Hollywood, health influencers, and the media elite are clamoring about hormones, animal welfare, and environmental impact. Here’s the information they are missing when preaching for people to only eat plant-based diets and/or only to purchase pricey meat. 

From Ellen Degeneres to Dr. Mark Hyman and Katie Couric, it seems there’s a lot of misunderstanding surrounding American meat and livestock production in Hollywood. Some of the media’s most influential voices are making it seem like meat is going to be the end of our health and the end of our planet. To them, the best way to save our health and the planet is to embrace an all plant-based diet. Well, it’s way more complex than that. 

According to Hollywood & Health Influencers:

  1. All livestock are fed large amounts of hormones.
  2. All livestock producers give large amounts of antibiotics to their animals.  
  3. Livestock producers feed large amounts of corn and soy and it’s detrimental livestock health and the environment. 
  4. Pasture, grass-fed meat is better than grain-fed because it doesn’t destroy our environment.

When I read the headlines, I can tell that celebrities, doctors and influencers aren’t doing this out of malice, they’re doing out of misunderstanding. That misunderstanding leads to misinformation that dominates general statements they make. 

What’s more alarming is that many of the statements being made are based on research-backed by environment and animal welfare groups that only focus on the hideous truths we know about large food and agricultural companies. Guess what: 

Large farms (those selling over $1 million per year) account for only 4 percent of all farms in the U.S., but they account for 66 percent of all U.S. sales.

So when the media, doctors and influencers make the statements I’ve listed above, they are making judgments based on the misdeeds and negative perceptions of 4 percent of the total farming (of which 2 percent are non-family corporations) and livestock producing companies in the U.S. Basing statements the livestock production method of 4 percent of an industry is unfair. The animal welfare and environmental impact of industrial animal agriculture is real, but it’s four percent, what about the other 96 percent? 

You can’t make statements on such a small percentage that aren’t representative of a whole industry. The record needs to be straightened out a bit. So here’s what you need to know about hormones, antibiotics, grass versus grain-fed meat, and how animals process corn and soy. 

Misconception #1: Meat Is Full Of Hormones & Antibiotics

Contrary to popular belief, it’s illegal to use hormones in poultry, pork, bison and goats. Certain hormones can be used in cattle and lambs, but the amounts used are less than what your body naturally produces. 

image courtesy of iStock Photo

Since the 1960s, federal law allows the use of hormones only in specific classes of animals. Hormone and steroid use is prohibited in all chicken (including eggs), veal calves, dairy cows, turkey, bison, and pork production. These animals contain no added hormones and steroids, regardless of whether it is labeled. Certain hormones may be used to promote growth in cattle and lambs. There is, however, an approved use of the non-steroidal hormone bovine somatotropin (bST or rbST) in dairy cows to increase milk production. To better put hormones in beef into context: 

The amount of estrogen found in a three-ounce serving of beef from an animal administered an estrogen implant is less than the amount naturally found in the same size serving of potatoes, cabbage, eggs, soybeans, or ice cream. 

And it’s only a small fraction (0.001 to 0.0004 percent) of the amount naturally produced daily by men, women, and children.

There’s conflicting research as to whether the use of steroids and hormones are harmful to your health. These debates, coupled with consumer preferences, are why food companies use the phrases “no hormones or antibiotics” in marketing statements (even when unnecessary). Here’s a chart to sum it up:

Misconception #2: Animals Are Pumped Full Of Antibiotics

No livestock producer gives an animal antibiotics unless absolutely necessary. Antibiotics are expensive and continual use of them would lead to disease resistance. This impacts the bottom line too much to make common practice. 

A beautiful bull from Five Star Cattle Ranch in Wilton, California

In livestock production (raising the animals that will become your food), if an animal is treated with antibiotics, it’s only because it really needs it. If an animal requires antibiotics, veterinary oversight is required. Livestock producers and ranchers work closely with veterinarians to develop herd health plans and if/when an antibiotic is needed for an animal to treat, prevent or control a disease. The overuse of antibiotics could cause a serious viral resistance, which is why they don’t treat animals any more than what’s required. 

Contrary to what you find online, a farmer can’t just run down to feed store and get a big old supply of antibiotics to shove down their animals’ throats.

Antibiotics are expensive and adding this cost affects the livestock producer’s bottom line. They don’t like to use them any more than you like to eat them. If an animal is treated with antibiotics, FDA rules state livestock producers and ranchers must wait a defined period of time to send animals to market if they have been given antibiotics or other medications (antibiotics can no longer be present in the animal’s system). 

And if the animal is to carry a certain certification, like organic, and it is treated, it has to be moved to another herd as it no longer meets that certification’s requirements. Once that animal reaches a slaughterhouse, USDA inspectors sample carcasses and organs to ensure no residue violations are found. 

Misconception #3: Corn and Soy Are Toxic To Animals 

Cattle, poultry and hogs can eat soy and corn. It’s how the grains are processed that can make it hard for them to digest. No livestock producer only feeds corn and soy to their animals – they balance their diets with other grains and grasses needed for proper development. 

image courtesy of iStock Photo.

