Did you know that corn is slowly creeping its way into almost every part of your life? According to the United States Department of Agriculture, corn takes up over 90 million acres across the country. In the United States alone, between 2.2 and 2.9 billion pounds of sweet corn are produced every year.1,2 Corn is used as fuel, adhesives, plastics, insulation, plywood, particle board, sweetener, grits, meal, flour, and oil. Even just between 1970 and 2002, corn consumption more than doubled.3 Corn consumption isn’t just from eating loads of buttered cob, but it can be found in just about every food item including meat products, carbonated beverages, chewing gum, fruit juices, jams, peanut butter, sauces, wine, and food coloring to name a few. Interestingly, the United States Department of Agriculture states that corn accounts for more than 95% of total feed grain production and use.1 Is corn really problematic? Yes, it is. Aside from the nutritional complications corn may pose by making its way into our stomachs every day, it also threatens the well-being of our already struggling meat industry.
Corn is a staple in the livestock industry because it is a cheap feed option. For this reason, it is inevitable that the natural diet of livestock changes dramatically when they are forced to revolutionize their diet from natural grazing to a high carbohydrate lifestyle. As animals that naturally feed on grass, when only grain-based feed is available to cattle their digestive system struggles to adjust and eventually breaks down. From a production standpoint, corn is the perfect grain to use because it is cheap and ultimately makes meat more affordable for the average household. A publishing from consumer reports states, “The reason grass-fed beef is pricier has to do with beef producers’ profit margin: It can take a farmer up to a year longer (and an extra year’s worth of food, care, and labor) to get a grass-fed animal to reach slaughter weight than for a conventionally raised one. Grass-fed cattle also tend to be smaller at slaughter, so there’s less meat to sell per head.”4 When meat becomes affordable and demand increases, livestock companies feel the pressure to produce as much meat as they can, as fast as they can. In order to meet insatiable requests, the meat industry began to cut corners.
Unfortunately, farms are no longer what they used to be. No more green pastures and free-roaming cattle that chew on grass all day. When cattle are constantly roaming and feeding on grass, they grow at a slower rate and are naturally leaner. For cattle farmers, a slow-growing cow simply doesn’t keep things moving at a face past. In order to produce larger amounts of beef, cows need to fatten in a shorter amount of time. Feeding cattle grain and confining them to small living quarters to restrict movement is the only way this goal can be achieved. Sadly, this is often how cattle spend their lives; in restricted areas that are not only unethical but also filthy and bacteria-laden, which is a result of too many unclean animals in a small space.
When cattle consume high-grain diets in general, they can experience both frothy and free gas bloat which leads to compression of organs, reduced lung function, and death usually results from lack of oxygen to the tissues.5 Acidosis (also called grain overload or grain poisoning) can occur when carbohydrates rapidly ferments and bacteria in the rumen create lactic acid, resulting in slowing of the gut, dehydration, and often death.6 When animals become sick, antibiotics are the treatment of choice and their use in livestock is a growing public health concern. Antibiotics are used in meat production to treat sick animals and prevent illness due to confined spaces that would otherwise breed illness. The Centers for Disease Control state that, “Scientists around the world have provided strong evidence that antibiotic use in food animals can lead to resistant infections in humans.”7
By changing your relationship with animal proteins, you can do your best to avoid not only unethical animal treatment but also the use of antibiotics in your food. Before you get excited and fill up your cart with “antibiotic-free” meat, make sure you know exactly what food labels mean. Anybody can throw words on a package, but only some are legally defined. The only term the United States Department of Agriculture regulates is “no antibiotics added.”8 In addition, the USDA Organic green stamp requires that animals are raised without antibiotics and guidelines are set in place so that cattle are outside for the grazing season and aren’t relying solely on corn feed.9 Even though the term “grass fed” isn’t regulated by the USDA, reputable companies will strive to be transparent to their consumers who do the research. Look for “grass-fed” and “pastured” when possible. Lastly, you can reduce the demand for meat by incorporating more plant-based dishes into your weekly routine or adopt “Meatless Mondays”- a great way to educate your family about vegetarian dishes. Instead of centering meals around meat, consider using meat as a topping to plant-based meals on special occasions. You can fight the overuse of antibiotics by making a statement with your purchases. Your health is a priceless asset.