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A Critique
GIven thIs books tItle, it may surprise some people that I fnd
quite a lot wrong with the ways most cattle in the United States
today are raised and turned into meat. Several of these con-
cerns were detailed in the pages in my previous book, Righteous
Porkchop, and I will not restate all of them here. Additionally, a
veritable food of books and articles has been devoted to describ-
ing the dark sides of cattle ranching and beef. As Ive already
made clear, I fnd a lot of whats been written to range from the
poorly informed to the fat-out absurd. But some of the criticisms
have validity, and I want to briefy take note of those now.
Stated succinctly, current problems fall into the following
categories: the way cattle are managed on the land; substances
they are fed; hormones and other drugs used to stimulate growth;
Defendi ng Beef
polluting practices; wasted resources; long-distance transport of
live animals; and slaughter practices. Said another way, these
are problems of land management, wasted resources, pollution,
animal welfare, and food safety.
Before becoming directly involved with cattle husbandry,
working as an environmental lawyer, I had some distance from
these concerns, much as I would in dealing with the pollution of
any sector. While, admittedly, I viewed them more objectively,
I also had a much shallower depth of understanding. Now, as a
member of the community of people who raise cattle and sell beef,
I understand the issues far better and, at the same time, feel more
urgency about getting them addressed. Each day that problematic
practices continue it gives a black eye to everyone who raises
cattle or is involved in the production, sale, or preparation of beef.
Every self-help program under the sun says that the frst
step to correcting your shortcomings is self-examination and
acknowledgment. I regularly review several meat industry peri-
odicals and, in nearly every edition, I am struck by the current
mode of dealing with consumer concerns, which is never about
acknowledgment and always about denial. For every issue that
surfaces, it seems that rather than fairly assessing it then rallying
the industry to fx it, again and again the meat industry falls back
into a circle-the-wagons defensive posture. This has been true for
beta-agonists, hormones, antibiotics, and many more concerns.
Across the board, theres tone deafness. The industry responds to
concerns by saying critics simply do not understand agriculture,
or dont care about feeding the world, or need to be educated,
and it demonstrates a near-total unwillingness to change or adapt.
Earlier, I cited a series of fgures showing that for the past three
decades the amount of beef Americans have been eating has been
tumbling, a trend that continues to this day. In my view, this indus-
try tone deafness is partially to blame. Survey after survey shows
that Americans are becoming less accepting of chemical additives
in their food (thats why, for decades, the organic sector has been
the fastest-growing segment of the food industry). Yet mainstream
cattle nearly across the board continue to be raised with injected
What' s the Matter wI th Beef?
hormones, and with beta-agonists and antibiotics added to their
feed. At the same time, some of the meat industrys own research
shows that people who are reducing their consumption are doing
so based on quality concerns. A recent survey in Meat & Poultry
showed that people who are cutting back on red meat were also
seeking red meat of a higher quality (whatever that means):
Sixteen percent of Americans who say they are consuming less
red meat are now consuming higher-quality red meat. This
should be telling the industry that it if wants to remain proftable,
it needs to address these concerns. Yet the main initiatives we see
from the beef industry continue to be about producing more meat
for less cost, which surely lowers quality rather than raising it.
A specifc example illustrative of the way the cattle and beef
industry responds to problems is the recent experience with
beta-agonist drugs, including Zilmax. Manufactured by Merck,
Zilmax is in of a class of drugs, beta-agonists, that function like
steroids. They cause animals to bulk up quickly by converting
feed to muscle production rather than fat. First introduced to the
market in 2007, the drug was quickly widely adopted by feedlots,
and by 2012 it was estimated that 70 to 80 percent of the U.S.
cattle herd was being fed Zilmax (or a comparable drug called
Optafexx), generating $159 million in sales for Merck that year.
Feedlots favor the drug because the animal gains more meat-pro-
ducing muscle tissue on less feed.
