DATE April 3, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Michael Pollan discusses the US beef industry
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
What is the life of the steer that becomes our steak dinner? Journalist
Michael Pollan wanted to learn how the meat industry really works now that
raising cattle has become so industrialized, and now that cattle are fed
antibiotics and hormones along with their food. Pollan felt that if he was
going to continue to eat red meat, then he owed it to himself, as well as to
the animals, to find out how cattle are treated. His article, This Steer's
Life, was the cover story of last Sunday's New York Times Magazine. Pollan
usually writes about gardening and organic food. He's the author of "The
Botany of Desire," which will be published in paperback next month.
When he started researching the beef industry, Pollan wanted to follow the
life of a steer until he got to the slaughterhouse. A rancher suggested that
Pollan purchase a steer to help him understand the rancher's point of view
while he learned about the animal's life. I asked Pollan how he chose the
steer he purchased.
Mr. MICHAEL POLLAN (Journalist, The New York Times Magazine; Author, "The
Botany of Desire"): Well, I didn't know the first thing about picking
animals. I haven't been that close to beef cattle in my life. So I asked the
ranchers--this is Rich and Ed Blair and Troy Hadrick, who's one of the ranch
hands--you know, `How do you find a good one?' And they had a pen of 90
calves, beef calves. And they said, `Well, you're looking for--when you're
buying beef flesh, cattle flesh, you're looking for a straight back, really
even line without any kind of sway, and wide hips, or hindquarters, as they
call them, and broad shoulders. And basically you're looking for a really
strong, level and plump frame on which to hang a lot of meat.'
So I looked for that. But I had another consideration they wouldn't have,
which is I knew I was going to follow this animal through the process and try
to have a reunion with him at the feedlot down the road. So I had to find one
that would stand out in the crowd. And all these animals are black. I mean,
we're talking about Angus cows. So I had to find one that would stand out in
the feedlot crowd. So I spotted this one that had the kind of back we were
looking for and shoulders, and was kind of a nice, stout animal. But he also
had these three white blazes on his face. It was very distinctive.
Apparently it's a sign that he had some Hereford blood; he wasn't purebred
Angus. And so I thought, `Well, I'll be able to recognize him.' So that's
the one I picked.
GROSS: Now where was your steer born, and how did it spend the first few
months of its life?
Mr. POLLAN: He was born on the Blair brothers' ranch, which is a beautiful
spread of 11,000 acres outside of Sturgis, South Dakota, a town best known for
the motorcycle rally every August. And he was born on March 13th. And they
have a kind of calving shed where, on cold nights, the cows can have their
babies. And he was about 80 pounds at birth, which is kind of astonishing
because he was going to get up to 1,250 pounds within 14 months.
And as soon as he could stand up and begin nursing from his mother--he's
number 534; she's number 9534. All of her offspring are 534. And they send
him out into the pastures. And he begins nursing from his mother, and over
time nibbling at this, you know, incredible salad bar of gorgeous native
grasses that kind of form a pelt in this ranch. It's an idyllic setting.
And, you know, these are the best months of his life, I dare say. I'm very
concerned not to anthropomorphize these animals, but, you know, a calf out
with its mother nibbling with grass is doing what it's been supremely
well-adapted by evolution to do, which strikes me as a pretty good definition
of animal happiness. So those are the good old days, the first six months of
his life, out on these pastures, nibbling grass and with its mom.
GROSS: And where was the steer taken to after those idyllic six months were
Mr. POLLAN: After the good old days were over he goes into what's called a
backgrounding pen. And backgrounding is sort of prep school for feedlot life.
All the animals are gathered together in a pen and they are bunk broken. Bunk
is the rancher's term for the sort of trough in front of a cattle pen. So
they learn how to eat, instead of grasses and its mother's milk, out of a
trough. And they're confined, and they're separated from their mothers.
They're weaned, which is a sort of traumatic moment on the farm because the
mothers will just mope and bellow for days looking for their offspring. But
they've got to separate them so the mother can get busy having another baby.
She's already pregnant at this point, which this happens in October. And they
have to learn how to eat this strange new diet, which consists not just of
grass or hay, but of grain and, I should add, antibiotics, 'cause that's when
the drugs kick in. I mean, that's when you start feeding beef cattle drugs.
GROSS: And after being in this prep school for a while, where does the steer
Mr. POLLAN: The steer, in my case--you know, it's done a little differently
in different parts of the country and different ranches. But in my case,
after a couple months of backgrounding--he went into the backgrounding pen in
late October. I met him the first week of November and chose him, so he was
already living this confined life and gradually being accustomed to more and
more grain and less hay. And then, in January, the first week of January when
he's about 600 pounds, he gets on a truck with 40 or 50 of his pen mates and
takes a 500-mile journey over the course of one very long day down Route 83 to
just past the town of Garden City, Kansas, to a feedlot called Poky Feeders,
where he joins 37,000 other animals that will then spend their next and last
six months getting fattened and getting ready for the slaughterhouse.
