked samples of grain-fed beef and Wellness’ grass-fed beef. Dairy products from grass-fed cows also contain CLA, she says.
Donald C. Beitz, Distinguished Professor of Agriculture at Iowa State University who teaches Animal Science, Biochemistry and does nutrition research, also tested Wellness’ meats and also found more CLA. The secret he says is in the rumen.
The rumen, one of the cow’s four stomachs, is a fermentation chamber for producing CLA, explains Beitz. “Twice as much CLA is produced in the rumen with grass than with feedlot or corn, so more of it is absorbed into the bloodstream and transported to muscle and adipose tissue.” Beitz found that grass fed beef also has more Omega 3 fatty acids, the healthy fat found in fish. He says some studies uphold CLA’s health improvement properties while others are less conclusive.
Wood says he’s living proof CLA’s benefits. “I feel better at 57 than I did at 47. We ate grass fed beef in the 40s and 50s and were healthier and thinner then than we are now.” A fifth generation cattle farmer, Wood raised cattle conventionally growing animals on pastures, feeding them grain in confinement for their final four months then selling them off for harvesting. “Never occurred to me that there was a better way to farm than that,” he says. A holistic land management seminar in 1993 opened his eyes to farming cattle the way his grandfather did. Ammonium nitrate, he says, changed farming after World War II.
Post-World War II the ammonium nitrate surplus leftover from weapons production was “turned into nitrogen-rich fertilizer,” he explains. “Corn yields exploded and the price fell out of the corn market.” Then, he says, someone figured out that cows would eat a whole lot of corn. The paradigm shift towards grain-fed cattle began in 60s and solidified in the 70s. The seminar pointed out that grass-fed beef is better for land, the animals, taste and “my bottom line,” he says. “The Good Lord put cows on earth for one thing. To forage.”
He harvested his first grass-fed animal in 1997. The slaughterhouse shocked him by grading the meat “Choice” (meats are graded Prime, Choice, Select, Standard, Commercial, Utility, Cutter and Canner). “I said, ‘you’re looking at the wrong carcass.’ It just didn’t make sense.” He wrote it off as an interesting experience. When he replicated the results in 1998 and 1999 and found out about CLA he decided to change things up.
The Woods, the Suters, the Leesers and the Crums, all fourth, five and sixth generation Missouri and Illinois farmers formed Wellness Meats, selling only direct-to-consumer. Their website went up Election Day 2000, a day that was almost as bad for them as it was for Al Gore. “We had 40 orders. Only one from a person we didn’t know.” That’s when they realized it was going to be a long, hard haul. They got a break with a 2003 New York Times mention and a bump when Mad Cow stories peaked in 2004 because grass-fed cows don’t get the disease.
Wellness Meats had “stellar growth” this past year, says Wood, pointing that they’re one of the five percent of companies that increased Fed Ex volume in the last 18 months. He attributes it to the “’know where your food comes from/know your farmer’ trend. It’s a thriving niche in this economy.”
They sell meat by the piece (there is a minimum) and while they raise their cattle on organic principles the meat isn’t technically ‘organic.’ The private certifier who runs Missouri’s organic certification, says Wood, wants 3% of the gross income of the preceding year to maintain an organic license. “We say, ‘No, thanks.’” Wood says his beef is superior to organic beef anyway, which lack his CLA and omega-3s. They also offer grass-fed lamb, bison and goat, grass-fed butter and cheese and free-range poultry, all sourced through a group of like-minded farmers, as well as honey, organic nuts and other wellness products.
Wood is “a farmer to my roots” and now his daughter who works with him in marketing and his son, majoring in agri-business, intend to join the company. “These days, farm kids leave. I’ve got two of my kids coming back to work and live in a rural community with a sense of purpose. And that’s not the usual thing. I couldn’t be more proud.”