Guest blogger: Where’s the beef?

Melissa Graham, a former attorney, is the founding Executive Director of Purple Asparagus, a non-profit dedicated to bringing families back to the table by promoting and enjoying all the things associated with good eating, eating that’s good for the body and the planet. Purple Asparagus teaches families and children about healthful, sustainable eating in schools, community centers, and farmers’ markets in Chicago’s neediest communities. She speaks and writes regularly on sustainability both as The Sustainable Cook for the The Local Beet.com and for Little Locavores. She tweets @sustainablecook.  When she’s not in the kitchen or the classroom, you can often find Melissa shopping at the Green City Market where she serves as the membership chair.

Melissa is busy planning Corks N Crayons, an annual benefit for Purple Asparagus. Readers can purchase tickets to attend and/or buy items from their online auction.

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I’m sure that this blog’s regular readers will remember Mrs. Q’s recent post criticizing McDonald’s ad campaign, which insinuated that its Egg McMuffins are pure and unprocessed. I read this entry with great interest, especially the comments that followed it, many of which were quite critical of her description of the fast food giant’s offerings as “utter crap.” See, my family also does not frequent McDonald’s, or least not any more. Our rationale, however, is a little different than Mrs. Q’s and I wanted to share it given some recent developments at the USDA.

Like many of us, I have a long history with McDonald’s, the ubiquitous American corporate icon. As a child, I looked forward to my pre-baby sitter trips on my parents’ date nights. I certainly didn’t shun it in college – it was a pretty good alternative to the dreck served in our cafeteria. Even up until last year, there would be an occasional visit when time and alternative options were scarce.

Then why have I made a conscious choice to shun the golden arches? It’s not that it serves fast food. A meal is not bad simply because is served at a drive-through window. My problem isn’t even that most menu options are high in fats and sodium. There are dishes served in the toniest of restaurants that share a similar lack of nutritive value. I believe that it’s important to teach and exercise restraint, and that there is a place for “sometime” foods, like cupcakes, ice creams, and fries. It’s not the taste either. Call me pedestrian but even now the thought of a McDonald’s cheeseburger with its soft, squishy bun, melding with the raincoat yellow cheese, speckled with tiny raw onions and ketchup mixed with mustard fills me with nostalgia. And the fries? Don’t get me started on the fries. Blond, crispy sticks sparkling with salt – they sorely test my willpower. Instead, my beef (pardon the pun) with McDonald’s and similar establishments is the meat that they serve, how it is raised, and ultimately how that will impact us all.

Anyone who’s read anything by Michael Pollan knows that the conditions under which the meat raised for McDonald’s and most other fast food establishments are deplorable. The animals are housed in large scale factory-like operations with little room to even turn around. Propped up by cheap corn subsidized by the U.S. government, the meat industry owes a huge debt to society that it will likely never be called upon to pay. These concentrated animal feeding operations pollute our environment, contaminating our water supplies when manure “lagoons” (a euphemism if I’ve ever heard one) break or leak. The environmental degradations, coupled with the poor treatment of the animals, have always given me pause. However, it wasn’t until I learned of the toll that the livestock industry is taking upon the effectiveness of antibiotics, that I truly changed my eating habits.

Between 70 and 80% of the antibiotics used in this country are given to animals raised for food. While some of these drugs are given to sick animals, the majority is provided either preventatively (i.e. so that otherwise healthy animals will not get ill under the wretched confinement system that they are forced into) or as sub-therapeutic doses to help the animals gain weight so that they can reach slaughter sooner. The livestock industry has sought to downplay research connecting the antibiotics used in livestock production and resistant bacteria that infects individuals working with these animals. The industry maintains that because this relationship is not proven with absolute certainty, the government should require it to reduce their antibiotic use. (Whatever ever happened to the precautionary principle in science?).

