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Tue Apr 2 06:47:59 MST 2002
NY Times Magazine, March 31, 2002
By MICHAEL POLLAN
Garden City, Kan., missed out on the suburban building boom of the postwar
years. What it got instead were sprawling subdivisions of cattle. These
feedlots -- the nation's first -- began rising on the high plains of
western Kansas in the 50's, and by now developments catering to cows are
far more common here than developments catering to people.
You'll be speeding down one of Finney County's ramrod roads when the empty,
dun-colored prairie suddenly turns black and geometric, an urban grid of
steel-fenced rectangles as far as the eye can see -- which in Kansas is
really far. I say ''suddenly,'' but in fact a swiftly intensifying odor (an
aroma whose Proustian echoes are more bus-station-men's-room than
cow-in-the-country) heralds the approach of a feedlot for more than a mile.
Then it's upon you: Poky Feeders, population 37,000. Cattle pens stretch to
the horizon, each one home to 150 animals standing dully or lying around in
a grayish mud that it eventually dawns on you isn't mud at all. The pens
line a network of unpaved roads that loop around vast waste lagoons on
their way to the feedlot's beating heart: a chugging, silvery feed mill
that soars like an industrial cathedral over this teeming metropolis of meat.
I traveled to Poky early in January with the slightly improbable notion of
visiting one particular resident: a young black steer that I'd met in the
fall on a ranch in Vale, S.D. The steer, in fact, belonged to me. I'd
purchased him as an 8-month-old calf from the Blair brothers, Ed and Rich,
for $598. I was paying Poky Feeders $1.60 a day for his room, board and
meds and hoped to sell him at a profit after he was fattened.
My interest in the steer was not strictly financial, however, or even
gustatory, though I plan to retrieve some steaks from the Kansas packing
plant where No. 534, as he is known, has an appointment with the stunner in
June. No, my primary interest in this animal was educational. I wanted to
find out how a modern, industrial steak is produced in America these days,
from insemination to slaughter.
Eating meat, something I have always enjoyed doing, has become problematic
in recent years. Though beef consumption spiked upward during the flush
90's, the longer-term trend is down, and many people will tell you they no
longer eat the stuff. Inevitably they'll bring up mad-cow disease (and the
accompanying revelation that industrial agriculture has transformed these
ruminants into carnivores -- indeed, into cannibals). They might mention
their concerns about E. coli contamination or antibiotics in the feed. Then
there are the many environmental problems, like groundwater pollution,
associated with ''Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations.'' (The word
''farm'' no longer applies.) And of course there are questions of animal
welfare. How are we treating the animals we eat while they're alive, and
then how humanely are we ''dispatching'' them, to borrow an industry
Meat-eating has always been a messy business, shadowed by the shame of
killing and, since Upton Sinclair's writing of ''The Jungle,'' by questions
about what we're really eating when we eat meat. Forgetting, or willed
ignorance, is the preferred strategy of many beef eaters, a strategy
abetted by the industry. (What grocery-store item is more silent about its
origins than a shrink-wrapped steak?) Yet I recently began to feel that
ignorance was no longer tenable. If I was going to continue to eat red
meat, then I owed it to myself, as well as to the animals, to take more
responsibility for the invisible but crucial transaction between ourselves
and the animals we eat. I'd try to own it, in other words.
So this is the biography of my cow.
Corn is a mainstay of livestock diets because there is no other feed quite
as cheap or plentiful: thanks to federal subsidies and ever-growing
surpluses, the price of corn ($2.25 a bushel) is 50 cents less than the
cost of growing it. The rise of the modern factory farm is a direct result
of these surpluses, which soared in the years following World War II, when
petrochemical fertilizers came into widespread use. Ever since, the
U.S.D.A.'s policy has been to help farmers dispose of surplus corn by
passing as much of it as possible through the digestive tracts of food
animals, converting it into protein. Compared with grass or hay, corn is a
compact and portable foodstuff, making it possible to feed tens of
thousands of animals on small plots of land. Without cheap corn, the modern
urbanization of livestock would probably never have occurred.
We have come to think of ''cornfed'' as some kind of old-fashioned virtue;
we shouldn't. Granted, a cornfed cow develops well-marbled flesh, giving it
a taste and texture American consumers have learned to like. Yet this meat
is demonstrably less healthy to eat, since it contains more saturated fat.
A recent study in The European Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that the
meat of grass-fed livestock not only had substantially less fat than
grain-fed meat but that the type of fats found in grass-fed meat were much
healthier. (Grass-fed meat has more omega 3 fatty acids and fewer omega 6,
which is believed to promote heart disease; it also contains betacarotine
and CLA, another ''good'' fat.) A growing body of research suggests that
many of the health problems associated with eating beef are really problems
with cornfed beef. In the same way ruminants have not evolved to eat grain,
humans may not be well adapted to eating grain-fed animals. Yet the
U.S.D.A.'s grading system continues to reward marbling -- that is,
intermuscular fat -- and thus the feeding of corn to cows.
