Good Beef, Bad Beef, Less Beef, Or?

If you're eating a burger while you're reading this post, I'll give you a minute to either finish it in blissful ignorance or go stick your fingers down your throat and get rid of it.

Why would I want you to do that? Because it may just save your life. Approximately 25% of the industrial, commercial beef (such as the boxes of patties or packages of ground beef) you might find in the grocery store or your big box store could have a little lagniappe (something extra) of salmonella. And thanks to the feedlot cattle raising practices, these nasty bugs, potentially lethal to anyone, are becoming stronger, developing resistance to more and more antibiotics. (The very young, very old or immune compromised are even more at risk.)

We're ensuring that these bugs such as salmonella, learn quickly by continually creating the perfect classrooms for them: cattle feedlots. You may have heard of "CAFO"s and wondered what the heck they are. Confined Animal Feeding Operation. They confine and congregate not only the animals, but also their feed, their manure, their urine, dead animals and production operations all in a giant playpen from hell.

Because cows are ruminants, they are designed to digest grass, not grain. But grain allows big cattle operations to fatten cows more quickly. It's cheaper than rotating cows on green pastures. Just pen them in and let them stand in their own feces, feed them what they can't digest and inject them or feed them antibiotics even when they're not yet sick. Getting the picture?

Eating meat from these operations is like playing Russian Roulette, only their are just four chambers for the one bullet. How do you like those odds?

As The Opinionator (AKA Mark Bittman) says in the New York Times:

...when you go to the supermarket to buy one of these brands of pre-ground meat products, there’s a roughly 25 percent chance you’ll consume a potentially fatal bacteria that doesn’t respond to commonly prescribed drugs.

As far back as 1977 ("since your dad had sideburns") the FDA has been aware of the increasing trend of potentially lethal bacteria in our commercial meats. Kowtowing to political pressure they did a nifty little sidestep and put action on hold, on the back burner. Then they killed it, just before the holidays. Completely abnegated their responsibility and decided to trust the same people who released, then were forced to recall, 36 million pounds of turkey products that were possibly contaminated with drug-resistant salmonella.

The FDA is taking the "judicious" course of encouraging "voluntary reform." In my experience, that's about as effective as hoping for abstinence from teens' with raging hormones. That is to say: not very effective.

Learning, or not, from History

Here is Maryn McKenna's excellent breakdown of the FDA's complete failure to protect public health from documented insanity of agricultural use of subtherapeutic antibiotics. At the end of Maryn's post, she says:

The FDA seems to leave the door open to accepting public comment on the issue of sub-therapeutic antibiotics so there may still be an opportunity to voice your opinion:


  • At the end of the Federal Register posting, the FDA says it is taking public comment on this issue, via the docket established for the draft guidance issued in 2010. That docket number is FDA-2010-D-0094-0002, and the form for submitting comments is here.


Earlier in the week folks were a-Twitter about the news that people seem to be eating less beef. By my read, it looked like the beef in question was the very same product that just skated by being regulated. My cynical self thinks the story was planted by the lobbyists so they could ply the "poor us, profits are down, don't put costly regulations on us now!" argument with regulators and elected officials.

Perhaps people are eating less meat? Perhaps they're eating meat from different sources than that news story counts. Many people (I have no idea how many) but at least some of us ARE eating less meat as we discover the joys of farmers' markets and local, seasonal produce. Some number of us are buying more local meat, from farmers we know. We're avoiding the anonymous corporations with enough money to shut Oprah up, or try to.

Barry Estabrook our intrepid fair food journalist has another piece in the Atlantic comparing pastured beef to "Cowshwitz" feedlot beef.  Barry has a very good photo comparing examples, side by side of these two extremes.

What to Do

So now you're queasy and mad and wondering what the heck you can do and why I've ruined your lunch? Fear not, I've got some ideas.

1. Do use the the comment link in Maryn's post to tell the FDA they stink. We need to rein in the use of antibiotics in Agriculture. Currently, 80% of the antibiotics produced in the US go to animals not humans. You might also want to weigh in by sending an email on the related issue of CAFO farms' waste lagoons and the threat they pose to our water supply. The comment period for the EPA closes mid-January and they appear to need pressure to collect more robust data on this public health and environmental threat. Takes two minutes.

