Cattle, like other mammals raised on a pasture, eat grass. But if there's one thing humans do well, it's mess with nature, and so hundreds of years ago humans began sharing their discovery that feeding cattle corn makes them grow fatter more quickly. Sometime around the 1950s, modern Americans took this meat-fattening trick to its logical, corporate, American extreme.To feed millions of people an endless supply of Big Macs, Arby's roast beef, Taco Bell ground beef and other forms of processed beef for a price that's dirt cheap, ranchers began squeezing thousands of cows together in tightly packed feed lots. There, the cows are fed more corn than is good for them, so much corn that farmers now must give cows antibiotics to prevent the animals from growing ill. Antibiotics in meat production are so prevalent, scientists have recently discovered that cow dung breeds antibiotic-resistant bacteria, a disturbing thought when you realize that beef-heavy Texas reportedly produces more animal waste than any other state.
But around a decade ago, the tide slowly turned. Independent food safety and environmental groups — Union of Concerned Scientists, Consumer's Union, the National Resources Defense Council, as well as journalists like Michael Pollan — began alerting the public to the ecological and public health consequences of corn-fed meat. Environmental researchers began describing the overall danger of the American agricultural industry's dependence on corn as "an agricultural juggernaut," writes University of Minnesota researcher Jonathan Foley, "consuming more land, more natural resources and more taxpayer dollars than any other farming system in modern U.S. history."
In recent years, smaller meat producers, marketing grass-fed beef, began slowly popping up. Now there are thousands of grass-fed operations in the country and a healthy if smaller grass-fed industry in Texas. If you want a burger, you can still buy the $1 corn-fed patty from a fast-food chain, but you can also buy the $15 grass-fed burger at Meddlesome Moth.
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This is all a long way of warning that more corn-fed beef propaganda is coming. Last week, Congress released the text of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the trade deal that could lower the tariff on American beef along with thousands of other products. One day, lucky countries that primarily feed their cows grass could get cheaper shipments of beef from 'Murica. In last weekend's Dallas Morning News, the paper itself describes Texas beef as having "that corn-fed difference." That almost sounds like a beef commercial.
“We have a competitive advantage,” agricultural economist Ken Matthews tells the paper. “We’re the leading producer of high-quality, grain-fed beef.”
A Saginaw rancher echoes those sentiments. “There are basically two kinds of beef in the world ... One is the grass-fed beef raised around the globe and the other is the corn-fed beef you see here in the United States. It’s a premium product, and people pay more for it.” OK, good luck selling that line to the Wagyu and Kobe* consumers of Japan.
(*which are also fed grains, but are fattened more slowly and carefully than the typical USDA beef from cows stuffed in Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, and are also rumored to get massages and beer.)