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?

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.

The Alternatives: As with organic beef, organic pork is vegetarian, and antibiotic- and hormone-free, but may have spent months in cramped CAFOs. Some producers also sell what they call free-range or meadow-raised pork, meaning pigs that are pastured for much of the year. (These pigs certainly look happier.) But there are no restrictions on the use of these terms, so be sure to ask for the details. Also, in some states, there are efforts to ban the use of gestation crates in hog farming; for instance, Florida voters approved a ballot measure outlawing the practice.

Industrial Turkey: Turkeys live many to a pen, with about 3 square feet per bird. Farmers trim their beaks and toes to prevent the turkeys from attacking each other. The American love of white meat has pushed farmers to selectively breed their flocks for massive, bulging breasts and the ability to gain weight quickly. Commercial poults, or baby turkeys, go from 3-ounce newborns to 30-pound platter prizes in about 18 weeks, according to the industry group National Turkey Federation. This rapid weight may be behind many health problems, such as lameness and heart and lung trouble.

Modern turkeys are so breast-heavy they walk clumsily and cannot fly. Wild turkeys, admired by Benjamin Franklin for their athleticism, have a slim appearance, can run as fast as 18 mph, and bolt into the skies at highway speeds. Commercial toms, on the other hand, also have trouble raising their bodies high enough to have sex at all. Toms stay in one pen, hens in another, with farm workers ferrying the turkey sperm in between.

Industrial Chicken: Broilers (eatin' birds) live in similarly cramped pens. The eye-searing scent of urine on poultry CAFOs can wreak havoc on the birds' respiratory systems and can even cause blindness. Broilers are bred to pack on the pounds fast, too. The average broiler chicken weighs approximately 5 pounds when it heads to market at about 7-weeks-old. * The U.S. Department of Agriculture has sponsered studies that examine skeletal problems associated with rapid growth; an abstract of  one  mentions: "Approximately 30% of commercially raised broilers have leg disorders severe enough to impair their mobility." 

Industrial Eggs: Chickens destined for egg production fare worse than the birds we eat. They often undergo beak- and toe-trimming and are kept in "battery cages" (as small as 16 by 18 inches) with five or six other birds, then the cages are stacked floor to ceiling  in a warehouse-type facility. Animal rights groups charge that chicks born male are tossed alive into a meat grinder to be processed for cattle feed, gassed, or just dumped in trash bags to suffocate. (They're a different breed than what's used for broilers, so they can't be raised for meat.) The females live out their 2-year lives in sloped-bottomed cages that allow the eggs to roll down into troughs and be carried off on conveyor belts. When the hens reach a little over a year, producers withhold food to force molting, or feather loss. This process gives the hens a second wind, adding another 40 weeks to their egg-laying lives. The group Compassion Over Killing contends that nearly 10 percent of a typical flock die from disease or hang themselves on the cage bars. When the hens reach 2, they're sometimes slaughtered for pet food or processed food, such as chicken hot dogs.

The Alternatives: Fast-food giant McDonald's announced in 2000 that all producers who supply its eggs must give hens 72 square inches each (more than three times what they typically get), cannot use forced-molting, and should move toward stopping de-beaking chicks altogether.

But what about free-range poultry? According to activists, turkeys and chickens labeled "free range" didn't necessarily enjoy much more mobility than their CAFO-raised peers. In the United States, poultry can be labeled free-range as long as there's some access to the outdoors, for some of the birds in a flock. Free-range chicks may be de-beaked, and free-range egg-laying hens still spend their days in battery cages—they just have a bit more room to move about. One term to keep an eye out for is "cage free"—fowl raised in open spaces are likely a bit better off.

Correction, Feb. 27. 2004: This piece originally stated broiler chickens are routinely de-beaked and toe trimmed; they typically do not undergo these procedures. Some broiler-breeder chickens may be de-beaked. Broilers also are about 7-weeks-old, not 5, when slaughtered. Return to the corrected item.

Laurie Snyder is Slate's copy chief.