The Beef on Beef

Dairy and beef cattle, if not raised for the organic market, are routinely given natural hormones and synthetic growth promoters (hormone-like chemicals) to fatten them up quickly so they can reach slaughter weight faster.

Some studies of hormones in food have pointed to increased risks of reproductive system cancers in women and men. The antibiotics given to cattle are often the same ones prescribed for humans; the more they’re used the more they add to the problem of antibiotic-resistant bacteria throughout the world.

European Union countries and some others have banned meat imported from the U.S. for this reason, citing studies that have linked these substances to cancer. But in the U.S., you can still buy hormone-laced meat... and you probably will, if you buy conventionally raised beef—hormones and growth promoters are still given to most of the cows raised for conventional markets. The FDA has approved six growth hormones for use in beef cattle. Dairy cows are also given recombinant bovine growth hormone, or rBGH, a genetically engineered variant of their natural growth hormone, to increase milk production by about ten percent.

Some feeding practices for cattle were revised since the mad cow scare not too long ago; specifically, the FDA banned feed containing cattle brain and spinal tissue in 1997 (these were the substances linked to mad cow disease). Commercially raised cattle, however, can still be given feed that contains other somewhat questionable materials, including products like gelatin, grease and tallow rendered from cattle and other species, rendered horse and pork protein, and poultry waste and byproducts. None of this is particularly appetizing, but it’s the last category that is especially problematic because poultry manure can contain arsenic.

Cattle are also routinely given antibiotics to offset problems created by their diets. Why do they need antibiotics? They’re ruminants; their digestive system includes a huge fermentation tank—the rumen—that converts the grass they would eat if allowed to graze naturally into protein and fats. They’re happy eating grass; their digestive systems work as they should. However, a grass-based diet doesn’t render fat cattle fast enough for commercial cattle growers. To fatten them up quickly, cattle in these operations are fed grain, animal byproducts, and chicken manure, which are cheap protein sources that fatten them fast but wreak havoc on their grass-based digestive systems. We won’t go into details about that havoc; suffice it to say that the cattle need regular dosing with antibiotics to settle down their stomachs.

The takeaway? The easiest and most planet-friendly way to sidestep these concerns is to cut down on the amount of meat in your diet (See "Veg-olution" for more inspiration). The other is to seek out the cleanest, most responsibly-rendered meat you can find — the meat that is most likely not to have these issues. If you’re going to eat beef, organic beef is strongly recommended. Our check out Local Harvest’s website for local CSA’s (Community-Supported Agriculture) — where you can even tour the farm to make sure for yourself that you can trust their cattle practices.

Other options here include looking for beef labeled as “pastured,” “grass-fed,” or “grass-finished.” All of these terms signify healthy feeding practices, no hormone or antibiotic use, and humane treatment and handling. Grass-fed beef is also a healthier choice as it is lower in overall fats and saturated fats and higher in omega-3 fatty acids.

Excerpt used with permission from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Organic Living by Eliza Sarasohn & Sonia Weiss.    


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