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From The Ranch To The Dinner Plate: Where’s The Beef Coming From?

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Aired 10/29/09

KPBS reporter Joanne Faryon has been looking into beef. She's learned industrialization and our demand for a big, juicy and cheap steak has created corn fed, hormone-injected, and fast growing cattle. Cattle that changes hands and travel thousands of miles before arriving at your local grocery store.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Even though it once was a political catchphrase, nobody really has to ask ‘where's the beef’ in this country because the beef is everywhere. It's in our fast food burgers, it's in our meatballs and meatloafs and Hamburger Helpers. It's on our barbecues, it's at steak houses and it's in our carne asada burritos. Beef could be described as one of America's signature foods. So the question is not where's the beef, the question is what the heck's in it? KPBS is working on a series called “Food” and we are following your dinner from the plate back to the farm. And now reporter Joanne Faryon is also going back to the barn in her investigation into beef. She's here to tell us what she's found out. Welcome, Joanne.

JOANNE FARYON (KPBS Investigative Reporter): Thanks, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: And we invite our listeners to join the conversation. Are you more cautious about buying beef than you used to be? What do you look for before you buy? Or have you given up red meat? If so, tell us why. Call us with your questions and comments at 1-888-895-5727. Joanne, let’s start by having you talk about what led you to the idea to trace food, and in this case beef, from the table back to the farm?

FARYON: Well, we wanted to look at this issue because we are – First of all, California is the largest agricultural producer in the country. San Diego County’s economy, a large part of our economy really is based on agriculture. And, believe it or not, I believe we rank five in terms of cattle production, and we’re number one when it comes to dairy. We produce the most milk in the country. So given that this is such an important part of our economy, really an important part of our landscape, we wanted to find out, okay, so where is our food coming from? And if we are the producers of so much food, if we live on the coast and we have access to fish, you might think, are we eating our own food? So that was sort of the premise. We wanted – you know, where is the food that we’re eating really coming from?

CAVANAUGH: And, okay, let’s start out. As we’ve been talking about, beef, it’s a staple in a lot of American diets. How much beef do Americans eat?

FARYON: We eat about 62 pounds per person every year. It’s significantly more than we ate about 100 years ago but it’s less than what we ate in the seventies. There was sort of a peak there in the seventies where I believe we were eating over 70 pounds per person. Chicken has overtaken beef as being the number one meat consumed at more than 70 pounds per person. In the country, last year we slaughtered about 34 million heads of cattle. It’s – really, this is an industry based on volume.

CAVANAUGH: And when you began to examine beef, what did it – what is it that you want to know about it? Do you want to know whether we’re eating cattle that’s grown close to San Diego? Do you want to know what’s in that cattle? All of the above?

FARYON: Well, what we – the question we set out to answer is if we buy a steak in one of our local grocery stores, can we track it back to the ranch? And, quite honestly, we didn’t know. We had no idea what we would find, and in our journey the attempt to make it back to the ranch, we learned what actually does go into our beef. Things that I really had no idea. First let me tell you, you cannot track your steak back to the ranch. In this country, we have no federal regulated tracking system. We can track our beef back to a processing plant. And I want to tell our audience, too, that we actually did call the major grocery stores and ask if they wanted to be part of this project. Hey, you want to help us track this beef back? We – Either the response was we don’t really want to be part of this project, or they just didn’t call us back. And this was several attempts, so this was something we really felt like, okay, we’re kind of out on our own on this. We also contacted the USDA, you know, several weeks ago and several e-mails, several phone calls later, we really still haven’t got a lot of firm answers in terms of beef.

CAVANAUGH: So you got as far back as the processing plant. Do they – Can you tell from that point where the beef came from?

FARYON: No, and let me tell you why.

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

FARYON: Let’s start at the beginning. So Ramona, we have some cattle ranchers in Ramona, Imperial County, so we went out to Ramona and we talked to a couple of ranchers. Okay, so tell us the story. Tell us what happens. And, on average, in the U.S. cattle ranchers are quite small. They have between 25 and 40 heads of cattle. Here in Southern California, these ranchers will have these cattle for about six months. And they eat grass, you’ll see them out in the pasture, but after about six months, they’re really – we can’t keep them much longer because we don’t have enough rainfall. We don’t have enough grass. So then the rancher takes the cattle to an auction, typically in Chino, and they’ll sell them. They don’t know who’s buying them. It could be a rancher in Texas, Iowa, anywhere in the Midwest. Someone else buys them. They go to another state, not always to another state, but typically to another state, where, again, they’re fed grass for another six months. They’re out to pasture. After that, that rancher likely sells them and takes them to another auction. Someone else buys them and then they go to what’s called a feed lot. Now a feed lot is a giant pen and you can house anywhere from 10,000 animals to even over 100,000 heads of cattle. And the job at the feed lot, these cattle are there to eat. They’re there to eat and get fat. And this is where corn is introduced. We hear a lot about corn-fed grass (sic) but – So this is where cattle are eating corn.

