by Melinda Hemmelgarn
In his essay The Pleasures of Eating, Wendell Berry, a Kentucky farmer and poet, writes: “If I am going to eat meat, I want it to be from an animal that has lived a pleasant, uncrowded life outdoors, on bountiful pasture, with good water nearby and trees for shade.” He, like a growing number of conscious eaters, wants no part of the industrial meat system in which animals are raised in concentrated animal feeding operations.
Media coverage has helped educate consumers previously unaware of how their food is produced and why it matters. The documentary film Food Inc., as well as books like Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser and The Chain by Ted Genoways, describe common livestock industry practices that mistreat animals, pollute water and air, endanger workers and threaten public health. With increased understanding of the connections between diet and health, climate, environment and social justice, even many Americans that still like the taste of hamburger and steak have sided with Berry; they want sustainably raised, humane and healthful red meat.
Unsustainable Corporate Lobby
Every five years, the U.S. Dietary Guidelines are revised to reflect the latest nutritional science. In 2015, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee attempted to include the concept of sustainability. The committee, which included top nutrition scientists, defined sustainable diets as “a pattern of eating that promotes health and well-being and provides food security for the present population while sustaining human and natural resources for future generations.” It made the case that a diet higher in plant-based foods and lower in animal-based foods both promotes health and protects the environment—resulting in lower greenhouse gas emissions, and less energy, land and water use.
But political pressure from the livestock industry prevailed, and USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack and Secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia Burwell jointly announced, “We do not believe that the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans are the appropriate vehicle for this important policy conversation about sustainability.” Instead, they advised the committee to focus solely on nutritional and dietary information.
In her book Food Politics, nutritionist and author Marion Nestle explains that recommendations to eat less or decrease consumption have never been popular with the food industry. Nonetheless, Roni Neff, Ph.D., who directs the Center for a Livable Future’s Food System Sustainability and Public Health Program at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, in Baltimore, recommends consuming less red meat in particular, because of its large environmental footprint. Neff points out, “Thirty percent of greenhouse gas emissions are connected to red meat.”
However, not all red meat is created equal. In her book Defending Beef, environmental lawyer and cattle rancher Nicolette Hahn Niman makes a case for sustainable meat production, noting, “Well-managed grazing could be part of an effective strategy to combat climate change.”
In their book The New Livestock Farmer, authors Rebecca Thistlethwaite and Jim Dunlop praise the growing number of farmers producing pasture-raised, ethical meats produced by a growing numbers of farmers that sell directly to people that reject the industrial system. Neff, likewise, supports such sustainable livestock agriculture, which integrates pasture-raised animals on farms, rather than isolating them on feedlots, where they typically eat a grain-based diet (including genetically engineered corn) and receive growth stimulants, including hormones and antibiotics.
Risky Hormones and Antibiotics
Mike Callicrate, a St. Francis, Kansas, rancher educated in the industrial model of meat production, is considered an expert on its negative consequences. He served as an advisor for Food Inc., and Michael Pollan’s, The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Callicrate observes, “The same chemical compounds that athletes are banned from using in baseball are used to produce our food animals, which our children eat in the hot dogs at the ballgame.”
According to the USDA, about 90 percent of feedlot cattle receive hormone implants to promote growth. Yet the European Union Scientific Committee on Veterinary Measures Relating to Public Health reports that the use of natural and artificial growth hormones in beef production poses a potential risk to human health, especially among children.
Concerns about growth-promoting drugs led the American Academy of Pediatrics to call for studies that directly measure their impact on children through milk and meat. The President’s Cancer Panel Report on Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk also states, “Growth hormones may contribute to endocrine disruption in humans.” Their dietary recommendations include choosing meat raised without hormones and antibiotics.
Antibiotic resistance is now one of the world’s most critical public health problems, and it’s related to misuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Antibiotic resistance—when bacteria don’t respond to the drugs designed to kill them—threatens to return us to the time when simple infections were often fatal.”
Veterinarian and food safety consultant Gail Hansen, of Washington, D.C., explains that bacteria naturally develop resistance anytime we use antibiotics. “The problem is overuse and misuse; that’s the recipe for disaster.” She explains that more than 70 percent of the antibiotics sold in the U.S. are not used to treat sick animals, but to promote growth and reduce the risk of infection related to raising animals in unsanitary, overcrowded spaces.
A recent report by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) states: Adding antibiotics to the feed of healthy livestock “often leave the drugs ineffective when they are needed to treat infections in people.”
The AAP supports buying meat from organic farms, because organic farming rules prohibit the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics. Stacia Clinton, a registered dietitian in Boston who works with the international nonprofit Health Care Without Harm, assists hospitals in both reducing meat on their menus and increasing purchases of meat from animals raised without antibiotics. The goal is to reduce the growing number of antibiotic-resistant infections that cost hospitals and patients billions of dollars each year.
A Friends of the Earth Report, Chain Reaction: How Top Restaurants Rate on Reducing Use of Antibiotics in Their Meat Supply, revealed that most meat served by American’s top chain restaurants come from animals raised in industrial facilities where they are fed antibiotics. Only two out of 25 chains, Chipotle Mexican Grill and Panera Bread, report that the majority of their meat is raised without routine antibiotics. A recent study by Consumers Union also found antibiotic-resistant bacteria on retail meat samples nationwide.
In California, Governor Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 27, making his the first state to ban the use of routine low-doses of antimicrobial drugs that are medically important to humans to promote livestock weight gain or feed efficiency. The bill doesn’t go into effect until January 2018, and will contribute to making meat safer and antibiotic drugs more effective.
Red and Processed Meats Targeted
Dietary advice to reduce the consumption of red and processed meats, regardless of how the animals are raised, is not new. Kelay Trentham, a registered dietitian in Tacoma, Washington, who specializes in cancer prevention and treatment, points out that joint reports from the World Cancer Research Fund International and American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) since 2007 have recommended restricting consumption of red meat to less than 18 ounces a week and avoiding processed meats.
In 2015, the World Health Organization International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified processed meat (hot dogs, ham, sausages, corned beef and beef jerky) as “carcinogenic to humans” and red meat (beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse and goat) as “probably carcinogenic to humans.” Risk increases with amount consumed, and the evidence is strongest for the relation of processed meats to colorectal cancer.
Trentham explains some factors that make red and processed meats risky. “Heating or smoking meat creates cancer-causing compounds. Processed meats contain salts, nitrates and nitrites; a chemical milieu of preservatives that can increase risk,” she says. Trentham and Karen Collins, a registered dietitian and advisor to the AICR, concur that the form of iron found in meat also contributes to cancer risk.
Still, the IARC report recognizes, “Eating meat has known health benefits.” Meat is a rich source of protein and B vitamins, iron and zinc. Livestock feed further influences nutritional composition, with meat from cattle raised on pasture (grass) containing higher levels of beneficial omega-3 fatty acids compared to meat from animals fed grain.
According to medical doctor and National Institutes of Health researcher Captain Joseph Hibbeln, consuming fewer omega-6 fatty acids and more omega-3s may be one of the most important dietary changes for cutting risk for chronic diseases, reducing inflammation, improving mental health, enhancing children’s brain and eye development and reducing worldwide incidence of cardiovascular disease by 40 percent.
When it comes to eating meat, agricultural practices, quantity consumed, and methods of processing and cooking make a difference. It turns out that what’s good for the environment is good for animals and people, too.