What could be less controversial than a hamburger? When it comes to this sacred staple of the All-American menu (at least among meat-eaters), the most closely associated question is often “Would you like fries with that?” It is the quintessential American entree, and one that we probably take for granted when we sink our teeth into that first savory bite. Yet it is hamburger, the chicken wing, or the bratwurst which present such a depth of questions that would betray the innocence with which we enjoy our favorite barbeque. The dichotomy between the complexities of what goes into how the sausage gets made and how little we care to think about it could be summarized in the singular question: “Do you know what they do those animals?” and the likely reply, “No, but it’s delicious.”
For some, the choice of whether to live a carnivorous lifestyle might come down to nothing more than taste, but for others, this decision could be subject to such considerations as health, ecological concerns, ethics, tradition, religion or simply financial affluence. Although purchasing our favorite cut of meat may not seem like an academic exercise, the consumption of animals for sustenance is a subject which touches upon practically every facet of human culture from history to business to medical science to philosophy to entertainment. When questioning what makes for “good meat,” we might not simply be talking about the perfect marbling, but also considering from where our roast beef originated.
In a world where the livestock we consume might not be raised in the idyllic pastures of our imagination, the inquisitive carnivore might ask what ensures that our meat is healthy. “The biggest question we actually get asked at the meat counter is: ‘How were they raised?’” says Heather Oppor, the Meat Manager at Willy Street Co-op East. “When you think about cattle in particular, you think they’re grazing on these beautiful meadows, they’re romping around eating hay, but the reality is that a lot of the beef that you eat is raised in a great big cement pen. That animal’s life has been confined to this literal crap-filled pit.” It is an image that is hardly appetizing, and the consequences of such intensive production processes are even less so. Bacterial strains including Salmonella, E. coli, and Campylobacter are the health hazards associated with residual fecal residue present in our meat. Each year, Salmonella poisoning impacts the lives of one million Americans. Foodborne illnesses are sometimes not limited to a mere stomachache, but can cause issues as severe as kidney failure, especially in young children.
The health hazards to the human consumers are a reflection of the dangers faced by the animals we are eating. “When you think about conventionally raised animals, ones that are on a feedlot their whole life or in a tight pen, there is literal crap everywhere which is being ingested and seeping into open wounds. [The animals] are going to get sick,” says Heather when speaking about the conditions of the conventional feedlot. Raising livestock in such risky environments, how can a meat producer ensure that both their livestock and bottom line stay healthy? According to Heather, a heavy reliance on drugs can often be that answer: “Farmers learned that if you started to pre-feed antibiotics that you would have less death and therefore higher profit margins.” By using antibiotics, meat producers can ensure that their product will be more disease-resistant while growing faster, thereby increasing yield. The risk to the animals may be circumvented, but it may carry a hidden cost in the long run.
In 1906, Upton Sinclair described the meat industry as “pork-making by machinery.” A century later, it could be called “meat making by medical miracle.” With the widespread use of antibiotics in meat production, to know our pork chop and brisket is to know the medicine it has been prescribed. The general definition of antibiotics is that they are medicines that either hinder the growth or eliminate the presence of bacterias in humans or other animals. Just as in humans, antibiotics have no impact on viruses, but they can be used to treat bacterial infections or to prevent diseases brought on by bacteria. Some antibiotics, including tetracycline and neomycin are administered both to humans and livestock. In some cases, antibiotics may be used to increase the growth rates of cattle and their ability to feed. Injectable antibiotics, administered through a shot under the skin, are effective at treating animals in serious or dire need, such as when calves suffer from pneumonia, pink eye, or bacterial diarrhea. In cases like these, antibiotics may serve to save an animal’s life. In the case of antibiotic injections, there is a downside. While such shots may prove lifesaving; they can require separating a calf from its mother, and restraining the animal while administering the injection. The anxiety of separation and the ordeal of receiving an injection can put a great deal of stress on an animal, especially a young calf. With this in mind, it is understandable that some antibiotic treatments require a prescription from a veterinarian in order to administer. In cases where antibiotic injections are used as a last resort to ease the suffering or prevent the death of an ill animal, the choice of the farmer to use this medicine may be the most humane choice. It is worth noting that not all farmers choose to use antibiotics, or may rely on them only in a special circumstance such as in treating an endangered animal.
Compared to antibiotic injections used for the specific purpose of treating a sick animal, administering antibiotics through feed might appear to be less of a medical response and more of a preventative hedge against profit loss. While using injections does put strain on an already sick animal, healthy animals can consume feed-based antibiotics without the ordeal of separation or receiving a shot. This means that meat producers can use feed-based antibiotics much more efficiently in that they can be given to livestock all at one time. Cattle may be fed antibiotics when approaching their finishing weight, or in other words, the point of maturity when they are ready for processing. This is because cows fed on a diet of grain often develop abscesses within their livers, which often invite bacterial infection. While antibiotics in feed may be used to prevent animals from getting sick, they also have an profound impact on the metabolism of an animal, allowing them to eat more and grow at faster rates. The way animals consume feed-based antibiotics differs from their absorption of medical injections. Antibiotic shots are often larger, and more powerful in dosage compared to the low doses of antibiotics present in feed; however, injections are more quickly metabolized through the bloodstream than the drugs in animal feed, which are metabolized through the digestive tract. As a result, antibiotics used in feed may remain within an animal’s body longer than an injection, depending on the type of antibiotic and the amount administered.
