If reducing climate change doesn’t convince you to change your diet, maybe this will: Recently, a big chain supermarket in Colorado, King Soopers, recalled the equivalent of 1.86 million Quarter Pounders after 14 people got sick from eating it. The culprit: hamburger meat tainted with antibiotic-resistant salmonella, according to Boulder newspaper Daily Camera and Meat Wagon at Grist.org. And it wasn’t just in Colorado: The meat had been distributed throughout seven states, and it took more than a month for the USDA to recall all that meat. You can imagine the return rate wasn’t spectacular.
Tainted meat is no good, not only because it occasionally makes a handful of people sick, but also because it's an indicator of a bigger, scarier issue: the meat industry’s reliance on antibiotics to keep animals alive in cramped, filthy conditions and on inappropriate diets. According to Tom Philpott at Grist, cows are meant to eat grass, not corn and corn byproducts, which disturbs their digestion and can kill them if not managed by antibiotics. Recently, more feedlot operators have been adding distillers grains, byproducts of ethanol production, to cattle feed. These byproducts are known to have high levels of antibiotics.
But wait, there’s more:
Environmental Health News recently reported that people who eat meat and poultry have significantly higher levels of common flame retardants in their systems compared to vegetarians.
According to Grist, PBDEs (common flame retardants) accumulate in the liver, kidney and thyroid gland and are known endocrine disruptors. Chronic exposure and elevated levels lead to disruption of estrogen and thyroid systems. Animal and epidemiological studies link PBDE exposure to several types of reproductive and nervous system impairments.
In his article, Philpott quotes the Environmental Working Group and Science Daily:
A growing body of research in laboratory animals has linked PBDE exposure to an array of adverse health effects including thyroid hormone disruption, permanent learning and memory impairment, behavioral changes, hearing deficits, delayed puberty onset, decreased sperm count, fetal malformations and, possibly, cancer. Research in animals shows that exposure to brominated fire retardants in-utero or during infancy leads to more significant harm than exposure during adulthood, and at much lower levels.
From a Science Daily report on the study:
Although it is not known how flame retardants get into commercial animal products, possibilities include the contamination of animal feed, contamination during processing or packaging and general contamination of the environment. PBDEs accumulate in fat tissue and resist degradation in the environment.
Convinced now? If you are going to eat meat, buy organic or grass-fed beef from a local producer. Not only is grass-fed beef lower in fat and calories and richer in antioxidants (including vitamins E, beta-carotene, and vitamin C), but it doesn't contain any traces of added hormones, antibiotics, or other drugs. Raising animals on grazed grass also requires less fossil fuel. Grazed pasture removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere more effectively than any land use, including forestland and ungrazed prairie, helping to slow global warming. Eat Wild has links to local farms that sell all-natural, delicious, grass-fed products, and serves as a marketplace for farmers who raise their livestock on pasture from birth to market and who actively promote the welfare of their animals and the health of the land.
Want to learn more? Read about MRSA, an antibiotic-resistant staph infection, increasingly associated with industrial meat production, that kills 20,000 Americans each year (that's more than AIDS kills). It's different from antibiotic-resistent salmonella.
Also, read Michael Pollan's 2002 New York Times article Power Steer.
Check out The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, who recently put out a primer on antibiotics and distiller grains, and the site is loaded with other scary but important information on food and related topics.