The Problems with The Beef Industry & How to Be a Part of The Solution

As consumers, we are inclined to only look at one side of the story. When we buy products we usually consider how it affects us. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that there is another side that we should consider. What went into this product? How was it produced? What is the impact of their methods towards humanity and the environment? Do I support the way they run their operations?

Over the last few decades, food production in the US has shifted to a system that is dominated by industrialized factory farms, owned by only a handful of corporations. The rise of industrialized farming has run smaller local farms out of business. In addition, there are a handful of concerns with the impact of  factory farming. Among them is the beef industry.

Irresponsible Use of Antibiotics

80% of antibiotics used in the US go to farm animals, including livestock.

distribution of antibiotics

Why? Cattle in industrialized farms are in small overcrowded spaces which are stressful to the animal and make infections spread more easily. The counteract this, many industrialized farms give their cattle low-levels of antibiotics to prevent infection and promote weight gain.

Why is this bad? Using low-levels of antibiotics in crowded spaces encourages the development of antibiotic resistant bacteria. Antibiotic resistance has become of the greatest public health threats our world faces, this threat is in part due to inappropriate use of it. Easily treatable infections can once again become life threatening as they were before antibiotics.

Farm to Fork

The FDA recently added rules to phase out the use of antibiotics. These rules are on a volunteer bases and only cover specific drugs that are commonly used to treat humans. While this move may  improve public image, it really doesn’t do much to end inappropriate use of antibiotics in livestock.


 Most cattle in the U.S. are given anabolic hormone implants to promote faster growth. There are six steroids used, in varying combinations.

  • Natural: estradiol, testosterone and progesterone
  • Synthetic: estrogen compound zeranol, the androgen trenbolone acetate, and progestin melengestrol acetate

Giving steroids to beef makes them grow more muscle and makes them grow faster, this makes them cheaper to raise and gives the beef industry more meat to sell.

Is it safe? While the U.S. government claims the use of antibiotics is safe, the European Union has banned meat that have been given hormone implants. There is a surprising lack of research given how widespread hormone added meat is. Despite the lack of proof that it is actually safe, the majority of the U.S. beef industry continues the practice with little concern for what that means for anything beyond their own profit.

What are the concerns? There are concerns that the hormone additives that are in the meat may cause birth defects and change the sexual development in children. There are also concerns that it may cause cancer.

The Environmental Impact

What goes into a burger

Animal Manure: Factory farms are overcrowded. The high concentration of animals in a small space makes managing waste complicated. The disposal of the waste harms the air, water, soil and nearby farms. To add on to this, livestock waste is not processed for sanitation. The waste is often mixed with water which is then sprayed on crops. This can spread infectious diseases such as E. Coli (which they also may have helped in making it resistant to antibiotics). When the manure/water pits become overfilled, it can leak which can eventually end up in surface water.

Air Pollution: Factory farms pollute the air with methane and hydrogen sulfide. These gases contribute to global warming and may cause harm to those living nearby. Air pollution is often the result of the overuse of machines, mismanagement of waste and harmful feeding practices.

Animal Welfare

The industrialized cows have to live through unnecessary cruelty.

factory farms

  • For identification purposes, cows are branded with a hot iron causing third degree burns.
  • Male calves testicles are ripped from their scrotum.
  • The horns of cows raised for beef are cut or burned off.
  • Livestock fed diets high in grain often suffer from chronic digestive pain and conditions such as acidosis.Rather changing their diet to grass-fed, they are given low-level doses of antibiotics so they keep growing. The antibiotics don’t do much for the suffering of the animal.
  • The feedlot air is filled with ammonia, methane and other harmful chemicals. These gases cause chronic respiratory issues.
  • The livestock are often in very crowded environments. These environments are uncomfortable and very stressful to the animals.

What You Can Do About It

One of the best ways to change the way to food system operates is through voting with your wallet. If you do not support the practices of industrialized farming, then do not support them. There are a number of ways you can go about this…

Support Small Local Sustainable Farms: Small farms are having an increasingly difficult time competing with the bigger industrialized farms. It is important for both economical and environmental sustainability that local farms are supported.

  • You can find local Certified Humane products here.
  • You can find local sustainable food here.
  • If you find a local farmer and make a seasonal deal, you may be able to get a discount on the meat.

USDA Organic: Items that are “100 percent organic” are certified to have been produced using only methods thought to be good for the earth. “Organic” means the item contains at least 95 percent organic ingredients.  Prohibits the use of hormones, antibiotics, genetic engineering, radiation, synthetic pesticides, and fertilizers.

American Grass-fed Certified: Applies to beef and lamb. Requires humane treatment, open pastures, and a grass-only diet for all animals and prohibits use of all antibiotics and hormones.

Certified Humane: No Cages, No crates, no tie stalls. animals must be free to do what comes naturally. A diet of quality feed, without animal by- products, antibiotics or growth hormones. Producers must comply with food safety and environmental regulations. Processors must comply with the American Meat Institute Standards (AMI).

Eat Less Meat: You can reduce the amount of meat you consume or stop eating it all together.

Spread the Word: The more people that know about factory farms and other problems with our food system, the more pressure there will be for legitimate regulation and reform.


