Foodborne illnesses claim 2400 lives in the United States every year. These lives are lost despite the best efforts of the CDC (Center for Disease Control) and the FDA (Food and Drug Administration), with a combined spending of $15.6 billion on meat recalls, and $56 million in total food recalls.
Let’s consider just the meat recalls for a moment: $15.6 billion. The total amount of meat consumed by the average American (according to the Department of Agriculture) is 125 pounds. Lets multiply this amount by the 325 million who live in America to get our total consumption of 40 billion pounds of meat per year. If we divide this by the $15.6 billion in food recall costs, we get .38 cents per pound of meat sold that we pay extra for as a hidden cost in FDA and CDC recalls. If we put a price of one million dollars on the cost of every life taken from foodborne disease, the price increases to 17.9 billion, costing closer to .83 cents for every pound of beef, chicken, pork and lamb sold. But would you put a price of $1 million on the life of your loved one?
Okay, let’s stop there. This isn’t a bleeding heart piece about why we should all be vegetarians. I love meat, but there is a better solution than to stop eating it. Let’s examine why things are the way they are. There has been a lot of blame for these problems placed on the FDA. Small farmers have told me the FDA is doing their best to protect “evil Big-Ag businesses.” I wanted to research this claim. After many hours of effort, the following is what I’ve found.
Big Agribusinesses such as Tyson, Cargill, Monsanto and Conagra must adhere to FDA policies to maintain their enormous amounts of food production. But when small producers need to abide by the same regulated, built for factory-farm conditions, even when these smaller producers aren’t feeding their cattle antibiotics, this unneeded regulation prohibits consumers from enjoying healthier products.
But ultimately it’s consumers and stockholders who bare the responsibility for why things are the way they are. Here is how I arrived at this.
When we want to buy a pound of ground beef, we usually want just one thing: to pay the lowest possible price. Agricultural companies, when combined with the efficiencies of factory assembly operations and scientific advancements in understanding nutrition and supplements for maximizing animal growth, combined with advancements in understanding pathogenic environments in combating sickness and disease, all bring us back to the problem of why so much of our food is recalled and costing us so many lives and billions of dollars. We want it cheap!
Did you know that when we visit the Doctor for a cold or a flu we are no longer prescribed antibiotics? This is because pathogens (bacteria) are evolving far too quickly to keep pace with the advancements of antibiotics. This same rule isn’t applying to animals that are raised for meat. It cannot be applied, because our poultry, beef, and chicken industries couldn’t produce feedlot animals without giving them antibiotics because they would get too sick too often.
Therefore, the pathogens that cause sickness in animals continue to quickly evolve and become much more difficult to kill inside the stomachs of the meat we consume. Big factory-farm slaughter houses and feedlots require an incredible amount of laws and regulations to prevent the growth of pathogens from spreading and contaminating meat, therefore the FDA has written hundreds of pages of regulations to keep consumers safe and prevent future recalls. But these regulations neglect a very simple solution, which is to keep animals in pastures and raise fewer animals in any one place. Small, local farms are the solution.
Why The Solution Isn’t Adopted
Whether or not the FDA knows this solution exists and could prevent the billions of dollars of recalls and save the lives of thousands of Americans, will require more research. It might be telling that the former President of the FDA was also the former CEO of Monsanto. But let’s assume that the FDA does know the best solution to our growing food is to allow smaller producers to have fewer regulations for processing, which would open markets and lower costs. So what is stopping them?
According to Forbes, Americans are switching over to pasture-raised meat in ever-increasing numbers. Every year, the market for pasture-raised meat increases by 30 percent. And in big cities, pasture-raised meat is up to a 6 percent market share. But if this is the case, then why in Utah, a state where we are a net exporter of beef, are so few ranchers making the switch to pasture-finishing their cattle? Because when we do the math, the huge upfront additional costs of pasture-finishing cattle makes this practice prohibitive.
Ranchers in Utah receive around $1.60 per pound from feedlots for their 14-month-old steers. If a rancher chooses to finish the animal, they would incur the cost of feeding the animal in the winter, which costs around $4 per head per day, but certainly varies. Plus, there is the enormous cost of butchering the animal. Because even the smaller slaughterhouses must abide by all the FDA regulations that larger producers adhere to, the cost to process one steer is $500 for around 230 pounds of finished beef. This is why pasture-raised beef is currently around $3 more per pound than feedlot beef.
This cost could significantly decrease if regulations for smaller producers were loosened.
But there is a way we as consumers can make a big difference: by asking our butcher where our meat is coming from and how it is produced. If they don’t know, then don’t buy. This simple solution could change the world.
Read additional stories from Utah Stories about pasture-raised beef from Utah Natural Meat, Blue Tree Cattle Company, and Canyon Meadows Ranch.