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Vol. 5, No. 6, 2006
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What have they done to the earth,
What have they done to our fair sister,
Ravaged her and plunged her and ripped her and bit her,
Stuck her with knives in the side of the dawn,
And tied her with fences and dragged her down. Jim Morrison

Michael Pollan, a former editor at Harper's magazine, is the author of The Botany of Desire and The Omnivore’s Dilemma. With National Public Radio (NPR), Pollan talks about his experience as a small-scale rancher and his decision to buy a cow and track its journey from birth to slaughterhouse to rendering plant. He also discusses the widespread use of antibiotics in the meat industry, and why he thinks the system is fragile and susceptible to microbes and pathogens.


NPR: Cows take grass, which we can't digest, which very few creatures can digest, and turn it into fuel. What is so amazing about that?

MICHAEL POLLAN: A cow out on grass is just an incredible thing to behold. Cows and other ruminants can do things we just can't. They have the most highly evolved digestive organ on the planet called the rumen which can digest grass. It takes the grass, cellulose in grass, and turns it into very nutritious protein.

So to take land that is not good enough for agriculture Ė that will grow grass and nothing else, which is how itís been for the past 10,000 years since the buffalo -- and put a cow on it . . . there's something beautiful about that, and it's just the way it was meant to be.

And I went into this story (for the New York Times) thinking, "Well, that's how we get meat." But alas, it's not true.

NPR: What do you mean?

MICHAEL POLLAN: By the time a modern American beef cow is six months old, it has seen its last blade of grass for the rest of its life. As soon as they wean, they spend the first six months out on the pasture with their moms, nursing, nibbling grass. The mom is converting the grass's protein into milk for the animal -- the way itís been done for millions of years. Then we take them off grass, put them in what we call backgrounding pens, and teach them how to eat something that they are not evolved to eat, which is grain -- mostly corn.

NPR: Why do we do this?

MICHAEL POLLAN: Very good question, because it makes absolutely no sense from an ecological standpoint. From a financial standpoint, it makes them grow a lot faster, makes them fatter, and we like our meat fat and marbled. And it allows us to speed up the lifespan. In capitalism, time is money.

We're taking cows that we used to grow for four or five years before we ate them, and now we've got it down to 14 months, and we're heading toward 11 months. What allows us to do this is getting them on corn, that is getting them off this whole evolutionary relationship they've had with grass.

NPR: So most people think of a cow as something that's out grazing, and then is taken to the slaughterhouse?

MICHAEL POLLAN: Cows see very little grass nowadays in their lives. And the problem with this system, or one of the problems with this system, is that cows are not evolved to digest corn. The rumen is designed for grass. And corn is just too rich, too starchy. So as soon as you introduce corn, the animal is liable to get sick.  The animal has to be taught how to eat corn, which happens in the backgrounding pen at the ranch, which is kind of the prep school for the feedlot. 

At that stage, you have to start giving them antibiotics, because as soon as you give them corn, you've disturbed their digestion and they're apt to get sick. In order to feed them what theyíre not meant to eat, you have to go down this path of technological fixes, and the first is the antibiotics. Once they start eating corn, they become more vulnerable to stress and the different diseases cows get. Specifically they get bloat, which is a horrible thing, and they stop ruminating.

We have this image of a cow on grass, (ruminating) chewing its cud and burping a lot. A lot of greenhouse gases come out of the stock as methane emerges from their mouths as they eructate. In the process, the cow brings down saliva which keeps its stomach alkaline rather than acid.

Then you introduce the corn and a layer of slime forms over the rumen, which can be likened to a 45-gallon fermentation tank. It's essentially fermenting the grass. Suddenly, slime forms and the gas can't escape, and the rumen just expands like a balloon. It's pressing against the lungs and the heart, and if nothing is done the animal suffocates.

To catch it in time, you stick a hose down the esophagus to release the gas, and then maybe give the animal some hay or grass.

Not all cows get bloat. They're prone to bloat. It's a serious problem on feedlots. They also get acidosis, which is an acidifying of the rumen. And when the animals get acid stomach, or bad heartburn, they have to go off their feed. If you give them too much corn too quickly, it ulcerates the rumen, allowing bacteria escape from the rumen into the blood stream. Eventually, the bacteria ends up in the liver, causing liver abscesses.

And what do we do about it? We administer another antibiotic. Most cows on feedlots, force-fed on a rich diet of corn, are prone to liver damage.

