There are many reasons to switch to grass-fed beef.1 For example, the nutritional differences between organic pastured beef2 and that from animals raised in confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs).
Here, I will focus more on the current farming model, which is what makes CAFO beef such an inferior product in the first place, and the regulatory restrictions that sometimes make grass-fed meats hard to come by.
Our food system is in dire need of change in order to protect human health, but it’s a system that is difficult to change. It’s not impossible, but it will require more people to change their shopping habits in order to drive up demand, and hence the industry’s resolve to address the shortcomings.
Multi-Faceted Problems Stemming from Industrial Farming Practices
Industrial-scale farming has wide-ranging problems. Typically, the focus is on deteriorating food quality and safety. Certainly, the factory farm model directly contributes to increasing reliance on processed junk foods; the very same foods that are making us obese and riddled with chronic disease.
Emerging diseases in livestock, wildlife, and humans are also traceable to industrial farming practices. This includes antibiotic-resistant diseases, mad cow disease in cows, and chronic wasting disease (CWD) in deer and elk.
Infectious proteins causing mad cow and CWD have also been implicated in Alzheimer’s disease in humans—the only differentiating factor being the time it takes for symptoms and death to occur.
According to one estimate, up to 13 percent of all Alzheimer’s victims may actually have mad cow infection, acquired from eating contaminated CAFO meat.
The USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) also attribute nearly 133,000 illnesses each year to contaminated chicken parts. The agency has set a goal to reduce illness by 34 percent.
As for salmonellosis cases, the USDA estimates contaminated chicken and turkey cause about 200,000 illnesses a year. FSIS’ goal is to reduce that number by at least 25 percent by 2020. Factory farmed chicken is by far the greatest culprit when it comes to food poisoning.
Beef is also frequently tainted, and a USDA rule requiring labeling of mechanically tenderized beef has been under consideration for six years already, for the fact that the procedure compresses pathogens from the surface down into the meat, where it can more easily thrive and survive cooking. Mechanically tenderized beef has been blamed for at least five E.Coli outbreaks between 2003 and 2009.
But like a multi-headed hydra, the adverse effects of industrial farming sprout in many other directions as well. For example, large-scale factory farming is also responsible for:
- Loss of water quality through nitrogen and phosphorus contamination in rivers, streams, and ground water (which contributes to “dramatic shifts in aquatic ecosystems and hypoxic zones”)
- Agricultural pesticides also contaminate streams, ground water, and wells, raising safety concerns to agricultural workers who use them
- A decline in nutrient density of 43 garden crops (primarily vegetables), which suggests possible tradeoffs between yield and nutrient content
- Large emission of greenhouse gases including carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide
- Negative impact on soil quality through such factors as erosion, compaction, pesticide application, and excessive fertilization
Industrial Farming Is Destroying Food Quality
“How do you alert people to the problems of industrial-scale farming?” a recent article in National Geographic3 asks.
“The issues are urgent, but they are also difficult to confront: The indifference to animal welfare, the strip-mining of poor countries’ resources to feed the rich, the environmental damage and antibiotic overuse can be so hard to face that many people just turn away.”
Philip Lymbery, an animal-welfare activist and author of the bookFarmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat, notes that one of the techniques used to perpetuate factory farming is secrecy. For example, in Europe, eggs from caged hens are marked “battery eggs,” whereas in the US, those same eggs are labeled as “farm fresh” or “country fresh.”
If you don’t know there’s a problem, you won’t root for change, and that is exactly why the food industry is fighting tooth and nail to prevent labeling of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the US, as well as legislation that would prevent them from fraudulently labeling GMOs as “Natural.”
It is imperative for the food and chemical technology industries that currently monopolize agriculture to keep you in the dark about how your food is produced.
They’ve even lobbied for gag laws that make it a felony to video tape animal cruelty or other heinous activities occurring on factory farms, lest sympathy start upsetting the proverbial apple cart… When asked if he’s opposed to animal farming for food altogether, Lymbery replies:4
“This is not, in any way, a call to vegetarianism. This is a call to put animals back on the farm. Pasture is one of the most ubiquitous habitats on the planet, covering 25 percent of the ice-free land surface.
This is about using that ubiquitous habitat to produce great food in a way which is environmentally friendly and kinder to animals, leaving much-scarcer arable to grow crops directly for people…
Three times a day, through our meal choices, we have an opportunity to change our lives and thereby help change the world.
It’s as simple as buying free-range eggs, pasture-raised beef and chicken, and looking for milk that has come from cows that have been able to graze… We’ll start to support family farms, will help to support a better environment, and will help to feed the world in a more humane and efficient way.”
The Meat Racket
Most all conventional meat and poultry (beef, pork, chicken, turkey, etc.) is raised in CAFOs. It’s a corporate-controlled system characterized by large-scale, centralized, low profit-margin production, processing, and distribution systems.
This is the cheapest way to raise meat, for the largest profits. But the ultimate price is high, as there’s a complete disregard for human health, the environment, and ethical treatment of animals and plant workers alike.
