Against the Grain
MOST OF THE MEAT Americans consume is raised on feedlots. The typical industrial feedlot located in the Midwest slaughters 10,000 to 20,000 cows every week. It's a system dedicated to economy and efficiency, not ecology.
"It all comes down to money: how to raise the most meat in the least amount of time for the least cost," says David Wallinga, M.D., director of the food and health program at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in Minneapolis. "But there are health implications for that model--for the cow, for the environment, and for us."
Because crowded conditions increase the likelihood of infections, the cattle are routinely given prophylactic antibiotics. To fatten them up quickly, they're often dosed with growth hormones and fed a steady diet of grain and corn, which is harder on their bodies than their natural diet of grass, and may introduce the added risk of pesticide residue. Also, the manure produced by so many animals pollutes local watersheds and creates volatile gasses, which foul the air.
But the issue that's receiving the most attention is mad cow disease, aka bovine spongiform encephalopathy. Cows can pick up the disease when they eat parts of infected animals, and the disease is transmissible--and lethal--to humans. New regulations banned the use of meat and bone meal in cattle feed in 1997. But critics charge that the FDA's and USDA's inspection oversight is weak and filled with loopholes, and the beef industry still only tests about 1 percent of its cattle for the disease. Thanks to such controversies, more than 60 countries have completely or partly banned the importation of American beef.
Antibiotic resistance doesn't get headlines, but "it could be a looming public health problem," says Wilkins. "The nonmedical use of antibiotics in animal agriculture may be threatening [antibiotic] effectiveness for treating human diseases, by creating conditions for the emergence of resistant bacteria." All in all, it's a big price to pay for a 79-cent hamburger.
Against the Grain