February 18, 2008

Of E. coli, feedlots and slaughterhouses -- and the right way to raise beef

What is today's threat level? The Ethicurean knows.

The Ethicurean has an excellent roundup of news articles and information related to the recall of 143 million, repeat, 143 million pounds of beef from the Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Co. in Chino, California. Ethicurean co-founder Bonnie Powell writes:
The meat industry in this country is broken from start to finish. We take ruminants and feed them grain their stomachs weren’t designed to eat, treating them like garbage disposals for our industrial leftovers; implant steroids so they’ll grow faster; feed them antibiotics so they can survive the poor diets and crowded feedlot conditions; then ship them to slaughterhouses where they are killed and processed at speeds that practically beg for bacterial contamination and worker injuries.
What we won't do to satisfy our appetites and save a buck. All hail cheap beef! Too bad, so sad about the downer cows and all, not to mention the maimed poultry-plant workers, but the important thing is that we pay less for our meals, right?

Except we don't really pay less.
So much comes back to corn, this cheap feed that turns out in so many ways to be not cheap at all. While I stood in [the feedlot] pen, a dump truck pulled up alongside the feed bunk and released a golden stream of feed. The animals stepped up to the bunk for their lunch. The $1.60 a day [cost per animal] for three giant meals is a bargain only by the narrowest of calculations. It doesn't take into account, for example, the cost to the public health of antibiotic resistance or food poisoning by E. coli or all the environmental costs associated with industrial corn.

For if you follow the corn from this bunk back to the fields where it grows, you will find an 80-million-acre monoculture that consumes more chemical herbicide and fertilizer than any other crop. Keep going and you can trace the nitrogen runoff from that crop all the way down the Mississippi into the Gulf of Mexico, where it has created (if that is the right word) a 12,000-square-mile ''dead zone.''

But you can go farther still, and follow the fertilizer needed to grow that corn all the way to the oil fields of the Persian Gulf. [Steer] No.534 started life as part of a food chain that derived all its energy from the sun; now that corn constitutes such an important link in his food chain, he is the product of an industrial system powered by fossil fuel. (And in turn, defended by the military -- another uncounted cost of ''cheap'' food.) I asked David Pimentel, a Cornell ecologist who specializes in agriculture and energy, if it might be possible to calculate precisely how much oil it will take to grow my steer to slaughter weight. Assuming No. 534 continues to eat 25 pounds of corn a day and reaches a weight of 1,250 pounds, he will have consumed in his lifetime roughly 284 gallons of oil. We have succeeded in industrializing the beef calf, transforming what was once a solar-powered ruminant into the very last thing we need: another fossil-fuel machine. [Source]
"What will it take to get Americans to stop eating beef that’s been marinated in E. coli and suffering?" wonders Powell.

I dunno. If not our consciences, what? Scary, mysterious diseases? The environmental cost? The 284 gallons of oil per feedlot steer? A drive past the Harris Ranch? You can smell that wretchedness for miles, even with the windows up and the vents closed:

Photo by Gary Kazanjian for The New York Times.

And the thing of it is, we know how to raise livestock the right way. The right way is good for the land, good for the animals and healthy for us humans. Here's the way it should be:

Photo by Richard Morgenstein for Morris Grassfed Beef.

And because there are stockdogs along, here's another photo by Richard Morgenstein, this one of Joe Morris and Everett Sparling moving cattle with dogs Socks, Lucky, Spade and Penny:

The Morrises aren't the only ones raising grassfed beef: check out Local Harvest to find ranchers near you. There is no need for the food we eat to be
"marinated in E. coli and suffering."

[Also: keep in mind one of the oldest ways to get "free-range, grass-fed, organic, locally produced, locally harvested, sustainable, native, low-stress, low-impact, humanely slaughtered meat": by hunting it yourself.]

Edited to add: for two splendid essays on "cheap" food, the Chino, CA packing plant disgrace, and what effect Exxon Mobil's record profits have on the farmer, be sure to read Bill Fosher's Edgefield Sheep blog posts, The end of cheap food? and The further cost of cheap food. Impeccable reporting and excellent writing, as always.

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