Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Sad Life of a Hamburger Part II

Here is the rest of the "Sad Life of a Hamburger" essay. I hope it makes you think differently about the fast food industry and hamburgers in particular. I'm planning to write a follow-up essay on some alternatives to CAFO beef (we buy beef direct from a family friend who farms and raises cattle in Salem, Illinois). -Mike

Written 16 March 2010
The Sad Life of a Hamburger
     The hamburger is an icon of American culture. This cheap, portable meal, made ubiquitous by numerous fast food chains, spends most of its life behind the scenes in a world deliberately hidden from consumers. Hamburger patties do not magically appear at your local McDonald’s or Wal-Mart; hamburger is made from low grade cuts and scraps of beef that used to belong to a real living cow. These cows are no longer raised on the bucolic settings of farms with red barns, white fences and the small flock of chickens scratching around the picturesque farm house. Instead, modern beef production has become a product of industrial agriculture and CAFOs: Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (“Food, Inc.”). Once the veil is lifted on how a hamburger lives out its life and later contributes to numerous health problems, you may no longer want to eat one.
     Interestingly, the life of a hamburger begins with corn. Cows do not eat corn in nature, but cheap corn means cheap cattle feed, and to the delight of producers, low-cost meat production. Corn is the feed of choice for cattle because it has become so incredibly inexpensive to buy, especially when compared to the cow’s natural diet of grass. Corn became economical and abundant shortly after World War II ended as huge surpluses of nitrogen, previously used for bombs, were made available to be converted into fertilizer. Corn harvests increased, and excesses were quickly amassed. Something needed to be done with all this extra corn. It did not take long for farmers to discover that this corn could be fed to cows, and that cows could be fattened much quicker on corn than on their natural diet of grass (“King Corn”).
     There is only one problem; cows should not eat corn. Cows are ruminants which are multi-stomached herbivores that evolved to eat grass. Corn kernels are not grass but rather grass seeds, or grain. Cows cannot digest corn properly and after some time, less than a year, the cows will develop ulcers and eventually die.  According to C. Kingsolver, “Cows that are fed grain diets in confinement are universally plagued with gastric ailments, most commonly subacute acidosis, which leads to ulceration of the stomach and eventually death” (239). This is why antibiotics are used so extensively in cattle production. These cows are constantly fighting disease and infection and their lives are artificially extended with antibiotics so that producers can fatten the cows on corn a few more months; the very same corn that is slowly killing the animal. Producers argue that the corn creates the desired marbling in meat that American consumers demand, but fail to mention that corn fed beef has much higher percentages of saturated fat than naturally raised grass fed beef. The nutritional value and health costs of this corn fed beef are a whole issue in its self, but first it is important to find the more insidious correlations between cheap corn and hamburgers.
     Finding new and novel uses for corn surpluses attracted the attention of the largest industrial food corporations. These corporations knew that they could buy the corn to feed cattle cheaper than they could grow the corn. The next step was for these corporate giants to lobby Congress and make sure laws, most notably the Federal Farm Bill, kept the price of corn unnaturally low. Prices that are so low in fact, that it now costs more for a farmer to produce the corn than what they can sell it for. In essence, this is the Farm Bill: if a farmer sells a bushel of corn for $2.00 and it costs him $4.00 to produce it, the United States Government writes that farmer a check for the difference. This money does not help the farmers. Hopp offers, “It used to, but ever since its inception just after the Depression, the Federal Farm Bill has slowly been altered by agribusiness lobbyists. It is now largely corporate welfare” (206). That hamburger really costs more than what the consumer pays for it at the drive up window; taxpayer money funds the Federal Farm Bill subsidy.
     The corporate mentality and drive for ever cheaper costs and higher profits are not confined to the big industrial agriculture giants like ADM, Cargill, and Tyson. In the 1930s, the McDonald brothers embraced the factory system in order to reduce costs. They eliminated their carhops in an effort to cut labor costs and implemented an assembly line system for making the hamburgers at all their McDonald’s locations. The drive-thru window and inexpensive hamburgers caught on quickly. The McDonald’s brothers were able to cut costs which meant they could provide a product that was inexpensive, making it available to more and more consumers. As the demand grew for this fast food, so did the demand for larger and cheaper suppliers of ground beef. The McDonald’s Corporation continued to grow, and in their effort to keep consistent quality in all their food they insisted on larger producers to supply a reliable product.