However, reports of cattle lameness soon surfaced. Tyson
Foods began to refuse cattle that had been fed Zilmax after it
found that some cattle fed the drug were arriving at its slaugh-
terhouses having difculty walking. A Reuters investigation found
that some lame cattle fed Zilmax were missing hooves. Citing ani-
mal welfare concerns, and rejection by Asian markets, Cargill also
announced that it would no longer purchase animals fed Zilmax.
Astonishingly, none of this prompted the FDA to withdraw its
approval of the drug (or do anything at all). But rejection by the
big meat players forced Merck, in September 2013, to voluntarily
suspended sales of Zilmax in the United States and Canada. Note,
though, that Merck has indicated that it does not believe there
Defendi ng Beef
is any real problem with the drug and intends to compile more
research to prove that the drug is actually safe, so we have
certainly not seen the last of it.
This was followed in 2014 by the release of research by a
veterinary epidemiologist at Texas Tech University fnding that the
incidence of death among cattle administered beta-agonists was
75 to 90 percent greater than cattle not administered the drugs.
World-famous animal welfare expert Temple Grandin has written
and spoken publicly numerous times about the use of beta-ago-
nists in cattle feed and says she believes cattle fed the drugs are
sufering. In one report Grandin wrote: These observations
indicate that there are severe welfare problems in some animals
fed beta-agonists.4 In an interview with National Public Radio,
she stated she believed that as many as one of every fve cattle fed
beta-agonists develop foot problems. Grandin seemed to implore
the beef industry to fx the situation when she said: Ive worked
all my career to improve how animals are handled, and these
animals are just sufering. It has to stop!5 China, Russia, and the
European Union have already banned the use of beta-agonists in
animal feed.
Whats been most telling to me is that, despite this food of
negative information, and even trade repercussions, beta-agonists
are still used nearly universally at feedlots. Shortly after Mercks
withdrawal of Zilmax, BEEF Magazine ran a cover story about an
agricultural college researcher whose work purports to show that,
despite what you may have heard to the contrary, beta-agonists
are perfectly safe. Sigh. Tone deafness.
Heres another example: the continual feeding of antibiotics.
While the practice is signifcantly more prevalent at the confne-
ment operations of swine and poultry operations, cattle feedlots
feed a lot of antibiotics. They do this both to stimulate growth
and to stave of diseases. The Union of Concerned Scientists
has estimated that cattle feedlots add about 3.7 million pounds
of antibiotics to feed every year, with up to 55 percent of cattle
being given subtherapeutic antibiotic doses.6 In recent decades,
evidence has piled up about the dangers of antibiotics overuse with
What' s the Matter wI th Beef?
livestock. Due to public health risks, the U.S. Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention, World Health Organization, American
Medical Association, and American Public Health Association have
all taken positions against the practice of continually feeding farm
animals antibiotics. Before his death, Senator Edward Kennedy
became one of the lead sponsors of the U.S. Senates version of the
legislation. Nonetheless, year after year, the meat industry (includ-
ing the beef industry) lobbies hard to defeat it; to this day, no law
on the subject has passed in the United States. The meat industry
continues to claim, too, that where the feeding of antibiotics has
been banned, overall use of antibiotics has risen due to increased
therapeutic use. This claim has been repeatedly disproven by
credible sources, including the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm
Animal Production. The facts are very clear: Banning subtherapeu-
tic antibiotics feeding signifcantly lowers overall usage after the
initial year. Despite more than a decade of efort by public health
groups and environmental groups, it remains entirely legal in the
United States to add low doses of antibiotics to the daily feed and
water of cattle, other livestock, and poultry.
