After...Mmmm Good

Monday, June 7, 2010

Corn-fed Cows are Killers; Killing Us and Earth With Every Bite

When we picture cows in our mind, an idyllic scene of big, lazy animals chewing on grass in a field is usually what we think of. In today’s reality, with the explosion of factory farming, that picture couldn't be farther from the truth. Most cows today can be found in Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations or CAFO for short. CAFO's are large facilities where on average 3,000 cows are kept and fed until they are slaughtered for beef. While confined, the feed they eat is comprised of mostly corn and grain. This is not their natural diet. The consequences of something as small as feeding a cow corn has effects that can extend from vegetative destruction to the death of a healthy two year old boy. These disastrous events can be reduced by something as simple as a change of one feed ingredient. CAFO's feeding cows grain is inhumane and dangerous because it causes the growth and spread of E.coli through tainted beef and waste runoff, so switching cows back to their natural diet of grass is better for humans, cows and the environment, resulting in healthier beef with a higher nutritional value.

Feeding cows grain and corn is inhumane and dangerous to both the cows and humans who eat the beef. In “The Ethics of What We Eat” by Peter Singer, he explains that cows are ruminants which are animals who have a rumen. Ruminant animals have a digestive system that has evolved to break down grass (61). The rumen is the first part of a cow’s stomach used for digestion where resident bacteria convert cellulose into proteins and fats. Ruminants are meant to eat grass which their rumen can digest. Singer says, “If they don’t get enough roughage, they develop lactic acid in their rumens, which creates gas and causes ‘feedlot bloat,’ a condition so severe that cattle can suffocate from it (61). Corn and other grains are not digested by ruminants. When they are fed corn it causes the rumen to expand and apply pressure to the animal’s lungs which can cause suffocation. According to author Michael Pollan, “in some cases a tube has to be shoved down the animal’s esophagus in order to avoid suffocation.” Changing an animal’s natural diet in order to benefit us is cruel. The only reason we feed the cows corn is that it fattens them up quickly so we can slaughter them earlier and get more beef from each cow. Our greed has made us alter nature with no regard to the animal’s welfare. Ruminants have a normal pH level in their gut. Forcing them to eat corn and grain raises changes the ph level making their guts extremely acidic. According to Northwestern Health Sciences University, “Cud-chewing animals such as cows, goats, buffalo and sheep are designed to eat fibrous grasses, plants and shrubs. When they are fed starchy, low fiber grain, a number of problems can arise. Subacute acidosis is a very common condition that affects cattle. This condition causes cattle to kick at their bellies, stop eating and begin to eat dirt. These animals are often given chemical additives along with a constant, low-level dose of antibiotics to prevent reactions from being fatal.” Acidosis is similar to severe heartburn in humans, which as we know is very uncomfortable and painful; however in cows it can be even more problematic. As stated they will stop eating and eat dirt trying to calm the burning feeling they are having inside them. They will pant and salivate excessively. Acidosis can cause other unnatural effects on the cow such as diarrhea, liver disease, and ulcers. These conditions can cause a weakening of the cow’s natural immune system leaving it susceptible to diseases such as feedlot bloat, polio and pneumonia. In order to prevent death, the cows are often given constant, low level doses of antibiotics and chemical additives. This constant use of antibiotics causes the bacteria to naturally evolve and become resistant to the medicine. Changing the chemical makeup of an animal’s internal system which puts it in unnecessary pain is inhumane. CAFO's with their over-crowded, dirty conditions are already the perfect breeding ground for disease and bacteria, so the last thing you want having to live there is an animal with a lowered immune system, especially one whose meat might eventually land up on your plate. As stated before, cattle aren't designed to digest grain, so the epigastric pH levels and acids from a grain diet allows E.coli bacteria to thrive in the cows gut because the pH balance has been altered. The USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) and Cornell University researchers conducted a study on how the diet of cattle affects the growth and spread of E.coli bacteria including the deadly strain E.coli 0157:H7. One of the researchers, microbiologist and Cornell University professor James Russell, explained that the bovine gastrointestinal tract digests starch poorly and that some undigested grain reaches the colon where it is fermented. When the grain ferments, it causes acetic, propionic and butyric acids to accumulate and that leads to a large fraction of the E.coli that are being produced to evolve into the acid-resistant type. The study shows that tests performed on cattle, fed grain had 1 million acid-resistant E.coli, per gram of feces, while the cattle fed grass had only acid-sensitive E.coli. The difference is that acid-resistant E.coli can survive contact with acid while the acid-sensitive bacteria will be destroyed by contact with acid. This is an important factor when it comes to humans eating beef laced with E.coli bacteria, one that can mean the difference between life and death that we will discuss later in this paper. That high count of acid-resistant E.coli can be explained by the grain fermentation in the cow’s intestines. In order to keep the E.coli growth under control and keep the animals alive, CAFO’s have to continually put antibiotics such as penicillin in the cows feed. When you continually feed the animal antibiotics in order to kill off bacteria inside them, evolution will lead to the development of bacteria immune to the antibiotics. Overuse of antibiotics has created a new strain of super bacteria that can no longer be killed off basically rendering the antibiotics useless. A report in Time magazine estimates that seventy percent of the nation’s antibiotics are fed to livestock to prevent illnesses. The American Medical association wants all nontherapeutic use of antibiotics to be stopped. The problem with that is, because of the corn fed diets effects of stomach ulcers, bloating, and liver abscesses on cows, the line of what is just routine practice and what is necessary to save the cows life is blurred. The bottom line is that it’s the grain diet that causes these afflictions, so if the diet was changed the antibiotics would not be needed as much and when bacteria was detected it would be killed off because it would not have grown resistant to the medicine. Cows raised on grass based diets rarely require antibiotic treatment.