2. Eat less meat. It's not about giving up something you love; trust me, I don't want to come between you and a good steak. But for your health, your wallet, the environment - eat a delicious meat-free meal just one day a week. If you need inspiration, ideas, recipes -  holla!

3. Ask questions and be an informed consumer (see below). Most of us know more about the phone in our pocket than the food we put into our bodies. This is crazy.

4. When you buy meat, choose locally farmed, grass-fed, pastured meat. The best burger I've had in recent memory was at New Rivers in Providence. Blackbird Farms beef was so clean and beefy tasting, completely unadorned, I could barely speak to thank the farmer sitting next to me! I had sampled Animal Welfare Approved meats at the AWA conference in DC this year, including the wonderful Will Harris White Oak Pastures beef. That's me and Will.

5. When you eat out, support your restaurants that buy and serve local meats. Tell them and show them that you appreciate the added cost and trouble to supply you with fair, clean food.

Here's some help from our good friends at the Animal Welfare Approved organization. I'm breaking down the beef terminology so you know what you're buying versus what you're being sold. Many terms on labels are pure marketing spin, intended to convey what they know the market wants. The problem is very few terms are legally defined or regulated which is to say they are meaningless.

Food Labeling for Dummies: an excerpt

Let's take just a few examples of label terms that sound good. When you read descriptions like "natural" or "free range" you likely imagine a bucolic country setting, animals romping on green grass under sunny blue skies. That's exactly what the marketing folks behind the label want you to think. But what do they really mean?

Natural - this is actually a term that IS defined by the USDA, it just means something different than most of us would think. It has absolutely nothing to do with how the animal was raised. "Natural" applies only to the processing after slaughter. For example, a cow could have been raised on a feedlot, with routine antibiotics and growth promoters but so long as things like coloring agents were not added after slaughter - it's entitled to be labeled "Natural".

Free-range/Free-roaming - For poultry only - producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside. (ed. note: "allowed access to" is a debatable term, too. Chickens are flocking birds. If you have thousands in a huge quonset hut and one door, those birds ain't leaving to go strut around on grass unless someone leads them out there.) Buyers should be aware that the type of outdoor access provided (such as pasture or dirt lot), the length of time the birds are required to have outdoor access, and how this must be verified is not legally defined and therefore varies greatly from facility to facility. Crowding is not uncommon. No independent third-party verification.


  • for any other species - no legal or regulated definition.


Fine, you say, how about if I look for...

Grass fed - refers to feed, not access to pasture, or if it has been raised on feedlot and/or given antibiotics or hormones. American Grassfed Assoc has an independent third party certification process available to ranchers. AGA cert is recognized by USDA and verifies 100% forage diet, raised on pasture w/minimum 75% cover, not confinement, no antibiotics, no added hormones.

Meat purchasers seeking truly grassfed meat should source AGA certified products.

Pastured/Pasture-raised - No legal or regulated definition. Implies, but does not ensure, or certify, in any way that animals were raised outdoors on pasture. (ed. note: I tend to believe a farmer I can meet, I can visit, I can talk to at the market. I also believe we could be asking the myriad market managers to give us some information about the verification they do, if any, of the farmers' claims.)

Download the "Food Labeling for Dummies" PDF from AWA and look for their logo when buying meat and eggs. You're paying a bit more, but you're gaining assurance that the food you're buying is third-party certified, raised humanely, cleanly and by the highest standards, outdoors on pasture or range. All the standards are on their website and you can find a list of farmers and products available in your area. Transparency, farmers you can trust, third-party verification.

Simply look for the label.



Additional Resources:

Bill Marler - perhaps no one knows more about the failures in our food safety systems than attorney Bill Marler. He puts a very real face on the issue representing consumers poisoned by tainted food. Learn about the multitude of bugs waiting for you in that next burger on Marler Blog.

Maryn McKenna - author of Superbug. Maryn writes for Wired and elsewhere sharing science about infectious disease, food policy and more.

Sustainable Table - a good source of consumer information on all types of sustainable food issues.

Kim O'Donnel - author of Meatlover's Meatless Cookook: truly has meatless meals carnivores will devour.

Animal Welfare Approved - click on the label above to go to their consumer page. There you can find tools like the entire food labels cheat sheet, as well as find farmers and products you can trust. Learn what goes into their certification system and meet farmers like Will Harris.