Flashbacks October 2007

The American Way of Beef

Atlantic contributors follow the decline of the meat industry

These days, the thought of ingesting hamburger gives many people pause. Massive beef recalls and books like Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation have impressed upon readers' minds the image of the modern beef cow, packed tightly in an enormous feedlot, standing in a cesspool of its brethren's manure as it gorges itself on an excessively medicated mix of corn and rendered animal protein. Although livestock diseases have devastated farms in Europe, American factory farming has earned an especially bad name for its carelessness and inhumanity. As B. R. Myers wrote in his May 2005 Atlantic piece "If Pigs Could Swim," "Livestock are treated better in Europe because Europeans want them treated better. They are treated worse here because we hardly think of them at all. It's as simple as that."

Over the years, other Atlantic contributors have made note of America's declining meat standards and suggested alternatives to the federally subsidized farm industry, where the typical cow lives a short and unhappy life that leaves consumers with cheap, fatty slabs of beef. In "Back to Grass," his article in the May 2003 Atlantic, Corby Kummer makes a case for grass-fed beef—meat obtained from cattle that have been allowed to roam free throughout their lives and to sustain themselves on their natural diet of grass and silage. Beef raised in this way, he explains, not only tastes better, but is also leaner and more healthful. Obtaining it, he concedes, may take more effort—"determined beef lovers in search of true grass-fed beef have encountered uneven availability and, occasionally, the necessity of buying an entire side of beef." But the search, he argues, is worth it. Grass-fed beef tastes better than corn-fed beef: "meatier, purer, far less fatty, the way we imagined beef tasted before feedlots and farm subsidies changed ranchers and cattle."

Such nostalgia for traditional ranching methods is not new. In "Caesar's Meat" (September 1960), J. Frank Dobie recalled the tasty steaks of yesteryear. "A strong meat," he wrote, is a "nourishing meat" characterized by muscle fibers created "only through a certain amount of exercise." But modern cows, he complained, were being heavily dosed with tranquilizers so that they wouldn't wander off their feedlots. As a result, they were ending up flabby and unpleasant to eat: "I put muscleless, fiberless, tranquilized beef," he wrote, "in the same category with spoon vittles."

It wasn't always this way, Dobie argued. In an earlier era, vigorous cattle fed vigorous men and women. He asked readers to remember the butcher shop of yore:

In any country town you could smell a butcher shop afar off, not because the meat was tainted but because it was strong. Back in the old range days, a steer wasn't really beef until he was four years old or more. When a person gets matured beef, not too fat, with fibers in the muscles, he has something.

The urge for old-fashioned, satisfying meat has inspired some meat-lovers to take matters into their own hands. In "Headin' for the First Roundup" (September 1974), Page Stegner described the great lengths to which he and some of his friends had gone to secure for themselves a supply of good beef.

It all began when a friend advised him, "All you do is go to auction in Salinas on a Saturday, you buy yourself a calf for around forty or fifty dollars, bring him back and put him on my pasture until he weighs about a thousand pounds, and you eat him."

It turned out to be not nearly so easy. After accidentally winding up with a far larger and more expensive steer than they had meant to bid on, Stegner and his friends struggled to maneuver the animal into their truck, and wound up with a broken rear window, a hole in the flat-bed, and a chunk knocked out of the side rail.

But it was once they'd gotten the steer home that the real challenges of what they'd undertaken began to sink in. The animal needed regular care and feeding and occasional veterinary attention, and its aversion to human handling led to lengthy episodes of chasing the cow around. All told, it turned out to be a very expensive and difficult venture. "In the cattle business," Stegner explained, "it's the hidden expenses that kill you."

You get nickeled and dimed to death. A bale of alfalfa here, a salt lick there, a roll of barbed wire to mend the fence where your cows tore it up, a box of bandages to mend the skin where the barbed wire tore it up, sacks of corn at $8.50 a hundredweight. You discover that in order to get good meat, you have to grain animals, at least during the last three hundred pounds of gain. You discover that it takes eight pounds of feed to produce a pound of meat, and if you're paying eight cents a pound for grain, you can just add sixty-four cents to the final per-pound cost of your hamburger. And then, of course, you have your medical expenses. These can vary tremendously, depending on the health and vigor of your cows and cowboys.

Indeed, as Stegner and his friends discovered, raising cattle is not an easy business. And as Americans become increasingly skittish about the potential health hazards of eating meat, those who make a living off their livestock are finding it even more difficult to get by. In "Could Mad-Cow Disease Happen Here?" (September 1998), Ellen Ruppel Shell took an in-depth look at concerns about Mad-Cow Disease, and touched upon the toll they are taking on ranchers.

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