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Live to Eat Newsletter by The Healthy Butcher

Could we have found the world's best beef producer?

About three years ago we made the decision to explore the possibility of sourcing 100% Grassfed Beef from the southern hemisphere. Our goal was clear: As the leader in true 100% Grassfed Beef, we needed to compliment our local grassfed beef, that is at its best during the months of mid-July through mid-November, with grassfed beef that is at its best from December through June. This would be the first time we ventured into the importation of beef (or any meat for that matter), so we knew that the beef had to be outstanding or the project would be cancelled. We had tried beef from various countries, with the frontrunner at the time being Uruguay (and that was pretty good beef, not outstanding), when we had a conversation with Mark Schatzker (author of “Steak"). “You absolutely must try the beef from these guys in New Zealand”, said Mark. So we did.

Enter Firslight, a company owned by a passionate group of New Zealand farmers, including several owned by Māori New Zealanders – the indigenous people of New Zealand – whose mission is: “To produce and provide the best tasting grass-fed meat in the world.” I remember the first bite I took when the initial sample order arrived. Wow. And our customers agreed; the New Zealand beef quickly became a product line in high demand at The Healthy Butcher and online at our sister company, RealFoodToronto.com. Why wouldn’t it become popular? Not only is it off-the-charts delicious, it is also one of the healthiest. Nutritional testing showed that the Omega 6:3 ratio was an outstanding 1.3, the healthiest ratio we’ve tested in beef, and the entire nutritional profile was among the best we’ve seen. But, did the food miles – the distance to ship that beef from New Zealand – negate the benefits?

It was time for The Healthy Butcher to take an in-depth look at what made this beef so incredible, and to determine if importing the beef was justified. So, Dave Meli (Head Butcher) and I took the trip down to New Zealand in August (poor us). We hope you enjoy both the video and article below.

 

 

A report on Firstlight Farm's 100% Grassfed Wagyu Beef  

 

Video & Photos from the trip...




The Healthy Butcher's Visit to Firstlight, New Zealand

We landed in Auckland on August 18, and met up with Jason Ross, co-owner of Firstlight Foods. “So gents, what’s your goal on this trip?” he asked. I said “No stone left unturned Jason. We want to see everything your beef experiences from birth to death to the moment the plane takes off enroute to The Healthy Butcher”. “Alright mate, we’ve got a lot of ground to cover.”

The Use of the Wagyu Breed

The biggest challenge with raising true grassfed beef is achieving delicious grassfed beef. I use the word “true”, because as explained in a previous newsletter, most grassfed beef on the market has been finished with grains or corn (it’s blatant misleading of consumers at its best), in which case achieving a consistent intramuscular marbling is easy; but that’s not true grassfed beef. Conversely, raising healthy 100% grassfed beef that ultimately produces extremely lean meat that isn’t enjoyable to eat isn’t sustainable as far as we’re concerned; all of the benefits (to the animal, to the environment, and to us) of 100% grassfed beef will be thrown out the window because people will ultimately fall back to the fattier, grain- and corn-finished meat that makes their mouths water. This was the first hurdle that Firstlight would have to overcome to succeed in producing delicious 100% grassfed beef.

Enter the Japanese Wagyu breed, a breed made famous for intense intramuscular marbling, used in the super expensive Kobe beef. Walking up to the Firstlight’s number one bull, a pure Wagyu beast, is an experience on to itself. Dave, in his usual manner, made it a funny experience. Judging by the size of his massive shoulders down to his brisket, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out these animals were used to till soil and haul carts in the not too distant past. But it’s not his size that matters most, rather his ability to add intramuscular fat, or marbling.



The problem is, you can’t simply take a Wagyu beef cow from Japan, plop it on a green grass pasture, and expect it to gain weight and add marbling. Today’s Wagyu genetics have been bred for feeding on grain. The typical Wagyu would not gain enough weight eating only grass to be a feasible breed for a beef farmer. Through very specific Wagyu breed selection over several generations, and further crossing of a Wagyu bull with Angus, Firstlight has landed on the best genetics we’ve seen for 100% grassfed beef.

The end result is beef built on the perfect frame size, that finish with impeccably consistent marbling, a nice size brisket and a full rump with noticeable balls of fat at either side of the top of the tail. Using the phrase “best genetics” is a big statement. Perhaps it is more accurate to say “the best pairing of genetics with the natural environment and types of grass on which they are raised”.