The beef and waste produced from corn fed cows infected with E.coli is harmful to the environment and humans, possibly even deadly. As we previously discussed, the corn feed diet has disastrous effects on the digestive system of the cow but it also has profound consequences on the humans who eat the beef. Our stomach is acidic by nature in order for us to dissolve and digest the food we’ve eaten, but it also serves as a defensive barrier in our body. The acid in our stomach helps kill off bacteria that may enter our body through the food we’ve eaten. One type of bacteria that we come in contact with through our beef is E.coli. Usually if we eat infected meat the acid in our stomach would kill off the E.coli bacteria, but as we discussed earlier, since the pH level inside cows has become acidic the bacteria is now immune to the acid shock that would usually kill it. The Cornell University report indicated that the grain based cattle diet promotes the growth of E.coli that can survive the acidity of the human stomach and cause intestinal illness. Russell explains that, “most bacteria are killed by the acid of stomach juice, but E.coli from grain fed cattle are resistant to strong acids. When people eat foods contaminated with acid-resistant E.coli including pathogenic strains like 0157:H7, the chance of getting sick increases.” E.coli is a normal bacterium in the gastrointestinal tract of animals and humans, and most types are not harmful. However there are disease-causing strains such as E.coli 0157:H7 that produce toxins which result in bloody diarrhea or kidney failure in humans. Due to the meatpacking industry’s greed and desire to raise bigger, fatter cows quickly, they created the perfect conditions for microbes to evolve into strains that can harm and kill us. Michael Pollan explains, “Most of the microbes that reside in the gut of a cow and find their way into our food get killed off by the acids in our stomachs, since they originally adapted to live in a neutral-pH environment. But the digestive tract of the modern feedlot cow is closer in acidity to our own, and in this new, manmade environment acid-resistant strains of E.coli have developed that can survive our stomach acids and go on to kill us. By acidifying a cow’s gut with corn, we have broken down one of our food chain’s barriers to infections.” Once again in our race to make things quicker and bigger, we never take the time to think about the consequences of what we create, and how our “make it now” and “we’ll fix it later” attitude always seems to come around and bite us in our “you know what.” Outbreaks of food poisoning from E.coli tainted beef have been on the rise recently with many resulting in death. The USDA and Cornell university report states that E.coli contamination is responsible for more than twenty thousand infections and over two hundred deaths each year in the United States. According to Time magazine, in 1993, six hundred people in Seattle got sick and three children died after eating E.coli tainted hamburger meat. In January 2010, Newstex reported that the USDA recalled 248,000 lbs. of steaks that had been distributed to Midwestern chain restaurants. The USDA categorized the recall as a “Class 1” event indicating a “high health risk” due to the finding of E.coli 0157:H7 in the meat. One tragic death made popular by the Robert Kenner film, “Food Inc.” was that of two and a half year old Kevin Kowalcyk who died of food poising after eating an E.coli tainted hamburger. In the summer of 2001 Kevin went from a healthy toddler to being dead in twelve days from just eating a hamburger. His death and his mothers activism has brought attention to the problem and stirred up support for a bill that would enhance food safety. The bill is aptly titled, “Kevin’s Law”, and was finally passed in 2009. What is even scarier now is, that because of CAFO’s, the threat of E.coli is not only limited to beef, but also our vegetables and water supply. With the amount of animals in a CAFO it is a big task to dispose of all the waste safely and properly. Since E.coli bacteria can also be found in the cows feces, it leads to infected manure. It’s the infected manure from the grain-fed cattle that contaminates the groundwater and spreads the bacteria to produce, like spinach growing on neighboring farms. In a January 2009 Environmental Protection Agency document, an Oregon CAFO owner John Bezates agreed to pay an eight thousand dollar penalty to settle Clean Water act discharge violations stemming from his CAFO. According to Laura Davies, EPA acting Director, Office of Compliance and Enforcement in Seattle, “When CAFO’s fail to take proper precautions, including obtaining necessary wastewater discharge permits, their manure laden runoff can pollute our creeks, rivers and streams.” The document states that CAFO’s continue to be a leading source of water quality impairment in the U.S. The environmental harm doesn’t just stop at manure though, you have to take into account the effect on our air quality and drain on our resources. You have to look at the amount of fuel burned by the machines that have to harvest all that corn we use to feed the cows. According to author Robyn O’Brien, The U.S. produces 1.5 billion bushels of corn a year just to feed to cows. Most of the corn and soy grown in the United States goes for livestock feed (119). The fossil fuels used to transport the corn to CAFO’s add to our already polluted atmosphere whereas grass gets it energy from the sun. Dr. David Pimentel, professor of ecology and agricultural sciences at Cornell University explains that it takes half the fossil-fuel energy to produce two pounds of grass-fed beef as it does to produce the same amount of grain-fed. Growing the corn requires large amounts of chemical fertilizer, which by itself is bad for the air, but it also takes oil to produce and spread the fertilizer. Pimentel says a typical grain-fed steer will in effect consume 284 gallons of oil in his lifetime. It seems that the corn-fed beef does more than just damage our bodies; it’s also draining and destroying our planet.

