The Cost of Meat—Too High To Pay

By Lynn Truong on 21 May 2007 (Updated 18 August 2007) 27 comments
Photo: iStockphoto

Let me start by making one thing clear: I do not think it is wrong to eat meat. It's not because I believe God gave us "dominion" over everything on Earth either. It's because I've watched shows on Discovery; I've seen Planet Earth. Nature doesn't blink an eye when it comes to one species eating another. So I'm not a newly converted vegan animal rights activist condemning all meat eaters. I just think there is a lot of information about the real and true cost of meat that most people aren't aware of. It might make you think twice before buying that $0.99 whopper. And that's all I could hope for. We should want to be able to make informed decisions that affect our personal health, public health, the environment, the animals we use for food, and legislation in our country.

We are a very uninformed group of people, Americans that is. Much truth has been hidden in the name of profit margins. And the blame does not fall solely on the shoulders of the few big companies that control the majority of certain commodities. The blame also falls on us as consumers to allow ourselves to be lied to because we actually like it better that way. We want to eat our veal with no guilt in our stomach. We want to see our diamond engagement rings shining brightly, untainted with conflict. We want to fill up our SUVs without the burden of a war far away on our shoulders. We want to pay for our comforts in low dollar amounts, and feel debt free when we leave the store. We are generally a responsible group of people. But we feel we can't be held responsible for what we don't know, and especially what we're told we can't understand.

This article does not demand that anyone stop eating meat. But in this day and age, being uninformed is simply no excuse to continue being ignorant. This article intends to give a little information regarding the choices we make everyday, at every meal. After reading this, my intention is that some will seek out more information, some will search for local sustainable farms in their area, some will resolve to eat less meat, some will join organizations to petition our state and federal officials to make changes in the system, and some will simply spread the word. For those who decide to continue consuming meat and dairy made from factory farms, at least your decision will be an informed one.

Most of the information in this article is taken from John Robbins' The Food Revolution. I'm not saying he is the ultimate authority, nor to take everything at face value. You can believe him, you can easily look up the information yourself, or you can believe this is all crap, overblown sensational fear inducing propaganda. But I haven't had a good night's rest since picking up the book, and I've read many others on this topic.

The truth is you can take anything out of context. You can have different results show up in different studies. But many people have already done the work of gathering data to provide well researched information. Short of doing years of research like Michael Pollan, John Robbins , T. Colin & Thomas M. Campbell, Eric Schlosser, and many others, we will have to decide who is credible and objective in their conclusions. I'll choose the people who have nothing to gain by changing our lifestyles. Yes, he's selling books (which I borrowed from the library). But whether we are persuaded by him doesn't give him any additional profit. He doesn't have any John Robbins power bars for sale. And I believe that his aim is to inform us, candidly and urgently, of the grave consequences of our food choices. The meat/dairy industry on the other hand, have every reason to confuse and misinform.

By the way, I'm not an expert myself, in case you were wondering. My opinion doesn't matter. So please don't leave nasty comments about why you choose to eat meat, point to specific words or numbers to say they're wrong or outdated (The Food Revolution was published in 2001), how the studies I've quoted or the books I've read are full of misinformation, or how my article is poorly written and poorly researched. I am not trying to write a well researched paper for publication consideration in a medical journal. This is an opinion piece, a commentary, a plea for us to fight for facts, not marketing slogans. You do not need to validate your choices to anyone but yourself. But anyone would be naïve to believe that the choices we make as part of the most powerful nation in the world has no global effects. I'm simply asking you to consider the effects of your choices on the living beings, big and small, that we share the world with. Consider, then choose. At least you can't ever say "no one told you."

I'm breaking up the remainder of this article into five parts, in the interest of page length and easy access. Each part will have its own argument. These are completed, located in Extra Commentary and also directly through its own link:

The Personal Health Argument addresses the implications of dairy and meat consumption on our health, specifically heart disease, cancer, and calcium intake.

The Public Health Argument addresses the cost effective measures factory farms use to yield higher production and profits at the cost of public health. This will include food-borne illness, irradiation, the use of antibiotics, growth hormones, and what we feed the animals we eat.

The Cruelty Argument addresses the horrible conditions and treatment the animals in factory farms are subjected to. I know people might choose to skip over this argument, thinking, "yeah, yeah, I know it's bad, but we need to eat." This argument isn't designed to compel people to stop eating meat. This argument attempts to show how unnecessarily cruel and horrible the conditions are. We can still eat meat and treat the animals well. Small family farms have always done this. At the very least, we can demand that compassion be shown to these living, breathing, feeling, beings before they end up on our plate.

