As promised, I’m back to share my thoughts on beef. I decided to post today about beef because I think it’s especially relevant in light of the recent beef recalls by Topps and Cargill. There are some basic health concerns regarding beef products that come from cattle raised in confined-animal feeding operations (CAFOs), commonly called feedlots. I’m going to mention briefly concerns surrounding conditions & contamination, cattle health and your health. I’ll just say thank you in advance to Michael Pollan and Grist for the information that I’m presenting here.
Conditions and contamination:
Beef cattle that spend their final days (about 150 of them) on feed lots live in conditions cattle were not meant to experience. They live in close confinement with no grassy fields or clean places to lie down, eating a diet that is heavy in grains and corn. Whether you have moral issues with this or not, it has an huge impact on the likelihood that the cattle will carry the deadlier strains of E. coli.
About 40% of cattle that live on feedlots carry E. coli in their guts – and with the speed at which they are slaughtered and processed, it’s inevitable that either the stomach contamination or the contaminated manure ends up in the resulting beef that goes to market. And because meat processing plants blend the beef from 1,000s of cows together before portioning ground beef out into patties or individual sleeves, one slight slip-up can result in millions of pounds of contaminated beef. And when the contamination is discovered, there’s no way to pinpoint the packages that contain the sick cow – all the beef from that day or week’s run must be recalled.
Cows did not evolve to eat grain. They’re ruminants, animals that are capable of wringing almost all of the nutrition they need from one of the few plants that humans can’t eat – grass. In the beginning, all of the beef that humans ate were 100% grass fed – and the animals, and us, were healthier for it. Post WWII when the US first started to have excess grain harvest, beef were “finished” on corn to give them a higher fat level and add marbling.
With the massive changes wrought by the farm policies of the 1970s, and the resulting surplus of corn, cattle were fed more and more of it because it was cheaper than keeping them on pasture. Today, the average pound of beef from a CAFO is directly derived from the steer eating 7 to 8 pounds of corn. And the corn they eat is slowly killing them.
Feeding diets high in corn, soy beans and other grains causes cattle to develop bloat and rumen acidosis, both of which can be deadly. What keeps a feedlot animal healthy enough to make it to slaughter day is antibiotics – without them the death rate would be much, much higher.
Okay you’re thinking, sucks to be a cow, but what does it really mean for me? After all, the odds that I’ll get E. coli are pretty freaking slim. Well, what it means for you is that the feedlot beef you’re eating is bad for you in many ways.
First, the antibiotics given to the steer to keep it alive are contributing to drug resistant bacteria that you might contract from somewhere else.
Second, the grain that the cattle are fed increases the fat content of the meat. It also decreases the amount of Omega 3s in the beef, and increases the amount of Omega 6s. Oh, you say, you thought Omega 3s were only in fish – well they’re also in all pasture raised meat including beef, pork and poultry.
Too high a ration of Omega 6 to Omega 3 can contribute to heart disease, probably because Omega 6 helps blood clot, while Omega 3 helps it flow.
…the ration of Omega 6 to Omega 3 [in our diet] has gone from roughly one-to-one (in the diet of hunter-gatherers) to more than ten to one… We may one day come to regard this shift as one of the most deleterious dietary changes wrought by the industrialization of our food chain.”
The Omnivore’s Dilemma
Third, grass fed beef is leaner than corn fed beef with a ratio of Omega 6s to Omega 3s of two to one as opposed to the ten to one found in feedlot cattle.
Finally, the environmental costs of raising cattle in CAFOs cannot be overestimated. The massive amounts of almost toxic manure produced, the environmental costs of concentrating 1000s of animals in small spaces, the industrialized farming methods used to produce the mountains of corn that feed them (almost 60% of the corn grown in the US is fed to animals), the health costs to you, me and the cow, and the billions of barrels of oil consumed in trucking in the animals and the feed and then trucking out the waste and the finished product. All of these are have serious environmental impacts that the average American is just barely beginning to understand.
So if you’re going to choose to eat beef (and really don’t all of us omnivore’s like a good steak once in a while?) choose 100% grass fed beef. It’s better for you, the cow and the environment.
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