The Dollar Value menu at your favorite fast food eatery offers people an opportunity to fill their stomach on a limited budget. The food presented is legal to make and serve and eat but basically, I am wondering why it is a choice for people who can afford to chose healthier options. And I’m not even talking about it being fried as the bugaboo. I’m speaking to the quality of the food presented as “hamburger”.
I was recently asked why, if fast food chains can sell hamburgers for $1, why is the beef sold by area farmers so expensive. So let’s look at it.
1. Where do those cows live? Most beef cattle that makes it to supermarkets and most restaurants are raised commercially by huge corporate farms. Beef ranchers around the country raise their cattle up to a certain age and then they are shipped to feedlots to finish bulking them up to a weight that will make it profitable to process. A beef cow fed only on pasture takes up to two years to get to a good weight. A cow fed grain and then finished with corn is usually ready in 15 months, especially when the feed contains growth hormone. Growth hormone has increased the average weight of a beef cow 28% in the twenty years from 1977 to 2007. So, right there is a cost savings. Feed them something that gets them bigger faster and you don’t have to feed them as long. Except you get to eat those hormones too….
2. What else about those feedlots? Well, basically, they are fenced areas of bare earth. Anything that might have been growing in them has been trampled long ago. So the area is dirt, and turns to mud when wet of course. And, the cows’ excrement of course. In pasture, there is room to roam. A cow leaves a pie and moves on, and nature takes care of helping with the decomposition and returning any nutrients to the soil. In a feedlot, you have…..piles. And where you have waste, you have bacteria. So, the cows in feedlots are fed antibiotics in their feed to help keep them from getting sick because they are in an environment that would cause illness. The issue to you about antibiotics in your meat is that bacteria becomes resistance. In all the years that our meat animals have been fed antibiotics, our bodies have low doses of antibiotics in them. This is one of the causes of MRSA and other bacteria resistant to treatment with standard antibiotics.
3. Okay, how does the cow get from the feedlot to the grocery store? One reason people chose to become vegetarians is because the industrial slaughtering process is hard to emotionally accept. Simply, animals are pushed through in large number as quickly as possible with no concern for the adrenaline hormone that is released because of fear affecting the flavor and texture of the meat. Footage that has been available in the past, and many states now make it illegal for this kind of information to be shared, have shown some processing plants have practices that border on cruelty. At the point that the carcass is then aged and then further processed into cuts and ground, all meats are mixed from a number of animals.
4. So, what’s the difference with the meat I can purchase from a local rancher? Your local beef rancher may or may not use grain while the animal in on pasture. Ask. Your local rancher may or may not finish in corn. Ask. Your local rancher may bring several cows at a time to a local plant which processes his animals separately from other farms. If the animal has been pre-purchased by a consumer, that animals meat is kept segregated completely. Some areas, like here in Oregon, mobile processing is permitted by law and the animal may be able to be gently processed right at the farm.
5. Back to that $1 hamburger, so what’s the big deal? A product the industry calls “lean, finely textured meat” has been a fixture in the ground beef served in the free school lunch program and fast food hamburgers for years. This is meat that is extracted through centrifuging cuts taken from the very outside portion of the animal. Since it contains a lot of fat, the processing helps consolidate the protein and it is then mixed in with the muscle tidbits and ground up. This provides a cost savings to the processor by bulking up something that can be sold with something that, by itself, would have no market appeal. It is that pink slime stuff. Concern about these trimmings introducing ecoli into the mix is countered with washing with citric acid and suggestions to cook meat well done. Now compare to the beef I pre-purchased. Well, when my cow was processed into hamburger, it was only pieces of muscle that were used to grind. I requested no organ meat, no cartilage, no trimmings and only a certain percent of fat.
6. Finally, meat grades-where can I get the good stuff? The USDA has standards for beef based on quality grades for tenderness, juiciness and flavor; and yield grades for the amount of usable lean meat on the carcass. Prime, sold primarily to high quality restaurants, is tender with a lot of marbling. Choice and Standard are the typical cuts you find available at the supermarket and at most restaurants. Meat purchased from a rancher directly is typically not graded in this fashion.
7. Which meat is safer to eat? The USDA tells us that the meat processed through the industrial farms and slaughterhouses is safe and even the small processing plants have to meet the same standards of food handling and safety. So, all are essentially equivalent. It’s just that the factory processed meats are treated for diseases by washing with chemicals and direct ranch ordered meat avoids that step.
8. Okay, how can I afford the farm raised beef which is just so much more expensive? 1. The first answer is, if you have the space and ability, buy a large freezer. Then take advantage of buying a portion of a cow, perhaps together with some friends. This brings the per pound price down to what you find in supermarkets. 2. If you do not have space for a freezer, then head to a nearby rancher, either on his farm or at a farmers’ market, and start buying directly in small quantities. Change your eating to make your protein serving size smaller than what you probably do. The USDA dietary guidelines indicate the human body needs only about 2-3 ounces of protein a day with no more than 10% contribution to your overall daily calorie count. TWO to THREE ounces. A quarter pound hamburger is four ounces. So there you have it, you are eating too much meat, aren’t you? If you cut your serving size to what you NEED, not eat what you WANT, that piece of steak you bought can serve more people.
9. Ignorance is bliss? No, choosing ignorance, when given the chance to be educated, is stupid. There is more to selecting what food you eat besides what the safety standards are set by the USDA. Decide if you want to eat meat that has growth hormones. Jokes about men growing boobs aside, there are serious health issues with early onset puberty and other effects of growth hormones being ingested by the American population. And while the Center for Disease Control has set a high alarm for drug-resistant superbugs, the USDA has only instituted a voluntary program to eliminate antibiotics in animal meat production, which essentially means no real change will take effect. The whole grass-fed versus corn-fed diet will continue to be a matter for argument, with the corn being espoused by people who want high level of fat in their beef. So, choices exist and personal education is needed to be able to make the right one for you and your family. But a $1 hamburger is NOT the choice that people with any kind of concern about their health or the health of their growing children would eat. Think about it…REALLY think about it.