Read More: 

Tips for Sustainable Living

The Meatrix

Industrial Livestock Production

What You Need to Know About The Beef Industry

Growth Hormones in Beef Linked to Adverse Affects on Male Sexual Development

Decoding Meat and Dairy Product Labels

Glossary of Meat Production Methods

Factory Farming: Cruelty to Animals

Visualizing a Nation of Meat Eaters

Food Economics

Animal Welfare




Decoding Nutrition Labels

Food labels can be very useful for making sure you eat a healthy diet. However, labels can be deceptive. Food companies want you to buy their products so they will often highlight the part that will make them be perceived as healthy. Learning what all the labels actually mean can help you upgrade your health bullshit detector.


2014-03-13 18.14.23 HDR

Daily Value (%DV): The %DV listed is based on the recommendations for an average person on a 2,000 calorie diet. It is used to help people estimate how it fits into their overall diet. However, your personal needs may be different based on any number of factors.

The Ingredient List: The ingredients are listed in order by weight.

  • Names for Added Sugars: brown sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, fruit juice concentrates, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, invert sugar, malt sugar, molasses, raw sugar, sugar, dextrose, fructose, glucose, lactose, maltose, sucrose, syrup.
  • Names for Artificial Sweeteners: aspartame (NutraSweet and Equal), acesulfame-K (Sweet One), neotame, saccharin (Sweet’N Low), sucralose (Splenda), stevia (Truvia and PureVia)
  • Names for Sodium: sodium bicarbonate (baking soda),  sodium nitrate, sodium citrate, monosodium glutamate (MSG), sodium benzoate.
  • Names for Trans Fat: trans fat, partially hydrogenated oil and hydrogenated oil.

Free: Contains no amount or insignificant amount of specified ingredient. *Watch-out for labels that advertise “0 g of trans fat” because that isn’t the same as being “trans fat free”. They can say 0 g while having up to 0.5 g. The AHA recommends no more than 2 g per day, so it could have up to 25% of your daily limit and still say “0 g of trans fat”.

Low: You can eat the food frequently without exceeding the daily requirements. E.g. “low fat” = 3 g or less per serving.

Lean and Extra Lean: Used to describe the fat content in meat. “Lean” = <10 g fat/<4.5g saturated fat/ <95 mg cholesterol per serving and per 100 g. “Extra Lean” = <5 g fat/<2g saturated fat/ <95 mg cholesterol per serving and per 100 g.

High: Food contains 20% or more of daily value.

Good Source: Food contains 10-19% of the daily value.

Reduced: Nutritionally altered product that contains 25% less of nutrient than the original product. E.g. Reduced fat Cheeze-its.

Less: Food contains 25% less of a nutrient or calories than the reference food.

Light: It can be used in nutritionally altered products that contain 33% fewer calories or 50% less fat. It can also be used in reference texture.

More: Contains at least 10% of daily value or more of the a nutrient than the reference food.

Heart Healthy: This is probably the most deceptive of labels. Food that is  low in fat/ saturated fat, contains no more than 360 mg of sodium, and no more than 60 mg of cholesterol per serving. It must also provide at least 10% of the daily value for vitamins A, or C, or iron, calcium, protein, or fiber. *Keep in mind there are a lot of healthy foods like olive oil or other foods high in healthy fats that are good for your heart.   Also, produce doesn’t have labels and is great for your heart.

Fresh: Food is raw, has not been frozen or heated and contains no preservatives.

High Potency: Used on foods or supplements to describe vitamins/ minerals that are present at 100% daily value or more. It can also be used on multi-ingredient products with at least 100% of DV for  at least 2/3 of the vitamins/ mineral present.

Antioxidant: Used to describe foods or supplements that are “a good source of” or “high in” a nutrient where there is an established daily value and function as an antioxidant. *An antioxidant is a substance that neutralizes reactive oxygen molecules which reduces oxidative damage.

Whole Grain: At least 51% of the grain must be whole grain.

100% Whole Grain: All of the grain must be whole grain.

No Antibiotics: Seen on red meat, poultry, and milk to indicate that the animals were raised without being routinely fed low doses of antibiotics to promote faster growth and prevent infections that tend to occur when animals live in crowded, unsanitary, stressful  and overall cruel conditions. *80% of the antibiotics used in the US go to animal agriculture. The unnecessary use of antibiotics in livestock has played a major role in the development of multi-drug resistant bacteria which are becoming a growing public health threat.

No Hormones: This label appears on beef and dairy products to signify that the animals were raised without supplemental hormones, which are commonly used to make animals gain weight faster or to increase milk production.

100% Natural: These products do not contain artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives and have no synthetic ingredients.

USDA Organic: Items that are “100 percent organic” are certified to have been produced using only methods thought to be good for the earth. “Organic” means the item contains at least 95 percent organic ingredients.  Prohibits the use of hormones, antibiotics, genetic engineering, radiation, synthetic pesticides, and fertilizers.

American Grassfed Certified: Applies to beef and lamb. Requires humane treatment, open pastures, and a grass-only diet for all animals and prohibits use of all antibiotics and hormones.

Rainforest Alliance Certified: Sets high standards for environmental protection, worker rights and welfare, and the interests of local communities. Some pesticide use is allowed.

Fair Trade Certified: Members commit to biodiversity-enhancing practices, ensuring children’s rights, supporting safe working conditions and other fair-trade measures, and documenting fair-trade labor policies.



George Carlin on Food Advertising Bullshit

American Heart Association Nutrition Label Guide

FDA Nutrition Label Guide

NRDC Food Label Guide (good for sustainability-related labels)