With so many antibiotics being used to keep your meat healthy before it gets it to the butcher, the concerned carnivore might wonder what is to keep antibiotics out of their ribeye. The US Department of Agriculture requires a “withdrawal time” following the treatment of an animal with antibiotics. This withdrawal time is simply a waiting period between the administering of antibiotics and processing of an animal used for meat, eggs or milk in order to reduce the residual presence of the antibiotics to levels safe for human consumption. To ensure that antibiotic levels meet the standard for human safety after going through withdrawal, the USDA Food Inspection Service will test animal carcasses at random for compliance with USDA regulations.
In spite of regulatory measures in place to ensure the safety of meat treated with antibiotics, that hamburger might still appear dubious, and for good reason. In spite of antibiotic use within the meat industry, researchers at the University of Maryland found that out of 200 packets of ground meat which they sampled, 16% of the pork, 6% of the beef, 35% of the chicken, and 24% of the turkey contained strains of Salmonella. 84% of these strains were resistant to antibiotics. Even worse, Consumer Reports studies in recent years have found that approximately half of all chicken sold in retail stores contained Salmonella resistant to antibiotics. Because many of the antibiotics used in meat production are either identical or similar to those prescribed to humans, it is reasonable to deduce that the use of antibiotics in meat production could result in decreased potency when treating humans for bacterial infections. If you are wondering how likely it is that a conventionally produced meat (or egg or dairy) product could have been exposed to antibiotics at some point before it reaches you, consider that in 2009, nearly 70% of all antibiotics made in the United States were given to a cow, a chicken, or a pig, rather than a sick human.
If this seems frightening, then consideringthat antibiotic retention is by no means limited to what you find in the butcher’s case could leave you terrified. “If you think about the fact that the FDA has determined that it is 100% possible that antibiotic abuse in animals can create a resistance in humans, it makes sense that the antibiotics come out in whatever the animal also creates whether it be milk, or meat or eggs,” says Heather when speaking about the potential for antibiotics to make their way to your kitchen table. It isn’t just meat or milk, which might be impacted by antibiotic use. According to research done at the University of Minnesota, approximately 90% of all antibiotics administered to animals end up being excreted through their manure and urine. Unfortunately, this antibiotic-laced waste product does not remain contained to the feedlot. 9.2 million acres of United States farmland is fertilized with manure that may contain antibiotics. This means that antibiotic resistance can be built up through consumption of non-animal foods; as antibiotics can be absorbed from the soil by many of the vegetables we eat. Not only that, but erosion or over-application of fertilizers can cause this fecal matter to run off into the water system. While responsible waste management practices such as high-temperature composting could be effective in stemming the spread of antibiotics to our food and water supply, there are not sufficient regulations to ensure that your potatoes or tap water have never crossed paths with these drugs.
With the dangers of drug resistance resulting from concentrated feeding operations, the concerned carnivore might look at their baby back ribs with a sense of doom. But before you forsake the steak, consider that there are producers out there that aspire to provide a cut of meat with a side of peace of mind. Many meat producers will forego questionable raising practices such as feeding animals antibiotics in order to produce meat destined for the “natural” market. Getting comfortable with your meat purchases can be as simple as just reading the label. However, before you assume that “natural” means safe, it is important to know that under USDA regulations, the “natural” label only proves that the product inside contains no artificial ingredients and has been minimally processed. Only meat labeled with “no antibiotics” implies that raising practices have been sufficiently documented to prove their absence. “If you don’t see antibiotic-free or hormone-free on the label, they may be present, so ask the meat clerk” advises Heather on making discerning purchasing decisions.
At Willy Street Co-op
This doesn’t mean that safe, healthy meat has to be hard to find. Local beef producers including Wisconsin Meadows pride themselves on using humane, sustainable raising practices that don’t include antibiotics or hormones (wisconsingrassfed.coop/our-beef). Wisconsin Meadows finds themselves in good company with suppliers like Bell & Evans, one of the rare chicken producers that steers clear of antibiotics (bellandevans.com). For Willy Street Co-op shoppers, products like this are the norm rather than the exception. “95% of the meat that we offer doesn’t have antibiotics or hormones, and is humanely raised,” Heather says, “This means access to the outdoors, access to food and water, no gestational crates for pigs, and humane slaughter.” Heather knows that providing Co-op Owners with a better product makes Willy Street Co-op stand out, and shoppers can’t help but compare our offerings to other stores. One purchaser of pork shoulder expressed their astonishment at the hidden costs of eating cheap meats; “It really made me stop and think about what I am actually getting when I see the price is so low. What do farmers have to do to get to that price point?”
By taking the time to stop and think, the carnivorous consumer can make a safer world for meat production by connecting more fully to their food source. Through taking the time to ask questions about what goes into their meat, shoppers at the Willy Street Co-op can find that their concerns and values are shared by the butchers that service them, and these concerns are in turn reflected in the values of those farmers raising the meat. “I think the people that we work with are smaller, they are definitely not the big feedlot folks,” details Heather in describing the relationship between Willy Street Co-op and its meat vendors, “They do have a more conscious understanding of their animals and how they are raised and they are able to relate information that larger farmers or processors might not be able to. We definitely seek out farmers like that.”