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Monday, March 18, 2013

Why I'm eating Prather Ranch beef

In the past year I've learned the difference between heme and non-heme iron, mostly because I've been severely iron deficient. Heme iron is found in animal protein (meat and eggs) and non-heme is plant based iron mostly found in dark leafy greens, lentils, and beans. The thing is, it's harder for our bodies to metabolize non-heme iron and for some, this leads to iron deficiency which can lead to anemia. Since learning of my lack of iron induced anemia a year and a month ago I had made a concerted effort to increase my non-heme iron intake through whole foods (not supplements) with the hopes it would be enough to restore my health.

It did help some, but unfortunately I've dealt with two relapses of severe exhaustion in the past year so I've come to the conclusion that because I felt just fine eating meat only 2-3 times per week before I went vegetarian, that I may be one of those people whose body is unable to absorb enough iron from non-heme (plant-based) sources.

When tested last year my ferritin level should have been around 60-70 micrograms per liter. Mine was at 7, the lowest my Naturopath had ever seen. I was seeing a Naturopath because after six months of declining health and my Dr. telling me I was fine, I had to seek a second opinion. Fifteen is the threshold for iron deficient anemia in women, so this isn't a matter of my not being willing to give up meat, it may be my body is unable to function properly without it.

With that realization came a lot to consider. To eat meat again isn't something I want to do. But neither is living a life where the majority of the time I feel dizzy, tired, unable to concentrate on things, suffering from a loss of stamina where I can only walk short distances at a slow pace before needing a break, and living with a lowered immune system where it would take me three months to get over a cold. So, I decided I would try eating a minimal amount of meat again to see if it makes me feel more like my former, high-energy self.

Then came the dilemma: What kind of meat should I eat? The reason I wanted to stop eating it was because I've never liked the idea of slaughtering animals. So, how could I make the least impact while still supporting a practice I pretty much abhor?

I'm allergic to shellfish so even though clams and oysters are two of the richest forms of heme iron, I can't eat them. And ever since seeing those two little piglets playing in a pasture last fall at Quivira Winery I simply can't eat pork again.

That left poultry and beef.

Though I'm no mathlete I tried to figure out the numbers. If I eat one serving of salmon each week for its omega fatty acids, and two meals of poultry or beef per week, the numbers would help me decide what I should do.

My goal is to eat two 4 oz servings of non-seafood meat per week = 8 meals per month = 104 meals per year

3 lb chicken =  48 oz = 12  meals per chicken = the equivalent of 8 chickens per year

650 lb cow =  10,400 oz = 2600 meals = the equivalent of 1 cow per 25 years

1 cow = 216 chickens over 25 years.

So, in the time it would take me to eat the equivalent of one cow, I would need to eat 216 chickens. Pragmatically, it's safe to say that eating 8 oz of beef per week for the rest of my life would result in the slaughtering of no more than the equivalent of one to two cows. *Sigh* I felt I was facing a moral dilemma: The soul of one cow vs the souls of 216 chickens, which would I rather be responsible for? My friend Keith said that animals don't have souls. He could be right but I think they do. And even if they don't they still have the right to live, and ending a life isn't something I take lightly even if is accepted (by most) on a societal level.

Photo Credit: These two images are from the Prather Ranch Website.

Because I already knew about Prather Ranch, an organic, sustainable, humanely raised and humanely slaughtered beef producer here in Northern California, I decided that beef would be my choice. They are committed to the humane treatment (from birth to slaughter) of their closed herd, more so than any other company I am aware of. (IMO Neiman Ranch used to be the only brand comparable to Prather Ranch, until they were sold.)

Prather Ranch is also unique in that they have their own USDA approved "abattoir" (slaughter facility) on their premises. This means the cows are raised on pasture and never have to be loaded into big hauler trucks that will force them to travel hundreds of miles to stand in a dirty, overcrowded feedlot for weeks. That Prather Ranch offers a more humane, less stressful slaughter method was the single most important factor in my decision making process.

Because their beef is dry aged the color is deeper than grocery store beef.

So with my decision made I went to the Farmers Market yesterday and made two purchases: A beef cheek to cook in the crock pot and one pound of ground beef for spaghetti sauce.

Though I'd never had it before, I chose the beef cheek for its small portion size. I cut it in half and seared it on medium high heat in my cast iron skillet, then browned some chopped carrots and onion in the same pan and placed everything into two small ramekins. I deglazed the fry pan with 1/8th of a cup of white wine and poured half of the liquid into each ramekin before covering them with foil.

Here's what it all looked like before going into the crock pot.

Because our crock pot is four quarts I needed a solution as there wasn't going to be enough ingredients to fill the cooker. So, I got on Google and researched if it was possible to place smaller containers into a large crock pot to cook small portions. Turns out it is. Just make sure they are oven safe ceramic or Pyrex type glass and cover them so as the steam comes out of the food it is trapped within the container.

After cooking for four hours at high heat this is what I had. The meat was incredibly tender and tasted like the beef short ribs my mom always put in her stew. The carrots were so tender and sweet they were almost too sweet, and the onions were well cooked. I think next time I'll have to add in one non-sweet veggie like celery or potatoes to better balance the flavors.

I shredded the beef cheek, plated the veggies and had them with some pasta in a simple white wine garlic sauce I'd whipped up. To make the pasta I used grape seed oil to brown the garlic, 1/4 cup of white wine, a pat of butter, salt, and pepper. Next time I'll also add in some chopped fresh herbs as we have both thyme and oregano in our backyard.

The ground beef has its own pros. For one, every package of beef holds the ID number of the cow it came from. You can see on the label above this ground beef came from cow #3059. So if they ever needed to do a recall for any reason, they could isolate the meat that came from a single cow instead of having to recall and throw away the meat from a large batch comprised of multiple cows because meat infected with e coli (or some other pathogen) had been mixed together the way most packing plants mix meat in large batches.

I also believe Prather Ranch is as committed to food safety for their consumers as they are to the humane treatment of their cows.

The pasta sauce came from a jar but I added browned fresh onions and herbs to taste. I allowed the pot to simmer on the stove top for 30 minutes before splitting the sauce into four portions.

With a pound and a half of meat I made six meals that would last three weeks. I ate one serving last night and froze the rest in five single serving portions. If I don't notice any improvement in my overall health in the next few weeks I will stop eating beef (again) but if I do feel better I will continue knowing that sometimes in life we have to make tough choices.

To find a company comparable to Prather Ranch in your area talk to your local specialty butcher shop, not a chain grocery store butcher, and ask where their meat comes from, how is it raised, where was it slaughtered? Local health food stores may also point you in the right direction, and there's always the internet where you can conduct your own search for the type of operation you're most comfortable purchasing from.

Photo Credit: Heme Iron diagram from Wikipedia

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