Bill Totten's Weblog

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Discover How Your Beef is Really Raised (4 of 4)

Article by Michael Pollan, originally published
in the New York Times (March 31 2002)

Posted by Dr Mercola (April 27 2002)

What I know about what happens on the far side of the blue door comes mostly from Temple Grandin, who has been on the other side and, in fact, helped to design it. Grandin, an assistant professor of animal science at Colorado State, is one of the most influential people in the United States cattle industry.

She has devoted herself to making cattle slaughter less stressful and therefore more humane by designing an ingenious series of cattle restraints, chutes, ramps and stunning systems. Grandin is autistic, a condition she says has allowed her to see the world from the cow's point of view.

The industry has embraced Grandin's work because animals under stress are not only more difficult to handle but also less valuable: panicked cows produce a surge of adrenaline that turns their meat dark and unappetizing. "Dark cutters", as they're called, sell at a deep discount.

Grandin designed the double-rail conveyor system in use at the National Beef plant; she has also audited the plant's killing process for McDonald's.

Stories about cattle "waking up" after stunning only to be skinned alive prompted McDonald's to audit its suppliers in a program that is credited with substantial improvements since its inception in 1999. Grandin says that in cattle slaughter "there is the pre-McDonald's era and the post-McDonald's era - it's night and day".

Grandin recently described to me what will happen to Number 534 after he passes through the blue door. "The animal goes into the chute single file", she began. "The sides are high enough so all he sees is the butt of the animal in front of him. As he walks through the chute, he passes over a metal bar, with his feet on either side. While he's straddling the bar, the ramp begins to decline at a 25-degree angle, and before he knows it, his feet are off the ground and he's being carried along on a conveyor belt. We put in a false floor so he can't look down and see he's off the ground. That would panic him."

Listening to Grandin's rather clinical account, I couldn't help wondering what Number 534 would be feeling as he approached his end. Would he have any inkling - a scent of blood, a sound of terror from up the line - that this was no ordinary day?

Grandin anticipated my question: "Does the animal know it's going to get slaughtered? I used to wonder that. So I watched them, going into the squeeze chute on the feedlot, getting their shots and going up the ramp at a slaughter plant. No difference. If they knew they were going to die, you'd see much more agitated behavior.

"Anyway, the conveyor is moving along at roughly the speed of a moving sidewalk. On a catwalk above stands the stunner. The stunner has a pneumatic-powered 'gun' that fires a steel bolt about seven inches long and the diameter of a fat pencil. He leans over and puts it smack in the middle of the forehead. When it's done correctly, it will kill the animal on the first shot."

For a plant to pass a McDonald's audit, the stunner needs to render animals "insensible" on the first shot 95 percent of the time. A second shot is allowed, but should that one fail, the plant flunks.

At the line speeds at which meatpacking plants in the United States operate - 390 animals are slaughtered every hour at National, which is not unusual - mistakes would seem inevitable, but Grandin insists that only rarely does the process break down.

"After the animal is shot while he's riding along, a worker wraps a chain around his foot and hooks it to an overhead trolley. Hanging upside down by one leg, he's carried by the trolley into the bleeding area, where the bleeder cuts his throat.

"Animal rights people say they're cutting live animals, but that's because there's a lot of reflex kicking". This is one of the reasons a job at a slaughter plant is the most dangerous in America. "What I look for is, Is the head dead? It should be flopping like a rag, with the tongue hanging out. He'd better not be trying to hold it up - then you've got a live one on the rail." Just in case, Grandin said, "they have another hand stunner in the bleed area".

Much of what happens next - the de-hiding of the animal, the tying off of its rectum before evisceration - is designed to keep the animal's feces from coming into contact with its meat. This is by no means easy to do, not when the animals enter the kill floor smeared with manure and 390 of them are eviscerated every hour.

(Partly for this reason, European plants operate at much slower line speeds.) But since that manure is apt to contain lethal pathogens like E coli 0157, and since the process of grinding together hamburger from hundreds of different carcasses can easily spread those pathogens across millions of burgers, packing plants now spend millions on "food safety" - which is to say, on the problem of manure in meat.

Most of these efforts are reactive: it's accepted that the animals will enter the kill floor caked with feedlot manure that has been rendered lethal by the feedlot diet.

Rather than try to alter that diet or keep the animals from living in their waste or slow the line speed - all changes regarded as impractical - the industry focuses on disinfecting the manure that will inevitably find its way into the meat. This is the purpose of irradiation (which the industry prefers to call "cold pasteurization"). It is also the reason that carcasses pass through a hot steam cabinet and get sprayed with an antimicrobial solution before being hung in the cooler at the National Beef plant.

It wasn't until after the carcasses emerged from the cooler, 36 hours later, that I was allowed to catch up with them, in the grading room. I entered a huge arctic space resembling a monstrous dry cleaner's, with a seemingly endless overhead track conveying thousands of red-and-white carcasses.

I quickly learned that you had to move smartly through this room or else be tackled by a 350-pound side of beef. The carcasses felt cool to the touch, no longer animals but meat.

Two by two, the sides of beef traveled swiftly down the rails, six pairs every minute, to a station where two workers - one wielding a small power saw, the other a long knife - made a single six-inch cut between the 12th and 13th ribs, opening a window on the meat inside.

