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Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2009

Grass-Fed Beef Vs. Factory Farming

Dietary choices can benefit humans, cattle and the environment

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When profit is a business’ bottom line, things can get weird and disturbing, especially within the food industry. Case in point: factory farming. Nearly all the meat, eggs and dairy products sold in U.S.

supermarkets and restaurants come from animals raised in “confined animal feeding operations.” These immense, highly mechanized facilities are the reason grocery stores can carry a large stock of ground chuck or beef rib-eye at an affordable price. But if shoppers knew how these animals were treated and what they were fed, they would find that the price tag on that package of ground round doesn’t reflect its true cost.

As the atrocities occurring at these factory farms make their way into the public consciousness, consumers and farmers alike are joining a growing revolt against industrial agriculture by supporting traditional farming practices, like keeping cattle home on the range.

The life of a steer raised within the ag-industrial complex goes something like this: After it’s born, a calf is sent from a barn to a pasture sprayed with synthetic fertilizers and herbicides. When it is half-grown, the cow is shipped in an exposed truck or railcar to an enormous feedlot. There, packed ass-to-elbow with other animals, it is stuffed with a high-energy grain diet and synthetic hormones to make it grow faster.

To cut costs, feedlot managers supplement the cattle’s feed with cheap fillers, like municipal garbage, chicken feathers, sawdust and stale chewing gum still in its aluminum foil wrapper. Biologically, cows are ruminants that thrive on a diet of fibrous grasses, plants and shrubs, so when they are fed grain, let alone aluminum foil, it’s like pumping diesel into a car that takes unleaded gasoline. Their digestive tracts become more acidic, giving them chronic stomach pain that causes them to kick at their bellies and eat dirt.

Because of the unsanitary conditions it’s living in at a factory farm, the cow is administered nontherapeutic doses of antibiotics. Once it’s been fattened, the cow is trucked again, this time to a slaughterhouse, where it is butchered and shrink-wrapped.

It was only after World War II that the United States began confining cattle in factory farms. Until then, cattle grazed from birth to market on their native diet of grass—as they still do in most of Europe, South America and New Zealand. Because the cattle are raised in a natural setting and at a natural pace, they lead low-stress lives where the use of antibiotics and growth hormones is unnecessary.

Some people will argue that animals are animals: They’re meant to be eaten and we shouldn’t expect them to be raised by human standards. Yet the quality of their meat directly affects human consumers.

When animals are 100% grass-fed, their meat has less total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and calories than feedlot meat. It’s also higher in omega-3 fatty acids, the healthy fats found in salmon and flaxseed, which studies suggest may help prevent heart disease and bolster the immune system. It also has more conjugated linoleic acid, which recent data indicate may help prevent breast cancer and diabetes, among other ailments. In addition, it contains more vitamin E, beta-carotene and vitamin C than grain-finished meat.

More important is what 100% grass-fed meat doesn’t contain. In the 1980s and ’90s, feedlot managers tried to save money by feeding cattle the remains of other cattle in the form of meat and bone meal, which resulted in an epidemic of mad cow disease. Eating just one serving of beef from a cow suffering from the disease can kill a person. The overuse of antibiotics in factory farming has caused more and more bacteria to become resistant to treatment. In addition, the acidity of a cow’s stomach caused from a diet of grain breeds an acid-resistant form of E. coli that can spread from feces-contaminated carcasses to meat we eat.

We need to end our society’s habit of learning lessons the hard way. Raising our livestock on the least-cost basis common of factory farms puts our health and the well-being of animals at risk. When consumers choose to buy products from animals raised on open pastures with fresh air and sunlight, where they can feast on a natural diet of grass, they are improving animals’ welfare, maintaining environmental sustainability, supporting family farms and serving wholesome food to their friends and families.

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