GROSS: Now you described this feedlot as an example of the urbanization of
livestock. Would you describe what it looks and what it smells like?
Mr. POLLAN: Yeah. Well, it's a stunning place. I was just blown away to see
this, 'cause this was a landscape such as I've never seen before. You're
driving along on one of these, you know, ramrod straight Kansas roads. You
just don't need your steering wheel at all. And all of a sudden this smell
comes up in the air, and you just, you know--it's this powerful smell. It's
not like cows on farms. It's like, you know, sort of bus station men's room
smell, and it gets stronger and stronger. In fact, when I got in my rental
car, it was dark and I drove out. I couldn't see anything and I started
smelling this smell. And it was so pungent. And the windows were closed. It
was cold. And I figured it was coming from the backseat. And I developed
this fantasy that the last renter had gotten so angry at the price of this
rental car, which was completely exorbitant, that he'd peed in the backseat as
revenge. And I decided I had to turn around right away and go back and get
another car. But I opened the window as I was turning around to get a better
view, and the smell got stronger. And I realized, `Oh, my God. This is
outside. This isn't in the car.
Anyway, so you're driving down this road and this smell is building. And
suddenly the, you know, kind of empty dun high-prairies landscape goes black,
and that is the color of the feedlot. It's just black as far as you can see.
And there are these rectangular pens. It looks like a subdivision, only it's
not a suburb; it's a feedlot with these pens reaching all the way to the
horizon. And in the middle is the single landmark rising from the prairie.
It's this silvery mill. It's a feed mill, and it's chugging. And it's like a
cathedral in the middle of the city.
And you have, you know, this very clear image that you're in a new kind of
city. It has the rectangular, you know, grid pattern and it has the central
landmark. And it also has the, you know--but it's a more legible city. It's
like a medieval city where you can still see the feedstuffs coming in and the
waste coming out. You know, the metropolitan digestion is very much on
display. So it's a really striking landscape and a very strange place to be.
GROSS: You describe that there are vast lagoons of waste around the feedlot.
Mr. POLLAN: Yeah. It was funny. I was driving around, and I don't notice
things that well, and sometimes I have to concentrate. But the pen where my
animal was that I eventually found overlooked this reservoir. And it looked
sort of like the Central Park reservoir in New York, and it was kind of
rectangular with water. And I thought, `Well, he's got a nice spot. He's got
a water view.' And then I looked a little closely and I saw that there was
this brown scum on the top. And these reservoirs are full of the water
runoff, which is so concentrated in nitrogen from the manure, and also from
the pharmaceuticals that the animals are consuming, are being given all the
time, that it's very toxic. You know, confined animal feeding operations, or
CAFOs, as they're called, become very important sources of pollution and a big
So they're not allowed to spread this water anywhere or discharge it, so they
leave it in these lagoons to gradually break down. And I said to the feedlot
manager--I said, `Well, this must be wonderful fertilizer. Can't you just
spray this on the field?' And he said, `Well, it's a little too good. The
cornfields will turn yellow. It's so powerful, so concentrated.' So they can
spray a very little bit, and then they wait for it to break down.
GROSS: My guest is journalist Michael Pollan. His article on the meat
industry was the cover story of last Sunday's New York Times Magazine. We'll
talk more after our break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Michael Pollan. He's the
author of the book "The Botany of Desire: A Plants-Eye View of the World."
But his new piece in this past Sunday's New York Times isn't about plants;
it's about livestock and how the industrial steak is made in the United
Now you say that the livestock, after about six months, aren't fed grass.
They're not fed hay. They're fed corn. Why are they fed corn instead of
Mr. POLLAN: Basically because corn is the cheapest and most portable thing
you can feed a cow. You know, we grow vast quantities of corn in this
country, about 10 billion bushels a year. And it's very cheap because it's
subsidized by the government. It costs the feedlot about $2.25 a bushel,
which is over 50 pounds of corn, to buy it. And it would cost the farmer more
than that to grow it, if not for subsidies. So you have this feed that is
very, very cheap. It's the cheapest source of calories you can give the
animal. And also it's very portable compared to hay. If you were feeding an
equivalent amount of hay, the sheer bulk of it would overwhelm you.
