Merry Christmas! — It is a very busy time of the year, but if you eat beef and have the time to read this interview with Michael Pollan about industrial/feedlot beef production in America, you should.
I’ve read many excellent books and other resources on this subject, but that interview captures almost all of the important information you should be aware of.
In case you don’t have the time to read it, the salient points are as follows:
- Cows are given growth-promoting hormones and knowingly made sick, obese, and diabetic in the process of getting them to maximum weight quickly so they can be slaughtered and render the marbled steak which consumers have become accustomed to eating.
- Cows are fed grains (mainly corn), to which they are not genetically adapted, which triggers their accumulation of body fat.
- The “diabesity” (diabetes and obesity) which these animals experience destroys their immune system, while the grain-based diet wreaks havoc with their intestinal health and gut flora, often leading to severe bacterial infections.
- Risks of illness are worsened by the crowded nature of the feedlot as well as the fact that these animals spend all their time standing and laying in their own excrement.
- Because these animals’ resistance to infection is ruined, they are given antibiotics to survive. Much of this antibiotic can end up in the meat you consume, potentially causing major problems in your body. Much also ends up in the environment after the animal has excreted it.
- Antibiotics given to animals constitutes 80% (!!) of all antibiotic use in America, and this misuse is the main reason for the high prevalence of bacterial antibiotic resistance we see today — which is a direct threat to your health, if you ever need antibiotics to overcome an infection.
- The incidence of bacterially contaminated meat (for example, with E. coli) is directly related to the manner in which these animals are raised, and consumption of contaminated meat is often lethal.
- The nutritional content of industrial beef is terrible compared to that from animals fed a diet they are genetically adapted to (i.e., grass).
- The costs of intervening so drastically in the normal physiology and ecology of these animals are manifold and include tremendous damage to the environment (the interview goes into the details of this).
As usual, there is a governmental component to this. The subsidies for corn are such that it is an incredibly cheap source of “food” for cattle, and accordingly these subsidies facilitate this entire destructive process. (The subsidization of corn as a source for ethanol as an environmentally harmful additive for gasoline, as well as a means for producing high-fructose corn syrup which is toxic for human beings, are other examples of the blowback from government intervention, but that’s for another blog post).
There is a website maintained by the USDA in which meat randomly sampled and found to have high levels of hormones and antibiotics is made public, but it is very difficult to find, and as best I can tell, there are rarely significant consequences for the offending purveyors. Moreover, the cut-offs for what is considered “contaminated” are fairly high for many antibiotics, so just because someone isn’t tagged as a violator doesn’t mean that their meat is free of drugs.
The bottom line is that beef can be a very healthy food, but as with every other animal or plant, the environment in which that animal or plant was raised is the primary determinant of how healthy it will be to eat. I strongly advise that if you consume industrial meat, you do so to the minimum extent possible.
If you have the option of buying grass-fed, non-feedlot beef, I believe you should. It is more expensive but worth it in my opinion. We can do that at one store in Coronado and I am very thankful for it.
We don’t yet have any restaurants serving grass-fed steak here, but as awareness increases, there are many popping up around the nation. If you want to enjoy healthy beef when eating out, you may want to find one of these restaurants. Otherwise, I recommend you cook your steaks at home most of the time.