Christine Burns Rudalevige slices petite sirloin steaks. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

There isn’t much middle ground if you’re looking for grass-fed beef in Maine. It’s either coming from a Maine farmer or it’s coming by boat from Australia or New Zealand to land in the actual meat aisle at the grocery store.

Maine farmers who raise beef cattle primarily on pasture when those hills and fields aren’t covered in snow, and midwestern importers of sub-primal cuts of beef from Down Under (like outside loins and 7-bone prime ribs) and cut them into eye of the round roasts and rib-eye steaks, agree on the environmental and nutritional benefits of grass-fed beef.

Environmentally, grass-fed cattle require fewer inputs (corn or grain feed) to grow to market size. Rotationally grazing animals are not only happier and healthier, but their presence on pasture can help regenerate grasslands, build soil health and sequester carbon.

Studies touted by grass-fed beef proponents show that it is up to 62% leaner and has 37% fewer calories than feed lot beef. It has twice as much conjugated linoleic acid that helps support healthy blood sugar levels, five times as many omega fatty acids and lower levels of unhealthy fats and dietary cholesterol. It is higher in beta carotene (as evidenced in fat that is more yellow than white) and has higher levels of vitamin A, E and K2.

The price difference between conventional beef and 100 percent grass-fed beef is best illustrated at the ground level. A pound of conventionally raised beef ground into 85/15 percent ratio of meat to fat runs between $4-$5 compared to $6.50-$8.50 for a pound of grass-fed beef ground with the same ratio.

The grass-fed beef market in America stood at $17 million a decade ago, has grown to over $500 million now, and analysts say it will enjoy 15 percent annual, compounded growth at least through 2026, as American beef eaters become more aware of its environmental and health implications. But a study released in 2017 by the Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture just north of New York City says only about 20 percent of the grass-fed beef consumed in the U.S. is produced here. It’s challenging to scale up grass-fed beef production in the U.S., where cattle usually finish their days fattening up in feed lots.

“Because of the variation in the climate, because there are not many places in the U.S. where cattle can be eating fresh green grass year-round, we cannot consistently source enough meat from U.S. farmers to meet demand,” says Nicole Moret Schumacher, chief marketing officer of Pre Brands, a Chicago-based company that sells Australian and New Zealand beef throughout the U.S.

In the temperate Down Under climate, cows are on pasture year-round. And they only eat fresh green grasses, which affects the flavor of the meat, as they rotationally graze with sheep and goats who eat the weeds. In Pre’s case, the animals are harvested there, and the large cuts are loaded onto container ships to make the sea journey to Philadelphia. The refrigerated containers take trains to cutting rooms, mostly in the Midwest. The finished cuts of beef are packaged and take trucks out to grocery stores across the country. They make it as far as Connecticut at this juncture, and Pre is pushing them north, hopefully in time for prime grilling season this summer. You can buy Pre ground beef and steaks in the company’s online store, but those products are frozen and cost more because they must ship overnight with dry ice.

The Australian beef industry downplays the distance the meat travels to the U.S. because they say transportation accounts for less than 5 percent of the overall environmental impact of beef. It points to studies that show how Aussie farmers, over the past 30 years have reduced their water use by 65 percent and reduced their animals’ greenhouse gas emissions intensity by 14%.

Schumacher says her company’s value proposition is consistency. Pre has a 15-point quality grading rubric to ensure the meat they import looks and tastes the same, shipment after shipment. She says this is most evident in the taste of steaks because they are typically prepared very simply. Grass-fed beef will always taste more, well, grassy, than the typical American grain-fed beef most of us are used to eating. “If customers are paying for a premium product, they like to have that consistent flavor,” Schumacher said.

I’ve tasted Pre Brand’s steaks, and they are delicious, consistently so. And I’ve bought other Aussi-sourced beef for burgers. I would buy them both again should my consistent supply from the farmer down the road run dry. But I sincerely hope that doesn’t happen, because knowing the hands that raised your beef is always best.

Christine Burns Rudalevige is a food writer, recipe developer, tester and cooking teacher in Brunswick, and the author of “Green Plate Special,” a cookbook from Islandport based on these columns. She can be contacted at: [email protected]

Christine Burns Rudalevige pulls cornstarch-coated beef slices from vegetable oil after frying. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Crispy Sesame Beef with Red Onions and Kale

Crispy sesame beef is a favorite Chinese restaurant dish. This is my home version.

Serves 4

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 red onion, peeled and sliced
4 cups torn Lacinato kale leaves
Salt
1/4 cup soy sauce
3 tablespoon honey
2 tablespoons lime juice
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger
1 tablespoon Sriracha
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 pound sliced sirloin steak
4 tablespoons cornstarch
Vegetable oil
Cooked rice for serving
1 teaspoon toasted sesame seeds
1 green onion, thinly sliced

In a large skillet, warm olive oil over medium heat. Add onions and cook, stirring for 2 minutes. Add kale, ¼ cup water and ½ teaspoon salt. Stir, cover and reduce heat to low. Cook until the kale is wilted, 3-4 minutes. Turn off the heat but keep skillet covered.

In a medium bowl combine soy sauce, honey, lime juice, vinegar, garlic, ginger, Sriracha and sesame oil. Set aside.

In a large bowl, season steak with ½ teaspoon salt. Add cornstarch and tossing to coat, letting the steak absorb the cornstarch. Heat 1 inch of oil in Dutch oven over medium heat. Working in batches, taking care not to crowd the pan, cook steak until golden and crisp, 2-3 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to lift the cooked meat out of the hot oil and drain on a folded paper bag. Toss the hot beef in the reserved sauce until it is well coated.

Fan out the cooked rice on a serving platter. Spread the kale mixture over the cooked rice.  Pile the beef on top. Spoon any remaining sauce over the top. Garnish with sesame seeds and green onion. Serve warm.

Crispy Sesame Beef with Kale and Red Onions. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer


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