10 Crazy Things About Your Beef

See how asthma meds, bodybuilding steroids, and supergerms relate to the American beef supply.

October 10, 2013

See how far industry goes to fatten up beef in the weeks leading up to slaughter.

It's increasingly apparent that the industrial model for raising meat in this country comes with some unappetizing problems. Sure, the meat is cheaper than organic, grass-fed versions, but when you consider the medicinal residues in the meat, the strange new finding about steroids commonly implanted in cows' ears, and the fact that food producers are feeding cattle chicken manure and feathers, well, you may want to reconsider your meat choices


Whether you eat meat or not, everyone deserves to know these concerning beef facts, since you won't find them on any beef label…

1. 'Roid Rage
An anabolic steroid once popular in bodybuilding and weigh-lifting circles is now used extensively to make American beef cattle grow faster. But scientists have recently discovered a major problem with the nonorganic 'roid regimen. After the cows excrete the steroid trenbolone acetate and it ultimately runs off from their rangeland or feedlots (or from fields where the cows' manure has been applied), it doesn't break down. In fact, University of Iowa researchers discovered that under the right conditions, it actually regenerates itself into a potent, hormone-disrupting form.

It's not clear what this means for the environment or human health because up until this point, trenbolone acetate was believed to break down into a harmless by-product. About 20 million cows receive the steroid annually. It's usually administered through an implant in their ears, according to researchers.

2. The Cannibalism Circuit
Cows are still being fed slaughterhouse waste, blood, and manure, according to the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). The organization explains that cattle remains are still fed to chickens, and then chicken manure is fed back to cows. (A single cow can eat as much as three tons of poultry waste a year, according to HSUS.)

In this way, prions—infectious proteins that cause mad cow disease—may continue to be cycled back into cattle feed and complete the cow "cannibalism" circuit blamed for the spread of the disease. Although the Food and Drug Administration initially proposed to ban the feeding of blood and blood products to livestock, the agency ended up reneging the move, HSUS says.


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3. H20 Drain
According to a 2012 study, animal products generally have bigger water footprints than non-animal products. For example, in terms of protein, the water footprint is six times larger for beef than it is for legumes. According to a 2011 study published in the Journal of Animal Science, it takes 52.8 gallons of water to produce a single Quarter Pounder slab of beef.

4. Eerie Asthma Drugs
Several weeks before slaughter, some large producers typically feed beef cattle Zilmax, or zilpaterol hydrochloride, to accelerate overall growth and promote more lean muscle in the animals. In recent years, sales of this and similar drugs have risen sharply as corn prices have risen (making fattening cattle on feed more costly), according to The Wall Street Journal. Already banned for use in beef cattle feed in China, Russia, and the European Union, Tyson Foods, America's largest beef producer, recently announced it would phase out use of the drug after reports of animals going lame were reported.

5. Treatment That's Bull
Male beef calves often have their genitals cut off without pain relief, something that would be illegal if done to dogs or cats, HSUS notes. The males are castrated to improve their meat's tenderness and quality and curb their aggression. (Fighting before slaughter could result in coarsely textured meat with a poorer shelf life.) Studies looking at the levels of the stress hormone cortisol prove castration is painful (as if you'd need proof). Studies have also found pain medications help alleviate that pain, but larger operations often don't administer it, according to HSUS.


6. Bodily Beef Burden
When you break down the millions of pounds of beef Americans eat every year, it calculates to about 60 pounds per person. That could be way too much if you want to be healthy. A recent Australian study found that eating red meat 10 or more times per week could increase a person's risk of age-related blindness, and a study looking at more than half a million people that was published in the journal Archives of Internal Medicine found eating large amounts of red meat and any processed meats increases your overall risk of dying and in particular your risk of dying from cancer or cardiovascular disease.

7. The Climate-Change Connection
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, animal agriculture alone represents 14.5 percent of global, human-induced greenhouse-gas emissions. Aside from lamb, beef has the highest footprint of all meats. For every 4 ounces you eat, it's like driving nearly 7 miles. The good news? Even small shifts create major benefits. According to a 2008 study, an average U.S. household that shifts from a red meat– and dairy-based diet to a vegetable-based diet just one day a week could reduce greenhouse-gas emissions equivalent to driving 1,000 fewer miles.

8. Worming Meds in Meat
A 2010 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) found that many dangerous substances, including pesticides, veterinary medicines, dioxin, and heavy metals like arsenic, are winding up in the nation's beef supply. Other detected substances of concern? Flunixin, a veterinary drug that can cause kidney damage, stomach and colon ulcers, and blood in the stool of humans; penicillin, a drug that can cause life-threatening reactions in people who are allergic to it; ivermectin, an animal wormer that can cause neurological damage in humans; and copper, an essential element in trace amounts that becomes harmful when too much accumulates in our bodies. The audit also found arsenic in meat, perhaps because the carcinogen has been commonly fed to chickens, and feedlot cattle are routinely fed chicken litter.

9. Germ Central
A recent report from the Centers for the Science in the Public Interest analyzed 12 years' worth of data collected by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on foodborne illness outbreaks and found that ground beef, other cuts of beef, and steak are among the riskiest meats you can eat.

Ground beef was the second most common source of meat-related illness outbreaks, with 90 percent of the recalls due to the presence of E. coli, Salmonella, or Listeria, all bacteria that originate in slaughterhouses and can lead to major health problems or even death. Because of heavy antibiotic use on feedlots, beef tends to become tough. That's why slaughterhouses have increasingly turned to "mechanical tenderization," a process that uses needles or blades to pierce the exterior of a piece of meat to tenderize it. In doing so, though, those needles or blades can drive any bacteria that may be living on the exterior of a piece of meat farther into the flesh, where it may not be killed during cooking.

10. "Natural" Means Nothing
At the supermarket, meat labeled "natural" can have any or all of these problems. Choosing meat that's labeled with the USDA-certified-organic symbol means your beef came from cows fed a certain amount of grass and grain grown without the use chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Organic certification prohibits the feeding of steroids or antibiotics, and the cows are not permitted to eat chicken manure, as nonorganic beef cattle are—and do.

If you'd rather not buy organic from the supermarket, connect with a local beef producer and ask questions to make sure your meat supply is raised in a way that avoids these problems. Or you can, of course, cut back on meat, perhaps incorporating Meatless Mondays into your family's routine. To make sure you still get plenty of protein, read 9 Vegetarian Sources of Protein.