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.

For many cattle ranchers, sustaining their animals on grass alone is too expensive. Vegetarian cows, Shell explained, produce less milk than those fed on meat, and don't grow as large or as quickly because they receive less protein. But because the inexpensive meat-based supplements that farmers have long relied on to nourish their animals are now thought to be susceptible to contamination by Mad-Cow Disease, new regulations are beginning to outlaw some of the components of such feed. Shell discussed this issue of cattle feed with one concerned rancher who, like many others, was struggling to make ends meet.

Johnston paid $69,581.57 for feed supplements in the previous ten months alone, but he figured it was money well spent. Without the supplements, he said, milk production would slow down and his balance sheet would look even worse. He has seen a lot of farms go under.

Shell herself admitted that after researching the article, she decided to make certain changes to her diet. Beef not ground by her butcher, for instance, was no longer an option. She stopped buying pasta sauce made with meat, and her daughter gave up deli meats in favor of "vegetarian burgers," which consisted of American cheese melted over two pickles. Although no cases of Mad-Cow Disease had yet been found in American cattle, Shell explained that "given the gravity of the disease ... [making] small culinary adjustments seems well worth doing."

While feeding cattle primarily grass would lower the possibility of an oubreak of Mad-Cow Disease in the U.S. and result in healthier meat, in some parts of the country the issue of sustaining cattle on grass is politically charged. Out West where water is scarce, many environmentalists are strongly opposed to allowing cattle to trample and devour precious vegetation. In "The Rancher Subsidy" (January 1996), Todd Oppenheimer expressed the views of environmentalists who feel that the cattle industry is being given free rein to damage the environment.

The U.S. government, he wrote, is giving ranchers discounts on land, free cattle-feed handouts, and assistance in eliminating cattle predators, all because, in his view, the powerful ranching lobby has a strong voice in Washington. The result, he argued, is that vegetation in the West is ending up decimated, causing soil erosion and the elimination of species that depend on greenery.

Oppenheimer's proposed solution was a harsh one:

Let ranchers face their true costs.... The public can make its choice: increase the subsidy to preserve this rare but resonant icon of American identity, or decide that change is inevitable, and that ranchers ... must go the way of the horse and buggy.

But three years later, in "Winning the War for the West" (July 1999), Perri Knize took a more positive stance on the idea of allowing cattle to graze in the West. Contrary to the portrayal of environmentalist critics, she argued, ranchers are not a powerful, money-hungry force that cares nothing for the environment. Rather, they love their profession and the western landscape, and are struggling to make a go of things in spite of terrible odds:

On average, ranchers make only a two percent return on their operations, and many don't do that well. They would be better off liquidating their assets and putting them in a passbook savings account. Instead they turn down big offers from real-estate developers, put up with "ecoterrorists," and hang on by taking temporary jobs in town when the cattle market bottoms out. Ranching, it would seem, is a profession for romantic idealists, not profiteers. Those who hew to it do so for only one reason—they love the land and their way of life.

Knize argued that allowing cattle to graze has, in fact, been shown to have some environmental benefits. Keeping vegetation short, for example, can stimulate the kind of new growth that many species in the ecosystem depend on. And grazing cattle have been shown to play a useful role in dispersing various kinds of seeds.

Maintaining a flourishing, natural environment, Knize pointed out, suits the objectives of ranchers as much as it does those of environmentalists. For this reason, she argued, environmentalists and ranchers should start working hand in hand with one another, instead of at cross purposes. In some areas, Knize reported, such alliances have already sprung up and have made important strides in bolstering not only the landscape, but also the health of the ranching profession.

Two decades earlier, in "The Next American Dust Bowl ... and How to Avert It" (July 1979), William Tucker had made a similar argument about the importance of recognizing common cause between ranchers and environmentalists. His report was on the organic farming movement that was just then beginning to find its way into the mainstream. The term "organic farming" implied a holistic approach to the ecosystem, the eschewing of chemical pesticides, and an allegedly more rigorous set of standards for certification. Backers of such an approach, Tucker explained, felt that that it would be far healthier, both for the environment and for consumers.

Tucker pointed out, however, that the movement's main proponents tended to be "back-to-the-land" hippie types who also believed strongly in vegetarianism and were proud of the fact that they did not keep animals on their farms. The problem with this, Tucker explained,was that animals need to be an integral part of the organic farming system.

Perhaps most important is the part that livestock plays.... Nearly all organic theories put heavy emphasis on the maximum use of livestock so that good rotation crops such as alfalfa hay, which humans cannot eat, can be fed to animals. The manure then maintains the closed system. There is a contradiction between the aims of organic farming and the notion that we should cut back to a more vegetarian diet.

One consequence of the growing separation of animals from the world of farming, he observed, was a "movement of livestock off the farms and into the feedlots." Ironically then, those who cared most about what they were eating and who had therefore opted for organic vegetarianism may have themselves played an indirect role in the degradation of our nation's meat.

Perhaps, however, as thoughtful carnivores begin to pay as much attention to the meat they eat as vegetarians have long lavished on organic vegetables, the quality of our nation's meat and the care of our livestock will once again rise.