Thursday, October 13, 2011

Foie Gras Illegal? Why Not Industrial Beef?

Animal rights activists are in an uproar about the force feeding of ducks and geese to produce those enlarged, fat-laden livers that are so exquisitely delicious. Clearly this approach can be done cruelly, but it also seems clear that it need not be that way. This article by Sarah DiGregorio takes on a tour of on such facility in New York State. 

An argument over whether the process is cruel or not is not the point of this essay. What is discussed here is the contention that if what we do to ducks is "inhumane," then what we do to cattle in preparing them for slaughter should elicit calls for the banning beef products. That is not likely to happen. Ducks look cute and helpless. A thousand pound cow does not. One can observe a duck being fed without getting one’s feet dirty. To observe a cow one would have to wade through the sea of manure the cow dwells in for months while it is fattened for slaughter.

Michael Pollan takes us on a tour of a CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation) in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

Cattle evolved as grass-eating animals. Most get to do just that for a while, but eventually they are shipped to a CAFO where large numbers of them can receive a regimen of corn, vitamin mixtures, synthetic hormones, and antibiotics. The idea is to fatten the cattle faster, and to produce fattier meats.

Cows have rumens where eaten grass is allowed to break down under bacterial action before being sent to the stomach for digestion. The acidity in the rumen of a grass-fed cow is neutral. The corn diet given cows makes the rumen acidic. This can cause a condition called "bloat" where gases build up in the rumen and can cause suffocation if not treated. The acidity of the material in the rumen also causes acidosis.

"....a kind of bovine heartburn that in some cases can kill the animal, but usually just makes him sick."

The logic of industrial beef production is to fatten the animal as fast as possible and feed it whatever is necessary to keep it alive as long as possible. It is a race because the diet will surely kill the cattle, eventually destroying their livers.

"Over time the acids eat away at the rumen wall, allowing bacteria to enter the animal’s bloodstream. These microbes wind up in the liver, where they form abscesses and impair the liver’s function. Between 15 percent and 30 percent of feedlot cows are found at slaughter to have abscessed livers; Dr. Mel told me that at some pens the figure runs as high as 70 percent."

"What keeps a feedlot animal healthy—or healthy enough—are antibiotics....Most of the antibiotics sold in America today end up in animal feed, a practice that is now generally acknowledged (except in agriculture), is leading directly to the evolution of new antibiotic resistant superbugs."

Comparing a CAFO to the process of producing foie gras, leaves me to conclude that, given a choice, I would rather be a duck than a cow. I will continue to eat foie gras—as long as I can afford it. I doubt if I will ever eat beef liver again.

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