On the one hand, it’s heartening to see that the movement towards eating real meat has become enough of a threat to the hegemony of agribusiness and industrial meat production for the mainstream media to do a hit piece on it (source: Fox News.) On the other hand, it’s dispiriting to see John Stossel pushing a flimsy tissue of falsehoods, thereby misleading people into making unhealthy and environmentally destructive food choices.
The first thing I noticed, upon actually reading what Stossel implied was the supporting scientific data, was that the document he referenced was not peer-reviewed science at all, but a slick PR flyer proudly sponsored by a company called “Elanco”.
“Who is Elanco, and what do they make?” I wondered.
Answer: they are a subsidiary of the multinational pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly—and they make the antibiotics, hormones, growth promoters, and other chemicals that Big Agribusiness dumps into factory-farmed cattle, chickens, sheep, and pigs in order to keep them from dying in overcrowded, shit-filled feedlots. Yes, the same chemicals that are polluting our waterways, creating antibiotic-resistant super-bacteria…and that we are ingesting unawares.
So right away we know two things:
- This “paper” isn’t science, it’s an advertisement.
- Therefore, it’s just as credible as those fake articles you see in the back of magazines that pretend to be a product review (usually of penis enlargement pills), but have “ADVERTISEMENT” printed across the top.
But let’s address their claims anyway, because they’re easy to refute. The first claim is that grass-fed beef is not nutritionally superior to grain-fed beef.
Some advocates of grass-fed beef claim that the more naturally raised animals are healthier to eat. “There is absolutely no scientific evidence based on that. Absolutely none,” she replied. “There is some very slight difference in fatty acids, for example, but they are so minor that they don’t make any significant human health impact.”
This claim is so false as to be laughable, and is most likely a deliberate lie.
S.K. Duckett et al, Journal of Animal Science, June 2009. Effects of winter stocker growth rate and finishing system on: III. Tissue proximate, fatty acid, vitamin and cholesterol content. (fulltext available here)
Here are just some of the important differences. Compared to grain-finished cows, pasture-finished cows were:
- Higher in beta-carotene
- Higher in vitamin E (alpha-tocopherol)
- Higher in the B-vitamins thiamin and riboflavin
- Higher in the minerals calcium, magnesium, and potassium
- Higher in total omega-3 fats, and had a healthier ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids
And here’s a visual representation of the “very slight” difference in fatty acids: a change in n-6/n-3 ratio from over 12:1 to 2:1!
Omega-3 (n-3) fats absolutely have human health benefits, as demonstrated by hundreds of peer-reviewed scientific studies. (I hate to point people at Wikipedia, but if I tried to list citations here, they would be many times longer than the article!)
The second claim is that “based on the carbon footprints, grass-fed is far worse than corn-fed.” This is also most likely false, although since Capper’s “paper” is just a press release and not peer-reviewed science, her calculations are not available for analysis.
However, according to the table in the press release, she bases her calculations entirely on the fact that it takes longer for grass-fed cattle to mature, and that they weigh less upon finishing, than cattle fed grains and chemical growth promoters. Leaving aside for the moment the fact that the meat is less healthy and contains a bizarre chemical soup, her calculations leave out many impacts of the grain-fed supply chain.
Here’s an incomplete list of environmental impacts apparently unaccounted for by Capper’s and Elanco’s press release:
- Corn farming requires substantial fossil fuel input—mechanical tilling, planting, harvesting—versus pasture grass
- Not to mention the carbon impact of making fertilizers and pesticides (the Haber process uses 3-5% of world natural gas production! No, that’s not a misprint) and transporting them to farms
- Grain must be transported to the elevator and then to the feedlot, using fossil fuels
- All the antibiotics, supplements, and hormones fed to grain-fed cattle (that Capper’s sponsor Elanco, not coincidentally, makes) must be fabricated, packaged, and transported
- What is the impact of untreated manure runoff from feedlots decomposing in a lagoon or a stream, versus manure in a pasture being returned to the soil?
And then there is the $7.1 billion–$8.2 billion taxpayers spend every year to subsidize or clean up after our nation’s 9,900 confined animal feeding operations, not to mention the $4.1 billion we’ve spent over the years cleaning up leaking manure ‘storage facilities’.
Again, since Capper’s and Elanco’s press release contains no supporting documentation and I have been unable to find any on the Internet, I can’t analyze their methodology too deeply...but since Capper’s other claim is demonstrably false, I suspect this one will turn out to be false too.
If you want to know more about this issue, try Eat Wild for the consumer side, and CSU Chico for a more producer-oriented perspective. And if you have additional information, factual corrections, or better sources, please leave a comment!