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Issue 133: Chicken or Beef?

If you’ve ever been on an international flight, then you’ve probably been asked the question, Chicken or beef? Those are standard options for home and dining out, too. You may want to check out your beef or chicken selections and how they came to market, however, before you indulge.

Every year in the United States alone, approximately 14 billion hamburgers are eaten, mostly made from conventionally raised beef, but beware. A study from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that the beef (and chicken) in two fast food chains had high levels of carbon and nitrogen isotopes—indicating that the cattle and poultry were fed primarily corn (to make them as fat as possible in the least amount of time) and were raised in extreme confinement. One geobiologist professor who was part of the study suggested that the nitrogen levels were like those where animals consumed their own waste.

Hmmmm . . .consumed their own waste, huh? He may not be far off. Try cows consuming chicken waste. USDA regulations allow chicken feces to be used as feed for cows, so your hamburger might be comprised of second-hand chicken waste that’s gone through cows’ stomachs. This is not an isolated practice, either. The FDA says that farmers feed their cattle between 1 million and 2 million tons of chicken feces annually.

That’s a problem in itself, but what chickens have been fed makes it even more threatening. For decades, chickens have routinely been given feed with arsenic in it. It’s called Roxarsone, and, yes, it is a version of arsenic. Until June 2011, this arsenic has been fed to conventionally raised chickens. Only when the maker of Roxarsone was confronted with evidence that the arsenic remained in the chicken—and, hence, fed to humans—did they ban the Roxarsone-feed practice. (They banned it in the U.S., but not in other countries, so it may still get into our food supply.)The problem is that, for decades, humans have already consumed these arsenic-fed chickens and the arsenic-laden chicken excrement which is often fed to cows and then consumed by humans 

Additionally, conventionally grown chickens are given antibiotics and are routinely processed with monosodium glutamate, salt, additives and even cleaning agents. Speaking of antiobiotics . . .did you know that Consumer Reports found that 2/3 of the pathogens and bacteria found in poultry, like salmonella, are resistant to one or more antibiotics? It’s true. Then we eat those chickens, including those that have eaten arsenic-laced feed and been given antibiotics. That can be especially troubling because Americans eat over 20 billion pounds of chicken annually. 

As you might guess, many wish to ban these feeding and processing practices, and some have been stopped but most of them still go on. The bottom line is that cows and chickens need to eat their natural diet of green plants and insects (for chickens), not corn, their own waste, antibiotics, arsenic or any other chemicals. 

Then there’s E. coli. Each year, thousands of people are sickened by E. coli and hamburger is the main source. A New York Times article says that eating conventional ground beef is still a gamble because the systems used to make meat and to ensure that it's "safe" are not what most people think. The article continues, showing that hamburger meat is a hodge-podge of different grades of meat from different parts of cows and various slaughterhouses, making them especially vulnerable to E. coli contamination. The truth is that the average hamburger can come from parts of as many as 1,000 different cows. Hamburger roulette, anyone?

Some hamburgers eaten that resulted in severe E. coli contamination and subsequent hospitalization or death, were found to have been made from a mix of slaughterhouse trimmings and mashed scraps—low-grade cuts from areas of cows most likely to come into contact with feces. The meat was ground together from slaughterhouses in Nebraska, Texas, Uruguay and a South Dakota company that treats the meat with ammonia to kill the bacteria. Interestingly, many big slaughterhouses will sell their meat only to grinders who agree to not test it for E. coli, according to two large grinding companies.

Maybe that’s why E. coli outbreaks continue. The ground beef isn’t tested for it. Dr. Jeffrey Bender, a food safety expert at the University of Minnesota, says, “Ground beef is not a completely safe product.” Bender notes that while E. coli outbreaks had been declining, “unfortunately it looks like we are going a bit in the opposite direction.”

That could be an understatement, especially when hamburgers at fast food places and some schools have been using filler made of fatty meat scraps, which are often more contaminated than regular meat. Prior to recent times, these scraps were used only in pet foods and cooking oils, but now they’re used to feed people, including children. E. coli and salmonella have been found in these fillers, but ammonia is used to kill the bacteria. You may not have been aware of this ammonia practice, but the federal government is.

There’s much more to the conventionally grown meat story, but the next time you’re shopping for chicken or beef, make sure you choose wisely. Go with organic and grassfed.



This information is intended for educational and informational purposes only. It should not be used in place of an individual consultation or examination or replace the advice of your health care professional and should not be relied upon to determine diagnosis or course of treatment.

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