I recently reviewed a book called Superbug: The Fatal Menace of MRSA (methicillan-resistant Staphyloccus areus), which documents the spread of this virulent strain of antibiotic resistant bacteria. Author Maryn McKenna details real life examples of its devastating effects: necrotizing pneumonia, puss-filled abscesses that will not heal, and worse, healthy children dead within days after being exposed to it. While the livestock industry is not the only antibiotics abuser, it is one of the largest offenders and we are complicit in the abuse by our seemingly insatiable lust for cheap meat.

Before reading Superbug, the question of confinement raised animals was an ethical one for me – whether the misery inflicted upon animals and, for that matter, the humans working in those facilities by the putrid conditions outweighed the need to eat cheap meat. Even the environmental degradation resulting from the inevitable careless management of CAFOs seemed a distant and intangible casualty. For me, Superbug has changed the argument from one of ethics to a moral imperative. In every hamburger of unknown origin, I see the lives wasted by the failure of our antibiotics, a failure that we can curtail by making better food decisions.

Certainly, McDonald’s is not the sole offender. We can look to any number of fast food establishments and high end restaurants that refuse to buy better meat. I, in fact, have become a vegetarian in establishments whose meat is of unknown origin to me. But McDonald’s certainly has the most power and influence. If it were to demand better quality meats free from unnecessary antibiotics and hormones, we would see a real sea change in this country. Since I don’t see that happening given the Golden Arches’ financial obligations to its shareholders, we need to speak out. If we don’t, we may soon reach the end of antibiotics and the 20th century wonder drug will be powerless to protect us and our children.

To learn more about this issue and to make your voice heard, visit Keep Antibiotics Working. In particular, there is a good possibility that the FDA will weaken a regulation to make it even easier for veterinarians to give antibiotics to food animals on industrial farms. And, while a recent FDA draft guidance document on antibiotic use in food-producing animals states that “using medically important antimicrobial drugs for production or growth enhancing purposes in food-producing animals is not in the interest of protecting and promoting the public health,” the document only recommends measures to curb some overuse of the drugs. Visit Keep Antibiotics Working to tell the FDA and the White House to stand up for human health and end the misuse and overuse of antibiotics by taking a stronger stand against the overuse of antibiotics.

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24 Responses to Guest blogger: Where’s the beef?

  1. Laura Seymour August 20, 2010 at 12:34 pm #

    i commented on the mcdonald's post agreeing with mrs. q. of course, anyone that takes a moment to research exactly what is in an egg mcmuffin will find that despite that one freshly cracked egg, the entire sandwich is hardly fresh.

    "the omnivore's dilemma" has been so enlightening. along with the disgusting treatment of the animals, the gross misuse of antibiotics because of the horrible treatment and conditions, the egg mcmuffin and everything else at mcdonald's also contains the corn surplus that is effectively making most americans fat and sick.

    you are all FREE to enjoy as much mcdonald's and other fast food as you wish. just know what you're eating, and don't hate others for trying to make you more aware about exactly WHAT you're eating. if you weren't interested, you probably wouldn't be taking the time to read this blog.

  2. Philippa August 20, 2010 at 12:36 pm #

    Melissa,
    Having read Pollan's books, I share your opinions about what is going on. Over a year ago, we started buying our meat directly from small local farmers, and also take the vegetarian option when faced with meat of doubtful origin.

    My 9 and 11 year olds watched Food Inc earlier this year. I have been very much impressed with the way this has opened their minds to what is going on. Instead of them begging me to provide them with the same food their friends eat, they now ask "is this processed" before eating something they are unfamiliar with.

    I really appreciate that my children are making thoughtful decisions themselves, rather than me forcing them to eat in a particular manner that might be ideologically correct, but leave them feeling like outsiders among their peers.

  3. Kelly August 20, 2010 at 12:50 pm #

    Wow. I am blown away. I never gave much thought to the effect of antibiotics in animals for slaughter. This post may have completely changed me. I hate to think that one day we may have antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria. It scares me.

    And to think I was going to have a cheeseburger for lunch!

