Any Australian who has spent time in the US will know there are some important differences between our two nations.
In the US, light switches flick the wrong way; sales tax is added at the register; soft drinks are bigger; there’s still a one-cent coin for some reason; and thongs definitely don’t go on your feet. But there’s one difference that isn’t obvious at first glance – our beef.
For starters, we haven’t been able to agree on a common terminology for our cuts. What we would call the topside and silverside cuts, for instance, are collectively known in the US as ‘round’ cuts, and what we would call a porterhouse or sirloin steak would be referred to in the US as a strip or New York steak. But where we really differ is in how we feed our cattle.
What are cattle fed?
There are many factors that can contribute to the tenderness and flavour of beef, but perhaps the most important element is the type of feed the cattle are raised on. While all cattle are grass-fed at first, there comes a point when they either remain grass-fed or are switched to a grain diet. In Australia, the vast majority of cattle are grass-fed, but in the US, they tend to be grain-fed.
Grain-fed cattle in the US are mostly fed on corn and soy. This feeding regime leads to beef that has a consistently buttery flavour and mouthfeel. Of course, they have grass-fed beef in the US, too, but it tends to be a by-product of the dairy and beef production system, and is of variable quality, usually ending up in hamburgers. Grass-fed represents only about four to five per cent of beef consumption in the US, and even then, much of that is produced in Australia, New Zealand and Uruguay.
On the other hand, Australia’s predominantly grass-fed cattle are raised and fattened exclusively on pasture. (When Australian cattle are grain-fed, it’s primarily on barley and wheat, instead of corn and soy.)
Which is better, grain-fed or grass-fed?
The distinction between grain-fed and grass-fed beef is important because, where grain-fed beef tends to be more consistent, grass-fed beef is more affected by seasonal and geographic factors, leading to a wider variety of complex flavours and textures. The high beta-carotene content in grass also leads to stronger flavours in the fat found in grass-fed beef.
Both grain-fed and grass-fed beef offer a number of health benefits, and are highly concentrated sources of the nutrients you need to survive. Grass-fed beef tends to be leaner than grain-fed beef, and is a particularly good source of iron and zinc, which are important for energy, brain function and healthy growth and development. Grass-fed beef is also high in Omega 3 fatty acids, the same healthy fat found in fish.
How does beef get graded?
The differences in production between the US and Australia are reflected in each country’s grading system. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) system has three categories for quality beef – Prime, Choice and Select – and emphasises intramuscular fat, which is found in greater amounts in grain-fed beef. In the US grading system, grass-fed beef essentially doesn’t grade, and in the small number of cases where it does, the grades tend to be low.
The Meat Standards Australia (MSA) grading system instead focuses on the eating quality of specific cuts, with regards to tenderness, juiciness and flavour, and doesn’t treat intramuscular fat as a prerequisite for high-quality beef. That’s not to say, however, that Australian grass-fed beef is without marbling, with some Aussie grass-fed beef receiving impressive 4+ marble scores. The AUS-MEAT Chiller Assessment scores each beef carcasse according to the colour of meat and fat, the amount of marbling, eye muscle area, rib fat and the maturity of the carcasse, providing clear quality categories to customers.
Ultimately, whether you prefer the sweet and buttery flavour of US grain-fed beef, the more varied and interesting flavours of Australian grass-fed beef or the flavour profile of Australian grain-fed beef will come down to your own personal taste.
What we can all agree on, though, is that feet and inches are no way to measure anything. The metric system is waiting for you, America…