     Farmers with small and medium sized cattle operations were unable to produce enough for this demand, and as a result, a handful of large producers began to confine an unimaginable number of cattle on relatively small factory farms: Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations or CAFOs were born. All the farmers who had previously been raising cattle now turned to growing corn on their land. More corn on the market meant that these CAFOs could buy corn even cheaper, and, therefore, raise even more cattle. More cattle meant more beef and the price fell as a result, making the hamburger the headliner of the 99 cent menu.
     One would think that the CAFOs’ transformation of corn into inexpensive meat would be a great accomplishment, but here is where the veil must be lifted. Wendell Berry suggests, “The designers of animal factories appear to have had in mind the examples of concentration camps or prisons, the aim of which is to house and feed the greatest number in the smallest space at the least expense of money, labor and attention” (11). The conditions and treatment of the animals is a shocking fact that industrial agriculture has kept well hidden. When these operations are concentrating animals, they are also concentrating their wastes, diseases and pathogens. “A pall of fecal-contaminated dust hangs over western feedyards, where tens of thousands of beeves are confined in corrals for months at a time” (Salatin 22). Joel Salatin continues, “This pathogen-laden fecal dust invades the body through the respiratory system. If we tried to house humans in circumstances as unnatural…we would see disease epidemics” (22).
     The air is only the beginning, what is on the ground and in the water of the CAFOs is even worse. The cows often stand in feces and urine up to their knees. The amount of waste is truly staggering; a factory farm with 2,500 cows produces as much waste as a city with 411,000 inhabitants (Weber 24). So much manure is produced that it cannot be used as fertilizer or even composted, so it is kept in manure lagoons where contaminants leach into the ground and pollute nearby waterways. “Feedlot wastes also contain heavy metals and hormone residues, persistent chemicals that end up in waterways downstream, where scientists have found fish and amphibians exhibiting abnormal sex characteristics, CAFOs…transform what at the proper scale would be a precious source of fertility-cow manure-into toxic waste” (Pollan 79).
     Pathogens and disease are common in CAFOs, and due to the close confinement if one animal gets sick, infections will quickly spread. Perhaps the most insidious is Escherichia coli O157:H7, a deadly bacterium that develops in the stomachs of cattle that are being force fed corn. The cows cannot easily digest corn and therefore their stomachs become nearly as acidic as the human stomach. This new form of E. coli is only found in cattle on CAFOs, and did not exist prior to 1980. Usually, bacteria from cattle are killed off in the acidic environment of our stomach because it evolved to live in the neutral pH of a cow’s stomach. When corn was introduced into the cattle diet and the stomach became more acidic, this new type of E. coli developed; a strain tolerant to both the newly acidic environment of the cow stomach and that of the human stomach. Ingesting as few as ten of the E. coli O157:H7 microbes can produce a toxin that destroys human kidneys, and ultimately results in death (Pollan 83).
     The waste that the cows stand knee deep in is full of this deadly bacteria. When the cows go into the slaughter house their hides are caked with the bacterium infested feces. Not only is the pathogen in their stomach, but it is also on the outside of the animal making it extremely difficult to properly clean off before the animal reaches the kill floor. At this point the E. coli O157:H7 bacterium may enter the human food chain, in the form of hamburger meat. Since literally thousands of cows go into a single hamburger patty, the risk of contamination is enormous. When a shipment of ground beef is found to be contaminated, “The federal government does not have authority to recall the beef, only to request that the company issue a recall. When the voluntary recall is initiated, the federal government does not release information on where the contaminated beef is being sold…” (Hopp 230).
