Friday, January 30, 2009

Eating Beef Ethically

I've struggled for years with the decision of whether or not to eat meat. I first started questioning this when I lived in England about 15 years ago, which was when the BSE scandal broke in the news. I had no idea what cows were fed or what they were supposed to eat or what offal was. I decided, without much information, that maybe it was a good idea to eat less meat in general and eat no red meat.

Since then I really haven't eaten much meat, but I also have never quite managed to give it up. I don't think there is anything ethically wrong with eating meat, after all, we've evolved to eat it at least once in a while. But I wasn't comfortable with the idea of animals crammed into small cages or pens, living crappy lives and then being killed.

As the years went by, I couldn't come to a decision I could live with, so it just seemed easier to eat less and less meat.

Then I read Michael Pollan's book The Omnivore's Dilemma. This book follows the creation of four meals from their source to their ultimate destination, his dinner plate.

The first meal chronicled is a McDonald's Big Mac, Soda and Fries, which obviously contains cheap beef, butchered from cows raised in feedlots. The sad story of these cows is worse than I could have imagined.

There is the obvious fact that they are crammed into tiny lots, which is far different from the grazing, roaming lifestyle for which they have evolved.

Then there is the environmental impact. A tremendous amount of chemicals and fossil fuels are used in creating their feed; not a very good ROI for the amount of beef produced. And on the other end is their waste. There is so much of it in such a small space and it contains so many contaminants that it can't be used as fertilizer; it seems that it becomes almost like toxic waste.

You could talk yourself out of caring about those two things, I suppose, because they don't have a direct impact on you. But what they eat... now that does, because ultimately it goes into my body. So what do they eat? Well, it's not grass, that's for sure

  1. Type two corn - Why? "Cows fed corn, a compact source of caloric energy, get fat quickly .. Yet this corn-fed meat is demonstrably less healthy for us, since it contains more saturated fat and less omega-3 fatty acids than the meat of animals fed grass."1

  2. Antibiotics Rumensin and Tylosin - for two reasons. First, the close quarters in which the cows live causes higher rates of disease. Second, corn raises the acid level in a cows stomach, causing a painful disease called acidosis.

  3. Liquid vitamins (because the corn has no nutrients) and synthetic estrogen (to grow faster)

  4. Alfalfa hay and silage (for roughage)

  5. Liquefied fat - Anything from Beef tallow, feather meal and chicken litter, to chicken, fish and pig meal. Obviously cattle have evolved to be herbivores rather than carnivores, so this is a strange distortion of the food chain. BSE is a good example of what can happen when rendered animals are fed to each other.

  6. Protein supplement - molasses and urea. "Urea is a form of synthetic nitrogen made from natural gas, similar to fertilizer."1 Yum!

Suffice it to say, I was pretty grossed out after reading this book. I definitely do not want that stuff going into my body. I vowed from that time to never eat feedlot beef again, which so far I've stuck to for about a year.

But after reading this book, I was convinced that I could feel comfortable eating beef from cattle that are grow completely open range and fed nothing but grass. In Colorado this actually isn't so hard. There is a growing number of ranches and farms that sell 100% grass fed beef, commonly referred to as pastured beef. Note that grass fed beef is not the same as 100% grass fed beef, as even feedlot cattle live free range for the first few months of their life.

We've been ordering beef from a ranch out in eastern Colorado, Sun Prairie Beef. They deliver to the Denver area twice a year, at about seven designated pick-up sites. We get their smallest quantity: a 25 pound variety pack for $175. Because we only eat beef about once a week, this lasts us for six months until the next delivery.

Many people complain that pastured beef is dry and tough because it has much lower fat content. I'll say that since I haven't been eating beef prior to now, I don't have any basis for comparison, but we definitely like what we've been cooking. We do tend to only cook everything to medium rare - a common recommendation for pastured beef. I just don't worry about things like E-Coli because I don't see how a cow out on the range could pick it up.

There is a great website with lots of information about eating grass fed beef and other sustainable, all natural foods. It includes lists of sources by state for all over the US.

1 Pollan, Michael. The Omnivore's Dilemma: a natural history of four meals (New York: Penguin Group, 2006).

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