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The demand for natural beef continues to grow.

What’s the Beef?

Story and Photos
by Sharon Niederman

Natural Beef. Organic beef. And now, grass-fed beef. How can the shopper in search of a steak decide which kind of beef will deliver the most taste and nutrition for the dollar? Is “boutique beef” — which can cost 25 percent to 50 percent more than so-called conventional beef — worth the extra money?

At no time since Fred Flintstone went out seeking dinner with a club have meat-eating humans been faced with such a bewildering assortment of possibilities. However, while Fred’s selection may have varied only by the speed of his prey, today’s consumers sometimes feel compelled to educate themselves about the facts and philosophical beliefs behind their beef choices.

For quick reference, here are the basics:

Organic beef is standardized by the federal government to contain no genetically modified ingredients, herbicides or antibiotics. Cattle must be fed at least 93 percent certified organic feed during their lifetime.

According to Matt Mitchell, owner of the Reunion Ranch in Roy, who has been raising organic beef for seven years, his beef is certified organic by the New Mexico Organic Commodity Commission. However, his cattle does receive a “7-way Blackleg” vaccination, the same basic vaccination that “99 percent of all cattle” are given. In Santa Fe, Reunion Ranch organic beef is carried by the Marketplace and Albertson’s;

Conventional beef is grass-fed and grain-finished. According to the Product Technology Research Department of the National Livestock and Meat Board, the USDA, which monitors beef for “violative residues of antibiotics and other animal drugs,” considers the residue violation rate to be virtually zero;

Natural beef is not subject to any regulated standards. However, Rick Salazar, Meat and Seafood Manager of Albuquerque and Santa Fe Wild Oats markets, says that “natural” means the beef is “free range, with no steroids or antibiotics and is fed all ‘natural’ grain with no GMO’s or pesticides.” Wild Oats markets carry Coleman Beef from Colorado, the largest natural beef supplier in the nation. “Still,” Salazar says, “you never know. That’s why Wild Oats makes surprise visits to the supplier to monitor and test.”

“Natural meat,” according to the USDA, has been minimally processed and contains no artificial flavoring, coloring, chemical preservatives or other synthetic ingredients, a definition that actually applies to all conventionlly prepared fresh beef;

Grass-fed beef, in the past primarily available on the Internet, has recently arrived at local markets, particularly Vitamin Cottage and Whole Foods Markets in Santa Fe.

While the name implies the cattle are fed strictly a diet of grass, this is not necessarily true because grass-fed beef is an unregulated product.

When buying beef labeled “grass-fed,” smart consumers will find out from the producer exactly what that term means. For example, Mitchell feeds his cattle 95 percent grass and 5 percent grain and hay; however, another producer might feed 70 percent forage and 30 percent grain and still call his beef “grass-fed,” Mitchell says. And “grass-fed” is not necessarily “organic.” The term “grass-finished” applies to cattle raised entirely on grass.

Formed in April, 2003, the Southwest Grass-fed Livestock Alliance (SWGLA) of about 20 producers, land managers, conservationists and researchers in New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado is in the initial stages of bringing locally-raised, consistent-quality grass-fed beef to market, but that product is not yet available. SWGLA’s stated goal is to “resolve the many production, education and marketing challenges that confront grass-fed food in the Southwest.”

How do you like your beef?

Americans are not accustomed to the taste of grass-fed beef, which has a gamier flavor and tends to be leaner, less marbled and therefore tougher and chewier than what we usually buy, Mitchell says. He adds that it cooks more quickly and gives off more water during the cooking process.

According to the leading national proponent of 100 percent grass-fed beef, journalist Jo Robinson of Berkeley, California, “grass-fed meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products are nutritionally superior to organic products,” because they contain more vitamin E, more CLA — conjugated lineoleic acid, a compound of fat, also available in supplement form and dairy products that are not fat-free — more “good fat” in the form of omega 3 oils and more beta-carotene.

Robinson says that “few people realize that all omega-3’s originate in the green leaves of plants and algae. Fish have large amounts of this good fat because they eat small fish that eat smaller fish that dine on omega-3 rich algae and phytoplankton. Grazing animals have more omega-3’s because they get the omega-3’s directly from the grass. In both cases, the omega-3’s are ultimately passed on to humans, the top of the food chain.”

Robinson claims that “grass-fed meat is lower than feedlot meat in total fat and calories, making it ideally suited for our sedentary lifestyles.” Both CLA and omega-3 fats, Robinson says, “show signs of being potent weapons against cancer; however, the omega-3’s may be the best of all the good fats because they are also linked with a lower risk of virtually all the so-called ‘diseases of civilization,’ including cardiovascular disease, depression, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, obesity, asthma and autoimmune diseases.”

Nutrition consultant and registered dietician Dayle Hayes of Billings, Montana offers another perspective. “In this whole arena, what’s important is that there are a number of consumer choices. I honor the ability to make those choices, to support local farmers and ranchers and to eat food that is grown close to where they live. But people need to know that the choice is a philosophical or lifestyle choice as opposed to a nutritional choice.”

According to Hayes, what science says is there are no substantial nutritional differences between grain-fed and grass-fed beef. (This may be because conventional beef is also mostly grass-fed.) The single component that science shows is higher in grass-fed beef is CLA, “but nobody knows the implications. The FDA would not let you put it on a label.”

While CLA may potentially have implications in cancer, diabetes and weight control, so far, we only have animal, not human, studies, and “CLA’s importance is yet to be demonstrated in direct connection to human health,” Hayes says. The point is, “Beef is a wonderfully delicious nutrient-rich food — so it’s consumer beware.”

