In the ever-growing melange of meat, going to the grocery store can be a confusing affair. Grass-fed beef sits next to organic beef, which also shares space with all-natural beef and grain-fed. But when it boils down to it, what’s the difference — and is that price tag worth it?
When perusing the meat counter or case at Safeway or City Market, there are several labels that will appear time and time again. Mostly concerned with the cows’ diet and how they were raised, these labels not only provide insight to what you’ll be consuming but also indicate the price you’ll pay.
Conventional beef: This is basic beef, raised with no bells and whistles. Almost all beef cattle graze in a pasture at times, but most are then “finished” on grain before being slaughtered. Usually the most affordable option, conventional beef is the bulk of what you’ll find in the grocery store.
Grass-fed beef: Grass-fed beef has been the rock star in the beef world lately. These cattle are raised much like conventional cattle but are never fed grains. With the exception of milk before weaning, these cows will eat grass, hay and other foraged items for their entire lives. However, this label could include cattle that are kept in enclosed areas and fed hay and grasses. Sitting at a higher price point, grass-fed is more expensive than conventional beef but usually less expensive than organic.
Organic beef: Organic beef must meet strict USDA Organic standards to carry the 100 percent organic certification. While these cows still go to a feedlot, but they’re fed with organic ingredients and do not received hormones or antibiotics. Some grass-fed beef can be organic, but organic is not necessarily grass-fed. If the meat is labeled “certified organic grass-fed beef,” then the cows are raised on organic pastures (no grain) and follow the other USDA organic regulations. Organic beef will almost always be the most expensive option in the case.
Bottom line: Your beef is your choice. Many proponents of grass-fed beef talk about the varied taste due to the grasses that the cattle eat. There are also studies that show that grass-fed beef may contain more omega-3 fatty acids than conventional beef. However, if purity is important, then reach for the organic, as it’s the only label that is regulated.
Inside the beef
All of these labels refer to what the cows are fed and how they are raised. But what about terms like Kobe or Wagyu? These terms refer to provenance and genetics.
Kobe beef comes from a particular strain of Japanese cattle (the Tajima) and must be born, fed and finished in Hyogo Prefecture, Japan. It’s like Champagne: sparkling wine is just sparkling wine “made in the Champagne style” unless it comes from the Champagne region. Unless all the requirements are met, it’s not really Kobe. However, unlike Champagne, there is no protected designation for Kobe; as a result, there are some misleading labels out there.
Wagyu, another term that’s prolific in the marketplace, is a term for Japanese cattle. Any cattle sold under the term Wagyu need only be 25 percent Japanese cattle to achieve that delineation—the other 75 percent could be American Angus or another breed. Additionally, there are no claims as to what the cattle is fed or how they are raised to be either Kobe or Wagyu.
But a new protein that has been carefully genetically controlled is sweeping Vail Valley restaurants and fine dining establishments around the country. 7X Beef, a boutique product, is not Kobe, but it is Wagyu as it is one strain of 100 percent pure Japanese cattle that is pasture-raised on an all-natural diet in Colorado. The result? A tender, melt-in-your-mouth meat with exceptional marbling and a taste that requires no further preparation than a bit of salt and pepper.
“There’s not much new in food,” said Marc Copenhaver, chef de cuisine for Larkspur Restaurant in Vail. “We don’t wait for product to come to us, we go and find it. 7X is unique.”
The downside of uniqueness is availability. The cattle are specially bred and raised, so creating this beef takes time.
“You have to handle it like a boutique wine — not everyone can have it,” Copenhaver said.
7X Beef is the latest example of taking something that seems simple — beef — and making it more: more indigenous, more “terroir,” more unadulterated.
The next time you’re searching for the perfect cut of beef for a spring barbecue, be sure to read the labels. And if it’s truly a special occasion, then go online. 7X is available for the home cook in limited quantities.