As part of increasing transparency questions being set forth by consumers, many people have begun to focus on what cattle, poultry and hogs are fed as part of their diets. It’s important to understand that the focus on soy and corn in animal diets has developed because of the impact of soy and corn on the human diet.

The rise in food sensitivities has left many people wondering if corn and soy should be eaten by the animals as the allergens in these two crops is believed to be transferred into people’s bodies as a result of eating meat. Before addressing this, let’s back up to understand how the animals digest corn and soy.

Here’s how cattle, hogs and poultry really digest corn and soy: 

Cattle: Cattle are ruminants, which means their stomachs have four compartments: the rumen, reticulum, omasum, and abomasum. They eat their food, it partially ferments, and they regurgitate it to be chewed again to break down all the plant material. The way they digest foods allows them to eat grains and grasses that humans and other animals can’t. This includes corn (which is a grass) and soy (which is a legume). 

Can cows eat corn? It’s hard to say as there are numerous conflicting studies as to whether they can digest corn or they can’t. The short answer is that they can eat it, but in large quantities, fed continuously, it can cause acidosis and bloat. The same goes for soy (a great source of protein). Research says a cow’s soy intake should be limited to whole soybeans, with that making up no more than 15 percent of their feed. Higher levels of soy can cause health issues. Because cows are so expensive to feed, corn and soy are used to lower feed costs.

Pork: Unlike cattle, hogs only have one stomach and are omnivores. That changes what they can digest in terms of soy and corn. Hogs can’t digest raw soybeans (the enzymes found in raw soy can inhibit digestion and reduce the use of nutrients or food intake, thus affecting how large the animal grows). Hogs can digest heat-treated soybeans (the problematic enzymes are deactivated). They can also eat corn with no issue. Because of their sensitivities to soy, many pork producers don’t use it as part of their feed. 

Smaller, independent pork producers opt to not feed hogs soy. They feed non-GMO corn and give organic feed (even though it costs five times more). In California, they’re feeding acorns (it apparently pairs well with central coast wines!), adding fruits (non-saleable orchard remnants), whey byproducts from organic dairies, and increasing pasture space.

Higher quality diets translate into customers willing to pay a higher retail cost for pork. 

Poultry: Poultry is especially interesting in regards to what they are fed. Why? Because of the rising trend of “meat allergies,” of which poultry seems to be the fastest rising meat intolerance. I kid you not, it’s a real thing – reports of chicken meat allergies began in the late 1990s, and thirty years later are now set to become mainstream. Like hogs, chickens are omnivores. Chickens are designed to eat mice, snakes, bugs, worms, and insects. It’s not natural for their diet to be “all-vegetarian,” consisting only of grain, corn and soy. 

Chickens that eat only corn and soy often have highly imbalanced Omega 6:3 ratios (this imbalance is what is said to possibly make poultry products inflammatory foods for humans). On the flipside, all-vegetarian diets for poultry means they aren’t fed low quality animal byproducts as part of their diet (this was a big concern in the 1990s when Mad Cow Disease was occuring). 

A study conducted by the American Pastured Poultry Producers Association (APPPA) found that pasture-raised chicken free to roam on grass, forage on green vegetation, eat bugs and not fed soy developed much better Omega 6:3 ratios and had higher concentrations of vitamins E and D. 

When it comes to corn and soy, some growers are fans, some are not. The bottom line is that chicken can eat corn and soy, but soy isn’t the best way to meet their nutritional needs. Poultry does require grain to provide energy, protein, and nutrients. When it comes to corn, chickens can eat it; there is no sufficient, credible research that says it has a negative impact on their heath and/or it leads to disease. 

Livestock producers, ranchers, and farmers all know the importance of designing feed programs that meet the nutritional needs of their animals. They are extremely adept at taking into account the variances in nutritional requirements needed to maintain a healthy animal, as well as evaluating how they’re raising their herds, where they’re raising them and any potential issues with the feed that’s available on the market. 

The Bottom Line: All of these animals can eat corn and soy, it’s best to ration it into a balanced feed plan. 

Do the effects of eating animals who at corn and soy cause a histamine reaction in people that have soy and corn allergies?

I can’t find one single, credible study that proves it does. 

Misconception #4: Pasture Raised, Grass-Fed is Better Than Grain Fed

In terms of 100% grass-fed meat tasting better than grass and grain-fed, it comes down to a matter of your taste preferences. Some people prefer the taste of 100% grass-fed meats (they’re milder in flavor) and others like the taste of grain and grass-fed meat (they’re more savory and rich as they have more fat). 

Independent, Direct-to-Consumer Pasture Raised Beef, Pork and Lamb

Hot on the heels of the corn/soy debate is whether or not animals should be raised on pasture and grass only. This conversation isn’t domestic, it’s international. Australia and New Zealand won’t feed grain to their cattle because they believe the meat tastes better and that an all-grass diet leads to a higher quality, more nutritionally dense end product. 

