Beef

When you’re at the supermarket and you see a cut of beef labeled “grass-fed,” do you ever wonder, “What else would the cow eat besides grass?” Or what about “natural” meat?  Then what is considered “unnatural” meat?  Unfortunately, the meat package labels aren’t always clear and don’t tell the whole story about how the animals were raised and the resulting environmental problems.

When it comes to purchasing meat, Bon Appétit takes into consideration the bigger picture of animal production rather than focusing on specific labels.  Was the animal raised in a humane manner? Were the animals given any artificial hormones or antibiotics? What are the environmental and human health effects of these practices? Ultimately, are these practices sustainable? At Bon Appétit, we view various animal production methods on a spectrum based on the degree of sustainability.

U.S. Grass-fed

Defining “Grass-fed”

There are currently no government standard definitions for “grass-fed” and “pasture-raised” as used in animal production. The American Grass fed Association, a coalition of producers, food service personnel and consumer interest representatives, established their own standard of “grass-fed” products: “food products from animals that have eaten nothing but their mother’s milk and fresh grass or grass-type hay from their birth” (1). In addition, the animals must be pasture-raised or free-range.  To date, “grass-fed” usually refers to beef.

Animal Welfare

Compared to animals raised in CAFOs (concentrated agricultural feeding operations), grass-fed animal producers claim that grass-fed animals have an overall better quality of life since they are allowed to graze on open pastures and able to perform natural behaviors (2). They are not given antibiotics to artificially enhance growth nor are they confined indoors with thousands of other animals.

In addition, cattle raised in CAFOs are fed a corn-based diet, which causes health problems for these ruminant animals that naturally feed on grass and forage. Because their stomachs are not equipped to digest low-fiber foods like corn, the acidic buildup can cause ulcers and infections that further damage their digestive tracts.

Environment

Grass-fed animals not only seem to have a high quality of life, but they also may be beneficial to the environment. For example, when animals are free to graze on pasture, they provide natural fertilizer by spreading their waste around the pasture area. Compare this to CAFOs where tons of manure must be trucked and disposed of separately often causing environmental damage due to spills or mishandling.  Other environmental benefits may include decreased fuel dependency (since grain production is so energy-intense), decreased soil erosion, and improved water and air quality (1).Human Health
Producers claim that meat and dairy products from animals fed grass diets are more nutritious than from animals fed grain-based diets. Grass-fed animal products contain higher quantities of beta carotene (vitamin A) and omega-3 fatty acids and are lower in calories and fat. In addition, because the animals receive absolutely no antibiotics, hormones or other “unnatural substances,” they do not pose serious risks to human health like antibiotic resistance or Mad Cow Disease (3).

Sources

1. American Grassfed Association. Accessed March 14, 2007.

2. Sustainable Table.  The issues: pasture-raised.  Accessed March 13, 2007.

3. Clancy K. Greener Pastures: How grass-fed beef and milk contribute to healthy eating.  Union of Concerned Scientists: Cambridge MA, 2006.  Accessed March 14, 2007.

Organic

Defining “Organic”

In order for animal products to be labeled “organic,” producers must adhere to specific guidelines outlined by the USDA’s National Organic Program.  Antibiotics and growth hormones are strictly prohibited.  In addition, the animals must have access to fresh air and the outdoors.  They must be given organically produced feed and the use of feed containing plastic pellets, manure or urea is strictly prohibited.

Animal Welfare

Animals raised according to the USDA’s organic standards must be allowed access to the outdoors.  Ruminants (cows, sheep and goats) must be given access to pasture.  This doesn’t necessarily mean the animals spend all of their time outdoors; they just need to have the accessibility.  Producers must also provide animals with bedding materials.

Environment

In general, organic and natural farms tend to be smaller in size than industrial factory farms. This significantly reduces the amount of animal waste produced that can potentially pollute the nearby waterways.

Human Health

In general, organic meat products do not pose the same degree of public health risk as conventionally raised meat products.  Because antibiotic and artificial hormones are strictly prohibited, they do not pose serious risks to human health like antibiotic resistance (1).  In addition, because they are only fed an organic diet free of animal byproducts , they are unlikely to be a source of BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) also known as “mad cow” disease.

Source:

1. Clancy K. Greener Pastures: How grass-fed beef and milk contribute to healthy eating. Union of Concerned Scientists: Cambridge MA, 2006.  Accessed March 14, 2007.

