Manic Monday: Propaganda from Your Friendly Neighborhood CAFO

May 23, 2011

Way back in August, The Girlfriend and I were looking for grass-fed beef at a local grocery store. The butcher was kind enough to pass on a little propaganda pamphlet from the CAFO that supplies most of their beef. The front of the brochure pictures cows grazing on a gorgeous grassy hillside.










The back page offers a much smaller picture of cows at their actual facility:

Am I the only one who finds this a bit misleading? It seems like blatant cheating to me. They know that customers inquiring about grass-fed beef are interested in naturally raised cows, so they give you a big picture of some right on the front, implying that their cows live a life somehow comparable to those grazing on verdant pastures.

As disgusting as this picture play is, the words inside are worse. Let’s look at a few quotes (emphasis mine).

Consumers today are bombarded with information on various beef products from grass-fed and grain-fed to natural and organic. As a result, many are confused about grain-fed beef compared with grass-fed beef. The cattle used to produce our beef typically spend the majority of their lives grazing on grass. In fact, our cattle spend approximately 80% of their lives eating grass before being finished on a nutritionally balanced diet consisting of corn and other feed grains, plus alfalfa hay, vitamins and minerals.

Oh those poor consumers, being subjected to the confusing evils of information! None of this should be a surprise to informed customers. Cattle are started on grass because the CAFOs have decided that it’s a waste of their time to nurture weaker cattle – so they pass those duties off on local ranchers, who often keep their cattle on grass pastures because they don’t have multi-million dollar facilities to house them. Living on the central California coast, I’ve had the opportunity to hear about some of our local ranchers and their practices. From what I’ve heard, they let their cattle eat grass, but it’s not their main source of calories. They are certainly not required to feed their cows grass. So that 80% of their lives is not 100% grass – likely far from it.

Gotta love those “nutritionally balanced” diets. You already know how stupid I think that is. The fact of the matter is that cows are meant to eat grass, so feeding them anything else is a balancing act – one of medication and antibiotics to keep them alive long enough to fatten them up. Interesting that they fail to mention large doses of antibiotics (and other disgusting stuff, like candy in-the-wrapper) included in their “balanced” CAFO diets.

Quick work to keep the delicate veil on the whole meat production mystery with this clever linguistic maneuver: “the cattle used to produce our beef“. We’re all adults here, we know how cattle becomes beef.

The pamphlet then transitions to a lovable Q&A session – I haven’t seen that much softball since it was dropped (along with baseball) as an olympic sport.

Is corn an unnatural diet for cattle? is it fed because it’s cheap? No. Cattle can get the nutrients they need from a wide variety of plants, including a variety of greens and grasses. Grain feeding isn’t new. In the U.S. cattle have been fed grain for at least 200 years. Grains, like corn, are fed to cattle because they are nutritious, energy rich and can be stored for use in any season.

That “no” is an outright lie. If corn were a natural diet for cattle, they would eat it in nature. Farmers would need bigger scarecrows to save their fields from bovine pests. You can get the nutrients you need from a “well-designed” junk food diet, but that doesn’t mean any of that garbage is natural. Also, it’s a stretch to say that CAFO cows are getting the nutrients they need when they would die without modern medicine.

Holy %^&*, 200 years! Well, jeepers, if you’ve been doing it since before my grandparents were born, it must be a good idea. Just like lead paint, smoking, and letting your kids play with mercury were all brilliant. Oh, and 200 years is not a long time. Even if we just look at how long humans have been engaged in animal husbandry (about 10k years), we’ve only been grain-feeding cattle for 2% of that time. If our time ranching were a day, we’ve been grain-feeding for the last 28 minutes. How many above-board ideas are instituted at 11:32pm?

They sort of sidestep the “cheap” question (why even ask yourself if you won’t answer it?). Corn is cheap because they government subsidizes its production (heavily). Of course, corn has been chosen for subsidies because it stores well (as they admit), and not due to any nutritional benefits. The fact is, corn is fed to cattle because it is disgustingly cheap. CAFOs are in the business of making money, and cheap feed cuts cost. Of course, this alone is not a reason to condemn grain-feeding, it’s just a fact of capitalism that they try to sidestep for some reason. There’s a reason that grain-fed beef is way cheaper than grass-fed, and this is part of it.

Is it true that if I eat grass-fed beef rather than grain-fed beef that I am nourishing my body with higher levels of Vitamin A, CLA, and omega-3 fatty acids – all proven to have health benefits? According to science, there is a slight increase in the amounts [of these nutrients] in grass-fed beef compared to grain-fed beef. However, the small increases do not provide any significant dietary benefits.

You just know that any response beginning with “According to science” is going to be a real gem. It’s true that the increases of these respective nutrients are small. In fact, I’ve fallen into this trap before, but it appears that this reductionist view doesn’t account for the synergy of constituents in the beef (or maybe we’ve missed an important nutrient altogether). When you drop the nutritionistic approach of reducing the meat to known micronutrients and actually study the effects of the whole foods, you see that grass-fed does offer health benefits compared to grain-fed.

Isn’t beef produced from cattle that have been fed genetically modified corn unsafe to eat? No. There is no difference in the composition or safety of meat from cattle that have been fed GM corn.

Just like the nutritionistic approach to determining food value, we could be missing something here. In other words, I don’t think it’s fair yet to say definitively that GM crops are safe for human consumption, even (especially?) if first fed to cows. Regardless of how the GM corn affects the beef, GM crops are something we don’t want in out world – from lawsuits to mysterious bee deaths, GM crops (and the agri-giants making their billions) are bad news. Buying GM fed beef encourages growing GM crops, something that I certainly don’t want to do.

Do feedlots and modern beef production methods encourage the emergence of E.coli 0157:H7 as a foodborne illness? No. Bacteria like E.coli are found naturally in the environment as well as within the intestinal tract of healthy animals.

This argument is Thank You for Smoking level trickery. You could even argue that they’re lying here. CAFOs promote E.coli in two ways:

  1. Feeding cows corn makes their stomachs more acidic – bringing their stomach pH closer to ours (humans). This means that E.coli growing in their gut is better adapted to survive in our stomachs and therefore more able to kill us.
  2. Keeping cows (at least) knee-deep in their own feces (as CAFOs tend to) means the E.coli isn’t just in their stomachs, it’s all over their hides. When you run a slaughterhouse through that hide and into the meat, you’ve carried E.coli right along with it.

The Bottom Line

The pamphlet bothers me in quite a few ways (hence the post), but it also makes me happy. That the grain-fed producers feel the need to make their case to the public shows that the good guys are making progress. Grass-feeders are on the radar of the evil giants, and they are becoming more of a threat each day. That sure makes me smile.

As for dietary choices: If grass-fed fits your budget, give it a shot. You’ll be doing your health (and the environment) a favor. Source it nearby and you’ll be boosting the local economy as well.

If the pastured stuff is too expensive, keep eating beef anyway, but do be sure to employ safe food-handling practices. The fact is, even grain-fed beef is still a better choice than a bagel.

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