  4. d12brown August 20, 2010 at 1:21 pm #

    Wow, I don't feel for the cows, I am one of those people that believes animals raised for food should be used for food. Yes, I would perfer better conditions for the animals, but it is not my life's mission. That being said . . .

    I have three children all resistent to antibiotics and I never considered how much of that could be linked to the meat we eat. As a family, we rarely medicate. Vaccines on schedule and the occasional cold medication when someone is too miserable or has a high fever. Even a light fever does not constitute medication around here. Antibiotics happen once every couple of years total for our entire family. I do believe the world has overreacted to germs and is fighting a war with bacteria and germs that we will unltimately lose. There is no antibacterial soap in our house (did you know they make body soap that is antibacterial? ewwwe). Each child has an antibacterial gel in thier lunchbox, but that is more for time (we all know how much time our kids get to eat lunch).

    When my oldest was 6, she needed antibiotics for maybe the second time in her life. She had just started school so she was finally in contact with lots of germs in a confined space. We tried the pink stuff. Four weeks and 2 prescriptions later, she still had a double ear infection. So she has been permanently bumped up to level two antibiotics. Similar things happened with my other two children. It amazes me how many people ask for antibiotics. It bothers me that we teach our kids to use waterless antibacterial gel rather than teach them how to properly wash thier hands with plain old soap.

    Thanks for the post. We will definitely consider more carefully where our meat comes from.

  5. Viki August 20, 2010 at 1:34 pm #

    Greetings Melissa.
    Very interesting post. I knew most of it. but a review is always helpful. What would we do without Michael Pollan?
    I believe I read there are 4 companies that produce 80% of the beef in the USA. So if you go to the market and you pick up a plastic wrapped package of beef that Does Not Say, "Grass Fed" on the label, chances are you are buying the same beef that the fast food industry uses. Not just McDonalds, but all fast food and processed food and yes school food.
    We eat beef vary rarely and when we do it is really good beef from a really good source. Yes it is expensive. We don't eat meat every day either.

  6. Christina @ Spoonfed August 20, 2010 at 2:01 pm #

    Great piece, Melissa. The other thing people might not realize is that McDonald’s has done more to industrialize and homogenize the U.S. food system than any other company. It buys so much beef, pork, potatoes and other commodities (even apples) that it controls everything from the way animals are treated and food is processed to which produce varieties are grown. So it has immense power over not only the food it serves, but also the food people buy in other restaurants and grocery stores, and yes, the food served in schools.

    It's also made some big food changes in some places overseas (like eliminating artificial colors and supporting sustainable agriculture), while continuing to serve the same crap here at home. (I blogged about that here: http://spoonfedblog.net/2010/04/29/retire-ronald-or-reclaim-responsibility/).

    It's a travesty, really. But those changes happened in those countries because consumers and government agencies demanded them. We really do vote with our forks, you know?

    Chris

    Spoonfed: Raising kids to think about the food they eat

  7. Mama August 20, 2010 at 2:04 pm #

    Love it! Shared it on facebook. Thanks for the good read.

  8. Renee August 20, 2010 at 2:16 pm #

    Two additional comments on industrial beef:

    -Most of the antibiotic use is because cows are not meant to eat corn. Eating corn creates the bacteria that the antibiotics are treating. If cows are raised on grass, they may still need an occasional antibiotic for illness, but they don't need "preventative" antibiotics. Stop feeding cows corn, and you could go a long way towards solving this problem. (Of course, you'll have to wait longer for them to become large enough to slaughter.)

    The heart-disease problem can probably be linked directly to corn-fed beef. Corn fed beef is high in Omega-6 fatty acids. Grass fed beef is high in Omega-3 fatty acids.

  9. nika August 20, 2010 at 2:21 pm #

    d12brown: Your kids are not resistant to antibiotics – the bacteria they came into contact with and had infections with had the resistance.

    People can develop sensitivities, intolerances, and allergic reactions to various meds (including antibiotics) that may or may not be related to the active pharmaceutical.

