While non-vegetarians tend to consume a variety of animals that live on the land, swim in our lakes, streams and oceans, or spend much of their time in the sky, it’s the noble cow which remains most closely associated with American meat-eaters, with visions of cowboys riding the range at dusk firmly ingrained in our minds.
The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan details an amazing journey into the stark reality of our current food production system, but rather than talk about everything he discovered, I wanted to highlight one particular topic that was both sobering and chilling:
How factory farming has changed the way in which cattle are raised, and altered the food we ingest.
To begin with, cows are ruminants, and a cool fact about ruminants is that they’re able to turn grass, which us humans can’t digest, into protein, which (most) humans love to digest. This is accomplished by eating raw grass and allowing their first stomach to perform a partial digestion using bacterial action, then regurgitating the slimy mass, that we now call “cud”, and chewing it yet again.
Michael explains the elegant beauty of the process: “Growing meat on grass makes superb ecological sense: It is a sustainable, solar-powered food chain that produces food by transforming sunlight into protein.”
But that’s not what feedlot cattle dine on each day…far from it. Once upon a time, in the early 1900’s, it took 4-5 years before a cow was ready for slaughter. By the 1950’s that time-frame had been reduced to 2-3 years, and now it’s down to a mere 14-16 months, a dramatic change fueled by a shift from grass to corn, a food source that cows were not designed to eat, but a food source that gets them much fatter, much faster. Besides corn, there are many other ingredients mixed in with their feed, ingredients that might surprise you.
So what did your steak have for breakfast, lunch and dinner?
While the vast majority (70-90%) of cattle feed is comprised of processed corn, in the form of flakes made from steamed and crushed kernels, a variety of other tasty ingredients are in there too…some not so bad, some not so good…
- Soy beans, alfalfa hay, barley and corn silage
- Feather or cottonseed meal
- Plastic pellets (for roughage)
- Chicken, fish, pig and turkey meal
- Cattle manure, swine waste, poultry litter
- Liquefied fat (beef tallow)
- Protein supplements (molasses and urea)
- Liquid vitamins and synthetic Estrogen
- Rumensin & Tylosin (antibiotics)
Why include the antibiotics? Because most feedlot cattle are sick to some extent. Upsetting the balance of their digestive process, many cows experience diarrhea, ulcers, bloat, rumenitis, liver disease and a weakening of the immune system which can lead to pneumonia, coccidiosis, enterotoxemia and feedlot polio.
What does this diet mean to you? Grain-fed beef has lower levels of omega-3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA’s help fight cancer & cardiovascular disease), plus overall higher levels of fat content and, therefore, increased calorie count. As to cows eating meal made from chickens, fish, pigs and turkeys, the jury is still out on the safety of that practice. (you may want to read up on mad cow disease)
Whether eating corn-fed, industrial beef is right for you is a personal choice, but here’s some addition reading material on the subject that you might find of interest.
American Grassfed Association – Index of grass-fed producers, events and recipes.
Eat Wild – Information on grass-fed beef, lamb, goats, bison, poultry, pork and dairy.
Local Harvest – find farmers’ markets, family farms, and sustainably grown food.
Humane Farm Animal Care – certifying the humane treatment of farm animals.