Commentary on “What’s Ailing America’s Cattle?”

In the Monday, August 19 edition of the WALL STREET JOURNAL, there is an article entitled, “What’s Ailing America’s Cattle?” by Jesse Newman and Kelsey Gee. When my daughter Abigail handed the paper to me and said, “Mom, here’s an article you might want to read,” I almost instinctively knew what the article was about. I figured it would have something to do with stuff cattle are being fed in feed lots. I was right.

I would encourage everyone to read the whole article. But, in a nutshell, the article details how an increasing number of feedlot cattle arriving at slaughterhouses are showing signs of disease and distress. Scientists think that the culprit is a family of drugs given to the cattle called beta-agonists, which cause weight gain during the final weeks before slaughtering. Beta-agonists were originally used to treat asthma in human beings, but when mixed into the cattle feed, promotes lean muscle growth instead of fat. An animal can increase in final weight anywhere from 20 to 33 pounds. Zilmax is a drug that Merck & Co. makes, and it has been temporarily suspended by the company in the midst of the concerns raised about animal welfare. Optaflexx is another Beta-agonist made by Eli Lilly and Co.’s Elanco animal-health unit. According to the article, these two drugs are used in 70% of the cattle in the United States which are sold to slaughterhouses. Since the FDA approved Zilmax in 2006, more that 25 million cattle have been fed the drug. Interestingly, sales in the U.S. and Canada in 2012 totalled $159 MILLION.

So here is my commentary. First of all, the whole point of feeding these drugs to these animals is to make them gain weight without having to feed them extra grain. This is supposed to be cost-effective for producers who want more pounds of meat, for less grain input. In other words, money is the driving factor. Of course purchasing these drugs are good for the drug manufacturers as well. Secondly, feedlots are notoriously unhealthy places because in addition to weight stimulants, oftentimes the animals are fed antibiotics to quell the infections the animals get from over-consuming grain in cramped areas that get little sunlight and fresh air and of course, no grass.  On top of that, practically all of the corn and soy fed to animals now is genetically-modified and tainted with pesticides and herbicides.  So how do you think that is going to affect the meat you eat from these cows?

You see, the grass is the thing, or lack thereof. Ruminant animals such as cattle have as their natural diet and first preference, fresh grass or dried grass (hay). When too much grain such as corn or soy are given, and especially if it is the sole feed, it ferments in the cow’s gut. This fermentation causes an over-growth of bad bacteria which sickens the cow and ultimately can sicken you. This is why contamination of E. coli is found in feed lot cattle, but not in in grass or range-fed animals. Of course, it is not unusual for farmers to put their pastured cattle up in a stall and fatten them a bit more before slaughter with a little extra grain. But this is different than mass housing of cattle and feeding huge quantities of grain and drugs for weeks and weeks.

In short, why, with all the grass lands that we have in these United States, do we not have more grass-fed cattle? The meat from such cows is healthier, leaner, has a higher concentration of vitamins and minerals and anti-oxidants. Grass-fed cattle don’t have to take drugs or antibiotics, they are happier and healthier doing what they were created to do, and, with rotational grazing, keep the grass mowed, and at the same time, enrich the soil with their manure. Grass is cheaper than grain to grow, though irrigation systems become necessary during times of drought. I personally think that it would be nice if beef were raised locally on smaller farms to feed people in communities. The larger ranches and farms could still feed the nation and still export healthier meat as well, if they had a more intensive grazing plan with less grain and drugs administered.

It seems to me that if you want healthy beef, either raise it yourself or seek out a farmer who will do it for you.  The last thing our children need in this pharmaceutical-laden society is more drugs in their meat.  What do  you think?

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