What’s the Beef With BEEF?

Examples discussed in the column over the past years include the fact that we are the only animal that drinks the milk of a different animal and drinks milk after we’ve been weaned. This has resulted in numerous health issues that may be hard to directly link to the consumption of milk, but nonetheless are health condition that improve with the avoidance of dairy products.

We are the only animal that artificially extends daylight hours, through the use of electricity and light bulbs, which has a clear effect upon the way our bodies use sugar and store fat. To our body, it is always August (the time of the longest exposure to sunlight) and our bodies are programmed to crave carbohydrates and store fat to prepare for the coming “winter” with less food available and colder temperatures to endure. The spread of affordable electricity coincides with the spread of diabetes, heart disease and obesity in this country.

The topic for this column has to do with a different way that we alter nature’s plan… and the short-term and long-term negative effects of not respecting “the way things were meant to be.”

A ruminant is an animal that is designed to eat certain kinds of foods and digest those foods in a certain way. Ruminants, examples of which are cows and sheep, eat grass. Eat may not be the proper term… they actually eat it, then eat it again, and still again, in a very specific manner that allows for the proper digestion and the ability to create protein from a food source that has very little protein to begin with. Ruminants have stomachs that are vastly different from ours… in fact some people interpret a cow to have 4 stomachs (which technically is not the case, each chamber has a specific name and function).

A cow has a particular relationship with the grass that it eats and the environment that it lives in… a relationship that works perfectly for the animal, the grass, and the ecosystem around them. By grazing a pasture, the cow maintains the integrity of the field by weeding out saplings before they are able to grow into trees that would disrupt the grassland, by planting grass seeds through the digging of their hooves and by fertilizing the grasses as it goes along. The grass provides the perfect food for the cow to grow and reproduce.

If this is the way that nature intended for a particular animal and the environment to interact, in perfect harmony, then why has the cattle industry grown in a way that completely disrupts this process and relationship? That is the question of the day… and the answer is easy… it always comes down to money! But the less obvious concern is the negative ramifications to our health and the health of the world around us as a result of interference with the delicate balance of a complex system.

So… I ask you… what is the true cost of beef?

The fact is that a cow in nature, left to its own devices, would only eat grass. The only grains that it would consume would be very small amounts of grass seeds. But, the beef that we eat is known as “corn-fed” beef, unless you are buying pasture-fed beef, which is more expensive and less available (and don’t be fooled into thinking that “organic” beef is not corn-fed, because it very well might be… just organic corn).

One reason that the beef industry has resorted to using corn as the mainstay in the cattle’s diet is because it is the cheapest, most plentiful, most compact and most portable option available. It allows for the feeding of the highest number of animals on the smallest plot of land.

But maybe the bigger reason for corn feeding is the corns’ ability (along with protein supplements and hormones) to get the cattle to slaughter weight in the shortest amount of time. You see… time is of the essence when you are talking about delivering a commodity that is in big demand. In the early 1900s a typical steer would take 4 to 5 years to get to an acceptable size and weight for “harvesting.” In the 1950s, the time frame was more like 2 to 3 years.

Today, the high-tech business of cattle growing turns a calf into a 1250-pound steer, ready for the butcher, in only 14 to 16 months. Boy… talk about fast food!

This all came about because of the widespread use of petrochemical fertilizers and the surplus of corn that resulted after World War II. Believe it or not, because of corn surpluses and federal subsidies, the price of corn is actually 50 cents per bushel less than the cost of growing it! What a bargain! Did you know that it takes 1.2 gallons of oil to make the chemicals used as fertilizers to produce each bushel of corn?

The problem, though, is that the cow was not designed to eat and digest grains like corn. Corn-fed cattle certainly do grow fatter faster, but the negative consequences to the health of the cow are numerous and far-reaching… requiring all sorts of “remedies” that further negatively affect the health of those who end up eating the cow… namely… US!

Here is the way it works… the corn causes a marked change in the pH of the gut of the cow… it makes it much more acidic. This causes a significant change in the kind of bacteria that lives in the gut of the cow and in the function of the cow’s immune system. This, in turn, creates the need for the constant use of antibiotics in the cattle-feed. The antibiotics further degrade the proper bacterial balance inside the cow and work to create resistant bacteria that like to live in an acidic environment.

In normal circumstances, when eating grass, the gut pH of a cow is practically neutral… and the bacteria that live there and play a vital role with digestion thrive in that environment. Those bacteria would have a hard time living in an acidic environment… the stomach, say, of a different animal that may be more acidic… like that of a human. But these new bugs that are created and strengthened through the above-described process actually prefer the acidic environment of parts of the human gastro-intestinal tract and can wreck havoc on our health. An example would be the recently described E.Coli 0157 strain, which can be responsible for killing a human with a minimal exposure.

The “feedlot life” of the commercial cattle is much like the life of a major European city of the 1400s… tremendously crowded conditions, constant new arrivals from all over the country, extremely poor sanitation (cattle literally wade a foot deep in their waste)… and the predictable result of unbelievably poor health.

Cattle are also almost universally given estrogen implants to help increase weight and fat in quick fashion. The incentive for the producer is hard to ignore. The implants cost about $1.50 each and the hormones are responsible for a 40 to 50 pound increase at time of slaughter, which translates into at least $25 more dollars for the steer… sometimes that is the only margin that the producers actually make.

Of course, there are the trace amounts of the hormones that show up in the finished product (steaks, burgers, etc) to be concerned about… but what about those of us who avoid the beef? Increased synthetic growth hormones have shown up in feedlot waste, which get into the ground water. Scientists have started to discover fish showing abnormal sex characteristics in waters that are downstream from feedlots.

Is it just a coincidence that conditions like breast cancer, falling sperm counts and premature maturation in girls are more common since these cattle raising practices have been in use?

The entire story above aside, the most insidious result of modern cattle producing practices is that the quality of fats in the cow changes markedly, and that’s why eating beef is unhealthy. Madison Avenue has so successfully marketed us about beef that we actually think that “corn-fed” beef is preferred. And, I guess, from a certain viewpoint, it is… feeding cattle corn certainly does help develop “well-marbled” flesh, which the UDSA grading system actually rewards.

But, the fats are the saturated fats, Omega-6, that promote inflammation and ill-health… things like cancer and heart disease. In actuality, the negative health issues associated with eating beef may really be from eating corn-fed beef. Cattle that eat the way nature intended produce the proper ratio of Omega 3 to Omega 6 fats that help to prevent ill health instead of promote it.

In essence, we have converted the cow from an efficient, solar-powered protein-producing machine into another machine that requires fossil fuels to run… just what we need in today’s world!

So… what is the true cost of beef? Let’s figure it out… 25 pounds of corn a day… that’s 284 gallons of oil per steer… add the cost of the antibiotics used… and the considerably higher cost of the results of the antibiotic use including food poisoning from rogue bacteria… the cost of cancer and heart disease treatments… sounds a little more expensive than the $1.29/pound special at the local super market!

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