At the beginning of this year, Wired http://www.wired.com/magazine included a short article on the latest development in cow food – farmers are feeding them Cap’n Crunch, Oreos, and Gummy Bears. While this may seem counter-intuitive to the layman, Jim Olgjen, an animal science professor at UC Davis, is quoted, “You can take any kind of food and make something out of it.” In his opinion sweets are fine as long as they don’t make up a large portion of Bessie’s diet.
Tons of unwanted junk food, like unsalable rainbow sprinkles, broken chocolate bars, cookies that didn’t turn out as planned, etc. wind up in landfills every year. (Why we can’t ship this stuff to starving kids of the world is another question. Eating Cap’n Crunch might not be the healthiest diet but it’s certainly better than starving to death.)
Why the sudden increase in junk food to cattle? Is it for environmental reasons to lessen the landfills? Corn prices have been on the rise and junk food is simply cheaper to buy. Sure a nutritionist is consulted about how much processed white sugar can be in a cow’s stomach, but if licorice by the ton is cheaper than corn, we’ll feed them as much as possible.
What the Wired article fails to mention is that corn, the cattle industry’s favored feed, itself is a questionable product to put in a cow’s mouth to many. The American Grassfed Association, for one, discourages it. “AGA believes that ruminants are healthiest and produce the highest quality meats when they're fed a diet of grass and forage only -- no grains, no animal by-products, no growth hormones, and no processed food waste. There have been plenty of studies comparing the results of grass-fed programs with grain feeding, and they all indicate that grass-fed meat is just as flavorful and has a healthier nutrition profile than its grain-fed counterpart.”
Michael Pollan in his New York Times bestseller The Omnivore’s Dilemma makes a good case against corn, linking it to digestive problems that require antibiotics that in turn contribute to the rise in E.coli bacteria recalls, and the use of ammonia bleach in your hamburger from McDonald’s. (Public outrage has curbed this practice to an extent.)
Yet still, bovine veterinarians like Gatz Riddell, Executive Vice President of the American Association of Bovine Practitioners, explain that lush pastures can also cause the same digestive symptoms, and regarding junk food – cows metabolize differently than we do, digest differently, and the candy ends up as carbon sources for muscle and milk. In other words, despite the way it sounds to feed junk food to cows, science says it’s okay.
While many producers are animal lovers, by and large the meat and dairy industries are not in the business of taking care of cows; but an unhealthy cow will not be good for business. So they rely on veterinarians and nutritionists to keep the cows healthy enough to be a viable source of meat and milk. Unfortunately, for Bessie to graze in a field where nature intended is an ineffective way to fatten her up for slaughter, and an inefficient way to feed milk cows.
As professional animal scientist, Ki Fanning of Great Plains Livestock Consulting, explains, “Veterinarians and nutritionists are utilized on most operations to ensure proper health and nutrition and to maximize the animals’ longevity. In addition, a myriad of research has been conducted to determine optimal management, nutrition, and health strategies and environmental conditions. For example, we know cows prefer country or classical music over rock music.” Fanning is wary of what he calls an “emotion-based agenda against the beef industry.” And with good reason. There have been a number of books over the years lambasting the practices of the beef industry, and some individuals use emotional language to make their point, emphasizing the not-so-pretty aspects of killing animals for food. Most of us would just like to pick up a package of hamburger at the grocery store all clean, neat, and sealed in plastic, and ignore or be ignorant of the raising and slaughtering process. Life isn’t always pleasant. That’s life.
Americans also clamor for more and more meat, at more and more affordable pricing. The beef industry happily complies and people generally don’t care how the industry makes our steaks more efficiently. Until, of course, they find out there is something in their Big Mac that at home is used to clean the bathroom.
The industry, it seems, has made the feces of cows toxic as opposed to healthy natural fertilizer; and made so much toxic feces that it was only a matter of time before E.coli becomes more of a problem. (The egg industry, similarly, is being cast as the cause for a rise in Salmonella poisoning.)
And after all these years of cheap meat, the American Cancer Society and the American Heart Association say we eat too much meat. Are we killing ourselves? Maybe nature had it right with its “inefficient” pasture.
The U.S. has gotten pretty good at recognizing errors in science and health, establishing laws to protect us, and raising standards when deemed appropriate. However, the “trust us we’re experts” attitude does not help the people who get hurt beforehand. Well meaning scientists do make mistakes. Mad Cow disease was traced to practices of feeding meat and bone meal to cows. Cows don’t naturally eat meat, but scientists decided this was okay. (Meat byproducts can still be fed to chickens and swine. And poultry litter can be fed to cows.)
Maybe feeding cows junk food is okay like most experts say. It’s counter-intuitive, but science tells us it’s fine. But on the other hand, sometimes common sense protects us also.