So corn, you know at this feedlot, at the mill, I saw every single hour
another tractor-trailer would pull up and disgorge 25 more tons of corn. You
know, without corn, without this--and soybeans, too, to a lesser extent--this
incredibly compact and portable feed, you could never have this urbanization
of livestock. It is what allows you to gather together up to 100,000 cattle
or millions of chickens, and now fish and pigs, in these small animal cities
and feed them efficiently. You could not do it on their natural food.
GROSS: What fattens a steer quicker, corn or grass?
Mr. POLLAN: Corn by far. It's simply a richer food. It has more food energy
in it. It's full of starch. And that is the other reason we give them corn.
You know, it's all about speed. I asked the ranchers that I was working with,
the Blairs, and they said, well, they were four generations in the cattle
business, and their grandfather would bring beef cows to slaughter at four or
five years, and then their fathers at two to three years. And they're doing
it at 14 to 16 months. And what allows you to go from 80 pounds calf to 1,250
pounds steer is vast quantities of corn and antibiotics and growth hormones.
So the combination of the corn and the pharmaceuticals allows you to speed up
this process. Also, to some extent, the genetics. They've improved the
genetics. We're gradually creating an animal that can digest corn
GROSS: OK. Before we get to the pharmaceuticals, let's talk a little bit
about corn some more. How does the corn affect the cow's digestive system, a
digestive system that was really made for grass?
Mr. POLLAN: Yeah. You know, this was a bit of a revelation to me because
this phrase corn-fed beef has been around so long that we just take it for
granted that this is some kind of old-fashioned virtue. But it's neither
that old or that virtuous, as it turns out. These animals, in nature or, you
know, when grazing, encounter very, very little grain. I mean, grain is
essentially the seed of grasses. So when the bluestem that they're eating and
the Western wheat grass they're eating flowers and puts on seed, they get a
little bit of grain, but very, very little. And now suddenly they're given
this incredibly rich diet. As one of the feedlot managers put it to me, it's
like feeding them Snickers bars all day long. It's a very rich food, although
they don't appear to like it quite as much as Snickers bars. But it wreaks
havoc on a digestive system that has evolved to do something quite miraculous,
which is digest grass.
You know, that, for me, is the underlying insanity of this system. We have
this animal, a ruminant--there's a class of animals; it includes cows, but
also sheep and deer and several others--that has this unique ability to digest
grass. We can't do it. If you consume grass you will not be able to digest
it. So they can take this sort of substandard land that can only grow grass
because it's too dry or too hilly or the soil is too thin, and because they
have this digestive organ, this rumen, which is essentially a 45-gallon
fermentation tank in which a resident population of bacteria goes to work on
the grass and turns it into protein, they can make good use of this incredibly
common solar-generated food source. So we've taken the solar system--you
know, 'cause the grass is fed on sunlight and water. It's this miracle of
photosynthesis, which is, when you think about it, the only free lunch in
nature. And so they take this free lunch and can make very high-quality food
out of it. But rather than use that system, we move to another kind of
system, which is feeding them corn.
Now corn, you might argue, well, that's a solar system to because, you know,
the corn grows, is a kind of grass, and it grows out in the sun. But, in
fact, to get the kind of harvest of corn we get and the surpluses, you have to
apply vast quantities of fertilizer, which is a fossil fuel. It's ammonium
nitrate. And we began doing this after World War II. It made corn grow
incredibly well. We get 130 bushels of corn off an acre where a hundred years
ago we got 20. And all of that fertilizer is made from oil. And, in fact, it
takes 1.2 gallons of oil to grow a bushel of corn. So I realized I was
looking at a different kind of system. We had gone from a solar system to a
fossil fuel system. And this strikes me as a kind of crazy thing.
GROSS: Let's get back to the cow's stomach.
Mr. POLLAN: Yeah.
GROSS: So the cow now is eating corn instead of eating grass. Its stomach is
made for digesting grass and turning it into protein. How does the cow's
digestive system handle corn?
Mr. POLLAN: Well, very poorly. It'll go kablooey if it's not done very
gradually. And I talked to people who said that most cows, most beef cattle
getting a heavy diet of corn--and again, they can tolerate some of it, but when
you crank it up to 70, 80, 90 percent grain, their stomachs go haywire. They
suffer from a range of different phenomenon, one of which is bloat.
You know, the rumen, this organ, is always producing copious amounts of gas,
and these are expelled during rumination, you know, when the animal kind of
chews its cud. It regurgitates this bolus of grass and in the process
releases all this greenhouse gas, essentially methane and things because when
you're digesting grass much gas is produced. But when they're eating corn,
this layer of slime forms over the mass in the rumen, and it doesn't allow the
gas to escape. So what happens is the rumen begins to expand like a balloon
until it's pressing up against the lungs of the animal. And if nothing is
done to release the pressure of that gas, the animal suffocates. It can't
breathe anymore. So what do they do? Well, if it gets to that point, they
force a hose down the esophagus of the animal, and that releases the gas, and
they very quickly put them back on hay for a little while.