    Antibiotics are agents that are specific to the prokaryotic organism (single celled organisms like bacteria) and not the eukaryotic (multi-celled animals like us) so they are specific to bacteria.

  10. Shannon August 20, 2010 at 3:49 pm #

    As one of the people who (politely) voiced an opinion about the tone of the McD post, I want to say that this is what I love to see. Respectful, but strong. Instead of just saying the food is crap, we know why the author doesn't like it. It gives us information to go on and think about and look into.

    A+ 🙂

  11. Sarah W. August 20, 2010 at 4:08 pm #

    I'm so glad to see this issue discussed. Meat really shouldn't be as cheap as it is–the animals, workers, and future generations are paying the extra cost.

  12. Kim August 20, 2010 at 5:31 pm #

    A thousand thank you's for this post, Melissa! When I read Mrs. Q's McDonald's post, I didn't realize it's almost certain that their beef is raised inhumanely and that antibiotics are used. My guess is that this is also the case with their chicken, pork, dairy products, and eggs. Not that I eat fast food very often (maybe once every 2 or 3 months), but I'm off it after reading this post.

    d12brown, regarding feeling sorry for cows, I do feel sorry for the ones raised inhumanely but that's not the reason I don't want to eat them. Animals raised in an inhumane manner are far more likely to be unhealthy and I don't want to eat sick animals or products from sick animals (e.g. milk and eggs). I think humanely raised animals (and their milk and eggs) taste better, too.

  13. Stacy August 20, 2010 at 6:16 pm #

    This is an excellent post, thank you for it!

    The ultimate cost of producing cheap beef is much higher than the monetary savings. This is why our family does not eat beef unless it is free range and grain fed. We first started looking into when there was a semi-local mad cow outbreak in our area years ago. I was appalled at the cattle industry in this nation, it's sickening on so many levels.

  14. Mrs. Q August 20, 2010 at 8:01 pm #

    I really like Melissa's tone too. Very diplomatic and respectful. I'm taking notes! 🙂

  15. Anonymous August 20, 2010 at 10:22 pm #

    I grew up spending a lot of time on my grandparents farm and have been aware of this issue since the mid 90's (which is when I stopped eating fast food and, remarkably, lost 30lbs!!). I'm still trying to get my parents off the stuff. Most fast food has done nothing but rape every natural resource to maximize profits just like 95% of the corporations in America. And what are profits? Nothing but a data byte on a server somewhere. They will never stop if we don't FORCE them to! America needs to wake up to the fact that corporations do not care about you or the public good.

  16. Maryn McKenna August 21, 2010 at 2:40 am #

    Melissa, I'm very grateful for the mention! As you discuss and as I explored in SUPERBUG, ag antibiotic use is a huge driver of negative effects on our health. Anyone who'd like to talk more about this issue is very welcome at Superbugtheblog.com. Huge thanks to Fed Up with Lunch for giving this issue some space for exploration.

    – Maryn McKenna

  17. Mrs. Q August 21, 2010 at 3:26 am #

    Hi Maryn – Thanks for stopping by! Wow.

  18. Anonymous August 21, 2010 at 4:57 am #

    This may be the single most important post ever made on this blog. Food Inc forever changed the way I look at food, and I think the entire world needs to be aware of what's going on.

    While Food Inc initially made me want to give up on any and all meat for the rest of my life, after pondering the film for a few days, I came to the same conclusion as many readers–one of the single biggest impacts I can make to help change the ag industry is to completely cut fast food out of my life.

    It was such a simple "duh" moment for me. It wasn't a lifestyle upheaval. I didn't get up on a soap box or start condemning everyone around me. It was just my own quiet, personal protest. And if we protest quietly it by the hundreds of thousands, our withheld money will probably speak louder than our words.

  19. Shannon August 21, 2010 at 12:25 pm #

    Also ditto what Vicki said. It's not just McDonald's. Unfortunately, if I go to the supermarket and pick up a random package of beef, it's probably been raised the same way.

