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Nutritional qualities of meat are affected by production methods

Overview

Meat is a natural and important component of the Australian diet, for both cultural and nutritional reasons. Methods of livestock production significantly affect the nutritive qualities of meat for human consumption. Consumption of meat produced from intensive operations may be contributing to population level ill health.

Most of the meat available in Australian supermarkets and restaurants is meat produced in intensive (grain-fed) confinement operations (CAFO and Feedlots). Studies find that meat from these systems has the types of fats and proteins that are becoming more strongly associated with diseases such as stroke, heart disease and cancer. The healthiest meats are produced by farmers who work closely with nature to provide their animals with a diverse and healthy diet. Current certification methods such as Organic and Biodynamic or Farmers’ markets do not test for these characteristics. 

Meat is a natural part of the human diet

Humans evolved as meat eaters. In contemporary society, meat (red meat plus poultry and fish) is a major source (almost half the dietary requirement) of long-chain Omega 3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids (n-3 PUFA) for Australians. As a consequence of this and the Australian cultural preferences for meat-eating, meat has a significant effect on the health of our population. Meat, particularly from cattle and sheep, can be an important source of critical fatty acids and vitamins E & B. But a diet high in red meat is also thought to be a significant contributor to ill health including cancer.

How the animal lives affects the nutritive characteristics of the meat

The dominant portion of meat available from Australian supermarkets and restaurants is produced from Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO or Feedlots). With the introduction of CAFO agriculture and the development of higher yielding, more profitable and efficient livestock genetics and production methods, there have been significant changes to the characteristics of meat, particularly to the fatty acids now known to be important to human health.

Naturally produced meat has significantly lower total fat, higher Vitamin E, and the low Omega 6 to Omega 3 ratios which are thought to be important at lowering the risk of cancer, Cardiovascular disease and arthritis.

Livestock production methods significantly affect the nutritive characteristics of meat. Heritage breeds produced on natural grasslands that are rich with diverse species of perennial grasses produce meat that is much closer to the nutritive characteristics associated with good health than the modern high yielding breeds produced in intensive confinement operations. 

Animals selectively bred for high yielding, fast-growth characteristics and their suitability for CAFO produce meat with nutritive characteristics associated with poor health. For example, the feeding of grain to ruminants quickly causes a change within weeks to less healthy nutritive characteristics including high total fat, high Omega 6 to Omega 3 ratios, low amounts of the beneficial nutrients and vitamins. Changes in the nutritive characteristics of the meat and milk cause changes to risk factors for cancer and cardiovascular disease in humans. The evidence that production methods affect the nutritive characteristics of meat may explain the apparent conflict between perceptions of meat as a healthy food and meat as a contributor to disease.

Supplementation may not substitute for healthy food

In an effort to correct the nutritional deficiencies perceived to be contributing to ill health, the health industry is increasingly making recommendations to patients and clients for artificial supplementation. CAFO livestock producers are responding by developing methods to ‘fortify’ the balanced rations given to livestock in CAFOs. 

But artificial supplementation as a safe and effective way for replacing natural functions of metabolism needs to be treated with caution until more knowledge is gained about the potential for negative side-effects. Studies of direct supplementation of human diets with particular nutrients suggest supplements are not always beneficial to health. They can be detrimental or have no effect. The conflict in findings suggests that there is more to be learned about the interactions of nutrients, genes and lifestyle.

We know how healthy meat is produced

Herbivores such as cattle and sheep require mainly grasses and forbs, but will naturally include small amounts of trees and shrubs in their diets.  Omnivores such as pigs and chickens can utilise grubs and insects in addition to grains and plants. It is known that animals (domestic and wild) learn to eat a range of foods in the combinations and sequences that supply required nutrients. They also learn to naturally self-medicate for toxicities and disease (including parasites).

Natural animal health is produced by highly skilled farmers who create agricultural landscapes with high biodiversity and species richness. Each individual animal has access to the foods they need for optimal health and can learn to self-medicate. These farmers produce the healthiest animals and meats for human consumption. It will come as no surprise to the natural health community that these farmers are also achieving high levels of environmental performance including higher biodiversity and soil health.

Current certification methods (such as Organic and Biodynamic) do not yet assess farms for these characteristics of health and sustainability. Farmers’ markets focus on local direct supply and are not a certification method for healthy livestock or healthy landscapes.

My Farm Shop is a leader in the supply of healthy, ethical and sustainable meat to Australians. Our aim is to supply consumers with meat that is naturally healthy to eat, and that sustains healthy landscapes (and farmers).

We use scientifically proven methods for assessing our producers. This helps us make sure they are creating agricultural landscapes with high biodiversity and species richness and they are managing their animals with low-stress to maximise local adaptation and foraging expertise.