Beef has come to seem a hazardous substance. If years of warnings about the dangers of saturated fat and heart disease weren't enough, Eric Schlosser's book Fast Food Nation (2001)—with its graphic and disturbing picture of the inhumane working conditions of meatpackers and the contamination from criminally rushed slaughtering and processing—made clear that it is unwise if not foolhardy to eat beef ground by anyone but yourself. Then an article last year by Michael Pollan, in The New York Times Magazine, told us that corn-fed beef, the presumed gold standard for tender, luxurious steak, is far from wholesome. It isn't very good for the people who eat the fat-streaked meat that corn produces, and eating corn is terrible for cattle, which are ruminants meant to chew grass. Corn leaves their digestive tracts susceptible to E. coli and other pathogenic bacteria. Almost all cattle raised for beef are force-fed corn (which costs less to buy than it does to grow, thanks to federal farm subsidies), and the resulting stress makes it necessary to keep them on high doses of antibiotics. "Finishing" for corn-fed beef takes place on vast feedlots, where cattle raised in many parts of the West are trucked to a miserable end. This force-feeding provokes moral hesitations like those raised by that notorious product of force-feeding, foie gras. At least geese are designed to eat corn.
Whatever the current troubles of McDonald's and other burger purveyors, beef remains America's most popular meat. Many meat lovers, alarmed by Schlosser's book and Pollan's article, have decided to go organic—a choice always to be applauded, for the benefits that chemical-free farming brings to the environment and the health of farm workers, and a choice made easier by the adoption last October of a national organic standard. But organic, vexingly, will not necessarily satisfy people who care about flavor and freshness. Once the food industry saw there was a profit to be made, "organic" stopped being a guarantee of attention to flavor or individual care. In the case of beef, "organic" can mean "raised in confinement and given organic corn." And a last-minute legislative provision passed in February, allowing farmers to give livestock non-organic feed and still certify their meat as "organic," threatens to rob the term of all credibility.