In 2012, Firstlight started a partnership with the New Zealand government to research and potentially build a program that uses Firstlight’s Wagyu genetics crossed with dairy cows (mainly Friesian and Jersey). The success of this program could leapfrog New Zealand’s massive dairy industry into a much more sustainable model, that utilizes the calves born from dairy cows. In The Greener and Rosier Side of Veal, I explained the necessity of finding ways of making the dairy industry “calf neutral” to become a sustainable and humane part of our food chain. Our testing thus far of the beef that has come from the Wagyu-dairy crosses is quite positive and Firstlight and the New Zealand government should be applauded for this forward thinking.

Growing Grass In New Zealand

Any grassfed beef farmer will admit that they are not a beef farmer, but instead they are primarily a grass farmer that happens to raise beef. Nowhere is that more true than in Ontario. Our short grass growing season poses a huge challenge to our farmers. What The Healthy Butcher’s genius Ontario farmers do is plant several types of grass that have different growth patterns at different times of the year. The goal is to create high energy feed for the pastured beef so they can gain weight as quickly as possible when the beef are on pasture, knowing full well that when late autumn arrives and the grass growth is done, the beef will be fed hay or haylage, and their weight gain will be halted or even turn to weight loss.

New Zealand has the perfect moderate climate for growing grass year round. It is their ace in the hole. You know you’re in the grassfed holy land when farmers find it unfathomable to be feeding corn or grain to a cow - that proposition, to them, is preposterous – ruminant animals are designed to eat plants, not grains. New Zealand pastures are made up primarily of Ryegrass mixed with White and Red Clover. The clover, being a forage legume, provides necessary nitrogen into the soil for the Ryegrass to continue growing – it’s a symbiotic relationship. Combined with pasture farming, where the cows eat the grass, trample the ground, and the ultimate recycling of dung into the soil, New Zealand is the ideal setting for healthy grassfed beef pastures.



During the two-to-three months of a moderately cool winter (June through August) when their rye grass growth slows down, the farmers use paddocks of brassicas (like kale and rape) to ensure the beef continue to gain weight. It’s all about slow, but consistent, weight gain throughout the cattles’ lives. All of the Firstlight farms are subdivided into relatively small size paddocks to allow for daily rotational grazing to maximize the grass nutrients and keep the soil healthy by the eating, tramping, and manure recycling. Perhaps nothing hit home the fact that their climate is ideal until Dave turned to me a week into our trip and asked, “Do you know we haven’t seen one barn yet?” Indeed, no barns, and no diesel guzzling equipment to till, fertilize, and work the land!

To top it all off, Firstlight is certified GMO-free! Their pastures and everything about the beef are free from any genetic modification. What these beef cows eat is, simply put, as nature intended.



On the abbatoir and getting the beef to the abbatoir

This is a topic that not many butcher shops ask questions about. I can tell you that one of The Healthy Butcher’s biggest challenges in Canada is ensuring that farms use slaughterhouses that are as close to the farm as possible to minimize animal stress. It is becoming harder and harder as family-run provincially inspected abbatoirs are closing virtually every day.

In Canada, most beef are transported at least three times in their lives (home ranch to auction, auction to feedlot, feedlot to packing plant). The federal requirements for animal transport are covered under the Health of Animals Regulations, Part XII, and enforced by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). The regulations stipulate the cattle cannot travel for longer than 48 hours. 48 friggin hours!!! How would you feel if you were on the back of a truck for 48 hours? Now, thankfully, the vast majority of beef hauling is less than 32 hours, but lengthy trips are the unfortunate norm. Ontario is a big place, and Canada is an even bigger place and getting beef from point A to a distant point B is unavoidable.

New Zealand, on the other hand, is made up of two small islands. The most any of the Firstlight farms cattle travel is four hours – that’s the most! And they arrive at an abattoir that’s Temple Grandin inspired (if you haven’t heard of Temple Grandin, I encourage you to read more .





On the air shipping, food miles, and carbon footprint

The final step of the equation was something we weren’t familiar with, having dealt exclusively with local meat up till now – the air freight.

We arrived at GVI International adjacent to the Auckland airport to see the order destined for The Healthy Butcher in the walk-in cooler, ready to get put into the air containers. As you can see in the photo, the boxes are packed in a container that is shaped like the bottom of a plane. The temperature is controlled during its journey with a dry ice blanket, and the boxes are equipped with sensors that allow us to monitor temperatures throughout the trip.



Up to this point in our journey, every aspect of how these Wagyu are raised in New Zealand was nothing but positive. Does shipping the beef from New Zealand negate the positives? The term “food miles” is deeply entrenched into our sustainable food vocabulary, but solely analysing the number of miles a food has travelled before you buy it only scratches the surface of its true environmental impact.