The economic logic behind corn is unassailable, and on a factory farm,
there is no other kind. Calories are calories, and corn is the cheapest,
most convenient source of calories. Of course the identical industrial
logic -- protein is protein -- led to the feeding of rendered cow parts
back to cows, a practice the F.D.A. banned in 1997 after scientists
realized it was spreading mad-cow disease.
Make that mostly banned. The F.D.A.'s rules against feeding ruminant
protein to ruminants make exceptions for ''blood products'' (even though
they contain protein) and fat. Indeed, my steer has probably dined on beef
tallow recycled from the very slaughterhouse he's heading to in June. ''Fat
is fat,'' the feedlot manager shrugged when I raised an eyebrow.
F.D.A. rules still permit feedlots to feed nonruminant animal protein to
cows. (Feather meal is an accepted cattle feed, as are pig and fish protein
and chicken manure.) Some public-health advocates worry that since the
bovine meat and bone meal that cows used to eat is now being fed to
chickens, pigs and fish, infectious prions could find their way back into
cattle when they eat the protein of the animals that have been eating them.
To close this biological loophole, the F.D.A. is now considering tightening
its feed rules.
Until mad-cow disease, remarkably few people in the cattle business, let
alone the general public, comprehended the strange semicircular food chain
that industrial agriculture had devised for cattle (and, in turn, for us).
When I mentioned to Rich Blair that I'd been surprised to learn that cows
were eating cows, he said, ''To tell the truth, it was kind of a shock to
me too.'' Yet even today, ranchers don't ask many questions about feedlot
menus. Not that the answers are so easy to come by. When I asked Poky's
feedlot manager what exactly was in the protein supplement, he couldn't
say. ''When we buy supplement, the supplier says it's 40 percent protein,
but they don't specify beyond that.'' When I called the supplier, it
wouldn't divulge all its ''proprietary ingredients'' but promised that
animal parts weren't among them. Protein is pretty much still protein.
Compared with ground-up cow bones, corn seems positively wholesome. Yet it
wreaks considerable havoc on bovine digestion. During my day at Poky, I
spent an hour or two driving around the yard with Dr. Mel Metzen, the staff
veterinarian. Metzen, a 1997 graduate of Kansas State's vet school,
oversees a team of eight cowboys who spend their days riding the yard,
spotting sick cows and bringing them in for treatment. A great many of
their health problems can be traced to their diet. ''They're made to eat
forage,'' Metzen said, ''and we're making them eat grain.''
Perhaps the most serious thing that can go wrong with a ruminant on corn is
feedlot bloat. The rumen is always producing copious amounts of gas, which
is normally expelled by belching during rumination. But when the diet
contains too much starch and too little roughage, rumination all but stops,
and a layer of foamy slime that can trap gas forms in the rumen. The rumen
inflates like a balloon, pressing against the animal's lungs. Unless action
is promptly taken to relieve the pressure (usually by forcing a hose down
the animal's esophagus), the cow suffocates.
A corn diet can also give a cow acidosis. Unlike that in our own highly
acidic stomachs, the normal pH of a rumen is neutral. Corn makes it
unnaturally acidic, however, causing a kind of bovine heartburn, which in
some cases can kill the animal but usually just makes it sick. Acidotic
animals go off their feed, pant and salivate excessively, paw at their
bellies and eat dirt. The condition can lead to diarrhea, ulcers, bloat,
liver disease and a general weakening of the immune system that leaves the
animal vulnerable to everything from pneumonia to feedlot polio.
Cows rarely live on feedlot diets for more than six months, which might be
about as much as their digestive systems can tolerate. ''I don't know how
long you could feed this ration before you'd see problems,'' Metzen said;
another vet said that a sustained feedlot diet would eventually ''blow out
their livers'' and kill them. As the acids eat away at the rumen wall,
bacteria enter the bloodstream and collect in the liver. More than 13
percent of feedlot cattle are found at slaughter to have abscessed livers.
What keeps a feedlot animal healthy -- or healthy enough -- are
antibiotics. Rumensin inhibits gas production in the rumen, helping to
prevent bloat; tylosin reduces the incidence of liver infection. Most of
the antibiotics sold in America end up in animal feed -- a practice that,
it is now generally acknowledged, leads directly to the evolution of new
antibiotic-resistant ''superbugs.'' In the debate over the use of
antibiotics in agriculture, a distinction is usually made between clinical
and nonclinical uses. Public-health advocates don't object to treating sick
animals with antibiotics; they just don't want to see the drugs lose their
efficacy because factory farms are feeding them to healthy animals to
promote growth. But the use of antibiotics in feedlot cattle confounds this
distinction. Here the drugs are plainly being used to treat sick animals,
yet the animals probably wouldn't be sick if not for what we feed them.
I asked Metzen what would happen if antibiotics were banned from cattle
feed. ''We just couldn't feed them as hard,'' he said. ''Or we'd have a
higher death loss.'' (Less than 3 percent of cattle die on the feedlot.)
The price of beef would rise, he said, since the whole system would have to
''Hell, if you gave them lots of grass and space,'' he concluded dryly, ''I
wouldn't have a job.''
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