A self-proclaimed “red meat lover,” Rueben Reyes, executive chef at Santa Fe’s Rio Chama Steakhouse, says he serves a grass-grazed, grain-finished beef from Colorado that gets its fantastic flavor from aging.

“The best beef is dry or wet aged between 20-32 days,” he says. “I wouldn’t go anywhere else. We definitely serve the best available,” Reyes says, and many satisfied diners apparently agree.

While still challenging to find, completely locally produced and processed beef is slowly becoming more available. Tom and Kay Payne of the Payne Ranch west of Santa Rosa are lifelong ranchers who, in response to drought and depressed cattle prices decided to go out on their own to reach what some perceive as a growing market niche. In 2001, they started selling the same Hereford and Angus cross cattle they had been raising for 35 years to the general public.

“We had sold beef prior to that,” Tom says, “but only to friends who asked for it. Our beef has superior genetics — the British breeds produce a superior-tasting beef, with less trim fat and a little more marbling, as well as a smaller cut of meat that is more tender and tasty. We were proud of what we were doing and wanted to share. We’ve known all these years what our beef tasted like and how it was received. ‘We never ate beef this good before,’ is a comment we often get.”

The roast the Paynes served when I visited was without a doubt the most delicious beef I have ever tasted. I prompty placed my order for a quarter beef, which is between 75 and 90 pounds, double-wrapped in cellophane and freezer paper.

This amount will fit the freezer of a side-by-side refrigerator, and it is cut in sizes that work for a couple, with hamburger that is 90 percent lean. The meat is dry-aged for 14 days, and it turns out to be a bargain. Buying in bulk costs less than purchasing the cuts individually in the grocery store.

The Paynes handle their cattle so they are not unduly stressed as stress can make the animals susceptible to illness. They receive the minimum of innoculations.

“We very seldom have to doctor with antibiotics, so they are drug-free and hormone-free. We use a local feed mill that uses high-quality feed that’s a careful formulation. And we have a local processor who is dedicated to processing it as correctly as we are raising it,” says Tom.

Throughout most of New Mexico, the Paynes will either personally deliver your frozen beef to your door; or, you can visit their historic ranch, where Old Route 66 meanders through, and pick it up yourself.


For More Information:—Sharon

Southwest Grass-Fed Livestock Alliance — web site:
New Mexico Organic Livestock Co-Op — phone: (505) 485-2589
American Grassfed Associatin — web site:
Jo Robinson — web site:
Payne Ranch — email:; phone: 888-737-1424.


Bar 7 Whiskey-Marinated Chuck Roast

Kay Payne recommends cooking a minimum five pound roast to insure moistness.

5–7 lbs. chuck roast
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup Southern Comfort, Jack Daniels or Wild Turkey
2 tsp. Greek seasoning
salt and pepper to taste

Mix all ingredients and douse the roast. Marinate roast 1 hour in the refrigerator in a heavy covered roaster (cast iron or Magnalite is ideal). Start roast in pre-heated 450 degree oven for 30 minutes, turn it down, continue cooking at 300 degrees for 2 to 3 hours until you can stick a fork in and light pink juices flow. Don’t open the oven while roast is cooking. Remove roast, let it set 15–20 minutes. Pour off juices, skim fat and serve with meat. Serves 10-12. Or 6 cowboys.
(note – this marinate works well on any cut of roasting beef, including prime rib.)

Leftover Roast Sandwich Spread

Trim leftover roast of any remaining fat.
Grind in food processor with grater blade (like for cheese)
Add 1 small chopped onion
1/2 cup chopped sweet pickles
2 stalks chopped celery
1/2 a chopped bell pepper
1/2 carrot, grated carrot
1/4 cup chopped toasted pecans

Mix well. Add 1/4 cup mayonnaise or your favorite salad dressing to achieve spreading consistency.

Brisket for a Crowd

Kay serves this meal to the cowboy crew on a buffet line. It keeps well, so it works well if you don’t know exactly when you’ll be serving. Serve brisket with pinto beans, a large tossed salad, a corn dish, such as corn on the cob, homemade rolls, with chocolate cake or peach cobbler. In summer, add potato salad.

Bigger is better. Kay starts with an 8 lb. brisket or cook several small pieces together. Preheat oven to 225 degrees.

Salt and pepper beef. Coat meat with a mixture of 4–6 oz. (1/2 bottle) raspberry chiplote flavored barbecue sauce blended with 1/4 cup regular barbeque sauce, plus 1 T minced onion

Double wrap brisket in heavy-duty foil. Bake overnight (8–12 hours). Serves 12.

New York Strip Delruebico

A popular steak preparation of executive chef Rueben Reyes of Rio Chama Steakhouse. (ingredients given per individual serving)

1 10 oz. New York strip steak
1.5 oz. coarse-ground black pepper
4 mushrooms, quartered
1 t minced shallots
1/2 t Dijon mustard
1 oz. brandy
2 oz. beef demi or aujus
1 T heavy cream
salt and pepper to taste

Coat steak with black pepper. Place in hot saute pan. Cook 3 minutes on each side for rare. Remove and keep warm. In same pan, saute mushrooms 2 minutes. Add shallots, saute until clear. Add brandy, light it to flambe. Add beef demi or au jus. Cook until liquid is reduced by 1/4. Add heavy cream. Reduce once again. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Pour over steak and serve with your favorite side dish.

This article originally appeared in
the Santa Fe New Mexican, March 3, 2004.

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