So that's one of the things that can go wrong. Well, perhaps the most
dramatic. But a whole other range of problems are created because the corn
acidifies the rumen. The rumen has basically a neutral pH when it's healthy
and getting grass, and that's very significant for a lot of reasons. But you
feed it corn and it gets a lot more acidic. And the rumen can't deal with
acids, and what happens is the acids gradually eat away at the wall of the
rumen, creating little lesions or ulcers through which bacteria can pass. And
the bacteria get into the bloodstream and travel down to the liver, which
collects all such impurities, and infects the liver. And that is why more
than 13 percent of the animals slaughtered in this country are found to have
abscessed livers that have to be thrown away and is a sign of disease.
But this low-level sickness, acidosis or even subacute acidosis, as they call
it, afflicts many, many--probably the majority--of feedlot calves, and it
leaves them vulnerable to all sorts of other diseases. Their immune systems
are compromised. So they get this, you know, horrifying list of feedlot
diseases. You know, we have these diseases of civilization, you know, heart
disease and such things. Well, they have their own diseases of civilization:
feedlot polio, abscessed livers, rumenitis, all these kinds of things that
cows in nature simply don't get.
GROSS: Is this where the antibiotics come in?
Mr. POLLAN: Yeah. The only way you can keep a cow alive getting this much
corn would be with antibiotics. And they get large quantities of antibiotics
with their feed every day. They get rumensin, which is technically an
ionophore. It's a kind of antibiotic that helps with the bloat and the
acidosis. And then they get tylosin, which is in the erythromycin family.
And that antibiotic cuts down on the incidence of liver disease, and without
that, they would all have liver disease probably.
So, you know, when people debate antibiotics in livestock, which is a very,
you know, important issue, and it's before the Congress right now, they make
this easy distinction between feeding animals antibiotics to promote growth,
which is done in the chicken industry and the pig industry, and then feeding
them when they're sick, which even the public health advocates against using
antibiotics in livestock say, `Of course it's fine. You must treat sick
animals.' But where do you put the beef calf who is clearly getting these
antibiotics to cure him? On the other hand, he wouldn't be sick if we weren't
feeding him what we feed him? So it kind of confounds the usual distinction.
If you took away these antibiotics, everything would have to change.
GROSS: Michael Pollan's article on the beef industry was published in
Sunday's New York Times Magazine. His book, "The Botany of Desire," will be
published in paperback next month. We'll talk more about the beef industry in
the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: Coming up, the consequences of feeding cattle antibiotics and
hormones. We continue our conversation with Michael Pollan about the modern
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Michael Pollan. We're
talking about how cattle are raised and fed in today's industrialized beef
industry. Michael Pollan's article, This Steer's Life, was the cover story of
last Sunday's New York Times Magazine. He usually writes about gardening and
organic food. His book "The Botany of Desire: A Plants-Eye View of the
World" will be published in paperback next month. When we left off, we were
talking about why cattle are fed antibiotics along with their corn feed.
Well, the corn wreaks havoc on the cow's digestive system. The digestive
problems are addressed with antibiotics.
Now what about the effects of the antibiotics on we humans that eat the cow
meat? Is there still antibiotic residue in the meat?
Mr. POLLAN: Yes, they have found recently that there are antibiotic residues.
But the larger problem--and this is one of the key connections between their
health and our health, which I believe you simply can't separate--is that
simply by putting this huge quantity of these antibiotic chemicals into the
environment--you know, more than half of the antibiotics made in this country
go to feed livestock--you are creating resistant bugs, resistant bacteria.
This is how evolution works. If you put a poison in the environment, to a
population, it will evolve to withstand that poison. And that is happening.
And that can be proven. It happens downstream of feedlots in the water that's
getting away. It happens in the manure of the animals.
In their digestive tract, right now, they are selecting for strains of
bacteria that can withstand erythromycin, that can withstand penicillin, and
those bacteria, having been created through this process, are now everywhere.
And there is a connection between the antibiotics that steer number 534 is
getting, and all his pen mates, and the fact that when my son has an ear
infection, I have a hell of time finding an antibiotic now that will work.
The reason that our antibiotics are failing is in part because we are
squandering them on all these animals.
GROSS: Well, how does the bacteria from the feedlot get spread to humans?
