Feeding Our Food (Part 1)

When we think of farm animals, we picture cows eating grass on the pasture, pigs rolling in mud troughs, and chickens pecking at the ground for grubs. Unfortunately, this is nowhere near reality. In fact, most of our farm animals are not raised on farms at all. Instead, they are raised in Confined Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs, which are essentially just huge meat factories. This may be hard to believe, but in the US, only four companies produce 81% of cows, 73% of sheep, 57% of pigs and 50% of chickens!

Just like any other factory, the goal of these CAFOs is to reduce costs and increase profits. There are many ways they do this, including using the cheapest feed possible, and fattening the animals for slaughter as quickly as possible.

Therefore, the meals served up in the CAFOs are the cheapest, most fattening dish available: a mixture of corn, soy, antibiotics, hormones, meat from other animals (including diseased animals), bits of feathers, hair, skin, hooves, blood, manure, chicken litter, and plastic. By now you probably think I’m exaggerating, but I assure you I am not. All of these are legal feedlot ingredients, demonstrating that our system has lost sight of the appropriate way to raise livestock.

In order to keep this post from turning into a novel, I’ll address the base of the feedlot meal, the corn and soy, in this post, then will follow up on the other appetizing ingredients in the next post.

Corn and Soy
Because of a series of events (including government farm subsidies, which will be discussed in a later post), corn and soy became incredibly cheap and therefore became the base of CAFO feed. Livestock consumes 60% of the corn and 47% of the soy produced in the US.

Just like humans, animals are healthiest when they eat the correct diet. That diet is not corn. Let’s just take cows as an example (similar principle for pigs, chicken, turkeys, etc): Cows are ruminants, which is a type of animal with a digestive system designed to process grass. Ruminants have four-chambered stomachs and digest their food by eating it, then regurgitating it, and eating it again. The regurgitated, re-eaten food is processed in the section of the stomach called the ‘rumen‘.

When a cow eats corn, or anything else its digestive tract is not designed to handle, it creates digestive problems. A low fiber (all corn, no grass) diet causes fermentation acids to accumulate in the rumen and this acid buildup causes ulcers, which can also lead to infections and abscesses in the liver (not to mention excessive indigestion and drooling/frothing).

Additionally, grains accumulate in the cow’s intestines, because they are not digested properly, and cause growth of E. coli in the digestive tract (you know that stuff that can kill you if you don’t cook your hamburger well enough), as well as an overgrowth of a bacteria that causes “Sudden Death Syndrome” in feedlot cattle.

But instead of switching the cows back to a diet of grass (which would raise costs), CAFOs just pump the feed full of antibiotics to try to lessen the effects of the corn diet, which further alters the natural internals of the cow’s digestive system.

Not only is corn a cheap meal, but it is also a fattening one because of the way it is digested and fermented in a cow’s digestive system. Prior to CAFOs, steers were 4-5 years old at slaughter. Today, they are 14-16 months. You can’t take a beef calf from a birth weight of 80 pounds to slaughter weight of 1,200 pounds in a little more than a year on grass. It takes enormous quantities of corn, protein (feeding animals to animals), and growth hormones.

A corn based diet is not just unhealthy for the cows, but it is also unhealthy for the humans eating those cows. Besides the significant increase in E. coli, corn fed cows develop a marbled flesh, which is saturated fat woven into their muscles. And because the USDA is out to protect the farmers (not the consumers), their beef grading system is set up to reward this intra-muscular fat marbling with a “Grade A” stamp.

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2 Responses to “Feeding Our Food (Part 1)”

  1. Christine wa Brandon Says:

    I appreciate you putting all of this info together, cousin!

    I really do hate the way animals have come to be treated in the industry. It hasn’t motivated me to give up meat yet, but I would like to look into buying meat on a more local level once we get back.

    Do you know of any good ways to do that around Austin? While also not spending too much more money on meat?

  2. Powered By Produce Says:

    The best way to not spend too much money on meat is to not buy any šŸ™‚ Seriously though, one of the perks of going vegetarian is the drop in grocery bills – veggies are much cheaper than meat. But, to remain omnivorous and eat humanely, healthily raised meat, your best bet is to buy from local farmers’ markets. The farmers’ market culture is an anti-CAFO culture. Feel free to ask the seller how their animals are raised (they should be proud of their operation and more than willing to tell you about it) and find someone you trust to buy your meat from. Unfortunately, local meat will cost more beacuse it comes from farms, not factories. These animals did not eat cheap feed and they have much more land per animal, raising their cost. It’s the same principle as most other things, you get what you pay for. In Austin specifically, I found these markets online (both sell local meat): http://www.austinfarmersmarket.org and http://www.sunsetvalleyfarmersmarket.org/ I would also quickly like to address Whole Foods – while this is a great place to buy organic or grass-fed animals (which are two different things), this is very different than buying local animals. Whole Foods sells industrialized meat from large-scale CAFO or CAFO-like sources. Yes, their beef may be organic, but that simply indicates that they were not fed antibiotics in their CAFO. More on “Industrialized Organic” vs Local later…!

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