A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

Inside the Beef Industry

Lamkin-KCStar-121112*  At age 84, Margaret Lamkin (photo right) went to dinner at Applebees and ordered a steak. Today she wears a colostomy bag. The E.coli bacteria in the meat had destroyed her intestines.

*  Two children who were injured in the Joplin tornado in May 2011 came down with antibiotic-resistant infections from dirt and debris blown into their wounds. The bacteria came from farm animals who are fed massive doses of antibiotics.

These and many more stories put a human face on the horror story that is the beef industry. They’re told in a three-part series of investigative reports that’s been more than a year in the making and includes more than a dozen additional sub-stories, photo slideshows, charts and other graphics.

And it comes not from the “liberal” media bastions of New York or San Francisco, but from the Kansas City Star in what is the capital of the beef producing industry.

Enormous beef plants are designed to process large volumes of arriving cattle. After cattle are stunned, they are bled out on the Cargill production line in Dodge City, Kan. They then go through a "carcass wash;" their hides are removed; and the cattle are cut into pieces. (Keith Myers/The Kansas City Star)
One of Cargill’s slaughterhouses. Photo by Kansas City Star.

Part One shows how the industry is relying, more and more, on a system of tenderizing meat that exposes people to a serious risk of E.coli poisoning, while resisting efforts to have meat labeled as having been subject to this process.

The result: Beef in America is plentiful and affordable, spun out in enormous quantities at high speeds, but it’s a bonanza with hidden dangers …

Federal inspection records … include hundreds of references to fecal contamination problems over the last two years at four of the largest beef slaughter plants in Kansas, Nebraska and Colorado. For example, at one of Tyson’s beef plants, inspectors noted: “massive fecal contamination; multiple carcasses with varying degrees of fecal contamination; periods of very significant fecal, ingesta and abscess contamination.”

Another federal inspector at Tyson found “a piece of trimmed fat approximately 14 inches long with feces the length of it,” and another noted, “fecal contamination …was so great…couldn’t keep up.”

Antibiotics that pass through cattle can wind up in their manure, which is often spread as fertilizer-such as on this field near Garden City, Kan. Drug-resistant bacteria are showing up in America's soil, posing health risks for humans. (Keith Myers/The Kansas City Star)
Antibiotics are passed in manure that ends up as fertilizer. Photo by Keith Myers.

Part Two reminds us that 80 percent of all all antibiotics in the United States are fed to farmed animals. These drugs not only cover up the sicknesses that constantly plague the animals, but also promote faster growth. “In fact, the same number of cattle today are producing twice as much meat as they did in the 1950s because of genetics, drugs and more efficient processing.”

One reason cows are getting sicker is very simply that they have trouble digesting the corn that’s the staple diet of factory farms.

Animals in confined spaces spread diseases. Cattle on high rations of corn develop acid buildup, which can deteriorate the gut lining — similar to an ulcer in humans — and cause gas, bloating and lameness.

Corn can eat away part of a cow’s stomach, said Allen Williams, a former feedlot owner and cattle specialist at Mississippi State University. Cattle can actually discharge part of their stomachs through their rectums, he said.

And now, more and more humans are contracting antibiotic-resistant infections.

Earlier this year, a lab in Arizona discovered a strain of antibiotic resistant MRSA in retail meat. MRSA, a staph infection, can cause abscesses and lesions. The lab, the Translation Genomics Research Institute, published a study which showed that bacteria jumped from humans to livestock and back …

In Joplin last year, 13 of the 900 people injured in the deadly tornado suffered from fungal and other infections after contaminated dirt and debris was blown into their wounds … Five of the 13 died.

Part Three describes the industry’s smokescreens, industry-funded “studies”, and other efforts to confuse the public, Congress, and federal government agencies.

There’s even a scientifically tested diet plan — Beef in an Optimal Lean Diet, or BOLD — to lower cholesterol levels in your blood while serving up modest portions of lean beef every day for lunch and dinner.

The BOLD diet has become the centerpiece of industry efforts to promote beef as heart healthy food.

And its development, The Star found, illustrates just how closely Big Beef is tied to both academic researchers and to the health professionals who advise people on what to eat.

The beef industry spent close to $700,000 in 2011 to reach dietitians and others who influence what we eat.

Some of its well-tested propaganda tactics include using the word “lean” in all its publicity, but not telling people that much of the meat they buy, especially at fast-food outlets, is high-fat. It also promotes low-fat ice cream and sells mostly high-fat ice cream.

At the same time, the industry harasses the media with libel suits. For example:

In September, Beef Products Inc. sued ABC News and several whistle-blowers for allegedly maligning its lean finely textured beef product, described as “pink slime” in news reports earlier this year.

The $1.2 billion suit was originally brought under South Dakota’s “veggie libel” law, which makes it illegal to disparage “agricultural food products.” The suit is pending.

There are subsections on the pink slime controversy that erupted earlier this year, on the history of the meat packing industry, and on how the beef industry infiltrates universities. Plus several galleries, videos and other multimedia.

The whole series was produced by Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Mike McGraw, with data collection and analysis Sarah Cohen, a Knight professor at Duke University.

And if, after reading this (or not reading it) you’re still not yet eating a plant-based diet, lots of luck!