    We don't eat beef much but when I do buy it I get grass fed. It's much more expensive than regular but we literally only buy it a few times a year (4th of July burgers, steak for dh's birthday, etc) so it's not much of an issue.

    Of course, I don't know that chicken is that much better . . . Sometimes I really feel torn between what I'd like to eat and the reality of our budget.

  20. K. August 21, 2010 at 4:46 pm #

    @Kelly — There already ARE antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria. MRSA and VRE are both resistant. Acinetobacter is also emerging as highly resistant to those drugs that eventually work on MRSA and VRE.

    While antibiotics in your food can certainly account for a large part of the problem, overprescription of antibiotics by health care providers is another culprit. Some physicians are quick to hand out antibiotics for almost anything, especially when parents request them. Parents often insist on antibiotics for ear infections, for example, because it's the old standard. However, new studies have shown that it's not always necessary. In fact, because some children have SO many ear infections, they eventually develop a resistance to amoxicillin, leading to the necessity for stronger antibiotics. This is how antibiotic resistant bugs develop. This link discusses AAP (America Association of Pediatricians) recommendations. http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2010/02/17/earlyshow/health/main6216497.shtml

  21. Anonymous August 21, 2010 at 9:39 pm #

    I have not read all of the comments yet, but watch Food Inc., King Corn, etc. It is sad to see in the US what they get away with. I understand that we want our food cheap, but my goodness! If people really seen what was going on I think they would understand. I never knew growing up that many eggs that were bought at the grocery store where from poor chickens that were in a cage that could not move around-what kind of life is that? I am not a vegetarian, by ANY means, but I have changed how and what I eat. I have my own happy chickens that roam around, if I lived in the city I would buy free range eggs, or from a farmer. I could go on and on about this, but it is a direct link of the junk (that is a nice word for it) that our kids are eating at school lunch. Good article.

  22. Dawn August 21, 2010 at 10:58 pm #

    No offense, but many other fast food companies could also switch to better beef and have a great impact – Burger King is by far McDonalds greatest competition and would stand to gain a lot of customers by this. Why aren't we on them?

  23. Christina @ Spoonfed August 22, 2010 at 7:32 pm #

    Dawn, in my comment above, I mentioned that McDonald's buys more beef, pork, potatoes, apples and other commodities than any other food company. So it has great control over the mechanics of the food system. And with that power should come greater accountability.

    We, personally, don't do any fast food, so I agree that Burger King and the rest are no better. Even Subway, the supposedly "healthy" alternative, uses high-fructose corn syrup in its breads, in addition to all kinds of other indecipherable additives and genetically modified ingredients. And every one of these chains is using factory-farmed meat, dairy and eggs (as are the vast majority of other end users: restaurants, schools, institutions, grocery stores, consumers).

    But when you realize that McDonald's is at the head of that group, buying so much that the food industry bends to its whims, well, you can see why going after McDonald's seems appropriate.

    I know thinking about this stuff and trying to eat accordingly can seem overwhelming, so if anyone is interested, I'm posting a long piece on my own blog tomorrow (Monday) about how we eat within the SOLE framework: sustainable, organic, local and ethical. I blog about raising food-literate kids, and readers have been asking me questions on the specifics of how we eat, so that's where this new post comes from. You'll be able to find it at http://www.spoonfedblog.net.

    Thanks again, Melissa, for this great post, and, Mrs. Q, for hosting it. You've got people talking!

    Chris

    Spoonfed: Raising kids to think about the food they eat

  24. Anonymous August 22, 2010 at 10:49 pm #

    eat ate evo's or chipotle grill. They are fast food restaurants that buy non hormone/antibiotic meats and locally sourced veggies. Evo's even offers veggie burgers and tofu alternatives. Also, all of Evo's packaging is compostable. I don't mind eating fast at these establishments because i am supporting sustainable supply chains

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