Mr. POLLAN: Well, one way is through food poisoning. You know,
salmonella--there are resistant strains of salmonella that are created in
chicken coops. And in the--which is to say, in the digestive tract of these
chickens. And that salmonella survives the whole process of slaughter and
packaging and ends up in your kitchen. And suddenly there is a strain of this
bacteria that you cannot find an antibiotic to kill off. So you know, these
feedlots seem very far away from us, but we inhabit the same ecology, the same
microbial ecosystem. And what happens to it, happens to us. And so you know,
we live in these feedlots in one sense, and they're not on the other side of
GROSS: E. coli has become a kind of dangerous bacteria for humans. There's
been a recent spread in the past few years of a more potent form of E. coli
that has been spread through certain food poisoning, I think largely through
meat. Where does E. coli fit into this?
Mr. POLLAN: Well, E. coli 0157, which is the particularly lethal strain that
I think you're referring to--and that was implicated in many, many food
poisoning stories, often involving hamburger, over the last 10 or 20
years--has a very interesting connection. Again, we never look at these
things ecologically. But that strain of E. coli 0157, it turns out, is
largely a problem of feedlot cattle. And I said earlier that we're acidifying
the rumens, the digestive systems of these animals, and what happens when we
do that is their digestive system becomes a lot more like ours. We have a
very acidic digestive system.
And one of our sort of wonderful evolutionary barriers to infection is that
the acids in our stomach kill off most bacteria that we ingest, and
particularly the bacteria that come from ruminants, because they're adapted to
live in this non-acidic, or base, environment. Well, by acidifying the
digestive tracts of these ruminants, we have created this artificial
environment where acid-tolerant microbes can develop. And things like 0157,
that might have been killed off when they got into our digestive system and,
therefore, not infect us, now are used to acid and, therefore, can survive the
passage through our stomachs and go on to kill us.
So one of these barriers in the food chain to our infection--we've broken it
down by feeding the animals corn. There, again, you see that the evolutionary
logic of feeding the animal grass connects to our health also, because
scientists have found, if you put the animals back on grass, or hay, up to 80
percent of the E. coli 0157 in their manure is gone, within five days in fact.
If we simply would put cattle back on hay, which is dried grass, for five days
before slaughter we would greatly diminish the chances of getting E. coli
0157. So you know, it's just another case where the evolutionary logic butts
up against the industrial logic. And the evolutionary logic always loses, or
at least in the short term, although it comes back to bite us.
GROSS: What are the odds that the meat industry would put the livestock on
hay for the last five days of its life?
Mr. POLLAN: Well, a USDA microbiologist who proposed this tells me that, you,
know, they just laugh at him. It's just so impractical. Imagine having to
bring that much hay into a feedlot. It would just be so cumbersome. Also, by
feeding them hay, they wouldn't gain as fast, so you'd lose--you know, this is
an industry that counts its pennies. And those five days on hay would be
dollars out of somebody's pocket. So what they would much prefer to do, and
what they're doing, instead of keeping this lethal manure out of the meat
system, they want to irradiate the meat, which they now call cold
pasteurization. In the new farm bill they snuck in some language changing the
name for irradiation. And what is irradiation but a way to disinfect the
manure. So rather than keep the microbes out of the manure and in turn out of
the meat, we're just going to kill them off once they get there. And that
basically is, again, the industrial approach to what is an ecological problem.
GROSS: My guest is journalist Michael Pollan. His article on the meat
industry was the cover story of last Sunday's New York Times Magazine. We'll
talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Michael Pollan, and he's the
author of the book "The Botany of Desire: The Plants-Eye View of the World."
But in this past Sunday's New York Times Magazine, he wasn't writing about
plants as much as meat. His piece, which was called This Steer's Life, was
basically about how the modern industrial steak is produced in America from
insemination to slaughter.
We've talked about corn, we've talked about antibiotics. What kind of...
Mr. POLLAN: Hormones.
Mr. POLLAN: Yeah.
GROSS: What kind of hormones are the cows fed?
Mr. POLLAN: OK. Well, you know, this was one of the hardest decisions I
faced as a very little cattleman, which I was--I am, I guess, still--which
was, should I implant my animal, number 534, with hormones? You know
all--virtually all American beef cattle, except for ones labeled organic and
natural, receive hormone implants. It's very, very common. The basic idea is
you put a slow-release pellet of estrogen in the ear of a steer--in the case
of a heifer, you would use testosterone--and this is released over time. And
it--just like the steroids that you see the guys in the gym using to get
really big and muscular, it does the same thing for these animals. They're on
steroids. And they grow a lot quicker. And economically, it is irresistible.
It costs about $1.50 to get the implant, and it puts 40 to 50 pounds on your
animal at the time of slaughter, so it's worth about $25 to you.
