This is such a touchy subject, folks. I come from Nebraska, land of the amazing steak, and Nebraskans don't like to talk about where their meat comes from. It makes sense: almost all of us know someone who makes at least part of their living off beef cattle, and you don't want mess with another person's living. We tiptoe around the topic of antibiotics, hormones, and cruel slaughtering practices. We don't want to think about pen sizes or whether our hamburger ate grass covered in pesticides. There aren't many vegetarians in Nebraska, I can tell you, and the ones who are have a hard time. After all, tomatoes don't put food on your neighbor's table. Touchy, touchy subject, I can assure you.
I am not a vegetarian. For one thing: I like to eat meat. For another: I have Crohn's disease, which limits the foods I am allowed to consume. Limiting myself further would make it difficult to get the nutrients I need, especially since my body doesn't handle soy well. So yes, I eat meat every day. I'm not here to talk about giving up your bacon cheeseburger.
Let's talk, instead, about how to eat meat right. You heard me! Bam! Value judgement, right out of the gate. I'm not backing away from this, friends. In my (educated) opinion, there are right and wrong ways to consume other animals. I'm going to tell you how to eat meat the right way, and you can leave me annoyed messages amending everything I've said in the comments. I'm cool with that.
WHERE'S THE BEEF?
We're going to dive right in with my home-state's trademark: The Cow. Cows have been domesticated since the early Neolithic era, which means we've had a long time to breed them into exactly what we want them to be. Basically: really large, really docile, really delicious animals. My husband's family live on a cattle farm (no, it's not a ranch, I do know the difference). Casey assures me that cows are perfectly content to be penned up together, chewing up grass and sleeping a lot. Cows are very big, heavy animals and--little known fact--they can jump pretty high. If a cow decided it didn't want to be in the pen, it'd just walk right through it. Or jump right over it. It's pretty much impossible to stop a cow from doing whatever it damn well pleases.
But cows have been bred to trust us, much like sheep and goats. That's pretty sick when you think about it, although very convenient. Cows believe we are going to take care of them and so they stay where we put them. Contrary to popular belief, they are not stupid. Cows will come when you call them, just like dogs, and they form incredibly complex social bonds. They have friendships, social hierarchies, and even hold grudges against other cows. After I first witnessed the separation of the calves from the mothers on the family farm, I did a little research. My husband's pleasant lie-- that after a few days, cows simply forget their own babies-- is completely false. Cows have very long memories. They don't forget; they give up in despair.
Why am I telling you all of this? Because if we're going to eat an animal with the capacity for emotion, for friendship, for love, then we need to make sure we're dealing with them humanely. Most people wouldn't put down a dog by slitting its throat and throwing its body on a hook while it is still alive. We do this to cattle. There are many ways to slaughter cattle which are approved under the Humane Slaughter Act of 1958, and all require the animal to be knocked out before it is killed. But it is well-documented that the methods of doing so often fail, and the animals sometimes bleed out while conscious. Even if they don't, other cows can usually see the dead cows hanging in front of them while they wait their turn to die. This is no way to treat an animal which is giving its life to sustain yours.
Putting all that touchy-feely stuff aside, there are still the chemicals to consider. Commercially-bred and -raised cows are usually given a series of antibiotics (such as these), vaccines (like these), and steroids (see this article). They are fed hay which has been sprayed down with pesticides and weed-killer. And, if they can get away with it, they will wash the meat down with ammonia prior to grinding it. We're not even talking about Pink Slime, here, which is actually chicken. I don't know about you but when I order a hamburger, I just want to get hamburger.
SO WHAT DO WE DO?
As is often the case, we vote with our wallets.
Look, the beef industry doesn't care if you like a YouTube video. They don't care what petitions you sign or what stories you share on Facebook. All they care about at the end of the day is what you pay for in the grocery store.
If you continue to buy beef based solely on what is cheapest, you will be feeding your family chemicals that you shouldn't knowingly feed to your cat. I know, I know, it's easy for me to say. We don't have children to feed and clothe and house. I'm going to hit you some hard facts though. I'm sorry, but I just can't help myself:
1) You're eating too much meat anyway.
According to the USDA, "In 2000, total meat consumption (red meat, poultry, and fish) reached 195 pounds (boneless, trimmed-weight equivalent) per person, 57 pounds above average annual consumption in the 1950s." Although we are consuming leaner cuts of meat than our predecessors, most of us are still consuming too much protein. And we're getting it from sources that are higher in saturated fats and more expensive.
2) Meat is an expensive protein.
The average cost of a pound of hamburger is $3.33 and that makes four quarter-pound hamburgers. The average cost of a pound of black beans is $1.99 and makes roughly 8 cups. You also get protein from nuts, cheese, yogurt, eggs, soy, and even quinoa. You're probably taking in more than you realize; there's really no reason to think you need to have a meat option at every meal. I eat meat once a day, usually at dinner, and that is more than sufficient. Buying less means you can afford to eat better quality meat when you do consume it.
3) If your kids are eating school lunches, they are eating animal by-products.
Just watch Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution. I don't have time to go into all of this here.
Okay, so here's what to look for if you want to eat meat the right way...
Certified Organic. The USDA requires certified organic beef to meet some requirements. The cows must be raised on a certified organic pasture. They can never receive antibiotics or hormones. They can only be fed certified organic grains and grasses, which means no pesticides or chemical weed-killers. They also must have unrestricted outdoor access, and be slaughtered in the most humane way currently available.
Don't be fooled by packaging that says the beef is "natural." This only means it has no additives-- which is good for hamburger but otherwise pointless. "Certified Organic" is the only guarantee you're going to get, short of driving out to the farm and seeing the process for yourself. We sometimes stock up on beef from the family farm, but only because I know exactly where and how it's raised and slaughtered.
Is it going to cost more? Yes. But it will taste better. It will be safe for you and for your family. It will ensure that we're treating our fellow creatures, even those we eat, with humane respect. Just try it for a month. One month of buying meat that is certified organic, even if it means buying less. You'll taste the difference, I guarantee, and you won't suffer from eating a little less beef.
Good luck, and bon appetit!