Natural

Defining “Natural”

Currently there is no legal definition of “natural” as it relates to food products, unlike the explicit organic standards.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture provides loose guidelines about labeling food products “natural.”  As long as the food contains “no artificial ingredients or added color and are no more than minimally processed,” it may be considered natural.  However, this leaves much room for interpretation.  For example, based on this definition, livestock animals that are given antibiotics made from natural sources (such as fungi) can be called “natural meats.”

For the most part, the American natural beef industry defines itself and sets standards above and beyond the USDA definition.  Their accepted protocol indicates that their animals are raised without any antibiotics (ever), added growth hormones (ever), or animal byproducts in its feed (ever).  Natural beef is typically corn or grain finished, meaning they are fed a vegetarian diet for most of their lives and then transitioned to corn and grain products to enhance marbling (fat distributed throughout muscle) of the meat for a buttery flavor.

Animal Welfare

In general, the industry claims that animals sold as natural are raised in a free roaming setting for most of their lives. They are typically produced in small family ranch environments and are treated in a humane manner from birth to slaughter. Throughout their lives, animals are provided with plenty of clean water and food in a manner that does not require undue competition. Natural beef ranchers also claim to follow the American Humane Association’s Welfare Standards or Free-Farming Standards.

Environment

In general, organic and natural farms tend to be smaller in size than industrial factory farms. This significantly reduces the amount of animal waste produced that can potentially pollute the nearby waterways.

Human Health

Overall, natural meat products do not pose the same degree of public health risk as industrially raised meat products.  Because the animals receive absolutely no antibiotics, hormones or other unnatural substances, they do not pose serious risks to human health like antibiotic resistance (1).  In addition, because they are primarily fed a vegetarian diet, they are unlikely to be a source of BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) also known as “mad cow” disease.

Sources:

1. Clancy K. Greener Pastures: How grass-fed beef and milk contribute to healthy eating.  Union of Concerned Scientists: Cambridge MA, 2006.  Accessed March 14, 2007.

Reduced Antibiotics

Beef Raised Without the Routine Use of Antibiotics

Whoever thought that eating a steak or hamburger would actually affect the way your body responds to certain medicines? Feeding antibiotics to animals, a common practice in livestock production, is a growing public health concern because it decreases the effectiveness of antibiotics used to treat diseases in humans.

Defining “Antibiotic Resistance”

Antibiotics are drugs such as penicillin, amoxicillin and tetracycline that are used to kill or inhibit the growth of harmful bacteria. The landmark discovery of penicillin in the 1940s introduced an effective way to treat common infections and diseases and changed the way medicine is practiced today.

However, when antibiotics are used too frequently, the harmful bacteria become resistant to the drug and the treatment becomes less effective. In fact, bacteria can develop into a completely different strain that cannot be killed by the “old” antibiotic.

Antibiotics in Livestock

In 1950, scientists discovered that low doses of antibiotics make chickens grow faster than normal (1). Since then, the practice of mixing antibiotics (up to a dozen different types) in animal feed has become quite common, and scientists estimate that 70 percent of all antibiotics consumed in the

antibioticchart

United States are used for livestock production (see graph) (2).

It’s important to note that these low dose antibiotics added to feed are not necessarily used to treat diseases or infections. Over 90 percent of the antibiotics used in livestock production are for “non-therapeutic” purposes, merely to enhance growth and weight gain in the animals (3).

Human Health

The overuse of non-therapeutic antibiotics in beef cattle, swine and poultry production poses a serious threat to human health. Because half of these antibiotics belong to classes of drugs used in human medicine, the risk of antibiotic resistance in humans is increased. This is especially threatening for people with compromised immune systems including infants, elderly people and patients with cancer receiving chemotherapy.

Antibiotic-resistance in humans is a tremendous public health threat worldwide. The World Health Organization held a conference on this “crisis” and concluded that there is sufficient evidence showing that “the major transmission pathway for resistant bacteria…[is] from food animals to humans” and that this has led to “increased frequency of treatment failures (in some cases death) and increased severity of infections” (4). In their recommendations, the WHO specifically called for stricter legislation to minimize antimicrobial usage in agriculture because it is so prevalent and may pose a significant risk to human health (5).

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria can be transmitted from animals to humans in several ways (6).