Bill Haw , who runs a lot of these big feedlots, says: "We've learned that the livers are not very economically viable, and there's a willingness to sacrifice the liver for the overall growth, which far transcends the value of the liver that may be damaged in the process." In other words the economic calculus justifies ruining their liver. I've heard that between 15 percent to 30 percent of livers are too abscessed for people to eat.  And if their liver fails, you have a sick cow because other things fail.

But hereís the issue: you have an economic logic, and an evolutionary and natural logic. It may well make sense economically to feed cows what we feed them, but ecologically it's a disaster because they're getting sick.

We take the Midwest and pave it essentially with corn and soybeans, and suffer the environmental consequences of growing all that corn, most of which is grown to feed livestock. There's a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico a thousand miles wide that is the result of nitrogen runoff coming down the Mississippi and killing all the life in this zone. And that's a result coming directly from corn.

So the cow is connected to that dead zone in the Gulf and itís connected to our health. There is an ecological logic that is very different than the economic logic. And in that ecological logic, you can't separate the health of the cow, the health of the environment and the health of the eater.

NPR: Why do we feed them corn in the first place? When did that start happening, and what was the reason for it?

MICHAEL POLLAN: We feed them corn because it's the cheapest, most convenient thing we can give them. Corn is incredibly cheap; it costs about $2.25 for a bushel of corn, which is 50 pounds. It actually costs less to buy than it costs to grow, because of subsidies. It's also very compact; corn allows you to urbanize your livestock population in America. Since corn takes up so little space relative to its food value, you can bring all the animals into a small space. 

NPR: How long have we been doing it?

MICHAEL POLLAN: For a long time. In the 19th century, we would grow animals on grass up to a few months before slaughter, and then we'd give them some corn mixed in. We like our meat fat, and corn makes it fatter, and more tender and tasty. I suspect weíve been conditioned thatís how our beef should taste. But it's only post-World War II that we began putting the cows on feedlots in high concentrations, when you had the explosion of corn surpluses and people were giving it away.

The yield of an acre of American farmland went from 20 bushels of corn in 1900 to 138 in the 1990s. With improvements in technology in American agriculture, specifically in chemical fertilizers, we were able to get so much corn off the land that they didn't know how to get rid of it. So the USDA, as policy, encouraged the farmer to feed corn, not just to cows, but to chickens and fish and now in pigs.

NPR: Surplus sounds like a good idea.

MICHAEL POLLAN: Economically, itís a good idea. But economics is not the measure of all things. Right now we're passing half of the corn crop in America through the guts of animals, some of whom are adapted to it, others not. It seems that chickens and pigs donít have the same digestive problems as cows. Cows are ruminants, designed for another kind of food.

NPR: Explain to somebody in New York City what the abbreviated life of a cow is these days.

MICHAEL POLLAN: A cow is born in the late winter on a ranch; could be the product of artificial insemination or traditional sexual reproduction. It spends the first six months of its life with its mother on pasture and grass. The American food chain, when it comes to beef, starts out like the wide end of the funnel. It's as big as the Great Plains.

At weaning, which is normally in the fall of the first year, after six to eight months, the cows are taken off the grass and moved into the backgrounding pen, where they are sorted and separated from their mother, which makes it one of the more traumatic events in a cow's life because the mothers are bellowing and looking around for their calves for several days.

You separate them as far away as you can, so they can't hear one another. And then you start them on this ration of corn, at first modest, with some silage, which is whole cornstalks, and then some corn or other grain and still some hay. And then you start with the drugs because to get them to tolerate that diet, they have to take a drug called Rumensin, which is a kind of antibiotic -- a drug which is so toxic you can't give it to dairy cows.

They spend a few months in the backgrounding pen until they get up to 600-700 pounds Ė from their original 80 pounds. You can actually decide on how fast you want your animal to grow by feeding into a computer information on the weather, the humidity etc, and it will tell you exactly what to feed it to put on two pounds a day.

Once the cow hits 600-700 pounds, itís trucked to the feedlots where its life changes substantially: it will never see grass again. A feedlot is a city of cows. I saw several of them in western Kansas, and it was a stunning experience. You're driving down these ramrod straight roads through Kansas, which is mostly prairie, and suddenly you encounter a giant subdivision, only it's a city for animals: cattle pens and black earth as far as you can see. Of course it's not really earth but  manure reaching to the horizon.