Now that we’ve discussed all the negative effects of grain-fed beef on ourselves and our environment, let’s talk about one solution to the problem. Switching cows back to a grass based diet will reduce the growth of acid-resistant E.coli bacteria which will produce safer, healthier beef, which studies have shown to be higher in nutritional value. A 2003 Journal of Dairy Science report noted that up to eighty percent of dairy cattle carry E.coli 0157, however after switching the cows from grain to grass for only five days the experiment showed the E.coli 0157 declined 1,000-fold. The cows diet not only affects the amount of bacteria found in the beef but also the nutritional makeup of the meat. According to the Mayo Clinic, when compared to grain-fed beef, grass-fed beef is lower in total fat, lower in the saturated fats linked with heart disease, higher in vitamin E, vitamin B, beta-carotene, calcium, magnesium, potassium, vaccenic acid, CLA(conjugated linoleic acid) and has higher levels of heart healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3s protect our cardiovascular system and support optimal brain function. According to a California State University report, when cattle are taken off grass diets and switched to grain they immediately begin losing the omega 3’s they have stored in their tissues. As a result the grain-fed meat only contains 15-50 percent as much omega-3s as grass-fed. Cows that eat grass have twice the CLA per serving compared to grain fed. CLA has been linked to numerous health benefits including reduction of carcinogens, atherosclerosis, diabetes, and certain types of cancer. The report supports the findings that grass-fed beef contain a higher proportion of healthful lipids and antioxidants important to human health when compared to grain-fed.