CAVANAUGH: I see. Okay. So we’ve got them back to there. Now we do hear a lot about the difference between corn-fed and grass-fed and the idea being that grass-fed beef is much better for you than corn-fed. But it sounds as if most of the beef that we’re eating is a combination of both.

FARYON: Yeah, all of these cattle will start off eating grass for some period in their life. So it’s interesting, the whole debate, corn-fed, grass-fed. So this is what I learned in terms of why cattle are eating corn and, by and large, the majority are being – it’s called finished, being finished on corn. So they’re in these feed lots anywhere from 90 to 150 days and their job is to get fat; corn makes them fat. Back 30, 40 years ago, we had a surplus of corn so we started feeding cattle corn and found out, wow, they get fat on this really quickly. One can argue why are we still feeding them corn? It’s a subsidized crop in this country, it’s a whole other topic. Nonetheless, 70 – between 75 and 80% of the diet is corn. Now what happens when you feed cattle corn, they get fat but they get too fat. So when you want – when you take this animal to be processed, you want more lean muscle tissue. Now we can introduce hormones, so we introduce hormones into their diet because hormones will actually cause them to produce more lean muscle tissue; they won’t be as fatty and they’ll get bigger faster. The buzzword in this industry is efficiency. How do we get these cattle big enough fast so we can get them to market because the longer you keep them, the more expensive it is for the rancher.

CAVANAUGH: We are talking about beef as part of the KPBS “Food” series. I’m talking with reporter Joanne Faryon. We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727 and Allison is on the line from Oceanside. Good morning, Allison, and welcome to These Days.

ALLISON ( Caller, Oceanside): Good morning. Thank you for taking my call. I have a couple of things but I’ll try and make them really quick. I’ve actually stopped buying meat at the grocery store and I buy direct. And they are 100% grass-fed and, yes, it’s a little more expensive and you need a deep freeze in order to do – to buy direct, to buy like a quarter or a half but…

CAVANAUGH: Well, wait a minute, Allison, let me stop you right there. What do you mean you buy direct? Do you buy mail order?

ALLISON: No. Well, there’s a website called Local Harvest, and you can actually find people in California who will sell you direct. And I go and pick mine up.

CAVANAUGH: Ahh…

ALLISON: And they actually come from northern California. But, yeah, the process is actually very short. But because I couldn’t trace the farm to table in the store, I just stopped buying there because I’m like I don’t know what’s happening to this meat. The meat that I get is really wonderful and very different but it is a extreme change in the way you shop for things.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah.

ALLISON: And we also own chickens so we don’t eat chicken. It would be like – it would be like eating part of the family, right.

CAVANAUGH: You don’t eat anything you’ve given a name. Let me ask you a question. Now when you get this meat, is it cut into, you know, different parts of meat? Or do you have to do that yourself?

ALLISON: It’s – We request from the rancher to cut it into the different steaks and pieces.

CAVANAUGH: Right.

ALLISON: And to ground the chuck and ground the brisket for burgers and things like that. And you do feel different about eating it because you think more about the whole cow and you think more about the whole circle that’s going on. And the cattle that I – the cow that I buy is not grain finished, and it definitely has a little bit of a gamier flavor and you have to cook it a little bit differently because it doesn’t have all of that fat in it.

CAVANAUGH: That’s interesting.

FARYON: And it’s great that you called Allison. We came across a couple of small ranchers actually in San Diego County, who want to go into this kind of business and who are already doing this. The way the USDA works, they have to inspect cattle. The system, the food chain for beef is really set up so that it works in the favor of the big, big operators. It’s very difficult to be a small cattle rancher and actually want to keep the cattle for the entire process. But what a consumer can do, you can enter into a contractor – into a contract with a small rancher to raise that cattle for you and then also to have someone slaughter it for you. It’s a more difficult process but it can be done and you are buying the entire animal so sometimes you have families who say, okay, let’s do this, at the beginning of the season, and at the end of the year they all get different cuts. You know, when you talk, Allison, about eating the whole animal, you know, obviously this is something – in Southern California, we like to eat tri-tip. This is a very popular cut in California.

