Should You Avoid Eating Beef?

Deciding between steak and chicken tonight? Corn-fed beef is by far the worse choice, not just for you, but for the environment and for the welfare of the animals.

Health. Most cattle end up in feedlots, where high-calorie grains fatten them up quickly. The extra fat eventually zeroes in on human arteries. And red meat—especially hot dogs, sausages, and other processed meats—promotes colon cancer.

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Environment. Whether cattle live out on the range or in feedlots, they emit methane gas, a potent cause of global warming. What’s more, growing the corn and soybeans for feed requires huge amounts of fertilizer, pesticides, water, and fossil fuel. Then there’s the stench from the manure at feedlots (which are called “concentrated animal feeding operations,” or CAFOs), which can sicken nearby residents.

Animal welfare. The grain fed to animals in feedlots can cause digestive, hoof, and liver diseases and may necessitate the continuous use of antibiotics. That can trigger the growth of antibiotic-resistant pathogens that can infect humans.

The good news: the number of cattle has dropped to its lowest level—about 89 million head in 2012—since 1952, when our population was half what it is now. The average American consumed 42 pounds of beef in 2011, down more than a third since the mid-1970s. Americans now eat a third more poultry than beef.

The decline is partly due to drought in the Midwest and the Plains states that has scorched pasturelands and forced cattle ranchers to cut their herds. What’s more, federal laws requiring corn farms to use some of their crop for ethanol have boosted prices of corn and meat. Beef prices have climbed 26 percent over five years, piercing the $5-per-pound mark in November 2012.

Beef is losing ground despite the industry’s dollar-a-head “checkoff” program, which spends upwards of $40 million a year on marketing and research. Over the years, ads tried to persuade us that “Beef Gives Strength” and beef is “What’s for Dinner.” The industry also sponsors a National Beef Cook-Off, pays “Beef Ambassadors” to stoke sales, and is “engaging millennials with beef.”

Meanwhile, many people are deciding that chicken is “what’s for dinner.” Others are switching to vegetarian fare. Many college and corporate cafeterias have adopted Meatless Mondays. And animal-welfare activists are teaching youngsters about the miserable lives of animals grown on factory farms.

The government could help protect our health and the environment by slapping a tax on grain-fattened cattle. It could ban the routine use of critical antibiotics, which would lead to cleaner CAFOs and healthier animals. It could limit the air and water pollution that CAFOs cause. And it could end the beef marketing program. Of course, the cattle, corn, and soybean industries would fight those proposals in state capitals and in Washington.

What can you do in the meantime? Think twice when you approach the beef counter at supermarkets; skip the burgers and steaks at restaurants; and encourage your school or workplace cafeteria to save money, the environment, and lives by serving less beef.

10 Replies to “Should You Avoid Eating Beef?”

  1. Did not subscribe to this letter to get a bunch of environmental “drink the coolaid” opinions. Keep them to yourself. Maybe human beings should be reduced in number because they pass gas, waste, etc. This is not the content I was expecting. Give the pro’s and con’s of eating meat based on the pro’s and con’s related to a person’s health based on fact. Don’t add environmental views. I will be fair in evaluationg other information related to nutrition but if this kind of environmental opinion runs through the content on a regular basis, I will probably cancel. Please stick to nutrition.

    1. I agree with John 100% . This type of writing moves Nutrition Action from “not that helpful” to quackery.

    2. I completely disagree. The health of the environment is directly related to the overall health of humans as a species and therefore affects my individual health. These are not opinions as 97% of scientists can attest to the cause and effects of global warming. Please continue to include these comprehensive articles that look at all angles of health and nutrition.

  2. Animal products cause cancer…obesity…heart disease… diabetes they along with processed foods have no place in anyone’s diet. If you don’t care about the environment you live in…how can you care for yourself?

  3. Chickens are also fed antibiotics, and vegetables are grown using water, fertilizer, pesticides and fossil fuel as well. Is this a Nutrition Action Health letter…….or one lobbying for a cause?

  4. I would like to have seen the nutritional status of beef included in this article. What nutrients are provided by beef? I can look up this information, but would like to see beef assessed as a food. The environmental focus is also something to consider when choosing any food, but lets focus more on nutritional information.

  5. I agree with John. The letter was fine until the author decided that we should slap yet another tax on. This makes me think there is a political agenda in everything I read on here.

  6. I agree with John. The political nature of Nutrition Action should stick to nutritional content not PETA and greenhouse gases! There are lots of other organizations for those subjects. To stray into other areas like the article did is to dilute the purpose of Nutrition Action.

  7. I agree with John as well. The comments about animal health and the environment affect the credibility of Nutrition Action.

    Besides, chicken farms have their animal health and environment issues, vegetables are often picked by migrants who have poor access to health and education and fish are being overfished. There is no question that humans have an impact on the planet. However, I have looked beef farmers in the eye and i can tell you that the welfare of their animals is certainly front and centre in their minds. Besides, if we don’t eat cattle, what are we going to do with them? Keep them as pets? Release them into the wild?

    Stick to the facts please, and stop making me feel guilty for being alive and liking a burger now and then. (Maybe even with bacon and cheese…)

    1. If the article made people feel guilty about consuming beef, then it has done what it set out to do. Frankly I appreciate the information in the article. However, I will continue my research on this subject because you can’t or shouldn’t believe everything you read on the internet.

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