Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Sad Life of a Hamburger

The Sad Life of a Hamburger: Part 1
     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. (I'll have the next part posted shortly and below is the list of sources I used to write this blog; thanks for reading!)
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.


  1. This is very interesting! It is so important to know where our food comes from. And truely the life of a fast food hamburger is a sad one. I have boycotted eating McDonalds for the past several years after watching the documentary, Food Inc., and I haven't missed it one bit. If only everyone would give up fast food, if you can call it food.


    By the time much of our modern day food reaches our system, the nutritional value is so depleted. An effort to eat as much nonprocessed food as possible can provide more essential vitamins and minerals that we need to avoid symptoms like cancer, depression, fatigue etc. The best solution i see is individual choices that affect the demand-supply chain. If we demand the best, that's what they'll have to supply.