And it is allowed. It's legal. Our government's position is that since no
proof of harm has been found, even though there are residues of hormone in the
meat that we eat, until proof is found that it's harmful, this practice will
be allowed to go forward. It's kind of insane to be doing this, because we
don't need to do it. And if everybody stopped, there would be no competitive
advantage. So if everybody stopped we would remove a certain amount of
estrogen and testosterone from the food supply. And, in fact, the Europeans
refuse to buy meat that has hormones in it. And it's not allowed there. But
we do it. And the fear is that if we stopped, people would cheat. And those
who cheated would have a competitive advantage.
So I struggled with this decision. And, you know, there's a lot of
circumstantial evidence that the rising level of estrogenic compounds of all
kinds in the environment is having an effect on the public health, may account
for the fact that girls mature earlier than they did a few years ago, may
account for falling sperm counts in men, may account for the development of
breasts in certain boys that we're seeing these days. But there are other
sources of these compounds; plastics and pesticides are all contributing
estrogenic compounds to the environment. So you know, as a father of a son
who eats steak, or did until recently, I like the idea of feeding hormone-free
meat to my son. As a rancher, though, it was just--there was no question I
had to do it. It's the difference between making a living and not.
And, in fact, the ranchers I talked to would like nothing better to stop using
hormones. They think it'd be better for the animals; it would be better for
the quality of the meat. But they feel until their competitors stop, they
simply can't afford to stop.
GROSS: What kind of research has been done so far measuring how much hormone
is in the actual meat that we consume?
Mr. POLLAN: Remarkably little. This whole area of endocrine disruption just
hasn't gotten the scientific attention. You know, one of the things you find
when you look into agriculture is most of the practices and the most of the
research goes on at land grant universities, which in former times were funded
by the government and did a lot independent work. Nowadays the industry is
the big funder of the land grant universities. I kept bumping into, you know,
the ConAgra chair of animal science, or the Cargill chair. So they study what
suits them to study. And this is not one of the questions that has gotten, I
think, a lot of attention. The Europeans are working on it more. And they
haven't nailed down this proof, either.
Studying the impact of hormones on our health is a very complex thing, because
the dose of hormones is not as important as the timing. So in other words,
even microscopic amounts at a certain moment in the developmental process,
whether in the fetus or the child, can have a dramatic effect. The same dose
at other times in the life of a human, it can have no effect. So it confounds
the usual rules of toxicology in the way you study it, since timing is more
important than dosage. And I think simply we haven't figured out how to
Also, since you can blame other sources for the estrogenic compounds,
everybody points at each other. The pesticide people can point at animal
agriculture and the plastics people can point at the pesticide people. So
nothing much happens. And I think that that's unfortunate. But as I say, the
proof is not there. And the way our system works, you know, you must prove
and be able to quantify risk. The Europeans have a very different system.
They have something called the precautionary principle. You must prove the
safety of something you're introducing into the environment rather than prove
the danger. So it shifts the burden of proof in a dramatic way. And that's
just the way we do business in this country.
GROSS: Well, your New York Times Magazine article was about how the modern
industrial steak is produced in America from insemination to slaughter. Let's
take a trip to the slaughterhouse. You were told that there's a kind line
between the pre- and post-McDonald's era at the slaughterhouse. What's the
Mr. POLLAN: Yeah, McDonald's has actually, from all I can learn, been a force
for good in this industry in the last few years. It is a company with an
exquisite sensitivity to public opinion. And there were a spate of articles a
couple years ago about animals being slaughtered while--being cut up while
still alive, you know, because they weren't stunned properly and they were
kind of waking up on the line. And so they started an auditing process that
all meat that's being sold to McDonald's must be submitted to these audits.
And this auditing process, according to several people I spoke to, has forced
the packing plants to become much more scrupulous about their slaughtering
techniques. And it has apparently gotten a lot better. I'm relying on, you
know, the statement of people who are working for the industry in saying this.
They would not let me observe the slaughter process, even though one of my
animals was going to undergo it.
But Temple Grandin is a very influential person in the cattle business. And
she is a professor of animal science at Colorado State University who's done a
lot of work to make the whole cattle industry more humane. And the industry
has really embraced her work; not because they're animal rights activists, but
because stressed-out animals are very hard to handle. And if an animal is
stressed when it's being slaughtered, it releases a surge of adrenaline that
makes its meat very unappetizing. So there's money in a humane approach. And
they basically worked hard in recent years to make the stunning of the animals
more reliable with better equipment. And also, the ramps that lead the
animals up into the kill floor have been redesigned so the animals experience
And, you know, my big question, as I look ahead to what's going to happen to
number 534 is, will he know when he's traveling up that ramp at the National
Beef plant in Liberal, Kansas--this is his destiny right now in June--will he
know what's about to happen to him? And I asked Temple Grandin this. And she
is the best student of the animal point of view I think we have. And she
said--she used to ask herself the same question. And so she very carefully
observed animals going through the chute at a feedlot or a ranch. They go
through these chutes and then are kind of held in the embrace of a machine
while they're given a vaccination or castrated or tagged or whatever. And
then she watched them go through the chute that takes them to their death.
