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Question/Opinions on "Corn-fed" beef

In reading the Locke-Ober review in the Globe today, I thought it was interesting that they advertise their beef as "all-natural corn fed" on their menu as if it's a good thing. It's my understanding that corn-fed is actually inferior beef - the type of mass-produced stuff you see in the supermarket, and that grass-fed is the mark of premium beef. I'm not an expert on the matter, but was wondering what other people thought...is their actually great corn-fed beef available? Is corn-fed just a marketing thing that sounds good? Again, everything I know on the matter is from books like omnivore's dilema, but i have read in serveral different sources that cows cannot naturally digest corn without the aid of hormones and antibiotics, so that also seems at odds with an "All-natural" claim, and thus why grass-fed is considered premium beef. Any thoughts?

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Locke-Ober
3 Winter Place, Boston, MA 02108

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  1. Depends on what you're looking for.

    Many of the objections to corn fed beef (at least mine) have to do primarily with the conditions the animals live in. It's not really the corn, per se - it's the fact that corn feeding allows you to keep cattle in very crowded, confined, and typically filthy spaces. These spaces breed disease, which necessitates the widespread use of prophylactic antibiotics, contributing to resistant microbes and God knows what else.

    Corn feeding generally increases the fat and marbling of the meat (and also a slightly less healthy fat profile), which can be a good thing or a bad thing depending on preference. It's one of the reasons you'll rarely find fully grass-fed beef at a really high end steak house - there isn't consistently enough fat or tenderness to the meat. To my mind, there is nothing particularly dangerous or unethical about raising cattle in good conditions on grass and then fattening them (in otherwise good conditions) on corn for a short while before slaughter.

    5 Replies
    1. re: cowboyardee

      I read that switching cattle rapidly from grass to grains does create problems. But if the switch is more gradual, the stomach flora has time to adjust. The mix of bacteria that handle grains is different from that which is optimal for grass.

      1. re: paulj

        I was not aware, though it makes sense. What are the effects?

        1. re: cowboyardee

          acidosis and enterotoxemia
          http://www.michigan.gov/dnr/0,1607,7-...
          is an article on these problems in wild deer, but I think the issue applies to cattle as well

        2. re: paulj

          Hi, paulj:

          You're right about the switching. There's also a biological point in the switch (surprisingly early, too) where you have to switch to ALL corn, else you're wasting your fodder. It's actually a quite technical subject.

          Aloha,
          Kaleo

          1. re: kaleokahu

            Considering that some ag schools have living cows with access portals to their stomachs, I am sure the subject of cattle feed is technical, complex, and well studied.

      2. The original comment has been removed
        1. This is probably best discussed in the general CH forum. In fact, here is a lengthy thread on the subject with lots of opinions.

          http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/427906

          1. I was under the impression that grass-fed is the way to go, but then when I was discussing it with a friend who has raised cattle, he told me that grass fed beef has "off" flavors and all sorts of otherwise negative things, and that he much prefers corn fed. That was the first that I've heard of this school of thought and goes to show that conceptions are just that until you have done more research. I still haven't done more research. lol

            9 Replies
            1. re: LaureltQ

              Many people prefer the flavor of grain-fed because they're used to that. South American friends have complained about the flavor (or lack thereof) of American grain-fed beef--they are used to grass fed. Grass-fed doesn't have "off" flavors any more than grain-fed has "off" flavors--it's just a preference (or what someone is used to). That said, I prefer bison to beef, regardless of what kind of diet they've been fed!

              1. re: nofunlatte

                I'd say that grass fed usually has a slightly more intense, sharper flavors, and also that the flavor of grass fed steaks varies more than that of grain fed.

                1. re: nofunlatte

                  I'm curious if you've had both grain and grass finished bison, and notice a difference in the flavor? I've developed a preference for grass finished bison, but am finding it more of a challenge to locate. I've found one local producer who sells at farmer's markets, and really like their product, though some cuts do require more careful cooking.

                  1. re: amyzan

                    I've only purchased locally produced grassfed bison. I mostly use ground bison and stewing meat/pot roast types of cuts. Does Whole Foods sell the grain-finished kind? If so, I might try it sometime just to see what the taste difference is.

                    1. re: nofunlatte

                      Hi, nofunlatte:

                      The only bison I've ever had was not marbled with fat. Do you lard your bison roasts?

                      Kaleo

                      1. re: kaleokahu

                        No--I moist cook them (braising or in stews), so I don't bother. I'll have to try larding this fall/winter though. The bison is definitely lean!

                      2. re: nofunlatte

                        Well, I think the sourcing for WFM is regional. Here it's a CO based, grain finished operation for bison. Costco also carries an organic grain finished beef here in KS and MO. Both are too fatty to my taste, except in small portions or as a rare indulgence. I mostly buy the leaner cuts and lean ground as well. I pretty much grew up on cheap cuts, and have a preference for them.

                  2. re: LaureltQ

                    Quite the opposite, in my opinion. I will not buy grass fed beef. If i want a very lean peice of red meat, I'll eat wild vension. If I want cow, grain finished is superior...again, imo.

                    But...I don't buy beef raised w/ antibiotics , and I get organic if possible.

                    We've had a good time laughing with a guy we buy beef from at the farmer's market. His beef is organic but grain finished. My husband was saying what a marketing gimmick grass-fed is: the beef is raised in a less expensive fashion, and commands a higher price! The farmer jokingly looked around furtively and told my husband to be quiet lest the hippies attack.

                    1. re: danna

                      Danna, maybe your farmer is laughing because he's not looking at the same picture as his competitor. AFO steers are slaughtered much younger than they used to be, often as young as 14-16 months now. I don't know how old his organic steer are, but the grass finished beef and bison we buy is generally 2 to 2 1/2 years old when it's processed. The difference in price makes sense in that light, but maybe that farmer knows something about the extra eight months up to a year or more his competitor doesn't have money in his pocket?

                  3. I am not a vet, but my understanding is similar to coyboyardee's. Antibiotics either kill bacteria or weaken it enough to let an animal's natural immune system kill it. The antibiotics are needed due to the conditions in which the cows live, not to aid in digestion.

                    Seems to me it is perfectly possible to have truly natural corn-fed animals who were treated humanely and lived in good conditions. And marbling is key to good beef!