Sunday, October 4, 2009

Red Meat, Clean Conscience.

When I was fourteen, my biology teacher showed the class a film strip about industrial meat processing. Based on the terribly disturbing images and information I'd seen, I became an instant convert to vegetarianism and followed a meat and fish free diet until I moved to Spain after college. (It's tough to be a vegetarian in Spain--apart from the fact that the concept is not really understood, I had a hard time finding vegetable sources of protein, so I began eating seafood. Although I felt guilty at first, I quickly realized that this was an excellent choice for someone living right on the Mediterranean!) Even after adding seafood back into my diet, I continued to avoid meat for several more years, and I never once missed it. I happen to be crazy for veggies and grains, so vegetarianism was a natural fit. Then the hamburger dreams began.

About three years ago, I started dreaming, nearly nightly, about eating red meat. By day, I continued my regimen of zucchini, rice, and beans. But by night, I ate thick, juicy burgers and tender steaks, savoring every bite of rich, beefy flavor. When barbecue season hit, the smell of burgers sizzling over charcoal fairly sent me over the edge, and when my now husband began to rediscover the joys of grilling...well...I caved. I reasoned that these cravings, the likes of which I'd never experienced before, meant that my body needed something that meat had, and who was I to deny my body? All things in moderation, I told myself. To test the waters I had one little bite, and it was every bit as good as in my dreams. From single bites I moved down the slippery slope to mini-burgers and shared portions of steak, until I was finally ready for my own full servings (my husband let me know I was ready when I started eating half his dinner).

Now, I eat red meat with regularity, about once or twice a month. And, although this rate of consumption is much lower than that of the average American eater, I am plagued by my knowledge of where that meat comes from, how it is processed, and the animals and people who are exploited along the way. But, as I've discovered, finding guilt-free meat, especially beef, can be challenging. And, even when you do, a grass-fed (and grass-finished), locally and humanely raised piece of steak does not come cheap.

This, of course, is a big part of the problem; whereas red meat used to be an occasional treat for a special meal, we've come to think of it as a nearly daily staple, and an affordable one at that. Of course, the costs that used to be born by the consumer have now been buried in less visible places, as reported in today's New York Times (click here to read the article). Producers now use meat (and questionable meat-like by products, often processed with chemicals) from several different sources in order to make cheap, mass-produced ground beef of a particular fat content. And, under the not-so-watchful eye of the USDA, not nearly enough testing goes on to monitor whether these many beef sources contain E. coli, not to mention their general food safety practices.

This is nothing new, of course. Such issues have been covered by many an author and filmmaker at this point. And, although I am happy to see these issues being covered in front page newspaper stories, I was disappointed that such a large and thorough article on this subject made no mention of the role that corn feeding plays in the increase of dangerous E. coli in our food supply. As has been documented in many places, cows are not meant to eat corn. They are meant to eat grass. And although we have grown to love the fatty, marbled beef that corn feeding produces, one of the many terrible by-products of that method is a huge increase in E. coli. (A 1998 study by Cornell University showed that grass-fed cows have at least 80% less E. coli in their digestive tract than grain fed cows.) When cows are forced to eat corn, it acidifies their digestive tract, creating an ideal environment for acid resistant strains of E. coli to live and replicate. Because cows are immune to the bacteria's effects, they have become breeding grounds for strains of E. coli that render our normal defense against them--stomach acid--totally useless. Combine this reality with the reality of poor oversight and regulation, and you have one worrisome food system. Most disturbing to me is that so much of this processed "meat" winds up in our schools as part of the federal school lunch program. Yet another reason to support organizations like the Healthy Schools Campaign, who are fighting to give our children safe, well-regulated, whole foods.

So, how can someone who enjoys a good burger once in a while possibly do so in clean conscience, given all of these realities? A couple of small changes can actually go a long way in this regard.

First, stop expecting meat to be cheap. Although it can be shocking to read that grass fed beef is $22/lb., you can get a very delicious, reasonable portion for around $8. And, importantly, you know that you're paying the costs for its production up front, rather than waiting for them to surface in the form of a huge E. coli outbreak or a new strain of antibiotic resistant bacteria. You're also probably supporting a small and/or local farm, rather than a massive industrial producer.

Second, grind your own burger (or have someone do it for you if you're squeamish). To avoid hamburger that contains mystery meat from countless cows and often several plants, buy one piece of meat and make your burger from that. Most grocery stores will grind it for you if you ask, and any local butcher shop certainly will. You can also invest in your own grinder, which come in everything from old school, countertop hand cranks to stand mixer attachments. This may seem like a pain, but trust me: just knowing that you are eating real meat from only one cow makes it taste infinitely better.

Finally--and this is the one that's hardest for some people to stomach--eat less meat. It's a big change for some of us, but it's also relatively easy and could have a huge impact if we move in that direction as a society. As with other dietary changes that are better for our bodies and for the planet, I try not to think of it as giving something up. Instead, it's an opportunity to gain a better food source, and to get creative--on a night when you'd normally just grill an easy burger, you can break out a new recipe or try a new veggie instead. Although you may not always wind up with something quite as satisfying or delicious as you'd hoped, one thing is for certain: you, your neighbors, and your planet will be a little better off as a result.

Photo by Josh Bancroft on Flickr Creative Commons.


  1. Great suggestions! I'm a pescetarian, but was trying to think of what I might say to my beef-loving family members about this article in order to provide something constructive to say along with it, besides simply telling them to "stop eating beef, like me, your holier than thou loved one, la la la."

  2. The NYTimes article scared the heck out of me (not to mention totaling grossing me out re. how ground beef is produced), but I feel good about buying from Savenor's, where their policy is to grind small batches fresh, in-house, everyday. It costs about $8 for a 2lb package.