There can be between 35,000 to 100,000 animals in the space of a couple of hundred acres. And in the middle of the city is a single landmark, the silver feed-mill, which is several stories high. Itís like a cathedral around which everything rotates.

The feedlot is like a medieval town, before modern sanitation. Back then, towns and cities were filthy and vulnerable to plague because you had people coming from many different places, bringing microbes into a concentrated area where they could spread.

The only reason this doesn't happen in the modern city of animals is due to modern antibiotics. Take away these antibiotics and the feedlots would degenerate into pestilential, plague-ridden-like 14th century towns.

Every hour there are trucks hauling in liquefied fat and liquefied protein, another with 50,000 pounds of corn, and then thereís all the waste going out, mostly manure, pooled in lagoons. The smell is overwhelming, like the menís room in bus stations, and you wear it in your clothing for days after. 

NPR: It sounds rather disgusting the way you describe it. What's the purpose, what's the advantage of the system?

MICHAEL POLLAN: It's a wonderfully efficient factory system for producing protein. It takes corn, fat, vitamins and drugs, and like a mill, passes them through the bovine digestive system. The animals gain up to four pounds a day, half of which is edible meat.

NPR: Bill Haw argues that if you could interview a cow, it would probably choose to be in the feedlot because it gets all the food it wants and it's treated if it has medical conditions.

MICHAEL POLLAN: Open up the gates to some green grass and see how many cows stick around.  It's hard to speculate about what  constitutes animal happiness, but one definition is an animal doing what it's evolved to do. Cows grazing on grass look happy doing it.

NPR: Is there really a noticeable difference between a cow in its natural element and a cow in a feedlot?

MICHAEL POLLAN: The cows in feedlots looked sullen. I'm hesitant to anthropomorphize, but the cows are standing around in their manure all day long when they are basically evolved to avoid their feces because natural selection would have favoured animals that stayed away from the parasites that are found in feces. When feedlot cows lie down to sleep itís in their own feces.

Does that bother a cow? My guess is at some level it does. But cows live in the present. Who knows whether or not they think back nostalgically to their grass grazing days.  But give them a choice between corn and hay and theyíll always go for the hay, not only for the taste but for the healing it does to their stomachs. It stimulates the rumen, allows them to ruminate and regurgitate.

NPR: Why did you buy a cow in the first place?

MICHAEL POLLAN: I decided to become a small-scale rancher to learn about the business. I wanted to see it from the inside. So from a rancher in South Dakota, I purchased a steer and a calf, and followed them through the whole process. The hero of my story, cow number #534, is now in a feedlot in south-western Kansas.

I'm chronicling everything he eats, the drugs he gets, and how much money he brings at the end. One of the things I wanted to understand better is the calculation a rancher makes when he's deciding, for instance, whether to give a hormone implant to his animal, which strikes me as a bad idea. Should we be eating meat that has residues of hormones, even though no one has proved  it's harmful?

They do it because $1.50 worth of hormones puts 40-50 pounds on the final weight of your animal, which is worth $25-$35. The economic calculus is irresistible, and it's legal. Whether or not Iíll eat my cow is an option.

NPR: When will your cow meet its end?

MICHAEL POLLAN: My cow has a date with the knocker, or the stunner, in June. One day in June, he will be judged sufficiently fat, that is obese so it can hardly move, and the owner of the feedlot will say, "This pen is ready."

They then truck the cow to a pen in a parking lot where it waits its turn, goes up the ramp and through a blue door. I was not allowed to go through the blue door. Journalists are not allowed into the kill floor, even if you own the animal. But I have reconstructed what happens on the other side of the blue door.

The animals, in single file, pass over a bar, their legs on both sides, and then the floor slowly drops away so the bar is serving like a conveyor belt which takes them to a station where a man on a catwalk is holding an object that looks like a power nailing gun. It's a pneumatic device called a stunner. The stunner essentially injects, between the eyes into the brain, a metal bolt the size and length of a thick pencil, which should render it brain dead.

At that point, the cow is lifted by chains that have been attached to its rear legs. Another person in another station, with a long knife, cuts the aorta to bleed the animal, after which he is completely dead.

From there, the cow goes through a series of stations for cleaning and hide removal. One of the real problems is that the animals have spent their lives lying in their manure, and as a result, they are smeared and caked with the stuff, so many steps are taken to ensure the manure doesn't infect the meat, which can happen very easily.  One of the food-safety problems in the industry is microbes from the manure getting into the meat.

