from sky to seed

Close observation: antibiotics in meat

We’ve got a couple hundred head of cattle, but I have virtually nothing to do with them beyond standing at the fence and cooing at newborn baby calves. Those little fellas are so cute!

But every once in a while, I drive around with Jon and our cattle manager to help count cows. Most of the time, they’re checking in on cows that might be a little sick.

IMG_0990I eat meat and I’ve made peace with the fact that every cow on our farm is headed for slaughter, even the babies, eventually. But while they live with us, they’ve got a pretty good life. Our farm is 2,700 acres with awesome pasture. The cows free graze year-round before heading up to the stockyards for sale, where they’re mostly likely sold to other farmers who live west of us. They fatten the stock on grain, which allegedly produces marbling (according to local cattlemen) and then they sell them to **facepalm** feed lots. To be clear, we do directly sell to feedlots. It’s just that… our cows are likely to end up there.  We are the first step in a long chain. I’ll admit that I have trouble making peace with that part.

I even showed him this article, which is about the largest grass-fed beef supplier in the United States–and they live in Missouri, too! “There’s a market!” I cried. “People want to pay more for this stuff!” Plus, it’s healthier and more ethical and they’re not going into feed lots and it just makes me feel better about what I eat when I buy grass-fed beef. But Jon doesn’t think about food and cows in the way I do. He thinks like a businessman, and there’s more profit and less risk in doing things the way he currently does them.

But while they’re with us, they’re grain-free, grass-fed, and free range. They are the ideal cow for a marketing package. This is the story you want when you buy a steak at an uber-cool restaurant in the city.

In the meantime, there’s been this boom in the American meat marke thanks to more and more consumers demanding not just organic, grass-fed, free-range meat, but antibiotic-free meat, too. If you’d asked me about this a week ago, I’d tell you that antibiotic meat is great and better for you and better for our whole beautiful green earth… but I wouldn’t really be able to say why. I think a lot of consumers are like that.

In short, consumers are revved up about antibiotics in meat because they 1) Breed superbugs, 2) Harm human health, and 3) Hurt the environment. Skip to the end for links to more info.

Here’s the thing: I honestly thought that antibiotic-free meat meant that the animal had never, ever been dosed with antibiotics. And my initial grasp of the antibiotics-in-meat-dilemma believed that this was good and right and better for me and better for the animal. Turns out there’s a whole long complicated process to antibiotics in meat, and that all meat is tested for antibiotics before it goes on shelves because in the United States, it’s illegal to sell meat containing trace antibiotics. Now, there’s therapeutic antibiotic use for sick cows, and then there’s this thing where farmers use antibiotics to encourage faster growth without forking over more feed, which gets expensive.

I didn’t know that. I didn’t know there was therapeutic antibiotic use and non-therapeutic antibiotic use. Did you? What about your friends? Do most of the people fired up about antibiotic-free meat actually know that? I have a feeling that we don’t.

IMG_1143A little baby calf just like the one in this picture got sick a few weeks ago. We’re not sure what went wrong. He became lame. He stumbled around in a haze. He tripped on dirt clods. His eyes watered and he cried in a broken bawl. It made my heart hurt. And then our cattle guy dosed him with a shot of antibiotics, and now he’s feeling a lot better. He’s running through the field, taking dips in the pond, and doing all the things that happy, healthy, baby cows should do.

Seeing that brought me face-to-face with the reality that, while it’s inhumane to stuff cattle with antibiotics to encourage faster growth without excessive feed consumption, it’s also inhumane to let a calf suffer because of a blind ethical belief in antibiotic-free beef.

I know that the issue is complicated — a lot more complicated than the anecdote I’m laying out here — but witnessing the benefits of therapeutic antibiotic use brought me a little bit closer to compassion for the meat I consume, and compassion for cattle farmers who actually care about the well-being of their animals.

I’m all for banning non-therapeutic antibiotics, but I worry that when we sing the general praises of antibiotic-free meat, we don’t really know the words.

For example, and for laughs:


Consumers are demanding antibiotic-free meat, and Big Food is starting to listen

The FDA is cracking down on antibiotics on farms. Here’s what you should know.

Three reasons to have a cow over antibiotics in your meat

Frontline: Modern Meat (featuring Michael Pollan)

Antibiotics in Meat and Milk


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