CAVANAUGH: Tri-tip steak.

FARYON: Exactly. Well, I talked to one rancher and he said, you know what, well, you know how many tri-tips you get from one animal? Two. So if you have tri-tip every Sunday, that’s 26 animals. I mean, just to give you perspective in terms of our consumption. When it comes to tracking, we’re talking about that, can you go from the plate to the ranch, you know, ranchers want to be able to track the animals. I didn’t talk to a lot of people who said this is a bad idea. In fact, I talked to people who say why aren’t we doing this? In fact, in European countries, they do this, in Japan they do this. We went out to Imperial Valley where we interviewed Bill Brandenburg, and Bill owns and operates a feed lot. He’s got 13,000 head of cattle, and he actually – his cattle are actually Holstein bulls and they look like dairy cows. When I got there I thought I’m in the wrong place. But – so the dairy cow, the female, is used for milking but the bulls, we actually raise for beef. So Bill raises them and they live on his feed lot for actually 12 months and he tracks each one of them and he does this because then that way he can sell them to Japan. So he does it for a marketing reason. But I want to tell you what he said, and I want to sort of toss to a clip from Bill because he thinks it is important, he thinks we ought to have a tracking system here in the U.S.

BILL BRANDENBURG (Feed Lot Operator): …cattle industry itself, we need a tracking system to track each animal that we can identify each animal, track them, so that if we do get any disease outbreaks in the country that we can trace those back or if there’s any other problem, you know, at the packing house or whatever, then we can trace everything back to its origin and get answers. And, to me, I’m in favor of that. I think that that’s very important for us and it’s something that’s overdue and it should’ve been done a long time ago and…

CAVANAUGH: So there’s a rancher in favor of having – Well, let me ask you what – Quickly, if we can because we’re up against a break. I’m wondering why don’t we track the animals? I mean, what would be the reason not to?

FARYON: Money is one of them. According to Bill Brandenburg, there are some vocal ranchers who say I don’t want the government knowing how many, you know, cattle I have. It sort of reminded me of the gun issue. They don’t want to register them. The USDA did introduce COOL, Country of Origin Labeling and probably a lot of our audience, they know that when they buy their meat it says ‘product of USA,’ ‘product of Canada.’ That was introduced months ago. But, again, the ranchers say, well, what does that tell you? It doesn’t tell you anything really, just what country this cattle originated in. All it did was make Mexican and Canadian beef cheaper because people wanted to buy American beef. But it doesn’t tell you much else after that.

CAVANAUGH: We have to take a short break and when we return, we’ll continue talking about our “Food” series here on KPBS. Where does our food come from? Today, we’re talking about beef with reporter Joanne Faryon and taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. We’ll be back in just a few moments.

CAVANAUGH: Welcome back. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS. I’m Maureen Cavanaugh, here with reporter Joanne Faryon and as part of the KPBS “Food” series, this morning we’re talking about beef, tracing it or trying to from your dinner plate back to the farm. We’re talking about the way cattle are fed and what – where they’re taken, their movements across the country, and how they wind up on your plate. The number to call with your questions and comments about beef, the beef you’re buying and the beef you want to buy, 1-888-895-5727. And let’s take a call now from Sarah in Encinitas. Good morning, Sarah. Welcome to These Days.

SARAH (Caller, Encinitas): Good morning. I wanted to make a couple of comments. First of all, as far as tracing where the beef comes from, I should preface this by saying I don’t eat beef, I don’t eat four-legged animals but my husband does, so I’m very careful about where I’m getting my stuff. And at Jimbo’s, which is a very small sort of natural foods chain, mostly in north county, they sell beef that is grown in the U.S. and there’s a sign behind the butcher counter that says the name of the ranch and it’s from the Eel River in northern California or something like that, so it is possible to trace a particular farm if you, you know, shop at smaller places. The other point I wanted to make is that another issue with these feed lots is the waste that these cattle produce. And it’s an incredible issue because of the methane and because of the hormones that they’re fed. All of this goes into rivers, water sources and so on, and if you want to have some really good information about this, I would strongly suggest Michael Pollen’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.”

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you for that, Sarah. Thank you for both comments and you were shaking your head, Joanne, about that.