Contrast these examples with the way the feeding of antibiotics
was handled in Sweden. In the early 1980s, Swedish consumers
began to express concern about the overuse of antibiotics in
livestock farming. Scientifc evidence was starting to emerge that
feeding antibiotics to livestock was contributing to the rise of
antibiotic-resistant diseases. The Swedish meat industry foresaw a
crisis of confdence among its consuming public. It wanted to get
ahead of the issue and to keep a level playing feld for everyone
raising livestock and poultry. The meat industry itself lobbied the
legislature for a law forbidding the continuous feeding of anti-
biotics to animals raised for food. With the support of the meat
industry, the law passed in 1986, making Sweden the frst country
in Europe to pass such a law. By 2006, a similar law went into
efect for the entire European Union.
If you are part of the livestock or meat industry you have two
choices: You can acknowledge legitimate issues and work to fx
them, or you can engage in blanket denials. My hope, as part of
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the cattle and beef industry, is that the legitimate concerns will be
recognized and solutions will be adopted by the industry itself.
There is no better way to silence the critics.
Here are the things I think need work:
1. Better grazing management. Too much grazing is occurring without
good planning and oversight. Well-managed grazing is envi-
ronmentally essential; poorly managed grazing is damaging.
Every farmer and rancher needs to get on board.
2. Stop killing primary predators. Predators are essential to ecosys-
tems.7 Ranchers need well-functioning ecosystems even more
than the rest of society. We must learn to deter predation and
co-exist with these essential creatures.
3. Stop feeding drugs and other junk. A shocking list of drugs, including
antibiotics and beta-agonists, and industrial by-products of
all kinds are regularly fed to cattle, mostly at feedlots. This
creates unhealthy animals, results in foods that may be unsafe
for humans, and contaminates the waste stream. Nothing
should be fed to cattle other than pure feeds, comparable to
what theyd eat in nature. Although I do not believe grains are
inherently bad for cattle, I do believe they should be limited
because feeding them to cattle is a poor use of resources and
leads to additional water and atmospheric pollution. All types
and classes of cattle should be foraging to the greatest extent
4. Stop using hormones. No growth hormones should be used on
dairy or beef cattle, period. As with beta-agonists, it creates
health and welfare concerns for cattle and leads to food that
may be unsafe for humans. It also limits the markets for U.S.
beef. The European Union banned the practice in 1981. All
use of growth hormones should immediately stop.
5. Stop putting calves in feedlots. I believe the optimal way to raise
cattle is on grass for their entire lives. To the extent that I fnd
What' s the Matter wI th Beef?
feedlots acceptable, I do not fnd them acceptable for young
cattle. Health and welfare problems are magnifed for young
cattle.8 Cattle should not go into a feedlot until they are at
least a year old, preferable 18 months.
6. Stop slaughtering young cattle. The routine slaughtering of young
cattle (less than two years of age) is a relatively new practice
in the United States. It has been abetted by the use of beta-ag-
onists, hormones, and high-concentrate feeds, all of which are
practices that should be stopped (or, in the case of feeding con-
centrates, minimized). Cattle should be raised to full maturity
before going to slaughter (a minimum of two years of age).
This is a better use of resources and ensures better meat.
7. Stop long-distance transport. Cattle do not lie down in truck trans-
port. When they do, they are trampled to death. This is why
it is essential that cattle be shipped only moderate distances.
According to Animal Welfare Approved standards, cattle
transport should never exceed eight hours.9 Shipping cattle
long distances where they must stand longer is inhumane.
8. Improve slaughter practices. Cattle should be humanely handled at
slaughter, period. It is not only the right thing to do, it has a
strong correlation to meat quality and safety. The best way to
ensure appropriate, low-stress handling is for the people who
own the animals, and are familiar to them, to do it themselves.
This goes a long way toward ensuring the animals remain
calm. Additionally, video cameras should be installed at all
slaughterhouses to ensure humane handling of all animals at
all times.
Reading this list in isolation, you might conclude that I am a
beef detractor. Instead, I consider myself a concerned member of
the cattle industry. It is my hope that everyone who reads this list
and who is involved with the raising, transporting, or slaughter of
cattle will instead look at this list as a call to action. If we wish to
continue to exist, we can and should do better.

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