You may already know that grain is not a natural food for cows. Back when I became the vegetarian that I was for several years, I knew that grain-feeding beef was bad practice in terms of what it meant for humans, in that feeding grain to cows and then to people is a very inefficient way to deliver protein. The fifteen pounds of grain that it takes to manufacture a pound of beef protein could, instead, go directly to feed many more people than can be fed with a pound of beef.
I didn't realize that the cows suffer from a grain diet. According to Jo Robinson in Mother Earth News,
Replace the grass with grain and the rumen [the specialized organ that allows fibrous grasses to be digested] becomes too acidic. After several months, the condition can progress to “acute acidosis.” Cattle with acute acidosis develop growths and abscesses on their livers, stop eating, sicken and even die.
To keep the calves alive and gaining weight, they must be given a steady diet of antibiotics.
Even with these countermeasures, many calves develop “subacute acidosis,” a more aggressive form of acid indigestion. A calf with subacute acidosis will hang its head, drool, kick at its belly and eat dirt. Alarmingly, this is regarded as “natural” in the feedlot. According to an article in the trade magazine, Feedlot: “Every animal in the feedlot will experience subacute acidosis at least once during the feeding period. … This is an important natural function in adapting to high-grain finishing rations.” When calves are finished on high-grain diets, a certain amount of suffering is simply taken for granted.
From Science News we learn that
Grains can accumulate in an animal's intestines because they lack starch-digesting enzymes. Thus, a high-grain diet can promote an overgrowth of Clostridium perfringens, a bacterium associated with sudden death in feedlot cattle, Russell's article suggests.
Humans, too, are now paying the price of this harmful cattle diet:
Finally, grain-based diets can promote Escherichia coli (E. coli) within the digestive tract of cattle, and these E. coli are more likely to survive acid shocks that mimic the human gastric stomach. This discovery, first reported by Russell and colleagues in 1998 (Science, 11 September), has now been confirmed. Other USDA scientists have likewise shown that cattle switched from grain-based diets to hay were less likely to shed harmful E. coli 0157:H7 in feces.
Some scientists believe that this particularly vicious form of e. coli actually evolved in the digestive tract of grain-fed cattle as bacteria adapted to the more highly acidic environment. Where once the e. coli would not have survived the acidity of the human stomach, having resided in a low-acid environment, bacteria that have adapted to the high acidity of the grain-fed stomach are no longer killed by human stomach acid.
Most of us know that the rules about feeding CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) animals have been changed in recent years because of mad cow disease, or BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy). It's a relief to know that chicken manure can no longer be fed to cows, and that cows are no longer unwittingly being turned into cannibals by eating rendered and ground-up cattle. But you might be surprised to discover what is being fed to feedlot cattle.
Feed is 60% of the costs of running a CAFO, so operators are always looking for cheaper ways to feed the animals. One way to do that is to feed them "byproduct feedstuffs." That can be just about anything.
In New York state, chewing gum has been used as a cheap feed supplement. The novel practice was recommended in a 1996 study in the Journal of Animal Science. The study concluded that stale chewing gum — still in its aluminum wrappers! — can “safely replace at least 30 percent of [cattle] growing or finishing diets without impairing feedlot performance or carcass quality.” In other parts of the country, cattle are being finished on stale pizza dough and candy bars, even heat-treated garbage. Feedlot operators drive to the manufacturing plants or municipal landfills and load up their trucks with this yummy fare, or they buy the used goods from middlemen called “jobbers” who offer a more varied buffet.
According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, one "farmer" feeds his cattle 100% junk food, "including french fries, tater tots, and potato peels." Another uses 17% stale candy bars and 3% stale "party mix." Why this increased use of junk? One reason is the production of ethanol, which has resulted in higher corn prices.
No studies have as yet been done on the nutritional quality of beef fed diets like this, but the outcome can't be good. Ruminants are meant to eat grasses; it's as simple as that. We do know that grass-fed beef is superior nutritionally to grain-fed beef, as shown by many studies. It's high in conjugated linoleic acid, (a cancer fighter, among other things) and high in omega-3 fatty acids. It also has high levels of vitamins B6 and B12, which helps reduce homocysteine levels. You can access a collection of good information on the health benefits of grass-fed beef here.
The USDA, needless to say, doesn't require any labeling to indicate what the animal has been fed. I myself would now be very suspicious of any supermarket beef, even if it says "grain-fed" (which most people continue to think is a good thing, a practice that ensures marbled and tender beef). Who knows what that cow ate in life?
I haven't even talked about the antibiotics and growth hormones in supermarket beef, and I won't get into it here. Suffice it to say that these are in virtually all supermarket meat, and that European countries are enduring WTO-imposed sanctions for their refusal to accept hormone-containing meat for their markets. I urge you to read the entire Mother Earth News article "What's in Your Beef?" and find out for yourself why your best bet is to avoid supermarket beef. The article includes some suggestions for finding beef that is raised truly naturally on grass and hay.
If you can afford it, you might want to join forces with another family (or more) and buy freezer beef from a farmer who pastures his cattle rather than grain-feeding.
The USDA is not protecting our food supply. This, after all, is the government agency that went to court to prevent voluntary BSE testing on the part of a beef producer, and which banned the marketing of BSE test kits! As with most government agencies today, the USDA is all about protecting the profits of big business. So let the buyer beware: do your homework and find out where you can buy meat that is safe, natural, and good for you.
[cross-posted to View from the Loft]