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The Meat Industry’s Drive to Grow Larger Cows Is Ruining Steak

The cows are getting bigger, but somehow, the cuts are getting thinner

The cattle industry has spent decades engineering larger animals, and their efforts have largely paid off (for them): The weight of an average cow at slaughter has increased from 996 pounds in 1975 to a whopping 1,363 pounds in 2016 — that’s an increase of roughly nine pounds each year.

The industry argues that this allows them to provide cheaper and more plentiful beef from fewer cattle. But it’s the consumers who are receiving the short end of the steak, so to speak: Larger cattle mean enormous, overly expensive portions if they’re cut to a traditional one- or one and a half-inch thickness. As a result, restaurants and grocery stores are now slicing traditional cuts (like the filet mignon) thinner, in an attempt to create smaller, more affordable portions.

They’re also serving more scrap meat (in kebabs and chili, for example) and “alternative” cuts to make the most of a gargantuan animal. And these alternative cuts aren’t exactly enticing as the Chicago Tribune explains:

“Beef industry organizations, such as the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, have also promoted novel cuts that break the old mainstays down into smaller portions. Instead of a traditional rib-eye, which slices across two cow muscles, butchers are separating the muscles and selling them as ribeye cap steaks and rib-eye fillets.”

Put simply, steaks aren’t what they used to be; they’re thinner (and as a result, less juicy) or just a smaller piece of what used to be a full traditional cut.

So how did we get to this unsatisfying point? We sat down with Jean-Claude Setin, master butcher and owner of Le French Butcher in L.A., to discuss the state of the modern cattle industry. As someone who’s been cutting meat since 1959, he knows the industry like the back of his hoof.

How is the industry manufacturing larger cattle in the first place?
Commercial cows are being plumped up with hormones, like steroids. They’re also given appetite enhancers, so they’re always hungry — this encourages them to eat foods that aren’t natural to them, and they eat them enthusiastically. They’re fed corn and grains — cows can’t digest this, because they’re ruminants; they can only digest herbs and grasses. It normally takes a cow 28 to 36 months to reach its optimal weight; these cows gain more than that in 14 to 16 months.

Overall, these cows spend most of their lives — usually about a year — being “finished.” That means they’re given appetite enhancers, steroids and grains that their appetite has been manufactured to crave. Because of that, they have to be slaughtered young before their organs give out. When I was growing up, you could find calf’s liver; you can’t find liver in grocery stores anymore, because the livers are ulcerated by the time the cattle are slaughtered.

And they’re doing this because…?
They’re pushing the cattle through quickly to keep the corn industry going. Corn is the second-largest industrial category in the U.S., and cattle are being fed corn.

Cows yield more than just meat, too. They also yield medicine, fabric, glue, tape, gum, combs, toothbrushes, bone-meal fertilizer, dog biscuits, cellophane wrap, bandage strips, marshmallows, bone charcoal, pencils, bone china, syringes, dice, artist brushes, felt, rubber products, crayons, ceramics, hand soap, shoe cream, felt, tennis-racket strings, surgical sutures, instrument strings, insulation…

Forty years ago, we didn’t have the packaging we have now. Where do you think all that tape and glue is coming from? I don’t think it all comes from animals, but I know that glue is a large byproduct of beef.

What is eating all this tampered-with meat doing to us?
I haven’t seen actual scientific studies done on this. Why not? Because somewhere between 80 and 90 percent of all antibiotics manufactured in this country go to livestock. While more and more commercial meats are claiming “no antibiotics,” what they’re doing is putting it in the grain. They say, “Our animals aren’t treated with antibiotics or hormones,” because they’re putting them in the grain — they’re not “treated” with them; they’re being fed them.

As a result, we’re eating meat that has steroids in it. We’re eating meat that has appetite enhancers in it. We’re eating meat that has sugar in it. They’ve known for 25 years that diesel fuel causes cancer, but there are reasons to keep it around. It’s the same with our food: They know it’s unhealthy, but they advertise it as food.

How are these larger cattle affecting tried-and-true cuts, like the rib-eye?
Compared to what I see in France, the meat in the U.S. can be thinner — not always, but it can be. But what ends up on your plate is part of a much bigger picture. If you think they’re raising cattle so that people can eat nice steaks, that’s incorrect: They’re raising cattle for the industry of beef, and that industry also produces the lengthy list of products I already mentioned.

What ends up on your plate is a very small percentage of the beef industry. Therefore, if our steaks are thinner than usual, the industry doesn’t really care, and for two main reasons: Sooner or later, we’re going to eat the thinner steaks, and if we’re not satisfied, we’ll simply order two instead of one.

It’s also much more than just traditional cuts being affected. The food industry has created a product that people are sort of forced to eat, because there’s nothing else out there (or nothing they can afford). And that product has changed what we consider to be good food. This food that’s been manufactured for the last 50 years doesn’t actually taste like food, but we as a species — Americans specifically — have lost the taste in our mouth for what real food tastes like.

Here’s an example: If you’re born in a country that eats spicy food, from the time you’re feeding from your mother’s breast, you’re drinking spicy milk. And so, what you think is spicy is different from what everyone else thinks is spicy. That’s why we hear people say things like, “Grass-fed beef is dry.” Why? Because it doesn’t have sugar in it. You have become accustomed to a meat that has drugs and sugar in it.

What can consumers do to help save natural beef?
The problem with cattle being raised outdoors and with natural products is that the price is different, and people aren’t willing to pay that price because it’s too expensive. People have other priorities: Vacations, electronics and cars. Nobody is thinking, I need to swing by my butcher to purchase really good beef. They go to the supermarke tinstead. That’s because Americans love a bargain, so all they think about is the price.

So, here’s what you can do: Support local butcher shops, choose your priorities — either pay now for good food, or you pay later with your health — and understand that you’re up against a system that began in the 1960s. I hate to say this, because it sounds like a conspiracy, but the pharmaceutical industry doesn’t care if our food makes us sick. Why would they care? They sell drugs to make sickness “better.”

You can also become a consumer advocate to help children understand what real food is. In France, great chefs are volunteering their time to visit elementary schools and cook for the children. They’re teaching these children what real food tastes like.

Finally, we need to stop using the word “food” when referring to “food and manufactured ingestible products.” Many animals would refuse to eat what human beings are eating today.