Wednesday, December 5, 2012


     Here are the basics of what I know about the beef industry in the United States.  This information has been compiled from various sources that are noted at the bottom of this post.  I'm writing this one in a slightly different format (without in-text citations) so if anyone wants to know where a specific fact is sourced from, simply leave a comment and I will let you know.  This post just serves as an overview of the entire beef industry.  I found that I needed to compile all of this information before I was able to really understand any of the individual problems in the industry.  I will be posting more on beef in the future, as there are many facets of this to address.  

      Cattle are often born in a pleasant pasture like the ones that are pictured of the websites of beef-related companies or on the packages of beef that you can buy in your grocery store.  The rest of the life of the animal, however, is much different than this picture.  After understanding how this system is set up, it is easy to see why there are serious problems with it.  Lets follow the animal through this system.

      They live on their green pastures for a little while, until they are old enough to be transfered to a feed lot (a separate company from the pasture owner).  Feed lots, or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), are just what they sound like.  Cattle can be found here in numbers anywhere from 12,000 head of cattle to over 120,000 head of cattle.  They are most often fed a diet of corn, which their stomachs are not built to digest, antibiotics, and often a processed substance from either petroleum or chicken parts.  Often other hormones are given to the cattle as well to make them grow faster or fatter.  They are in closely confined spaces without access to pasture of any kind.  They are often knee deep in their own feces for long periods of time.  Once you start to picture a traditional CAFO, it is easy to see why antibiotics need to be constantly distributed to the cattle in order to keep them from getting sick.  The purpose of the CAFO is to grow the animal from a young animal into a larger, fatter animal.  The CAFO wants to maximize the total pounds of beef than can be processes from a single animal.  The CAFO gets cattle from a huge amount of individual pastures across the country.  

      After the CAFO, the meat packers enter the picture.  These companies (separate from both the pasture owner and the CAFO) often buy cattle from many different CAFOs across the country.  Here, the cattle are slaughtered and processed into specific cuts of meat or ground beef.  These are depicted in Upton Sinclair's The Jungle as truly awful places where the workers are largely immigrants with little or no ability to organize.  Workers were often injured or killed in the work place and were not properly cared for or compensated.  Although this is a picture of meat packing plant in the early 1900's, many people think that today's packing plants have become, once again, a very dangerous environment with immigrant workers.

      The last company that is involved is the grocery store that you buy your beef from.  Some grocery stores, like our local Safeway, buy their meat from one company. When asked where their beef comes from, they said "Cargil" very plainly and simply.  But others, like our local Raley's, buys their meat from various companies from around the country, and it is difficult to get a clear answer to the question of what company your beef comes from.  Still some, like Costco, pack their own meat, and purchase cattle from various companies across the country.  In some cases there is yet another layer of companies in this system.  Food-4-Less gets their meat from C&S, which is a food supply company that buys meat from packers and produce from other companies as well, organizes it and delivers it to grocery stores and often restaurants as well.  

      This is the basic structure of the meat industry.  I'm sure I have left out some important parts that I am unaware of.  If you know of something, please leave a comment and I will look into it and update the post.  The main thing that we can glean from this structure is the compartmentalization.  By that I mean that each step of the process of turing a fetal cow into a package of ground beef is completely separate from the rest.  The animal is born in one company, raised in another, slaughtered in another, and sold in yet another.  This compartmentalization is where many of the problems in the industry arise from.  The CAFO buys the cows, the feed, and the antibiotics, and it sells the fully grown cow.  Those are its inputs and outputs, speaking in economic terms.  For the CAFO to increase profits, it does not matter how the feed was made as long as it is the cheapest, and it does not matter how happy or healthy the cattle are as long as they can be sold to the packer for a profit.  

      Lets contrast this system to that of Polyface Farms, where the cattle are grass fed.  In this system, the farmer grows the grass, and the cattle, slaughters his or her own animals, and packages and sells them as well.  In this system, it is to the farmer's advantage to create the most sustainable overall system.  That is exactly what we see at Polyface Farms.  The grass grows in the ground, the cattle eat it out of the ground, while fertilizing those same fields with their manure.  Open grazing allows the farmer to abstain from using low doses of antibiotics, which makes the manure from the CAFOs more like toxic waist than usable plant food.  Because the cattle at Polyface Farms are not confined to a small place, not fed corn that they are unable to digest properly, and not standing in their own feces for months at a time, they are healthy.  Because they are healthy, they produce a usable byproduct instead of a harmful one.  

      So what are some of the problems that we find in the beef industry?  Well E-Coli is one of the most well known ones.  Here's the basic chain of events that caused this dangerous organism.  First, the CAFO feeds its cattle corn because it is the cheapest thing out there and it creates a fat cow.  The problem with this is that cattle are not made to eat corn, and it causes E-Coli to build up in their stomach, and ultimately end up in their feces.  These same cattle are knee-deep in not just their own feces but that of all the other cattle in close proximity to them as well.  The cattle end up covered in feces by the time they are taken to the slaughterhouses.  The slaughterhouses are slaughtering so many animals so quickly that there is no way of ensuring that some of that manure does not end up in the meat that you buy at the grocery store or in a restaurant.  One interesting thing to point out is that a CAFO cow can be but on a grass diet and the amount of E-Coli in their stomach will drop by 80% in a matter of days.  But this does not happen because the companies involved are more focused on making a profit than the health of the animal.  The compartmentalization in this system allows each party to blame the system when something goes wrong, rather than find a way to fix without creating another one.  

(1) Omnivore's Dilemma (book by Michael Pollan, 2006)
(2) The Jungle (book by Upton Sinclair, 1906)
(3) Food Inc. (film directed by Participant Media and Karl Weber, 2009)
(5) Raley's (phone call to the local meat department) (
(6) Safeway (phone call to the local meat department) (
(7) Costco (phone call to the local meat department) (
(9) Food-4-Less (phone call to the local meat department) (

1 comment:

  1. I remember reading a few of the things you mentioned here in "The Vegetarian Myth" by Lierre Kieth with regards to CAFO's. Lierre also talks about grain-fed livestock (chicken's too, not just cattle) being nutritionally deficient. In the case of Chickens, feeding them grain gives them fatty liver disease because they would naturally be eating insects (protein).

    I think Derrick Jensen also touched on this problem in "A Language Older Than Words" where he talks about people's disconnection from the world that supports them, in this case from the food systems that nourish them (or not, as the case may be).

    And I noticed you mentioned Polyface Farms, I'm a big fan of Joel Salatin's work on sustainable agriculture. There is also the Veta La Palma Fish Farm( and Eduardo Sousa's Farm, both located in Spain, that I first heard about from Dan Barber's TEDtalks (How I Fell In Love With A Fish: and A Fois Gras Parable: ). Very cool places.