Factory Farmed Beef
Guest post by Eric Orr
Of the 35 million cows slaughtered in the U.S. each year, roughly 80 percent are processed like automotive parts on an assembly line. Just like any good production process, the system has quickly evolved into a streamlined, cost effective means of turning a raw commodity into a consumable product.
The process normally starts in a picturesque country pasture. A cow spends the first eight months of his life in that pasture, feeding on his mother’s milk and, eventually, eating nothing but grass. That’s where his natural life ends.
Up until the 1950’s, it took four or five years for a cow to reach slaughter weight. Then cattle farmers began to discover how much faster they could bulk up their herds with high energy diets of corn and protein supplements. Not only did it speed up the process, but it made for tastier beef. A cow’s stomach processes the unnatural diet like a car running on jet fuel. It burns real hot real fast. The nasty byproduct is fat. That’s what gives the meat that marbled quality our culture seems to relish.
So we figured out how to crank out more hamburgers with more fat, but the process continued to evolve. It seems that cattle can be fattened up much more efficiently by cramming a whole pile of them into one huge over crowded cow city; the feedlot. It’s a place you smell before you see. A place where a cow gets a five digit name and a lungful of fecal dust when he steps off the bus. He gets to stand shoulder to shoulder with 100,000 of his brethren, ankle deep in manure, existing only to eat. And eat they do… a steady supply of corn, liquefied fat, protein supplements, synthetic growth hormones, antibiotics, antibiotics, and antibiotics. The drugs are really what makes the feedlot work. The sudden change from grass to high octane grain is so stressful to a cow’s digestive system, it can be lethal. A feedlot animal is subject to a myriad of immune depleting afflictions, including bloat, acidosis, ulcers, and liver disease, so to ensure the cows’ survival it is absolutely necessary to treat every single animal with daily doses of antibiotics. About a third of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. is used to help fatten up livestock. The gross overuse of antibiotics is undermining the future health of our population by cultivating drug resistant bacteria. And some scientists say the added hormones are responsible for early maturation in girls and lower sperm counts in men.
Slaughter weight for a cow is usually 1,200 or 1,300 pounds, and a feedlot cow gets there four times faster than grass fed cows. He spends about six months on the feedlot, reaching slaughter weight at 14 months. That’s when he gets herded onto another truck and shipped to his final destination. The slaughterhouse is much like the feedlot. A bunch of cows packed into a filthy little patch of real estate. The cows wait, unknowingly, for their turn at the stunner. One by one they file up a ramp, onto a conveyor belt, and finally to the kill floor. Each one is finished off with a seven inch bolt from an air gun. To meet McDonald’s standards, the first shot must be effective 95 percent of the time. The cows are then hung to bleed and sent down the line to be eviscerated, de-hided, and eventually butchered.
Feedlot and slaughterhouse conditions compromise safety with the increased potential for contamination. Though the meatpacking industry has significantly improved sanitation measures in recent years, the quality of assembly line beef is still questionable. The focus is money. Quicker processing means higher contamination risk, but it also means bigger profits. Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, puts it like this, “…very big meatpacking companies have very close relationships with members of the Congress and with the administration and the USDA. So these big companies are often more responsible for our food-safety policies than the American voters...” To reduce the risk of tainted meat, slaughterhouses in Europe process beef much slower than the U.S. Here, the average slaughterhouse kills 250 cows in an hour. That push for speed forces meatpacking employees to work harder and faster than they ever have. Now they get paid much less to do a harder job. In the early 1970’s, the industry had one of the most stable workforces, and now it’s one of the least. Employee turnover rates are 75 to 100 percent per year, so workers rarely have the chance to develop the necessary skills to safely perform their jobs. Cows are often covered in fecal matter when they get to the kill floor, and critical steps like de-hiding and evisceration must be done properly to ensure that the meat is not tainted. Yet in a Frontline interview, National Farms CEO Bill Haw described his industry’s system as “a miracle of efficiency as that live animal is reduced to a carcass and the carcass is reduced to parts that we’re very familiar with in eating.”