The Environment Argument addresses the harm factory farming does to our environment, including water usage, waste contamination, and rainforest destruction.

The Market Demand Argument illustrates how a little pressure from the market can go a long way. Already, consumer awareness of the gross treatment of animals in factory farms and slaughterhouses, as well as the health implications with consuming antibiotics and hormones given to the animals has given rise to "Organic" and "Natural" products found in most supermarkets. But these labels are purposely deceptive. The topics here will include deciphering common food labels and describes what happened when PETA launched its "McCruelty to go" campaign against McDonald's, and the changes the corporation implemented as a result.

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Andrea Karim's picture

Really? Not at all? C'mon, you know you wanna.

Lynn Truong's picture

nah... i really can't.  there is a lot of really good meat dishes out there i will not deprive myself of.  however, i can abstain from hamburgers, chicken nuggets, fried chicken, even veal and fois gras (never had good veal, but fois gras...is truly yummy...but i'll give that up too) and generally unhealthy, not very good (tasting) meat dishes.  i have more incentive now to prepare meals at home rather than picking up something nearby, especially when nothing's really all that great to pick up for everday meals anyway. 

i believe that a decrease in our demand for meat can help significantly.  that's all i'm trying to do.

Guest's picture
Cyan

This is such a great article!! Good for you for writing it - more people need to know this stuff...

Guest's picture
AMMBD

Interesting. Disturbing. Frustrating.
I am not, nor ever will be vegetarian or vegan. Ditto my family. However, I we'll be reassessing our diet.
So meat prices increase a bit? B.F.D. Broke as we usually are, I'd rather pay more for our meat/dairy to get a healthier product and stop supporting such a whacked "farm" system.

Andrea Karim's picture

My biggest problem meat consumption is not that animals die.

I recognize that animals are killed and eaten in the wild. As such, I have no objections to hunting; at least in the wild, the bear/deer/elk/moose has a chance to get away. At least the animals have survival instincts. I don't see a big difference between a cougar taking down a deer and a hunter doing it - assuming that the hunter is shooting for food and not merely for trophy.

And most hunters that I know aren't wasteful, and use every part of the animal in some way or another.

However, even on the nicest, kindest, most loving farm, I feel awful for the animals. There's one sheep farm somewhere out here in WA that raises lambs for food. The owners are very outspoken about their desire to treat their animals well. They say things like, "We like to say that our animals only have one bad day in their life." And customers respond - the foodies out here LOVE to hear about how their food was raised locally. Some people want to know what their steak was named before it was steak.

These are some well-kept animals. Nice barns, best health care, lots of roaming, grass-only feeding - I wouldn't be surprised if there had soothing music piped into the barns. In short, the animals are treated like pets. And they behave like pets. They become attached to their owners. They come running when you call. They are trusting. They like to have their heads rubbed.

And then, one fine day, they are taken to a special location, they are slaughtered.

I can't deal with that. If animals didn't bond with humans, or if we didn't have evidence that animals have feelings, then I wouldn't even blink. But anyone who has spent time around pigs, or goats, or cows can tell you that these animals are intelligent and adaptive.

So the fact that they are treated well before slaughter still feels wrong to me - it's simply treating them like pets and then betraying them at the last minute. Now, mind you, the animals only get to feel bad about it for a few dozen seconds before they are dead, so you could argue that those minutes mean nothing. And I would rather see animals treated well than treated shabbily. But I can't compare animals dying in the wild to animals being raised on a farm - that's not an apples to apples comparison.

Guest's picture
Guest

have you ever been around pigs and goats? Just a question, because as a farm girl, your comments on their intelligence and adaptibility sound naïve and city-raised to me!

Guest's picture
Guest

Is that ok or not? Is it really meat? Can you prove it? But the sauce is so saucy!

Mmmmmm......Ribwich....I can't wait to pack that into my colon!

Lynn Truong's picture

andrea,

well put.  i can agree that in the ideal situation, anyone who wants to eat meat needs to go hunt for it himself/herself.  the act of finding, catching, killing, skinning, gutting, and cutting the entire carcass up forces one to respect the animal killed for food. 

but for now, it won't happen.  not unless the world goes to sh*t, when crops can no longer grow (either from lack of water or topsoil), the farmed animals begin to evolve and produce a toxin or develop a disease that can't be irradiated or cooked off (like a faster acting form of mad cow), the entire U.S. economy breaks down and completely deteriorates...

short of a world wide disaster, the best we can ask for from people is demand the animals are treated humanely.  a pig who lived out his life happy, with a home and a name, is better than a pig living a short, miserable life on a factory farm. 

as for the McRib, i can't prove it's meat because it neither looks or taste like it. who knows, maybe it was actually a veggie burger all along. 