FARYON: Oh, a great call, Sarah, because you brought up two really great things. I actually went to Jimbo’s during all of this research, too, and looked for beef where I could ask for no hormones, no antibiotics, and get information. And you’re right, you can – if you really look, it’s a specialty market, though. By and large, the beef that you’re buying in any of the major grocery stores, that’s not the beef that you’re getting. It’s definitely a specialty market. When you talk about the waste, well, I don’t know if you want to hear this but the feed lot that we went to in Imperial Valley, the waste from that feed lot, an organic carrot grower buys it and puts it on top of his carrots and it’s to – so that he doesn’t have to use pesticides.

CAVANAUGH: But doesn’t that have hormones in it, the way our caller just mentioned?

FARYON: It’s a very good question. There is a time period where the operator uses hormones and then stops using them, and it’s to reduce that hormone residue. Do they do tests to find out if there’s hormone residue? I don’t know. Does hormones in that waste make it non-organic? I don’t know. Labeling, it’s a whole other issue. You know, what do those labels really mean? When you buy beef and it says ‘all natural,’ well, basically just about everything you buy is all natural. Most of the beef you buy is all natural. All natural does not mean no hormones and no antibiotics. It can mean that but most of the time it doesn’t. Again, you can buy natural beef—I bought it at Jimbo’s, not to make it…

CAVANAUGH: Yeah.

FARYON: Not to do the shout out but where they give you a brochure and it tells you, you know, we haven’t used antibiotics or hormones. But you really do have to make a conscious effort to do that when we talk about hormones, though, good or bad, right? Because in the end, so they use hormones. Everybody has hormones naturally occurring so why is that a bad thing or is it a good thing? First, let’s talk about why they use them. This – Really, the consumer doesn’t want to spend a lot of money on their food. We want a big, juicy steak and we don’t want to spend a lot of money. This is what I kept hearing all along. We’ve made a demand on the producer and so the market reacts. So, again, Bill Brandenburg, you know, I asked him…

CAVANAUGH: He’s your rancher.

FARYON: He’s the feed lot operator, right?

CAVANAUGH: Feed lot operator.

FARYON: In Imperial Valley. So here he is explaining why they’re using hormones in cattle.

BRANDENBURG: Because it is much more expensive to produce beef without hormones. If everybody in the United States did that, we would have too much fat in our beef because the cattle without hormones produce – either you have to feed them less and make them a lot lighter when you process them or else you have to produce – you know, you end up with a lot of choice and a lot of prime beef and not – like in Southern California, most of the markets sell select beef, which is leaner than choice or prime. And with – without hormones, the cattle just have a lot more fat in them and so they’re going to produce a lot more of those upper grades of beef.

FARYON: But if we didn’t feed them corn, isn’t the corn-fed that give them the fat?

BRANDENBURG: Yes.

FARYON: So if we didn’t feed them corn, they wouldn’t necessarily need the hormones to make more – less fat.

BRANDENBURG: Well, you could do them grass-fed on – without implants and you would still have – you’d have a product that wouldn’t taste near as good as corn-fed beef. That’s what the consumers in the United States like, is the flavor and the tenderness that goes along with the corn-fed.

CAVANAUGH: And you keep talking about the American taste bud, the American taste bud.

FARYON: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: Do they do it differently in other countries? Do they not introduce hormones into their beef before they’re slaughtered?

FARYON: Yes, in – actually European countries have a ban on North American beef because of the use of hormones so they do do it differently. Again, corn-fed is a – I don’t want to call it a new phenomenon but, I mean, this is, you know, this is in the last couple of generations and what I really learned in doing this is one thing led to another thing that led to another thing. Unintended consequences. Wow, we can feed them corn, look, isn’t this great? We like the taste, oh, but then they get too fat so now we need hormones. Well, we can put them all together and feed them, oh, but now if one gets sick, they all get sick so now we’d better give them antibiotics. So, really, this was not somebody setting out to say let’s do this, this and that. All of these things seem to be a reaction to something different. In terms of why European countries have put a ban on our beef because of hormones, it’s really twofold and, in all fairness, there are a lot of people who’ll tell you this was really a marketing issue. And on the other side of things, there is research out there that suggests, hey, this may not be a good thing for pregnant women or children, prepubescent girls, and other research that says, no, that’s not necessarily the case. So we went up to Pomona to Cal Poly Pomona where they have a animal sciences department and I met Shelton Murinda, and he’s a professor there. So it’s like we talked about this. And, again, Shelton Murinda will tell you that the beef is safe, you know, he eats a lot of beef, but in terms of the research, I asked him, okay, what is, you know, the sort of the consequences with hormones and why is it in Europe they’re not using them and here is what he said.