A series of recent articles, listed on NewAmerica.org,5 delve into the various aspects of the monopoly that is America’s meat market. In one, titled “The Meat Racket,” Christopher Leonard reveals how the US meat industry has been seized by a mere handful of companies, and how this tightly controlled monopoly drives small livestock farmers out of business.
Other articles detail the drugs used in CAFO farming, and the risks this drug based farming poses to human health. One side effect is the creation of antibiotic-resistant superbugs, which I’ve addressed on numerous occasions.
Martha Rosenberg also recently highlighted a USDA Inspector General Report,6 which revealed that beef sold to the public have been found to be contaminated with a staggering 211 different drug residues, as well as heavy metals.7, 8
Hazardous growth-promoting drugs like Zilmax and Ractopamine are also routinely used in American CAFOs, and as much as 20 percent of the drug administered may remain in the meat you buy. Their use is disturbing when you consider that side effects in cattle include brain lesions, lameness, heart failure, and sudden death. Salon Magazine also recently ran an article9on the subject of factory farming, penned by Lindsay Abrams, in which she discusses journalist Ted Genoways’ new book, The Chain—an expose of the American pork industry. She writes in part:
“What journalist Christopher Leonard recently did for Tyson and the chicken industry, Genoways… does for pork, recounting the history of Hormel Foods… as it evolved from humble beginnings to an industrial giant with a nearly myopic focus on expansion and acceleration, regardless of the costs.
And boy, are there costs… a mysterious neurological disorder linked to a machine that has workers breathing in a fine mist of pork brains… abuse suffered by the animals on whom workers’ frustrations are instead taken out; and a decline in food safety that, unbelievably, is set to become the new industry standard.”
Genoways book reveals how societal issues “fan out in all directions,” as he puts it, from the way our pork is produced. Sure, there are many disturbing safety issues, but it doesn’t end there. According to Genoways, another hidden issue is that many of the health hazards that affect plant workers affect already exploited immigrant workers to a disproportionate degree.
Agricultural Subsidies Fleece American Taxpayers to Keep Meat Monopoly Going
As detailed in a previous article by Food Revolution,10 CAFOs and the products they produce are largely sustained by American taxpayers. In essence, we’re being shrewdly fleeced to keep this flawed and unhealthy system going. Taxpayer-subsidized grain prices, for example, save CAFOs billions of dollars each year. Grass-fed cattle operations, on the other hand, receive no benefit at all from such agricultural subsidies, and hence the price of grass-fed beef is markedly higher. But that’s not the end of that story either. As the article explains:
“Federal policies also give CAFOs billions of dollars to address their pollution problems, which arise because they confine so many animals, often tens of thousands, in a small area. Small farmers raising cattle on pasture do not have this problem in the first place.
If feedlots and other CAFOs were required to pay the price of handling the animal waste in an environmentally health manner, if they were made to pay to prevent or to clean up the pollution they create, they wouldn’t be dominating the US meat industry the way they are today. But instead we have had farm policies that require the taxpayers to foot the bill. Such policies have made feedlots and other CAFOs feasible…” [Emphasis mine]
Why Is Most Grass-Fed Beef Sold in the US Imported?
Did you know that most of the grass-fed beef sold in the US is actually imported from Australia and New Zealand?11 One estimate, which is based off of the USDA’s import/export data,12,13,14 suggests as much as 85 percent of grass-fed beef sold in the US may be imported, although it’s virtually impossible to ascertain a definite number. Some grass-fed beef is also sourced from countries like Mexico, Nicaragua, Brazil, and Uruguay.15
To many, that will probably come as a big surprise. According to National Journal,16 the restaurant franchise Chipotle is one of the latest companies to turn to Australian ranchers to meet demand for grass-fed beef, as American suppliers are falling short, and/or cannot compete with Australia’s lower prices. In a Huffington Post op-ed published earlier this summer, Chipotle founder Steve Ells said:17
“Over the years, we have had great success serving the premium beef we call Responsibly Raised… Nevertheless, sometimes the existing supply of the premium meats we serve is unable to meet our growing demand… Rather than serve conventionally raised steak, we recently began sourcing some steak from ranches in Southern Australia, which is among the very best places in the world for raising beef cattle entirely on grass.
The meat produced by these ranchers is ‘grass-fed’ in the truest sense of the term: The cattle spend their entire lives grazing on pastures or rangelands, eating only grass or forages… In the short-run, the grass-fed beef purchased from Australia will continue to supplement the premium Responsibly Raised beef we have long purchased from across the U.S. But over time, we hope that our demand for grass-fed beef will help pave the way for more American ranchers to adopt a grass-fed program, and in doing so turn grass-fed beef from a niche to a mainstream product.”
