Beef has been getting a lot of bad press lately, and for good reason. Eating beef has been shown to have a negative effect on our health, the environment, and, of course, the animals. Nevertheless, for many beef is still the habitual main course for the big weekend meal, dinner out, and special occasions.
Despite our devotion to beef, consider that our taste for it might be largely learned. Parents often have to urge young children to “eat your meat,” or use catsup or some other sweet sauce to make it appealing. As adults, if we eat beef it’s likely out of habit, perhaps because it was always just there — at the dinner table, in the cafeteria line, on the restaurant menu, and so on. Eating beef might feel like a “personal choice,” but chances are the choice was made for us, long ago.
“But I Eat Only Grass-Fed Beef”
As the truth about what happens to animals raised for food is increasingly reaching the general public, growing numbers of people are looking for meat that they can buy with a clear conscience.
Beef producers have responded to this demand with labels such as “grass fed,” “local,” and “humanely raised.” Such marketing works because consumers want to trust these labels. But even on the best of farms, there are inherent cruelties involved in raising animals for food, including:
- Shortened lives — Whether grass-fed or factory-farmed, cows raised for food live only about one-eighth of their natural life span. Beef cows are typically slaughtered between two and three years old. “After about 30 months of age, you will start running into tenderness problems…” one one beef producer wrote.
- Painful procedures — In addition to living very short lives, cows raised for food may be subjected to painful procedures, such as castration and horn removal without anesthesia. Many of the cruelties animals endure on farms are legal because they are “standard agricultural practices.” These methods save time and money, and for that reason standard agricultural practices are widely used, on big and small farms alike. Pain management is suggested but not required.
- Potential neglect — Even on small local farms, good care, including providing veterinary care to sick or injured animals, is not guaranteed. For example, sometimes cows aren’t given enough to eat, or nothing is done to protect them from swarming flies, a local beef producer told us. Hay and fly control are expensive. If cash is tight, a farmer may cut corners.
Transport and Slaughter
An inescapable fact of eating animals is that they have to be killed. When that day comes, a local beef producer has only a handful of options in and around New Hampshire. This means that beef producers are often pulling a trailer of animals for hours to get to the slaughterhouse. (Anyone selling meat to the public must take the animals to a slaughterhouse; backyard slaughter is allowed only if the flesh is for one’s own household or will be given away.)
Once at the slaughterhouse, by law the animals are supposed to be killed as quickly and painlessly as possible. But our humane slaughter laws represent a goal, not a guarantee. Even with inspectors on site, mistakes are inevitable. Knives miss the mark. Stun guns don’t work on the first try. Shackled animals come loose and fall to the ground.
Make enough mistakes and the USDA will issue a citation and perhaps even shut a slaughterhouse down for a period, but that’s of no use to the animal who was deprived of the one mercy promised by law: a quick and painless death.
Small-scale New England slaughterhouses may make fewer mistakes than larger facilities, but errors are inevitable.
When Blood Farm in West Groton, MA was shut down for violations of the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act as a result of an employee improperly stunning an animal on the killing floor for the third time, the owner of the establishment was quoted in the Lowell Sun as saying: