Modern Day Fattening Before the Slaughter (Grass Fed vs. Corn Fed Beef)
When you pick up your BigMac at the local fast food eatery, do you ever take a second to wonder what it is that you are eating? The fact that the greasy, patty with processed cheese and extra onions used to be a farm animal? The truth is, today’s society doesn’t consider what is in the food that they eat. Meat, especially, has become such a commodity that we are able to have it multiple times a day. What used to be a luxury is now an everyday staple in our diets. When you are consuming so much of something, one has to beg the question, where does all this meat come from? The beef industry has some dirty little secrets about what goes into their cows and, ultimately their beef, but those secrets have dangerous side effects. Knowledge is power and perhaps when society knows what is happening, they will be apt to do something about it.
Cows were intended to eat grass. Their stomachs are designed to convert the grass into the nutrition that it needs to sustain itself (Bittman, 2009). However, many cows don’t spend their lives eating a diet for which their body was meant to consume. Their diet now consists of corn (or grain), hormones, supplements and even protein (Pollen, 2006). Big farming industries have discovered that by feeding a cow corn, it gets fat very quickly. However, the cow isn’t meant to eat corn, so it gets sick (Bittman, 2009). They are given antibiotics and other drugs to counter this sickness. In fact, Mark Bittman, author of Food Matters, discovered that half of the antibiotics sold in the United States are being used to treat sick cattle, not people (Bittman, 2009). To further speed up the fattening process, cows are fed meat trimmings from other cows and given growth supplements (Pollen, 2006). Yes, the cow has gone from a strictly grass diet to eating not just corn but now meat as well.
The modern farming industry wants efficiency at any cost. They are no longer concerning themselves with the health of the animal and in turn the health of the people who eat the animal. Instead, they want a fast growing cow which can be shipped off to slaughter as soon as possible (Pollen, 2006). According to Michael Pollan (2006), author of the Omnivore’s Dillema, cows 50 years ago took four or five years before they were big enough to slaughter. Today, we see them growing at enormous rates. A steer will go from 80 pounds to 1,100 pounds in 14 months (Pollen, 2006). Not only do the cattle grow faster, but corn is a cheap choice for feed. This is not only unnatural, it’s dangerous for the cow and it is dangerous for those of us eating the cow.
Michael Pollan (2006) does a great job of explaining what happens when a cow is given an unnatural diet. Cows have a complicated digestion system. Feeding a cow anything but grass goes against its ability to digest the food properly (Pollen, 2006). A cow who is fed bushels of starchy corn a day can suffer from countless sickness ranging from bloat to acidosis, which causes bacteria to eat away at their livers (Pollen, 2006). These sicknesses spread very easily to other cows; especially when the cows are living in extreme overcrowded conditions that most often exist in these industries. According to a staff veterinarian, some feedlot pens find about 70% of their cows are found to have destroyed livers by the time they reach the slaughterhouse (Pollen, 2006). What keeps the rest of the cows from keeling over is the generous amount of drugs such as Tylosin, which help treat liver problems in these animals.
Because the corn is making the cows stomach more acidic, the bacteria in the cow’s stomach is becoming acid resistant (Pollen, 2006). Normally, we would eat a steak and any bacteria could be killed by the acid in our own stomach. This is not so anymore. E Coli is just one of the bacteria which evolved to be “acid-resistant” and thus survives the acid in our stomachs after we eat the infected beef (Pollen, 2006). This acid resistant E Coli bacterium is what can kill you (Pollen, 2006). This is not an inevitable problem and there are alternatives that would help. One USDA microbiologist discovered that by switching a cow’s diet from corn to hay or grass the E Coli is reduced by up to 80% (Pollen, 2006). However, the USDA refuses to enforce this practice because the industry has deemed it unfeasible (Pollen, 2006).
Corn feed is not the only cause of the sicknesses found in so many cows on feedlots. There is also the issue of feeding cattle the remains from other cattle (Pollen, 2006). This cannibalistic feed process yields serious consequences. The most severe is the spread of a disease called Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, also known as mad cow disease (Pollen, 2006). It is bad enough that these animals are being made to eat outside of their natural diet; it is worse that they are being force fed the remains of other cows. Again, this disease is easily spread when you take into consideration the close and unsanitary living conditions that many of these cows exist in (Pollen, 2006). The FDA; however, is aware that these practices exist, but have not yet put a strict ban on them (Pollen, 2006).
What does this mean for Americans, whose diets consist of a high consumption of beef on a daily basis? As Mark Bittman (2009) says, “You are what you eat eats”. This means that anything that goes into the cow is then put into your body the minutes you swallow that bite of the greasy cheeseburger. Those antibiotics that are injected into the cow are creating antibiotic resistance in humans (Bittman, 2009). Furthermore, corn fed beef is also full of unhealthy fats. According to the Omnivore’s Dillema, corn fed beef could be one of the links to obesity in this country (Pollen, 2006).
The ideal alternative to corn fed, chemically enhanced, feedlot beef is grass-fed beef. Cattle that forage and graze in pastures would provide meat that is virtually free of the diseases found in cattle raised in large feedlots (Pollen, 2006). They wouldn’t get sick from eating corn and other cows. They wouldn’t need the antibiotics the way cows who are force fed these materials do (Pollen, 2006). The fat from the cows is higher in Omega-3 fats, which have proven to be healthier and the meat is leaner (Pollen, 2006). However, people argue that it is unrealistic to assume the country could be fed on grass-fed beef. This is a valid argument. Grass-fed beef is more expensive in the sense that it does take longer to grow and also require more space (Bittman, 2009). However, it wouldn’t hurt the country to cut back on their meat consumption in the first place. Furthermore, would anyone want to risk eating pounds of beef per day if they knew what they were eating?
Another argument is that grass-fed beef is environmentally harmful. The risk of overgrazing can cause erosion of the earth’s soils (Bittman, 2009). However, even this has a solution. Mike Pollen (2006) has found that ranchers have begun to rotate cattle in the same way bison would have moved around when their herds roamed the country. The process is completely stable and makes ecological sense because you are raising a herd on renewable resources and so long as the herd is moved around frequently, the environmental harm is reduced (Pollen, 2006). In fact, when you think of all of the corn agriculture which is used to grow feed for the cattle it is more environmentally sound to allow cows to eat what is naturally available; grass.
This is becoming a more severe issue by the second and it goes under the radar because we, as consumers, aren’t saying anything. The government is protecting big feedlots. The FDA is allowing drugs to be fed into our food. Clearly, there are lots that need to be done. The government needs to regulate these feedlots more closely to assure that cows are no longer force fed large amounts of corn and eliminate the cannibalistic meat feeding as well. This would eliminate the risk of mad cow disease as well as other diseases brought on by this unnatural diet. Furthermore, the cow would no longer need to be chocked full of antibiotics because it wouldn’t be sick in the first place. This would not only benefit the health of the cow, but also the health of all of us who are eating the meat as well. Until these steps are taken, we can show are discontent at the state of the beef industry by choosing to purchase meat from local farmers who allow their cows to have a natural diet. This not only helps the farmers, but it helps us as well and will show the corporate beef industry that we will not tolerate what they are doing to our food.