In the U.S., we are split on whether grass-fed is better than grain-fed. If you read meat labels, you’ll see statements like “100% grass-fed” and/or “grass-finished” alongside the words “all-natural,” and “no added hormones and no antibiotics.” Meat labeled with these words usually carries a 25 to 33 percent price premium on it.

Most people think that grass-fed, all-natural meat is automatically better quality. They may even think the animal itself was treated better. What’s more, it seems these terms automatically lead you to believe that the meat wasn’t raised in a commercial farming setting, that’s not always the case. Let’s look at those definitions:

  1. 100% Grass-Fed: This is supposed to mean that the animal was allowed to forage for its own food; meaning it lived in a wide open space where its neck was down and chowing down. In winter months when there is no grass to chomp on, the animal was given hay or grass (just like horses) to eat. The animal should not have been raised on grain, pellets or confined at any point. There are no current federal regulations on what can be labeled grass-fed, therefore there’s no real way to ensure a standard is adhered to. You don’t know how long an animal was allowed to graze or how much of its diet came from grass. 
  2. All-Natural: This also calls to mind wholesome images of how animals are raised, but the term has nothing to do with animal welfare. Natural refers to food that is minimally processed without artificial ingredients. Producers are required to provide supporting documents for their claims of all-natural (although the USDA doesn’t conduct on-site inspections to verify the claims). All-natural animals have a diet of grain and grass, just like conventional. 
  3. Grass-Finished: This means that the animal spent the latter part of its life on grass. You don’t know how long it grazed, you don’t know if it was on grain at any given point or several other factors that could impact the use of this term. For example, the animal could have been purchased at auction and then added to a different herd at some point in its life. 

So, does it do you any good to buy natural meat over conventional meat? It’s debatable. There’s a case that can be made for 100% grass-fed beef, which has a milder taste, and has been found to have larger amounts of key nutrients. But there’s also a case that can be made for beef raised on a combination of grass and grain. It’s entirely preferential to taste. 

Organic: The Label People Still Miss Even After 20 Years

With the focus on animal welfare and meat quality, why is it that organic never seems to be invited to the conversation nearly as much as it should? Want to address all your health concerns? For those that can afford it, it’s simply best to buy and eat organic meat from your grocer or local farmer’s market. 

organic dairy farm and cheese making skagit valley
Skagit Valley, Washington | Learning About Organic Cheesemaking

Livestock raised under the Organic Food Production Act and carries an organic certification isn’t allowed to be fed animal by-products, antibiotics and hormones are forbidden, animals must be fed pesticide-free grain and grass, and they tend to be raised in humane conditions. What’s more, most organic livestock producers are following regenerative and/or sustainable agricultural practices.

The meat that’s certified organic is the most regulated product available in stores. Here’s how it compares: 

We love to make health and nutrition complicated, hopefully, this really long article makes it simpler. 

When trying to decide which meat option is best for you, it is important to purchase meats that support your values and beliefs, as well as meats that fit into your budget. You have many options today that extend beyond a grocery store:

  1. You can look for a local butcher, 
  2. You can buy from a small farm selling directly to consumers at a farmer’s market, 
  3. Or you can buy a quarter, half and whole animal directly from a farmer. 

As a consumer: the meat you eat is entirely up to you. If the cost of food is a challenge, don’t worry about what people are saying is good or bad for you, simply do your best to eat real food over-processed and packaged foods. 

If you work in media or Hollywood: You can’t misuse statistics to further your own personal food biases and dietary choices. You also shouldn’t misuse research to simply monetize ad space or sell more books. 

Do the research yourself, understand a label, don’t follow food fads, and don’t be afraid to call someone out on their bullsh*t. As always, I encourage you to eat as well as you can and I hope that you are #RefindingFood in a way that suits you!

Note: We’ll be addressing the environmental impact, feedlots and factory farming in a post coming after this one. We know it’s tied to all these topics. 

If you want to learn about meat requirements first-hand, here are great resources to read for yourself: 

  1. Meat and poultry labeling terms. USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).
  2. Beef farm to table. USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). 
  3. Goat farm to table. USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). 
  4. Lamb farm to table. USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).  
  5. Pork farm to table. USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). 
  6. Veal farm to table. USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). 
  7. Meat and Poultry Labeling Terms. USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).
  8. Steroid Hormone Implants Used for Growth in Food-Producing Animals. U.S. Food and Drug Administration.  
  9. Grass-fed and Grain-fed: What do they mean? Lindsay Chichester, UNL Extension Educator. University of Nebraska
  10. Organic, All-natural, and Naturally Raised. Lindsay Chichester, UNL Extension Educator. University of Nebraska
  11. Meat labeling terms – What do they mean?. Lindsay Chichester, UNL Extension Educator. University of Nebraska
  12. Is there such a thing as a carbon neutral cow? Fast Company. July 2019.