How your meat gets from pasture to platter.

A cheat sheet for the news.
Feb. 26 2004 6:34 PM

Whence the Beef?

The gruesome trip from pasture to platter (and how to ensure that it's not so bad).

Holsteins galore
Holsteins galore

Leave it to a sweet-faced Holstein to remind us of the ugly work of bringing beef to the dinner table. When the nation's first confirmed case of mad cow disease cropped up in December, Americans received a crash course on the nastier aspects of the cattle business. We learned, for instance, that cows walking up the slaughterhouse line are often killed with a blow to the head, which can spew bits of brain into the muscle. That there's a process called "advanced meat recovery" in which the meat—later ground into tasty sausages or ballpark hotdogs—is sheared so close to the bone that there's a decent chance the meat contains spinal cord tissue. And that newborn dairy calves often survive on a formula fortified with protein from the blood of their brethren.

With the mad cow scare, many of these practices are on their way out, and the industrial farming industry has made strides in recent years toward improving animal welfare. Yet there's still plenty about the way meat is raised in the United States that can turn the stomach of even the heartiest carnivore. So, it's no surprise some companies have decided there may be a market for meat raised in less grisly conditions. Burgerville, a Northwestern chain, announced this week that it would buy beef solely from "a cooperative of 40 sustainable family ranches dedicated to raising cattle in harmony with nature, without the use of hormones, antibiotics, genetically modified grain or any animal by-products." All of this sounds very lovely to the consumer, but how much difference does it make to the cow? And just how bad do the animals that end up in the grocery store really have it?

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To answer these questions, Slate presents this guide to what likely happened to your meat—whether it's beef, pork, or poultry—on its way to the table.

Industrial Beef: Life starts out serenely for most beef calves, who spend their first six months alongside their mothers, nibbling grass in open pastures, as described by Michael Pollan, who wrote an excellent New York Times Magazine piece, titled "Power Steer," on the cattle industry. But soon after that six-month mark, the stock is moved onto the feedlot and the factory farming begins.

Life on the feedlot is dismal: Several thousand head are crammed into the facility, where cattle spend days standing cheek to jowl, in mud and manure. At about 14 months, when cattle reach 1,200 pounds, they're ready for slaughter. (Listen to Pollan discussing this process with Terry Gross on Fresh Air.)

To get cattle to balloon in a span of months, ranchers stuff the feedlot cattle with a high-fat (and cheap) corn diet and administer growth hormones for an additional boost. Until recently, cattle also ate protein supplements made from ground-up chicken parts, "poultry litter" (feces and other debris swept off the chicken factory floor, including potentially cow parts that been ground up into chicken feed), and other mammalian byproducts. (Cattle also were fed cow and sheep bits, until the United States banned the practice in 1997 in an effort to keep mad cow disease out of American herds.)

As the Web site FactoryFarming.com points out, cattle's digestive systems are designed to process a grass-based diet, high in fiber and low in fat; the high-calorie corn diet creates potentially fatal digestive problems that must be treated with antibiotics. Drugs also keep down diseases that can thrive in such tight quarters. Animal rights activists warn, however, that the rampant use of these drugs in food production reduces their effectiveness in fighting human illness.

The Alternatives: To be certified "organic," cattle must be raised without hormones or antibiotics of any kind and must eat only pesticide-free vegetarian feed. Beef labeled "grass-fed" is the favorite of many animal rights activists. "Grass-fed" cattle likely spent months ambling in pastures before meeting the knife. (This beef is sometimes labeled "natural" rather than organic, since in order to meet that organic bar ranchers would have to certify that thousands of acres of rangeland, much of which may be federal property, is free of pesticides.) However, cattle raised in these fashions usually don't escape the factory farm experience entirely—they often spend a finishing period on feedlots before being slaughtered (a 90-day stay is typical). To avoid this, keep an eye out for labels that read "never confined to a feedlot." Ask butchers for specifics on how the animal was raised or check out producers' Web sites. Two for grass-fed beef are www.meadowraisedmeats.com and www.eatwild.com. Expect to pay for this peace of mind, though; organic beef can cost 50 percent more than the standard fare; grass-fed New York strip steak sells for $9.99 a pound at a local Whole Foods; the conventional version at Safeway is a dollar cheaper.

Industrial Pork: If you pity burgers-to-be, you'll pity pending pork chops. Raised in huge warehouses lined with pens—called CAFOs or confined animal feeding operations—hogs live a grim existence. Pregnant sows live in narrow "gestation crates"—about 2 by 7 feet, too small to turn around in—with slanted floors that allow waste to drop through. As animal rights Food Animal Concerns Trust describes, sows are impregnated again and again, until they're sent to the slaughterhouse at around age 3 (in more natural conditions a pig can live into its teens). Each time a sow gives birth, she is briefly moved to a larger farrowing stall.

But after 15 days or so, the sow returns to the gestation crate to be inseminated again, and her piglets head to crowded pens. Once they reach 50 pounds, some are culled for breeding stock; the others are sent to a "finishing facility"—another set of crowded pens—until they reach typical slaughter-weight of 250 pounds, at six months. In these tight confines, cannibalism is common and the hogs often nonchalantly chew off their neighbors' tails. To prevent this from happening, hog producers clip the tails off.

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