1) Food: people consume meat that contain antibiotic residues or has been contaminated with the resistant bacteria during slaughter

2) Direct contact: farmers and farm workers may become infected by the animals and pass it on to the family and community

3) Environment: bacteria found in the animal manure can contaminate local waterways and groundwater

Regulation

Recognizing that antibiotic-resistance poses a serious public health threat, the European Union has banned the use of non-therapeutic antibiotics (specifically used in human medicine) in animal feed.  Although the United States has yet to pass such a far-reaching policy about antibiotics in livestock production, the FDA did recently ban one class of antibiotics (7). Based on studies showing that high levels of fluoroquinolones (drugs used to treat severe foodborne illness in humans) in the poultry industry led to drug resistance in humans, the FDA finally decided in 2005 to prohibit the use of fluoroquinolones in animal husbandry.

Sources:

1. Boyd W.  2001. Making meat: science, technology and American poultry production. Technology and Culture 42:631-64.

2. Health Care Without Harm.  Antibiotic Resistance and Agricultural Overuse of Antibiotics. 2005.

3. Anderson AD, McClellan J, Rossiter S, Angulo FJ. 2003. Public health consequences of use of antimicrobial agents in agriculture.  In: The Resistance Phenomenon in Microbes and Infectious Disease Vectors: Implications for Human Health and Strategies for Containment: Workshop Summary (Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press, p.231-43).  Accessed March 14, 2007.

4. World Health Organization, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and the World Organization for Animal Health. 2003. Expert Workshop on Non-Human Antimicrobial Usage and Antimicrobial Resistance, Geneva, 1-5 December. Accessed March 14, 2007.

5. World Health Organization.  Use of antimicrobials outside human medicine and resultant antimicrobial resistance in humans. Accessed March 27, 2007.

6. Sustainable Table: Antibiotics. Accessed March 14, 2007.

7. The Humane Society of the United States.  2007. An HSUS Report: Human Health Implications of Non-Therapeutic Antibiotic Use in Animal Agriculture.  Accessed March 13, 2007.

Industrial

Defining “Industrial”

The “industrial” method of animal production usually refers to CAFOs or concentrated animal feeding operations.  CAFOs are giant factory-like farms where up to hundreds of thousands of cattle, pigs or chickens are raised using a variety of methods, mainly manipulation of the feed, for “maximum efficiency.”  Cattle, for example, are fed a grain-based diet (usually corn) instead of grasses or other plants cows naturally eat.  This is because corn is a high-starch, high-energy food that quickly fattens beef cattle and also increases milk yield in dairy cows (1).  Animals raised the “industrial” way are under minimal government regulation regarding the way they are treated and the resultant environmental consequences.

Animal Welfare

Cows, pigs and chickens in CAFOs live in extremely crowded conditions that can be detrimental to their health.  Because they are confined indoors with little space, most animals receive minimal sunlight and fresh air and are unable to perform natural behaviors.  In order to prevent animals from harming each other and developing infections, painful procedures such as de-beaking of chickens and tail-docking (cutting off the tail) of cows are routine (2).

Environment

Factory farms may not only be detrimental to the animals’ well being but they can also significantly damage the environment.  The excessive waste produced by animals in CAFOs is not always properly managed and can lead to air and water pollution.  CAFOs in the United States produce more than 130 times the amount of waste than people do, about 2.7 trillion pounds of manure each year!  Also, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that more than 27,000 miles of rivers and groundwater have been contaminated by livestock waste (3).  This not only pollutes our drinking water but it also kills the local fish and damages the ecosystem.

Human Health

In order to make the animals grow faster, non-therapeutic antibiotics are routinely given to the animals as growth enhancers, which can lead to antibiotic resistance in humans.  Artificial growth hormones such as rBGH (recombinant bovine growth hormone) or BST (bovine somatotrophin) may also increase the health risk for humans* (1).  In addition, industrial meat production may increase the risk of food borne illnesses transferred to humans.  Livestock manure usually contains disease-causing pathogens, which can sometimes contaminate the meat produced from CAFOs.  Approximately 70% of all food borne illness in the United States can be traced to contaminated meat, according to the USDA (3).

*Note: The FDA has said no significant difference has been shown and no test can now distinguish between milk from rBGH treated and untreated cows.  Not all of the suppliers of our other dairy products can promise that the milk they use comes from untreated cows.

For an entertaining and informative animated movie about CAFOs, watch The Meatrix.

Sources:

1. Clancy K. Greener Pastures: How grass-fed beef and milk contribute to healthy eating.  Union of Concerned Scientists: Cambridge MA, 2006.  Accessed March 14, 2007.

2. Sustainable Table.  The issues: factory farming.  Accessed March 13, 2007.

3. Ask For Change!  Accessed January 23, 2007.

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