Some of the reasons driving the import of grass-fed beef include the fact that Australia and New Zealand have a climate that permits grazing year-round. You also need a lot of land to allow herds to graze, and grasslands are plentiful Down Under. In fact, 70 percent of all Australian cattle are pasture-raised and finished, and many of the grass-fed cattle operations are massive. Volume makes it cheaper, so Australians can sell their meat for less than American grass-fed cattle ranchers can.18
The question is, is it really “impossible” for American ranchers to produce enough grass-fed beef? Probably not. Neither climate nor lack of grasslands is a factor in certain states. However, there is one factor that severely hobbles American cattle ranchers, and that is slaughterhouse shortage…
USDA’s Stranglehold on American Cattle Ranchers
All farmers must use USDA-approved slaughterhouses, and laws place special restrictions on grass-fed slaughtering. If a grass-fed rancher doesn’t have access to a slaughterhouse, he cannot stay in business. This is yet another shrewd if not perverse strategy that effectively maintains the status quo of CAFOs. Large slaughterhouses can also refuse smaller jobs, as they—just like CAFOs—operate on economy of scale. As explained by The Carnivore’s Dilemma:19
“At harvest time, small family farmers are forced to transport their animals to the nearest legal ‘processing plant’ that will accept their animals. These plants often do not conform to the high standards farmers have for their animals’ welfare, but the farmers have no choice. Humane certification requires humane slaughter, which only some slaughterhouses do. From an animal welfare standpoint, how animals die is as important as how they live. So unless the farmer is lucky enough to have access to an outstanding small slaughterhouse with transparent policies, they can’t get the certification, even if they did the right thing every day of the animals’ lives.”
Basically, there may be plenty of demand for grass-fed beef, and plenty of supply, but USDA rules and regulations prevent the American-bred supply from ever reaching the customer… Across the US, smaller slaughterhouses catering to grass-fed ranchers have been closing up shop, pushed out by larger processors, adding to the shortage of processing facilities to choose from. A recent article in the Nutrition Business Journal20 addresses the question of: why are there so few meat processors in the US?
The answer is complex. Part of the problem is that once refrigeration came into play in the 1950s, slaughterhouses started moving from the downtown areas of bigger cities to more rural areas, from where the meat was then distributed to consumers. Again, economy of scale made this the less expensive option, once meats could safely be chilled and boxed. And, since rural slaughterhouses were no longer constrained by limited amounts of space, they grew increasingly larger. Eventually, they began to consolidate into fewer companies.
Today, the market is consolidated in the extreme. Just FOUR companies, Cargill, Tyson Foods, JBS, and National Beef Packaging Co, control more than 80 percent of all cattle slaughtered in the US. As noted in the cited article:21 “The Big Four’s grip on the market make everything—from slaughter to distribution to face-time with stretched-too-thin USDA inspectors—more problematic for small operations.”
Small processing facilities are more costly to run across the board, compared to large-scale slaughterhouses. They cut everything by hand, which takes longer, and requires workers with a high degree of specialized skill. The seasonality of grass-fed beef is another hurdle. Grass-fed beef is typically slaughtered in the fall, after a full summer of grazing, whereas CAFO beef doesn’t follow that same seasonal pattern. For a slaughterhouse to stay in business, it needs business year-round.
Small slaughterhouses also struggle to meet USDA’s strict, and costly, regulations—many of which are geared toward mechanized plants and not a small-scale hands-on butchery. Adding to the list of complications are restrictive zoning and eco-impact regulations. Again, change is needed on many fronts, but I am hopeful that change will be forced to occur once public demand becomes too overwhelming to ignore.
Greenwashing Meat Industry Standards
A Global Roundtable on Sustainable Beef (GRSB) recently presented new “sustainability principles and criteria” for beef production. The proposal has been vehemently rejected by nearly two dozen consumer, animal welfare, worker, public health, and environmental groups. The initiative has the potential to shape the definition of sustainable beef production around the world. As reported by Common Dreams:22
“In a letter23 to the Roundtable’s Executive Committee, 23 groups…criticized the principles and criteria, stating: ‘We—and no doubt many other organizations like us—must overwhelmingly reject the Principles and Criteria for Global Sustainable Beef. Unless the GRSB addresses the fundamental flaws outlined in our letter, the document will represent nothing more than an industry-led attempt to greenwash conventional beef production at a time when real, measurable, and verifiable change is so desperately needed.’”
For starters, the GRSB fails to address the overuse of antibiotics in farming. Nor does it adequately address workers’ rights, animal welfare, environmental sustainability, waste management systems, or the establishment of a solid verification system. The latter leaves the door wide open for greenwashing beef products that are anything but sustainable. According to Andrew Gunther, Program Director at Animal Welfare Approved:
“We urgently need to change the way we farm and feed ourselves, yet the GRSB’s Principles and Criteria for Global Sustainable Beef promises nothing more than ‘business as usual’ beef. The collective failure of GRSB members to acknowledge—let alone address—some of the fundamental faults of modern intensive beef production reveals a staggering lack of accountability and foresight at the very heart of the beef industry, particularly when we know public trust in beef is already at an all-time low.”
Rethink Your Shopping Habits to Protect Your Family’s Health
Part of the problem is that the current model is focused on growth; not steady profit, and certainly not sustainability. The movement toward sustainable food and ethical meat is very important, both in terms of human health and animal welfare. Organic, grass-fed and finished meat that is humanely raised and butchered is really about the only type of meat that is healthy to eat. Many grocery chains are now responding to customer demand, and will provide at least a small assortment of grass-fed meats.
If your local grocer still doesn’t carry any, go ahead and ask the purchasing manager to consider adding it.