I ate my final diner burger the other day. It’s not that I don’t like burgers (my last one was juicy pure delight) or that I want to become a vegetarian (the tofu diet isn’t for me), but thanks to some recent discoveries, I no longer believe that my last burger, was, in fact, a burger.
We all know the saying, "You are what you eat." Unfortunately, if we peel back the skin of the American meat industry, we find that whatever we eat is what our cow ate, and our cows eat some mighty interesting things. They aren’t grain-fed, or corn-fed or even grass-fed. Our calves drink bovine blood as a "milk replacer," and our cows dine on the ground-up remains of chickens and pigs that were fattened on brains, spines, bones and remnant body parts mechanically pulled from other cows.
My burger lunch was pig brain, beef blood, chicken spine and a thousand other random bits ground into meal and fed to my burger.
This would be so much aesthetic whining, except that meat-eating bovines make ideal candidates for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), aka mad cow disease, the trendiest food-borne illness since E.coli. People who eat these diseased cows can contract Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a Germanic-sounding punishment for doing things God never intended.
It’s hard not to put a biblical Finger-of-God spin on BSE and its human variant. If ever there was a sin, the unholy act of feeding brains, spines, bones and blood back to cows is so steeped in moral and aesthetic nastiness that CJD, a disease which literally chews the brain apart, seems the only possible outcome. We have turned against nature, and now nature has turned against us.
Our president says he’s still eating beef, and the USDA has just announced a ban on serving "downer animals," those too sick to walk to their slaughter, and the meat industry keeps telling us the risk of mad cow disease is low, low, low. But I don’t think I’ll relax just yet.
Consider this: Our first mad cow case was discovered not because we successfully screened for it — we test only 20,000 cows out of 35 million — but because the animal in question showed other, unrelated problems, and so was classified a downer. If this cow had still been walking — and many cows afflicted with mad cow disease walk just fine, for a while — it would never have been discovered.
We talk about this mad cow as though it stayed intact. It didn’t. It became steaks and burgers and had to be recalled from eight different states along with 10,000 pounds of other affected meat long after we discovered it was infected. Some of that meat never came back. People ate it.
Another item: According to Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, a book on industrial food-preparation practices, your average hamburger contains the meat of up to 100 cows. So one infected cow can end up in a lot of burgers. And according to The New York Times, a Department of Agriculture study found that in some meat-processing plants, 35 percent of processed meat tested positive for central nervous system tissue (the bits that carry mad cow disease). That’s a lot of suspect spinal cord whirring around our meatpacking system.
With our meat industry’s unnatural cattle-raising habits, inadequate screening, promiscuous meat mixing and casual attitude toward neurological tissue, every USDA choice burger starts looking like a mad cow burger. If cows were meant to eat meat, they’d run fast and have sharp teeth, and we’d read "The Boy Who Cried Cow" for a fable.
The National Cattleman’s Beef Association apparently cares little for public health, even fighting the meager fixes the USDA recently installed, but it understands dollars. So instead of buying their suspect meat, I’m buying meat from cows fed on hay and grass and corn.
Organic and natural-food markets sell beef raised on these vegetarian diets. Our local meat market sells grass-fed beef raised by local ranchers. They say, "You can drive right past our herd and see what we’re feeding them."
They provide an alternative to the industrial meat pipeline, because these western Colorado ranchers know their cows, they feed them well, and they can track them in minutes rather than weeks. The beef is good and you can trust it. If our industrial meat factories lose enough money, they’ll discover that trust counts for a lot.
Paolo Bacigalupi is a contributor to Writers on the Range in Paonia, Colorado, and is online editor for High Country News.