     Such a voluntary recall came weeks too late for one family. Barb Kowalcyk and her husband were vacationing with their two and a half year old son when their lives were forever changed by a hamburger. Kevin, their son, was a beautiful and perfectly healthy child until one day he ate a hamburger purchased from a fast food chain tainted with the E. coli O157:H7 bacteria. Kevin developed a lethal infection from the bacteria and within twelve days he was dead, one of the thousands of victims of food borne disease who die in the United States every year. Even after Kevin’s death, it took weeks for the tainted meat to be removed from the market-a shocking comment on the failure of our regulatory system to enforce meat recalls (Weber 35).
     Food borne illnesses may affect thousands each year, but health related issues stemming from fast food beef consumption number in the millions. Obesity, heart disease, diabetes and stroke are a few of the illnesses that affect countless Americans- illnesses caused or exasperated by cheap fast food. “The majority of our food dollars buy those cheap calories, and most of our citizens are medically compromised by weight and inactivity” (Kingsolver 116). Kingsolver adds that, “The incidence of obesity-associated diabetes has more than doubled since 1990, with children the fastest–growing class of victims” (116).  These health related issues come at a great cost as “One out of every three dollars we spend on health care…is paying for the damage of bad eating habits” (116).
     Since hamburgers are indirectly subsidized by the government (remember: corn subsidy), this food is comparably inexpensive. The fresh fruits and vegetables that would help alleviate many health problems are often much too expensive to buy, especially for lower income families. For 99 cents the dollar menu at any of the large fast food chains offers a significant portion of food. The same amount used to purchase fresh fruit or vegetables may only be enough for an apple or small head of broccoli. Americans are feeding themselves almost as poorly as the CAFO cattle are being fed.
     If these cows were not continuously fed corn not only would the instances of E. coli O157:H7 be virtually eliminated, but the nutritional value of the beef would be much higher. ”In nature, no herbivore eats grain. This grain eating adds unnecessary fat to the carcass, which translates into grease and fat for people” (Salatin 18). If cows were allowed to graze on grass as nature intended, the amount of saturated fat in their beef would be significantly lower. If cows are not meant to consume grain, they are also certainly not meant to be cannibals. Perhaps the most shocking ingredient in CAFO cattle feed is other cows, and not the good cow parts. “Animal feed has long been used as a vehicle for disposing of everything from road kill to “offal,” such as brains, spinal cords, and intestines” (Weber 21). Cows do not have a choice in what they eat, but we do. Remember the old saying “you are what you eat”? If the notion of eating a hamburger made from road kill and cow brains, spinal cords and intestines does not suit you, there are options.
     Many conscientious consumers have chosen to “opt out” of the industrial food chain. This means making choices regarding what they eat, and being aware of where their food comes from. This does not mean hamburgers are forbidden. Cheap fast food hamburgers can be replaced with hamburgers made at home with grass fed ground beef. Trader Joes and Whole Foods both sell grass fed ground beef, as do a growing number of regional chain supermarkets.
     Fast food is cheap, convenient and admittedly tastes good, but the costs on animal welfare and human health are just too great to overlook any longer. Growing corn for animal feed is a losing proposition for both farmers and Americans alike. Choosing to “opt out” will not only improve your health, but will also improve your conscience and allow that struggling corn farmer to raise cattle the natural way. You may bite into that grass fed burger knowing that a cow lived a natural, happy life, far removed from the squalid CAFOs of today’s industrial agriculture.  
Works Cited
Berry, Wendell. Bringing It to the Table: on Farming and Food. Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2009. Print.

Food, Inc. Dir. Robert Kenner. Magnolia Home Entertainment, 2008. DVD.

King Corn. Dir. Aaron Woolf. Balcony Releasing, 2007. DVD.

Kingsolver, Barbara, Steven L. Hopp, and Camille Kingsolver. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: a Year of Food Life. New York: Harper Perennial, 2008. Print.

Pollan, Michael. In Defense of Food: the Myth of Nutrition and the Pleasures of Eating. UK: Penguin, 2008. Print.

Pollan, Michael. The Omnivore's Dilemma: a Natural History of Four Meals. New York: Penguin, 2006. Print.

Salatin, Joel. Salad Bar Beef. Swoope, Va.: Polyface, 1995. Print.

Weber, Karl. Food, Inc.: How Industrial Food Is Making Us Sicker, Fatter and Poorer -- and What You Can Do about It. New York: Public Affairs, 2009. Print.

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