It’s not nearly as efficient as it seems. Federal subsidies make the feedlot economically viable. The price for a bushel of corn is 50 cents less than the cost of growing it. You, the taxpayer, are footing the bill. Ironically, over the past 20 years the profit margin on a single feedlot cow has averaged $3. It was actually more profitable to raise cattle before the advent of the feedlot. So then why does factory farming still prevail? As the fast-food industry sought more reliable and consistent sources of beef, meatpacking companies consolidated and grew ever larger. Now the four biggest meatpacking companies have 80 percent of the market share, up from 20 percent in the 1970’s. The huge quantity of cattle being processed is making those four corporations fat, while small scale farmers are suffering.
The environment is also suffering. The vast number of feedlot cattle require huge quantities of corn, which requires irrigation, fertilizer, pesticides, and fossil fuels. It takes nearly 300 gallons of oil and 550,000 gallons of water to produce a 1,250 pound feedlot cow, and the unnaturally high concentration of manure on feedlots pollutes ground water with excessive levels of nitrates and hormones, degrading water quality and threatening aquatic habitats.
The cow’s digestive system has evolved to convert grass into energy, so when cows feed on grass, they don’t suffer from the same health problems as grain fed cows, which means they don’t need all of the antibiotics to keep them alive. The downside to grass fed beef is the high cost. But when you look at the environmental and health costs of feedlot meat, grass fed is really much cheaper. It doesn’t require any synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. Native grasses and “weeds” feed the cow, and the cow feeds the grass. For the most part, it’s a natural cycle. But if feedlots magically disappeared and all the corn was replaced with pasture lands, we couldn’t produce nearly as many cows as we do now. Beef would be less plentiful and more expensive, which probably would not be such a bad thing. The average U. S. citizen eats over 60 pounds of beef per year, compared with a world wide average of about 16 pounds per year.
A natural grass diet is easier on the animal and the environment, and it makes the meat healthier. Really, the health problems associated with red meat are problems caused by feedlot meat. And the recent discovery of Mad Cow Disease in the U. S. has further compounded the risk. But the chances of contamination are significantly lower in grass fed beef, and it has 2 to 6 times more omega 3 fatty acids and CLA (conjugated linoleic acid)—both are beneficial fats—than grain fed, so it may actually help prevent heart problems and cancer. Grass fed also has more vitamin E and fewer omega 6 fats, and it’s much less likely to have pesticides, antibiotics, or hormones.
But “organic” should not be confused with “grass fed.” “Organic” beef is not necessarily sustainable nor healthy. Organic feed standards make it difficult for small scale cattle farmers to get certified. And feedlots can potentially attain organic certification, so it’s really important to know the origin of the animal. If you’re lucky enough to have access to a CSA (community supported agriculture), you may be able to purchase sustainable meat through it. It’s always a good idea to buy locally, when you can, and familiarize yourself with the farm and the farmer’s code of ethics. If you can’t find anything nearby you might try finding a few friends to go in on a whole or half cow. For more info and a state by state directory of local suppliers, check out www.eatwild.com.
Bill Haw says, “My guess is that, could you interview a steer and ask him whether he’d rather be out in the pasture or in the feedlot, I think the vast majority of them would vote to be in the feedlot.” Good guess. I wonder how many folks would choose to sleep in the corner of a truck stop bathroom. We all have to eat, and when we do, we have to take life. But I don’t believe money or meat is so important that an animal should be treated like dirt. I’m a meat eater, but I won’t eat it unless it’s wild or I know it was raised humanely and sustainably. When you buy a hamburger from McDonald’s you have no idea where that meat came from or what it’s been through. You really don’t know what you’re putting in your body or the environment. But when you buy local grass fed beef, you’re buying a level of comfort you can’t get from the feedlot. You’re also supporting local agriculture and a local economy.