Money has been tight recently, for all of us, I imagine, and that always leads to questions about what to spend money on. We all have to compromise sometimes, much as we may hate to admit it. For myself, the hardest thing is, as I call it, “happy meat.” By happy meat, I mean meat that comes from animals raised healthily and humanely on those pretty pastoral farms we see pictures of everywhere. I’ve often made the assertion that being a locavore doesn’t have to cost more than shopping at your local superstore — and I stand by that. There are other forms of protein, besides meat, readily available in beans and grains. Alternatively, one can always buy smaller amounts of meat as a small amount actually provides more than enough protein for most.
Personally, though, I love meat. Meatless ‘til dinner works great for me, but dinnertime equals meat in my book. But, of course, happy meat costs a whole lot more than unhappy meat. Which leads me, in this time of tighter belts, with two options: give in and eat the unhappy meat, or be creative with odd cuts of meat. Usually, I go the way of creativity and, other times, I spend a little more on prime cuts and cut costs elsewhere. And it is worth it. All of this, however, leads me to consider why “regular” meat is so cheap.
There are a few reasons. For one thing, we’ve figured out how to raise animals in very small spaces. Feed lots are tiny, compared to how many animals are in them, and how much room those animals would take up were they “free roaming” on a pasture. Over time these spaces have shrunk again and again. At this point, most animals are so tightly confined that they can’t even turn around in place, nonetheless walk anywhere.
There are also, of course, the steroids and hormones given to animals to bulk them up. This has been outlawed in poultry, but not in beef, lamb, and pigs. Much is made about this chemical plumping up, and it is most definitely wrong, but, to my mind, there are more insidious problems than that. The reality is that the way we feed these animals would bulk them up considerably, regardless of chemicals. Cows and pigs fed a steady diet of starchy corn and given no opportunity to move around are going to fatten up pretty quickly. Which brings me to the question of feed — these animals are fed corn because the government subsidizes corn, therefore keeping the price of it way below market value. So, the animals are fed the cheapest thing available, which is fattening in the extreme, and kept in small spaces, thereby keeping them inactive. In short, it is pretty clear why most meat in this country is incredibly cheap.
All this cheapness leads to sick animals and bad meat. Many animals become sick due to the intense confinement. They are also growing bigger, much faster, than their organs and joints can handle. All of those problems lead to the use of antibiotics, which may help the animals in the short run, but is certainly not good for us meat eaters. The lack of space also leads to much unhappiness among the animals. We’re talking unhappiness to the point where, as but one example, pigs will often bite the tail off of the pig in front of them. Which, in turn, leads to infection, leads to increased medication, leading to less healthy meat. And I imagine it’s pretty awful for the pigs, too.
Feeding corn to cows, meanwhile, is a whole litany of problems. Cows are designed to eat grass. Feeding them corn makes for fattier beef (not so good for us) and leads to a higher level of acidity in their stomachs. E. Coli, which is a very common bacterium, used to be killed off in the acidic environment of the cow’s stomach. Now, due to the changes in the cow’s life (extra acidity from the corn, stress from the feedlot life, constant exposure to and immersion in their own manure, etc), a strain of E. Coli has developed that is acid resistant. The confinement on the feedlot means that any cows who develop this strain of E. Coli will pass it on to the other cows more readily than they would if these cows had room to roam. This E. Coli, no longer killed off and able to move from host to host easily, finds its way into our meat, which is really not good for us.
There are many other problems with our engineering super cheap meat. I haven’t even touched on the environmental aspects of feed lots or the monoculture farming that feeds them. I haven’t talked about poultry operations much at all. But I think the point is clear enough: cheap meat is unsafe meat. At this point, personally, I can’t stomach eating that “family pack pork chop special,” even for the delicious price of $0.99/pound. It makes me feel sick and vaguely dirty. So skip the sick animals and start cooking up some “happy” pork shoulder, lamb shank, or beef roast. Even at “Whole Paycheck” prices, cuts like pork shoulder goes for $2.99/pound. And it still tastes like delicious, delicious meat.