The carcasses continued on to another station, where a USDA inspector holding a round blue stamp glanced at the exposed rib eye and stamped the carcass's creamy white fat once, twice or - very rarely - three times: select, choice, prime.

For the Blair brothers, and for me, this is the moment of truth, for that stamp will determine exactly how much the packing plant will pay for each animal and whether the fourteen months of effort and expense will yield a profit.

Unless the cattle market collapses between now and June (always a worry these days), I stand to make a modest profit on Number 534. In February, the feedlot took a sonogram of his rib eye and ran the data through a computer program.

The projections are encouraging: a live slaughter weight of 1,250, a carcass weight of 787 pounds and a grade at the upper end of choice, making him eligible to be sold at a premium as Certified Angus Beef. Based on the June futures price, Number 534 should be worth $944. (Should he grade prime, that would add another $75.)

I paid $598 for Number 534 in November; his living expenses since then come to $61 on the ranch and $258 for 160 days at the feedlot (including implant), for a total investment of $917, leaving a profit of $27. It's a razor-thin margin, and it could easily vanish should the price of corn rise or Number 534 fail to make the predicted weight or grade - say, if he gets sick and goes off his feed.

Without the corn, without the antibiotics, without the hormone implant, my brief career as a cattleman would end in failure.

The Blairs and I are doing better than most. According to Cattle-Fax, a market-research firm, the return on an animal coming out of a feedlot has averaged just $3 per head over the last twenty years.

"Some pens you make money, some pens you lose", Rich Blair said when I called to commiserate. "You try to average it out over time, limit the losses and hopefully make a little profit". He reminded me that a lot of ranchers are in the business "for emotional reasons - you can't be in it just for the money".

Now you tell me.

The manager of the packing plant has offered to pull a box of steaks from Number 534 before his carcass disappears into the trackless stream of commodity beef fanning out to America's supermarkets and restaurants this June.

From what I can see, the Blair brothers, with the help of Poky Feeders, are producing meat as good as any you can find in an American supermarket. And yet there's no reason to think this steak will taste any different from the other high-end industrial meat I've ever eaten.

While waiting for my box of meat to arrive from Kansas, I've explored some alternatives to the industrial product. Nowadays you can find hormone- and antibiotic-free beef as well as organic beef, fed only grain grown without chemicals.

This meat, which is often quite good, is typically produced using more grass and less grain (and so makes for healthier animals). Yet it doesn't fundamentally challenge the corn-feedlot system, and I'm not sure that an "organic feedlot" isn't, ecologically speaking, an oxymoron. What I really wanted to taste is the sort of preindustrial beef my grandparents ate - from animals that have lived most of their full-length lives on grass.

Eventually I found a farmer in the Hudson Valley who sold me a quarter of a grass-fed Angus steer that is now occupying most of my freezer. I also found ranchers selling grass-fed beef on the Web.

I discovered that grass-fed meat is more expensive than supermarket beef. Whatever else you can say about industrial beef, it is remarkably cheap, and any argument for changing the system runs smack into the industry's populist arguments.

Put the animals back on grass, it is said, and prices will soar; it takes too long to raise beef on grass, and there's not enough grass to raise them on, since the Western range lands aren't big enough to sustain America's 100 million head of cattle.

And besides, Americans have learned to love cornfed beef. Feedlot meat is also more consistent in both taste and supply and can be harvested twelve months a year. (Grass-fed cattle tend to be harvested in the fall, since they stop gaining weight over the winter, when the grasses go dormant.)

All of this is true. The economic logic behind the feedlot system is hard to refute. And yet so is the ecological logic behind a ruminant grazing on grass. Think what would happen if we restored a portion of the Corn Belt to the tall grass prairie it once was and grazed cattle on it.

No more petrochemical fertilizer, no more herbicide, no more nitrogen runoff. Yes, beef would probably be more expensive than it is now, but would that necessarily be a bad thing? Eating beef every day might not be such a smart idea anyway - for our health, for the environment.

And how cheap, really, is cheap feedlot beef? Not cheap at all, when you add in the invisible costs: of antibiotic resistance, environmental degradation, heart disease, E coli poisoning, corn subsidies, imported oil and so on. All these are costs that grass-fed beef does not incur.

So how does grass-fed beef taste?

Uneven, just as you might expect the meat of a nonindustrial animal to taste. One grass-fed tenderloin from Argentina that I sampled turned out to be the best steak I've ever eaten. But unless the meat is carefully aged, grass-fed beef can be tougher than feedlot beef - not surprisingly, since a grazing animal, which moves around in search of its food, develops more muscle and less fat.

Yet even when the meat was tougher, its flavor, to my mind, was much more interesting. And specific, for the taste of every grass-fed animal is inflected by the place where it lived. Maybe it's just my imagination, but nowadays when I eat a feedlot steak, I can taste the corn and the fat, and I can see the view from Number 534's pen. I can't taste the oil, obviously, or the drugs, yet now I know they're there.

A considerably different picture comes to mind while chewing (and, okay, chewing) a grass-fed steak: a picture of a cow outside in a pasture eating the grass that has eaten the sunlight.

Meat-eating may have become an act riddled with moral and ethical ambiguities, but eating a steak at the end of a short, primordial food chain comprising nothing more than ruminants and grass and light is something I'm happy to do and defend. We are what we eat, it is often said, but of course that's only part of the story. We are what what we eat eats too.

New York Times (March 31 2002)

Bill Totten


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