And she detected no difference in their reaction. And she claims that there
would be a whole lot more agitation on the part of the animal if they were
getting any kind of inkling what lay ahead down the end of this ramp.
GROSS: Now you said that people in the industry seem to think that McDonald's
had been a force of good, at least at the slaughterhouse, 'cause they're very
sensitive to a more humane approach to slaughtering the cattle, but isn't
McDonald's at least partially responsible for the quantity of cattle that we
need now for the number of hamburgers that are being sold? And isn't that
emphasis on quantity and on cheapness part of the larger problem...
Mr. POLLAN: No question.
GROSS: ...that's created the need for more quickly fattened cows and...
Mr. POLLAN: And cheap meat, yeah. Yeah, I...
GROSS: And cheap meat. And, you know--yeah.
Mr. POLLAN: You're absolutely right. I mean, the fast-food industry drives
the business in a lot of negative ways as well. And the insistence on cheap
food that we are all complicit in, drives the system we've been talking about.
It forces them to raise the animals more quickly and, therefore, to resort to
more corn and more drugs. And they have succeeded through this process--you
know, the industry can always make the populist argument. They're saying,
`We're producing more beef for more people more cheaply than ever before.'
You know, remember in our grandparents' day, beef was something you maybe only
had on Sundays. It was a very special food. Now you're got many Americans
who can have a McDonald's hamburger every day.
That's a very mixed blessing. You know, you can put that democratic terms and
say, `We've democratized meat in this country,' or you can say, `Well, what
does cheap really mean?' I mean, the real costs are not being counted when
you buy that Big Mac. You're not paying for the fact that the antibiotics you
may need at the hospital won't work, and you're not paying for all the
environmental damage done by that corn. Or you're not paying for the military
budget that's defending the oil fields in the Persian Gulf that allows you to
grow all that corn. All these things are connected. You know, this is the
central insight of ecology, and it applies to food as much as it does to
So, yeah, I mean, to say McDonald's is just a force for good, I would never
say that. I would just say that if you're looking for any kind of change in
how we run our animal agriculture, you're more likely to get it by pressuring
McDonald's to do something than you are by pressuring the USDA, because they
are more responsive to public opinion. And if there were an outcry today
about hormones in meat or antibiotics in agriculture and McDonald's took note
and felt that pressure, they could get it changed overnight. When they
announced--if they were to announce they didn't want hormones in their meat,
it would be gone from all of the cattle industry overnight.
GROSS: My guest is journalist Michael Pollan. His article on the meat
industry was the cover story of last Sunday's New York Times Magazine. We'll
talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Michael Pollan. And in this
past Sunday's New York Times Magazine he wrote an article on the modern
industrial steak; how it's produced in America from insemination to
slaughter--a look at how livestock are handled today. He's also the author of
"The Botany of Desire: A Plants-Eye View of the World." And that's coming
out in paperback in mid-May.
Do you intend to eat the meat from the steer that you bought after it's
Mr. POLLAN: Yeah. That's--I was afraid you were going to ask me that
question. I'm not sure. I see no reason not to. I do eat industrial beef.
And he will be a particularly good example of industrial beef. And I'm trying
not to be sentimental about this whole process. You know, I've been calling
him number 534. I could very well have named him. In fact, my son has named
him. But I've resisted adopting his name, because I don't want to form any
kind of sentimental attachment, which wouldn't be realistic in the context
we're talking about.
But in general, I am learning that there are other forms of beef out there
that are better for us and more defensible from an environmental perspective.
And so lately I've been, when I can, buying grass-fed beef, which is
available. And it's a little harder to find and it's more expensive and it's
less consistent in quality. But it also can be quite wonderful. So the
slaughterhouse has promised me a box of steaks from 534, and I feel kind of
obliged to eat them.
You know, my goal in this article is to literally own the process of--you
know, we have these transactions with animals that we eat. And most of us
deal with it by not knowing, by ignorance or forgetting. And my goal in doing
this piece was to face the process. And I think if you're going to eat meat,
you have to face up to what's involved. And so I do feel an obligation to eat
534, but going forward I think I'm going to look for alternatives.
