Hollywood, health influencers, and the media are extremely influential in swaying how consumers think about meat. Often, they promote exclusively vegan diets, purchasing plant-based protein, or purchasing pricey “clean” meat in order to raise animal welfare standards and save the planet. But it’s not as simple as that. Here are the five things they speak about, and here’s what they’re largely getting wrong, simply because they over simplified and missed some important, scientifically based research.
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:
- All conventionally raised and even organically raised livestock are fed large amounts of hormones.
- All conventional livestock producers give large amounts of antibiotics to their animals.
- Livestock producers feed large amounts of corn and soy and it’s detrimental livestock health and the environment.
- Pasture, grass-fed and/or organic meat is better than grain-fed and/or conventional because it doesn’t destroy our environment and is inherently healthier.
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 environmental and animal rights activism groups that either only focus on faults in our large food and agricultural companies, or blatantly misrepresent the industry as a whole. Guess what:
Large farms (making over $1 million a year according to gross cash income) account for only 2 percent of all farms in the U.S., but they account for 44 percent of all U.S. production.
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 operations) and livestock producing companies in the U.S.
Assuming the environmental and welfare impact of farms is negative simply because less than 5 percent are not family owned is a huge disservice. This is especially true considering the vast majority of American animal farms are private businesses – large and small – operated by individuals who are families, friends and neighbors.
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 consume feedstuffs such as 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.
Since the 1960s, federal law allows the use of hormones only in specific classes of animals. Hormone and steroid use is prohibited in all chickens (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.
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 for all prescription medications.
In 2017, the Veterinary Feed Directive was implemented which discontinued sub-therapeutic antibiotic usage as a management tool. 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 the feed store and get a big old supply of antibiotics to shove down their animals’ throats.
Antibiotics, even for over-the-counter products, 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 the carcass 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 utilized in the diet 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.
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 are 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 (just that a producer needs to be mindful of grain overload) or they can’t. The short answer is that they can eat it, but when managed improperly in large amounts, 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 increase the risk of certain health issues. Because cows are so expensive to feed, corn and soy are used to lower feed costs in addition to their nutritional benefits.
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.
The biggest trend I’m seeing amongst smaller, independent pork producers is that they opt to not feed their hogs soy and instead look for non-GMO corn and give organic feed (even though it costs five times more). In Washington and 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. These specialty 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,” 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 chickens 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 nutritionists, 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
So, all of these animals can eat corn and soy, and it’s always best to ration them into a balanced feed plan. Do the effects of them eating corn and soy cause a histamine reaction with people that soy and corn allergies? I can’t find one single, credible study that says 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).
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 conventional farming setting, but that’s not always the case. Let’s look at those definitions:
- 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 grass. In winter months when there is no grass to chomp on, the animal was given hay or grass (just like horses) to eat. 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 it’s diet came from grass.
- All-Natural: This also calls to mind wholesome images of how animals are raised, but the term has nothing to do with animal welfare. All-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). Meat that’s labeled “all-natural” could have been fed a diet of grain and grass, just like meat raised by conventional standards.
- Grass-Finished: This means that the animal spent the later 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.
Marketers love to make health and nutrition complicated, hopefully this really long article makes it simpler.
As a consumers, I encourage you to purchase meats that support your values and beliefs, as well as meats that fit into your budget. No matter what, you’re supporting someone who raised it for you. And if you don’t want to purchase from a grocery store, buy it from a local butcher or buy meat a farm selling directly to consumers.
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. 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.
If you want to learn about meat requirements first-hand, here are great resources to read for yourself:
- Meat and poultry labeling terms. USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).
- Beef farm to table. USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).
- Goat farm to table. USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).
- Lamb farm to table. USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).
- Pork farm to table. USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).
- Veal farm to table. USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).
- Meat and Poultry Labeling Terms. USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).
- Steroid Hormone Implants Used for Growth in Food-Producing Animals. U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
- Grass-fed and Grain-fed: What do they mean? Lindsay Chichester, UNL Extension Educator. University of Nebraska
- Organic, All-natural, and Naturally Raised. Lindsay Chichester, UNL Extension Educator. University of Nebraska
- Meat labeling terms – What do they mean?. Lindsay Chichester, UNL Extension Educator. University of Nebraska
- Is there such a thing as a carbon neutral cow? Fast Company. July 2019.