Corn-Fed Beef

I wrote a paper for school on corn-fed beef.  Here’s some food for thought:

As most beef enthusiasts will affirm, corn-fed beef has a far superior flavor and texture to grass-fed beef.  It is also less expensive to purchase and quicker to produce.  So, why are some scientists concerned about the nutritional and environmental impacts of corn-fed beef?  Is there a hidden cost to consuming it?

Cows have not always subsisted on corn; their natural diet is primarily made up of grasses.  It wasn’t until the 1950’s that corn was first introduced into the diet of cattle in America.  Industrial farmers discovered that by feeding corn to their cows, they could significantly reduce the costs of producing beef.

The turnover for cattle increased significantly when fed a diet of corn.  Cows raised on a natural diet of grasses are slaughtered at 48 to 60 months old.  On a corn-fed diet, they grow so rapidly that they are slaughtered at 14 to 16 months.  Corn-fed beef is literally fast food.  By decreasing the amount of time it takes to care for a cow until slaughter, farmers are able to save money.

The government has been subsidizing corn farmers for years, so cattle farmers can buy corn at an artificially low price.  Cattle farmers buy corn for 50 cents less per bushel than the cost of growing it!  Farmers traded wide pasture lands for feedlots, where they could house more cattle on less land.

The conditions of feedlots are unsanitary, cows are often up to their knees in their own manure.  The deplorable conditions of the feedlot present a threat of infection to cattle whose immune systems are already weakened by their unnatural diet.  Corn creates an acidic environment in the intestinal tract of a cow, leading to infection.  It was this very environment that provides an ideal environment for E. Coli.  Farmers treat cows with copious amounts of antibiotics.  This abuse of drugs is producing antibiotic-resistant bacteria.  Another major health concern with corn-fed beef is the possibility of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, more commonly known as Mad Cow Disease.  Feed lot cattle are often fed animal byproducts, which could be contaminated.  Grass-fed beef is free of this deadly disease, since they are fed a vegetarian diet.

The nutritional value of corn-fed beef makes it almost unrecognizable from grass-fed beef.  Corn-fed beef has an undeniably superior flavor to grass fed beef due to more marbling in the meat.  The presence of marbling indicates significant amounts of saturated fat, which can lead to high cholesterol.   Ounce for ounce, grass-fed beef also has a lower number of calories.   In a nation where obesity has become an epidemic, a switch from corn-fed to grass-fed beef is a smart move.  According to “Grass-Fed Beef:  The Superior Protein,” the average American eats approximately 87 pounds of beef annually.  If a person were to switch from corn-fed beef to grass-fed beef, he/she would lose 6 pounds per year without any other alterations in diet or activity.  Grass fed-beef is not only leaner, it contains much higher levels of several nutrients:

Omega 3 fatty acids-  healthy fats that support immune and brain function, while reducing the risks of cancer, and heart disease.

Vitamin E- lowers heart disease, risk of cancer, and has anti-aging properties.

Conjugated linoleic acid- a type of fat which has been shown to reduce the risk of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and obesity.

Sustainability is also a major concern regarding corn-fed beef.  Conventionally farmed corn requires enormous amounts of chemical fertilizer and pesticides, which both require oil to produce it.  Raising a single cow on a corn based diet requires 284 gallons throughout its lifetime.

As previously stated, the practice of feeding cattle corn is a modern innovation, so the long term effects of consuming corn-fed beef are still unknown.  What is certain is that the instances of obesity, diabetes, and coronary heart disease are on the rise in this country.  Could corn-fed beef play a role in these and other issues?  It’s possible, more long term research is necessary to determine the safety of corn-fed beef.

It is the responsibility of the USDA to regulate the practices of cattle farmers to ensure public safety.  However, cattle farmers have many powerful lobbyists in Washington D.C. working to promote the interests of corn-fed beef, as it is more profitable than grass-fed beef.  It has fallen to the consumers to determine whether or not the health and environmental risks are worth the flavor and convenience of corn-fed beef.  Ultimately, demand will dictate what farmers produce.  If consumers demand grass-fed beef, and refuse to buy corn-fed beef, farmers will be forced to reform their feeding practices.  Unfortunately, most Americans remain uninformed regarding the issues of cattle feed.


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