The recent scandal over the appearance of horsemeat in a slew of prepared beef products sold in Europe has appalled millions and spurred officials from Britain to Romania to demand action. Even if the idea of getting horse in your frozen lasagna doesn't put you off your lunch, it should at least get us wondering about what's really in our food. The short answer? It's ugly.
Beef isn't the only meat that warrants closer scrutiny. Still, no single product illustrates many of the most unsavoury aspects of our modern industrialised food system quite like beef does. So let's put that juicy burger under a microscope and see what's actually in there. (A tip of the hat to the Global Post for getting us started on this unappetising quest.)
1) Pink slime
You remember "lean, finely textured beef," don't you? That's the industry term for what Mary Jane's Farm magazine more colourfully described as "rejected fat, sinew, bloody effluvia, and occasional bits of meat cut from carcasses in the slaughterhouse." It used to be considered fit only for pet food. But now, they steam those scraps in ammonium hydroxide to kill the salmonella and e. coli, grind them all together and voila ... pink slime! And even though a massive "yuck" reaction from the public last year caused many fast food chains and school cafeterias to drop the delicacy – and a major producer of the stuff to go bankrupt – it's still widely used as a filler in processed food.
2) Pharmaceutical cocktail
Antibiotics don't just help cure bacterial infections; they also fatten up cattle, and fast. Bigger cattle mean more meat and higher profits, so cattle are routinely fed antibiotics. In fact, 80 per cent of the antibiotics used in the US are fed to meat livestock. Not only do these drugs remain in the meat, but the indiscriminate use of antibiotics is leading to the rapid growth of "super bugs," bacteria that have developed resistance to the drugs. Now, cases of drug-resistant infections are increasing and health officials are worried that soon certain infections could become untreatable. Add in the anabolic steroids and the dozens of other pharmaceuticals fed to beef cattle, and you've got a veritable drug store on that bun.
3) They are what they eat
Since feed is one of the major expenses in raising cattle, producers are always coming up with clever ways to feed their animals more cheaply. That's how a variety of barely food and non-food products end up in the trough. Among the treats? Same-species meat, hair, skin, hooves, blood, chicken manure, plastic, euthanised cats and dogs, roadkill, dirt, wood and GMOs.
4) All together now
Ever notice that whenever there's an E coli scare or some other meat emergency, it can take the authorities days or even weeks to locate the source? That's because, given the huge volume of meat that gets pushed through your major processors, it's very hard to keep track of what cow ended up in which burger. In fact, it's likely the burger on your plate right now is made of meat from dozens, even hundreds of different cows.
5) It's the water
In the US, and increasingly in other parts of the world, huge feedlots containing up to 100,000 cattle are used to get the animals fattened up and ready for slaughter. When you get that many large animals together whose main activity is eating, you get an awful lot of manure, which often ends up in nearby water courses. That leads to algal blooms that kill fish and other aquatic life, and can also contribute to acid rain. Raising cattle also uses immense quantities of fresh water, as much as 3,682 litres to produce a single kilogram of boneless meat.
6) Is it getting warm in here?
Industrial beef production has a huge carbon footprint. Producing a kilogram of beef produces greenhouse gases equivalent to 36 kilos of carbon dioxide. The environmental impact extends from transport and methane from digestion to shipping and refrigeration. Add in the vast areas of forest cleared for cattle ranching in places such as Brazil (the world's top beef exporter), and industrial beef production emerges as a real climate killer.
7) Cruelty by design
While we can argue about the ethics of eating meat, there's little question that the modern industrialised meat system of factory farms and slaughterhouses has cruelty built right into it. Hair-raising stories and appalling videos taken undercover routinely reveal horrifying atrocities committed on cattle (and other animals) in this system, which treats these creatures as commodities to be turned as cheaply as possible into profits. Workers at these facilities are also often exploited. They're usually poorly paid, work in unsafe conditions and often suffer gruesome injuries as they're pushed to work faster to boost the bottom line.
All of the above could be considered good reasons to 'go vegetarian'. But most of these ills have less to do with beef per se than with the way it's being grown, processed and sold. Beef produced from cattle fed on natural grass pasture has been shown to have a smaller carbon footprint. Small-scale ranchers tend not to use as many drugs and hormones, and their methods avoid the pollution caused by over-crowded feedlots. In addition, on-site slaughter operations can save animals the fear and anxiety of being shipped to abbatoirs.
It's no secret: buying meat from producers who care about healthy food, about their animals and about the earth can create momentum for growing a more sustainable food system that tastes good, too.
Read more: The New Statesman details how horsemeat made it into UK supermarkets and how to stop it happening again. And here's a cheeky 2-minute explanation of what the fuss is all about, and why you should care:
Sources: Reuters, Vegetarian Times, Global Post, Huffington Post, New York Times, Avaaz, Kansas City Star, Organic Consumer Association, University of Arkansas, Union of Concerned Scientists, Friends Eat, Natural News, BBC, University of Nebraska, WWF, Journal of Animal Science, Guardian, Resilience, Humane Society, Bi-Rite, PBS, The Age, Time, New Statesman