A study done by scholars at Lincoln University in 2011 found that lamb raised on New Zealand pastures and shipped 11,000 miles to Britain produced 1,520 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per ton while British lamb produced 6,280 pounds of carbon dioxide per ton. It other words, it is four times more energy efficient to people in Britain to import lamb than to raise them in their own backyard. Similar figures were found for dairy products and fruit. Why? Because in order to understand the true carbon footprint of a food, all factors need to be weighed, such as: Use of water, harvesting technique, the use of mechanised equipment, fertilizer use, and transportation during the animals life (not just after slaughter). In the case of the lamb, British lamb are fed grains and the production and shipping of those grains result in more emissions than the shipping of the lamb from New Zealand to Britain. Certainly, nobody could argue that the vast majority of Ontario locally raised beef in feedlots that are fed GMO-grains and GMO-corn that have been drenched in oil produced pesticides and fertilizers, and no means to deal with the vast amounts of manure being produced, creates a greater carbon footprint overall than pasture raised beef. The true calculation of environment impact is not easy to determine.

Moving away from the carbon debate, the bottom line is that at this time of the year, this food – 100% Grassfed beef raised on pasture, is simply not available locally. We don’t question our daily use of olive oil and coconut oil. Let me ask you, how are you enjoying those oranges and berries? Frankly, 90% of the fruits and vegetables you’re eating at this time of the year are imported (the only exceptions being some cellared root vegetables, apples, and green house greens – and even on that note, the energy use to cellar our local root vegetables and apples throughout the winter is massive). We don’t question importing food when that food is not available locally, so the same argument applies. The 100% Grassfed Beef from New Zealand compliments our Ontario beef, it doesn’t replace it. If, next year, global warming increases Ontario’s temperature by 15 degrees year round, then obviously the facts will change the outcome.


On the taste

This is beef you need to try for yourself to understand why we are so in love with it. The 100% grassfed yields a clean mouth feel, rather than the cloying greasy mouth feel of well marbled corn-finished beef. Combine the cleanliness with the succulence and sweet nutty flavour profile that characterizes Wagyu beef, this 100% Grassfed Wagyu beef is truly remarkable.

In the store you will have the option of selecting three different grades. Because the traditional Canadian and American grading system (i.e. A, AA, AAA, Prime) would not adapt well to Firstlight’s unique product, they chose to adapt the marbling scale used for Japanese Kobe beef. The marbling scale, called MBS, runs from 2-9. In our store, we create three categories:
• MBS 2-3 (very reasonably priced, healthy and excellent flavour)
• MBS 4-6 (the best compromise between price, taste and health)
• MBS 7-9 (a rare occurrence for 100% Grassfed beef, you need to experience it!)  



Conclusion

We titled this article “Could we have found the World’s best beef producer?” This is a big question. Certainly, our focus has always been on, and will continue to be on meat raised locally. That said, if we had to determine the World’s best beef producer, we would base it on the answers to the following questions:

• Does the farm steward the land in a way as nature intended, leaving the soil the same or better?
• Do the animals live humane lives – from birth to death?
• Are the animals healthy naturally, by eating what nature intended them to eat, without any drugs?
• Is the resulting meat healthy for us to consume? and finally,
• Is the flavour of the meat outstanding, and does the farm produce consistent results?

We have no shortage of amazing, smart, passionate farmers in Ontario and some factors are simply out of their control. Consistency of grassfed beef varies tremendously in Ontario because of our seasons, and there is a lot of variance from year-to-year. The distance to an abattoir to minimize trucking animals is also out of our farmers’ control.

The bottom line is this: Firstlight’s 100% Grassfed Wagyu beef is arguably the world’s best beef – the combination of genetics, health and welfare of the animal, use of the soil and the environment as nature intended, that ultimately produces the healthiest beef we’ve seen combined with off-the-charts flavour raise this beef to a class of its own. The only strike against Firstlight, as far as we’re concerned, is the distance to Ontario. No doubt the knowledge we’ve gained from Firstlight’s beef farms will help our own Ontario farmers improve their grassfed farming.

Could there be 100% Grassfed Beef farmers in other parts of the Southern Hemisphere to find such healthy, quality beef closer than New Zealand? Perhaps. And you can depend on us to continue looking. And while we continue our search for the World’s best beef, and while we continue to support our local Ontario grassfed beef farmers during Ontario’s grass season, The Healthy Butcher is proud to exclusively offer Firstlight’s beef in Ontario.

 

 

565 Queen St. West, in downtown Toronto
298 Eglinton Ave. West in midtown Toronto
25 Bruce St., in Kitchener, Ontario
416-ORGANIC
www.thehealthybutcher.com


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