SHELTON MURINDA (Professor, California Polytechnic Pomona): The Europeans were using what I would call the precautionary principle which simply indicates that if there is not enough scientific evidence, it’s better to be on the safe side.

FARYON: Isn’t it?

MURINDA: It is always better to be on the safe side if you do not have sufficient scientific evidence.

FARYON: Well, then why do we still use hormones in beef in the United States?

MURINDA: The situation is rather different here. There are pros and cons that have been thrown about. Some of them are just what I indicated, the potential side effects. As far as I know, there has not been enough risk assessment that has been done with relevance to the side effects of those hormones in the human population. Not enough research has been done to gather that information so there is no risk assessment that has been done. So…

FARYON: So why not go on the side of caution like the Europeans?

MURINDA: We rather think differently here. We rather think differently.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. Let’s take a call from Ian in Solana Beach. Good morning, Ian. Welcome to These Days.

IAN (Caller, Solana Beach): Morning, Maureen. I wanted to point out to your listeners that there is a very easy way to find out what grass-fed beef is like and how it tastes. We go down to Mexico and we have a house down in Mexico and we buy, frequently, at the supermarkets in Ensenada, which, by the way, look just like U.S. supermarkets. They’re spotless and the beef and meat and everything else is wrapped in plastic packaging. That being said, the beef down there looks and tastes quite different to the United States. It is, as your guest said, it is a darker and tougher texture and to our taste, it’s much more flavorful. So that tends to indicate to me that it is range-fed and doesn’t have other things added to the meat.

CAVANAUGH: Ian, thank you so much for the call. Joanne, you know, we’ve been talking about cattle and beef and cattle raised for slaughter. But you gave us a statistic at the beginning of this that I just – I don’t even know if I heard it correctly. Is it that – Did you say that we produce the most milk, this county produces the most milk of any place in the United States?

FARYON: This state.

CAVANAUGH: This state.

FARYON: This state. California actually has 1.4 million dairy cows, so we’re a huge dairy producer but we have all those diary cows, what happens to those dairy cows? Well, actually they become beef as well. When a dairy cow gets to be about five years old, they actually get sent to slaughter and they become ground beef. About – just under 20% of our ground beef is actually dairy cow. The other fascinating thing I learned and, again, this is from Bill Brandenburg, up at his feed lot, like I said, when I got there I said, wait, these are dairy cows. Well, in the last generation they have figured, because Holsteins, they grow differently. That the bulls, they get tall and skinny, and those aren’t good for processing, so they have figured out a way to feed them 50% corn, 50% other products, 10% actually bakery by products, so the stuff in a bakery that gets, you know, ground up, swept up, that’s what they eat as well. They figured out a combination of grains to feed these bulls so that they become shorter and fatter just like the typical English cattle.

CAVANAUGH: And I’m wondering, this is probably another program, but I’m wondering do we actually drink the milk that we produce here in this state or do we transport it out? I mean, do we…

FARYON: I know some of it ends up in California…

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh.

FARYON: …but a lot of it, we send out. I mean, we just produce too much that we couldn’t possibly consume it all here.

CAVANAUGH: Amazing. I want to thank you so much for this, Joanne, for coming in and telling us this. And I want our listeners to know that this “Food” series continues. A team of KPBS reporters is tracing the food from your dinner plate back to the farm, field and ocean. You can see those reports on our website, KPBS.org/Food, and there’s a special coming up. Can you tell us – just take a moment to tell us about the Envision San Diego “Food” special.

FARYON: Yes, we’re going to put it all together in a television program and it will air November 16th, that’s a Monday, nine o’clock at night. So you’ll see these cattle, you’ll meet these ranchers, you’ll learn about chicken, you’ll learn a lot about fish, and also some of the produce that we produce as well.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you so much again. I really appreciate it. And I’m looking forward to seeing that.

FARYON: Thanks for having me.

CAVANAUGH: And I want to let everyone know there was so many people who wanted to get involved in this conversation, I want to let you know, please, post your comments on our website, KPBS.org/TheseDays. And stay with us for hour two of These Days coming up in just a few minutes right here on KPBS.

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