GROSS: Are there any detectable patterns in the difference between how meat
tastes when it's the industrial kind of cattle process that you've been
talking about vs. more organically grown beef, where the cows are fed grass?
Mr. POLLAN: Well, you know, be careful there, because organic is not to
say--you know, one of the interesting, I think, holes in the rules governing
organic food is that the rules do not stipulate that you must feed cattle
grass. You know, organic feedlots exist where they simply get organic corn.
It strikes me as an oxymoron to have an organic feedlot, but such things
exist. So organic doesn't ensure you're getting a product--it ensures you're
not getting any drugs with your meat, but it does not ensure you're getting a
grass-fed animal, or even an animal that's necessarily gotten a lot more grass
during its life.
There are differences, though. I think we've basically learned to love
corn-fed meat in this country. You know, the well-marbled steak, the kind of
steak you get in a good steakhouse. If you look at it before it's cooked,
it's just shot through with marbling, which is, you know, just a nice word for
intramuscular fat. That fat makes the meat taste good to us. It also makes
the meat very tender. But that fat is not very good for us. And one of the
most striking things I discovered in doing this research is that--and, again,
we see how the health of these animals is tied to our health--is that corn-fed
meat has got a lot more saturated fat in it than grass-fed meat. It also has
all different kinds of fats. It has--grass-fed meat has lots of omega-3 and
beta carotene and CLA, which is another good fat. And corn-fed meat is full
of the kinds of fats that give us heart disease. And you know, a lot of the
rap against eating meat, if you look at it closely, science is finding that
the problem is not so much with eating beef per se or meat, it's with eating
corn-fed beef. And the alternatives are probably much better for us.
GROSS: What about the taste difference?
Mr. POLLAN: The taste difference is--in my experience, grass-fed meat, it
tends to be chewier. And that's a real turn-off for a lot of people.
Although, I would argue that, you know, hey, we've got really good teeth now
in this country, and if you have to chew a little longer, it's not the worst
thing in the world. I think the taste is superior--of grass-fed meat--often.
But again, it's so specific. The taste of the meat is inflected by the
pastures in which the animal lived. And in certain places, they grow certain
kinds of grass that imparts a very distinctive taste. You know, Argentina
grows all their beef on grass, and it's wonderful. It's the best steak I've
ever had. So it can be done extremely well. We have to relearn how to do it
because grass-fed meat needs to be aged to tenderize it. And if it's aged
properly, it's just as tender as any other and I think has a much more
interesting flavor. But again, it's more variable. And part of the pressure
of industrialization is always make everything consistent so every burger is
going to taste exactly the same.
GROSS: When you're completely done with your research on the meat industry,
what kind of meat, if any, do you think you will eat?
Mr. POLLAN: I still eat meat. I have no problem with eating meat. I think
that, you know, we are part of a food chain. You know, when we talk about
ecology, we're always looking at how, you know, other animals--how they--who
eats whom, and what sort of energy source is sustaining that food chain.
Well, we're in a food chain, too. And we have been for millions of years.
And we've been eating ruminants, who've been eating grass, who've been eating
sunlight. That food chain, short, primordial, I think is entirely defensible.
I think we evolved to eat the flesh of these creatures. And I'm happy to do
that. Animals that, you know, are fed corn is a whole other food chain.
They're getting their source of energy from oil. And they're being made sick
and they need drugs. And that's a different kind of food chain. And I am
uncomfortable about participating in that food chain. And to the extent I can
opt out of it, I'm eager to do so.
GROSS: Well, Michael Pollan, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. POLLAN: My pleasure, Terry. Thank you for having me.
GROSS: Michael Pollan's article, This Steer's Life, was the cover story of
last Sunday's New York Times Magazine. His book "The Botany of Desire" will
be published in paperback next month.
One final note about the money end of raising cattle. Pollan paid $598 for
his steer and paid $319 in expenses. Pollan expects to sell the steer in June
for $944, leaving a profit of $27. That's better that average. Pollan says
that according to Cattle Facts, a market research firm, the return on an
animal coming off of a feedlot has averaged about $3 per head over the last
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross. Today is Doris Day's birthday. We'll close with one
of her great recordings from the early '50s with the Page Cavanaugh Trio.
(Soundbite of music)
Ms. DORIS DAY (Actress/Singer): (Singing) If the nightingales could sing like
you, they'd sing much sweeter than they do, 'cause you've brought a new kind
of love to me. If the sandman brought me dreams of you, I'd want to sleep my
whole life through, 'cause you've brought a new kind of love to me. I know
that you're the slave, I'm the queen, but still you can understand that
underneath it all, I'm a maid and you are only a man.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.