Manure can be lethal because it contains microbes like E. coli O157, a strain of  common intestinal bacteria, which is principally a feedlot microbe. If we ingest only 10 of those bacteria, they can kill. The problems concerning contaminated hamburgers and the Jack in the Box episode from several years ago are a result of this particular pathogen.

The story of this pathogen illustrates the ecological links between the health of these animals and the health of us. E. coli O157 wasn't isolated until the early 1980s; itís not found in the guts of animals that eat grass. It is a problem associated with feeding animals corn.

The rumen, which is not an acidic environment, becomes acidic when it's fed corn. These E. coli bacteria evolved to be able to withstand the acid of the rumen. So they are acid-tolerant bacteria. Therefore, when they get into our guts -- through the manure, onto the carcass of the animal, into the hamburger -- they are able to survive our digestive processes; whereas in the past, if you had an equally lethal microbe resident in the gut of a cow, it probably wasnít acid-tolerant since it didn't live in such an environment, so our stomachs could give it a gastric shock. This is one of the protections built into the food chain that we've messed with by acidifying the guts of these animals.

The industry's response -- and the industry is working very hard to keep the meat clean, there's no question about it -- is a series of high-tech solutions, such as steam spraying the meat with a milk/water solution that kills off most of the bacteria.

Weíre also irradiating the meat because itís easier and cheaper than keeping the cows away from the microbe infested manure. 

Thereís a much simpler solution proposed by Cornell researcher James Russell:  put the cows back on grass or hay for the last days of their live because the pH levels in their stomachs return to normal, killing as much as 80% of the microbes. But the industry doesn't want to hear about it because itís too costly to bring in all that hay into a feedlot on top of which the cows would lose valuable weight.  King Corn runs the American cattle business and will have no truck with this anti-corn message which has largely fallen on deaf ears.

NPR: What's wrong with a system that, because of the technology, results in cheap meat and greater efficiency?

MICHAEL POLLAN: Cheap meat is a bit of a myth just as cheap feed is a myth. The true costs of cheap food are being borne by someone other than the consumer. Over half of the antibiotics in this country go to livestock, which is why these drugs no longer work for us. The reason I have trouble finding a good antibiotic for my sonís ear infection is directly related to the cost of that cheap hamburger. This is but one expensive public health cost.

Thereís also food poisoning. And then thereís the environmental cost of all of this corn which is polluting the Gulf of Mexico. That's a cost not reflected in that cheap hamburger. And then finally there's the cost to the animals, too, and their own health. Cheap meat is only true in the very narrow sense. It all depends on the way you do your math.

In terms of food safety, irradiating meat is better than not. And Iím not saying we shouldnít be using these technologies but we should be looking at the system as a whole. Environmentalists are concerned about feedlots because of all the water that comes out of them which is full of pharmaceuticals which means there are hormones in our water. Weíre now finding fish with strange sexual characteristics downstream from feedlots because these antibiotics are getting into the environment.

There is another cost that never gets counted. When you eat meat, you're eating oil.  The reason we can grow corn so cheaply is because we give the corn a chemical fertilizer that is a fossil fuel product to the effect that weíve taken the rumen, which is this sustainable solar organ, and we've turned it into  another fossil fuel burner -- which is the last thing we need. It takes about 100 gallons of oil to grow a single animal, which is another cost that weíre not seeing: the cost of oil, of having a military to defend the Gulf, itís all related.

The great lesson of ecology is that everything is connected.

NPR: But nowadays farmers canít be bothered to own a few cows which they can later slaughter. It can now be done on less space. Isnít that another argument in their favour?

MICHAEL POLLAN: There's no question that the beef industry has done something quite incredible. Theyíve taken a product, meat, which was once for upper-classes only, and turned it into a staple for everybody.  Is that a good thing? Well, yes and no. Todayís beef isnít very good for us. Animals raised on corn produce fattier meat, but fattier isnít healthier. Corn-fed beef produces lots of saturated fat which can cause heart disease.  Hunter-gatherers who subsisted on lots of grass-fed meat never had heart disease.

We always say, "You are what you eat." But that's only half the story. We're also what what we eat eats, too. And cows that eat corn are a different kind of meat. So when we're eating that corn-fed, oil-fed meat, we're incurring another kind of cost. So yes.  We've democratized meat, but itís a less healthy product which impacts negatively on the environment.

