Don’t mistreat meat we eat

Americans wast about a quarter of meat products purchased

By Brian Boyle, spotlight editor

The way Americans raise and handle the meat they eat is costing them far more than money.

The American food system is filled with bad practices, be it poor feed and overuse of medication, poor living conditions for animals and blatant waste of food.

At the retail and consumer level — it has reached supermarkets or has been purchased — Americans waste about 24 percent of the beef they produce, about 32 percent of pork produced and about 20 percent of chicken produced, according to the United States Department of Agriculture’s Adjusted Food Availability Report for 2013.

To put that in perspective, Americans throw away approximately 500 million whole chickens annually. This waste most likely comes from a number of factors. Supermarkets strive to have their shelves packed to the brim, regardless of whether or not the items will sell. The “Use By, Sell By” and expiration date system, which has no actual regulation tied to it, is filled with nonsensical practices.

The dates one sees on packages inside a supermarket are there to alert the store when items may begin to look less fresh and often have little to do with the safety of consuming the product.

Having worked in a supermarket’s meat department, I have witnessed boxes of ground beef, which are not vacuum sealed to ensure freshness, have an expiration date over a month after the meat arrived in the store, which itself is a date usually separated by at least a week from when the animal was slaughtered. That same beef, which was only transferred from a box to cellophane wrapped Styrofoam, is put on the shelves with an expiration date of only two days.

Somehow, in the transfer from a 32-degree refrigerator to a shelf kept at 32 degrees, the beef lost the vast amount of its shelf life. Yet, the exact same beef will sit and quietly age in the backroom for the remainder of its original expiration date.Huge amounts of meat are further wasted in supermarkets from being packaged with far more perishable items, such as the cookies or pudding cups in Lunchables. The “expired” meat is collected in bulk and sold off to companies that utilize meat by-products and expired meat to make things such as glue. This is done despite the fact that freezing meat can often extend the shelf life of it by six months, if not more. A package of pork ribs is usually given 13 days on a shelf while being refrigerated, but is given 180 days if frozen.

This waste of food calls the condition in which American livestock live into question.

Since 2002, when People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) started their “Meet your Meat” campaign against KFC and the pig-farming industry, the conditions those two animal species are raised in have been widely discussed. The video shows scenes of farm workers brutalizing and torturing pigs and chickens. Though the shocking nature of the video should be balanced against its source, PETA made Americans’ question where the food on their plate came from.

Chicken and pig farms are squalid places. Animals are packed together in a manner that provides them unlimited access to food, while limiting their movement. According to the National Chicken Council’s Animal Welfare Guidelines, the humane stocking density of chickens is 7.5 pounds per square foot of cage space. Chickens are bred to be approximately 4-5 pounds before being slaughtered, meaning their short lives are spent in less than a square foot of space. One square foot is the size of a classroom tile.

For chickens exhibiting deformities or sickness, humane euthanasia is recommended. The humane euthanasia methods the National Chicken Council recommends are rapid decapitation, rapid cervical disarticulation (including tool assisted) and oxygen displacement. This means gassing chickens, or cutting off their heads are the preferred methods of slaughter as they deny chickens a chance of pain or life almost instantly. Rapid cervical disarticulation means snapping their necks, the addendum that tool assisted neck breaking is allowable indicates it is the exception, not the rule.

Free-range organic chicken at Trader Joe’s costs $2.69 per pound for a whole chicken. A Foster Farm’s factory farmed whole chicken is $1.79 per pound. Trader Joe’s sells organic boneless-skinless chicken breasts for $6.99 per pound. Foster’s Farms boneless-skinless chicken breasts cost $6.59 per pound.

Cows fare little better than chickens. The American beef industry practices farming methods that are expensive and harmful.

Most beef in America is corn fed. Grass fed beef is always advertised in large lettering. The problem with corn fed beef is simple — cows cannot digest corn. According to Michael Pollan, the author of such books as “In Defense of Food,” and “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” corn became a popular feed for cows after World War II, when the United States government began subsidizing corn. Beef farmers saw that corn fed beef fattens quickly and has more marbling than grass fed beef. Marbling of beef is indicative of its internal fat content. Stripes of white fat throughout a cut indicate tenderness and flavor.

Farmers soon learned that cows fed corn experience acidosis. Acidosis is when a cow’s stomach becomes more acidic, causing it to rupture and kill the cow. Antibiotics were introduced to cows’ diets to keep them alive until reaching the slaughterhouse.

This medication presented another challenge — it created the perfect environment for the bacteria E. Coli to exist.

E. Coli is about 315 times more prevalent in corn fed beef than grass fed beef. In a study done by Bill Kiernan, the director of the Global Agricultural Investing Research and Insight group, corn fed beef was found to have about 6.3 million E. Coli cells per gram, while grass fed beef had only 20,000.

The study also showed corn fed beef has 15-50 percent less Omega 3 fatty acids than grass fed. Omega 3 fatty acids are essential to a human’s well being.

Grass fed beef has been shown to have Vitamin A, Vitamin E, as well as more potassium, iron, zinc, phosphorus and sodium than corn fed beef. These vitamins and micronutrients contribute to a person’s well being. Corn fed beef has been shown to be higher in fat than grass fed beef.

Grass fed beef also has five times the amount of conjugated linoleic acid than corn fed. CLA has been shown in laboratory settings to be anti-carcinogenic, anti-diabetic and to contribute to heart health.

According to U.S. Census Bureau data looking at causes of death in 1900, before corn fed beef was poplar, and 2005, at the relative height of its popularity, the causes of death in America differed greatly.

Heart disease in 1900 was responsible for approximately 137 deaths per 100,000 population. Cancer was responsible for 64 deaths per 100,000, and things such as cerebrovascular diseases (hypertension) and chronic lower respiratory diseases did not even make the list.

In 2005, the causes of death were considerably different. Heart disease was responsible for 210 deaths per 100,000, while cancer was responsible for 184 deaths per 100,000. Cerebrovascular diseases and chronic lower respiratory disease, both associated with dietary fat, were responsible for 47 and 43 deaths per 100,000, respectively.

A USDA prime rib-eye steak costs approximately $19.99 per pound. This steak will be corn fed, and is only labeled prime based on its marbling and age. A grass fed rib-eye steak costs approximately $14.99 per pound. A USDA select sirloin steak, a slightly lower quality than prime, is about $5.99 per pound, while grass fed sirloin steak is about $7.99 per pound. The comparison between the prices of grass fed beef is closer to the non-prime corn fed beef, yet the tenderness, marbling and taste are closer to USDA prime cuts.

The way Americans treat their meat is not only damaging American pocket books, but also costing Americans their health. A change in the way we treat the meat we eat cannot only provide better tasting, more nutritious meat, but it can come at a lower cost.