I recently came across a menu for a local restaurant boasting the superior quality of its “100% corn-fed Nebraska beef” as if feeding corn to cattle is something to be proud of.
Feeding corn to cattle is, simply put, unnatural, and yet most of the store-bought (and restaurant-consumed) beef in the U.S. is corn-fed. While corn is a cheaper feed and can ready a cow for slaughter much more quickly than a dainty diet of grass, it’s pretty awful for the animal.
Let’s have a look at the plight of a feedlot cow:
- Cattle possess a rumen, evolved specifically for digesting grass. Corn changes their normal digestion process, trapping gas inside and causing the rumen to press on the lungs. The cow suffocates unless a tube is pushed down its esophagus to relieve the pressure.
- The pH in the rumen of a cow is naturally neutral; corn makes it acidic, causing sometimes deadly heartburn in addition to a host of other discomforts. It can also make the cow more susceptible to disease.
- What cattle eat apart from corn is off-putting, too. The FDA in 1997 banned the practice of feeding ruminant protein to other ruminants, because this is how Mad Cow Disease is spread, but about one-fourth of a cow's diet is usually made up of things that aren't food at all. Michael Pollan wrote, in his bestselling The Omnivore's Dilemma, that “Feather meal and chicken litter (that is, bedding, feces, and discarded bits of feed) are accepted cattle feeds, as are chicken, fish, and pig meal.” And he reports that the FDA’s 1997 ban may not stop the spread of Mad Cow “since the bovine meat and bonemeal that cattle used to eat is now being fed to chickens, pigs, and fish, infectious prions could find their way back to cattle when they're fed the protein of the animals that have been eating them.” Great.
- Corn damages the animals’ livers: “Between 15 and 30 percent of feedlot cattle are found at slaughter to have abscessed livers,” Pollan says.
Apart from the corn problem, there’s the issue of Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), where cattle are raised in deplorable conditions, including being jammed together and standing in their own feces. And corn-fed beef is far less nutritious than grass-fed, which has higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins A,C, D, and E, and is lower in saturated fat. Pastured cattle also produce far less pollutants than feedlot cattle, as their waste becomes fertilizer for new grass.
It’s admittedly tough to quit something as pervasive and seemingly unavoidable as corn-fed beef, especially when it’s sitting juicily on a bun with a side of fries. The innocuous burger patty seems so far removed from whatever unfortunate life the animal lived before it got to your plate. And most meat alternatives contain soy, which has its own pitfalls. The dilemma of conscientious eating can seem insurmountable.
It seems that if you are both educated and a corn-fed beef eater, you should at least own the experience and admit to yourself that some very unappetizing things happened for that beef to get to your plate. Isn’t admitting the problem always the first step to fixing it?
Then again, maybe just admitting it is enough to make you lose your appetite altogether.