As you can the feeding of grain to cows has many far reaching effects. Not only does it jeopardize our health and has the potential to actually kill us, but it is playing a big role in our reliance on fossil fuels and pollution of our air and water. Even with those factors that affect us personally, the fact remains that not only do we suffer, but so does the cow. The cattle are put through unnecessary pain and treated inhumanely with the constant feeding of antibiotics in order to keep them alive. One simple solution is actually just doing the right thing, the natural thing and putting the cattle back on their natural diet of grass. It would solve so much and benefit us on many levels including our health, food and where we call home, earth.

Works Cited
O'Brien, Robyn, and Rachel Kranz. "Corn Controversies." The Unhealthy Truth: How Our Food Is Making Us Sick and What We Can Do about It. New York: Broadway, 2009. 119. Print.
Singer, Peter, and Jim Mason. "Meat and Milk Factories." The Ethics of What We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter. [Emmaus, Pa.]: Rodale, 2006. 61. Print
Abbott, A., M. Basurto, C.A. Daley, G. Nader, and S. Larson. "Enhanced Nutrient Content of Grass Fed Beef:Justification for Health Benefit Label Claim." University of California Cooperative Extension Service. College of Agriculture, California State University, Chico. Web.
Food Inc. Dir. Robert Kenner. Perf. Michael Pollan. Magnolia Pictures, 2008. DVD.
"Grain-Fed Versus Grass-Fed Animal Products." Northwestern Health Sciences University, 2002. Web. .
Grogan, M.D., Martha. "Grass-fed Beef: What Are the Heart-health Benefits?" Mayo Clinic Medical Information and Tools for Healthy Living - 5 Jan. 2010. Web. 07 June 2010. .
Moyer, Lindsay. "Grass Is Greener: Buy Healthy Meat." Womens Health July-Aug. 2008. Print
Planck, Nina. "Leafy Green Sewage." New York Times 21 Sept. 2006. Print
The Grass-Fed Revolution." Time 11 June 2006. LexisNexus. Web. 28 Apr. 2010
Segelken, Roger. "CU and USDA: Cattle Feeding Change Could Cut E.coli Risk." Cornell Chronicle [Massachusetts] 17 Sept. 1998. Print
Environmental Protection Agency. Documents and Publications. Feedlot Facility Pays $8,000 for Alleged Animal Waste Violations. Ontario, Oregon, 2009. Print.
Robbins, John. "What About Grass-fed Beef?" Web. .


  1. very insightful, thank you for posting.

  2. May want to note that washing hands can be an effective way to not spread e.coli as well.

    Also note that corn fed steer produce "prime beef" Most often you pay more for "prime" it is not usually served in cheap places. The longer they are fed corn the more prime the meat. I also know that beef(ground) tainted with e.coli happens during butchering/packaging if not handled properly. Did you know 98000 people died from medical mistakes? Maybe we shouldn'T go to the Dr either.

    1. What's your point? are you trying to say there are risk to everything, so why bother? Hmm.. very peculiar response...

    2. medical mistakes are unpreventable , its the only way doctors may train and improve, and that is a totally different subject than the post above.

      animals are not mistakenly treated badly, they are not mistakenly crammed into cages, not mistakenly beaten, not mistakenly forced to produce milk all year round.. these are not mistakes!! your comparison is not valid.. These are all profit plans fueled with GREED.