Food poisoning is a much more serious problem than it was 100 years ago.  In part, because of the advent of industrial agriculture, but also because we import food from all over the world, all of which canít be inspected. But much of it has to do with the way we grow our food and mix 100 different cows in a single burger. We never used to do that. The butcher used to take the scraps from the one animal and make his hamburger right in front of your eyes. Now, with centralization, you get one infected carcass and that meat can spread all around the country.

The best thing that ever happened to microbes is the centralization of agriculture. There were very few diseases until we had cities, which is like a petri dish for food poisoning.

NPR: So this efficient system is also efficient for the microbes?

MICHAEL POLLAN: Very efficient for the microbes. Take any system, centralize it, and a small problem can destroy it, much like a computer virus can bring down computers worldwide because theyíre all running on the same Microsoft program.

NPR: Let's explore in more detail antibiotics. Why are we using them so much?

MICHAEL POLLAN: The Union of Concerned Scientists did a study last year and determined that over half the antibiotics are used for animals. If you give low levels of antibiotics to an animal, it will grow more quickly. Some of the use is prophylactic, to prevent the animal from getting sick. Antibiotics are used against liver disease because cows canít digest corn. And now weíre in a situation where microbes are becoming resistant to antibiotics such as Cipro and Tetracycline. Some of these superbugs are showing up in our hospitals.  We now have to deal with antibiotic-resistant gonorrhoea and antibiotic-resistant tuberculosis.

Public health advocates consider antibiotic resistant microbes to be the most serious threat to our public health; new antibiotics arenít being developed fast enough

NPR: We hear that the industry is beginning to wean itself off antibiotics. Is this true?

MICHAEL POLLAN: That's what they say. The chicken industry claims that they have reduced their use of antibiotics, which is great, if true. It's on their own say-so.

For many years, agribusiness claimed that there was no public health problem with their use of antibiotics because the link between human health and the agricultural use of antibiotics had not been established. Nobody makes that argument any more except die-hard, industry spokesmen. The FDA, the CDC and every public health expert acknowledge the problem. As a result, the industry, in an effort to forestall regulations which are on their way, has taken voluntary steps. Whether they can do it without changing their practices is an interesting question. If they can reduce antibiotic use without loss of productivity due to disease, why use them in the first place? There are still lots of questions out there but we are moving in the right direction.

NPR: So with the threat of microbes going global, what are we to do?

MICHAEL POLLAN: First of all, learning to calculate the costs in terms of public health. Let's say we banned the non-clinical, non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in livestock. This would slow down the entire system. The Europeans have done it and theyíre still producing food at reasonable prices, perhaps up by no more than five to 10%. 

Ideally, I'd like to see us go back to a system where we relied more on grass. Imagine the Midwestern farm belt turned back to pasture on which animals could graze. That system worked pretty well, resulting in healthy meat and less environmental damage.

I like the taste of grass-fed meat. It is chewier. The Argentines make excellent beef that's grass-fed. They've learned how to age it, something weíve forgotten how to do.

In terms of the entire food system that has been industrialized, thereís no doubt weíve made some incredible advances in terms of productivity, efficiency and cost. But it has also given us a system that is very fragile and is making us sick. Our diets are killing us. A step or two backwards, to what we were doing 50 years ago, might be a step forward as it concerns public health. 

As far as Iím concerned, the system in its present form is unsustainable. In fact itís already breaking down in various ways. More and more of us are getting sick, to that add Mad Cow Disease Ė who is to say the system wonít one day collapse under its own weight.

NPR: Youíre making the case for stepping back a little. Why not a regulatory approach to better minimize the risks of harmful food?

MICHAEL POLLAN: These are Band-Aids which you need to stop the bleeding but they donít solve the problem. You need to look at the entire system, not just the symptoms.  We insist on cheap food, but itís a choice with enormous consequences, which is why some regulation is necessary. For example, legislating the use of antibiotics in livestock only when the animal is sick. McDonaldís has actually become a force for change in the cattle business in terms of humane slaughter. When they said they were unhappy that animals were getting past the stun process and were being skinned alive, auditing processes were introduced overnight. McDonald's is in a unique position. If they decide they donít want meat with hormones in it, that will be the end of hormones in meat. Exerting pressure on McDonald's is probably just as important as on the Department of Agriculture.

NPR: Is irradiation safe?

MICHAEL POLLAN: I don't know. It's basically bombarding food with gamma rays.  It has no effect on Mad Cow Disease. The thing to keep in mind is that every technology will need another technology. Nature will outwit any technology. This is what evolution has been doing for billions of years.

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