Guest's picture

Really touches bases on all the concerns surrounding mass-produced meat.

Guest's picture
60 in 3

Thank you for a great article. I turned vegetarian myself about a year ago and don't regret it at all. I didn't do it because of any moral issues, I have no problem with animals dying. I did it due to the health and environmental issues you mentioned. As a side effect, I managed to save quite a bit of money.

With your permission, will link back to this post from my own blog.

Andrea Karim's picture

short of a world wide disaster, the best we can ask for from people is demand the animals are treated humanely. 

Well, the best I can ask for is that everyone stop eating meat. But I'm demanding like that. :)

Yes, humane treatment is better, obviously, but the idea still breaks my (achy breaky weepy wussy) heart.

Guest's picture
Guest

Has anyone seen The Meatrix? (themeatrix.com)

Guest's picture
Guest

I haven't read all of the links yet, but do you think all of the growth hormones and steroids they are using, (not only on meat but our fruits and veggies as well - when I was a kid strawberries were the size of large gumball, now they are the size of a raquetball) has anything to do with girls developing breasts and getting their period at age 10?? Something has got to give.

Lynn Truong's picture

60 in 3, i'd be honored to get a link on your site.  congrats on your 60 in 3 and your message that being healthy is a lifestyle change that your weight will reflect slowly.  too many people equate weight with health and that's why fad diets are so popular, but ultimately detrimental.

dr. oz on oprah was talking about girls as young as 8 are starting to menstrate and develop.  many of the hormones used in beef and found in our environment (see andrea's plastic article) so closely mimic our own hormones that our bodies are tricked into absorbing and using them.  it seems intuitive that this is wrong, yet not much is being done to prevent or stop it. 

Guest's picture
Guest

Oh you forgot the mention the uric acid(which is urine) that fires off the meat taste when the piece of meat touches your taste bugs :D

Guest's picture
Guest

That uric acid is urine was not mentioned because it is not true. Perhaps you are confused. Uric acid is excreted in urine by primates. Maybe that's where your misunderstanding came from?

Andrea Karim's picture

I actually raised my own goat, and spent a good deal of time on my uncle's farm in Canada. So I know livestock. I'm not a farm girl, but I certainly wasn't raised in the city.

I've also been (unwillingly) stuck in a slaughterhouse once, while living abroad. Lambs. They were being killed in the hallal fashion, and I swear, I have never been so upset in my life.

Guest's picture
Guest

I have my own opinion with your introduction. The animals on Planet Earth do not have the option to decide what they want to eat. Meat eating animals are born with claws, sharp teeth, etc. Humans have the ability to decide what they want to eat. Certain species of animals must eat meat to survive. So please do not compare animal behavior to human behavior as your rationale for eating meat. Humans can survive without eating animals.

Lynn Truong's picture

Hm....my whole point of writing this series of articles is to show that we don't need to eat meat to survive. So your point is actually my point. I used Planet Earth to show that my issue isn't that it's inherently wrong for us to eat meat. We are omnivores, and survived in the old days off eating whatever we could find, plant or animal. But nowadays, because we do have a choice, because we do have lots of food available (to some of us anyway), we should choose not to eat meat... I'm pretty sure we're saying the same thing.

Guest's picture
Robinson

I have to disagree with Andrea on the differences between hunting and responsible farming. Have you ever been around deer on opening day of hunting season? Deer are also intelligent and adaptive and I assure you that they spend hunting season in a constant state of panic as they are forced to move from place to place seeking out food and water while hoping to avoid the hunter's bullet.

We raised our first meat animals last summer and yes, pigs are highly intelligent and are, quite honestly, a whole lot of fun to have around. I did feel like a traitor when "harvesting day" rolled around. But, they didn't have to spend a month terrified hoping that they could find enough to eat without getting shot. Like your farmers' lambs, our pigs only had one bad day.

I have nothing against hunting, done responsibly, I just don't think the hunting versus farming was a fair comparison.

Guest's picture
Robinson

Oh, and most people who raise their own meat aren't wasteful either because we respect the food source more. Before I raised my own, I didn't think twice about tossing out large portions of leftovers. Not anymore. We use everything, including the neck bones for soups. And, that one pig from last summer continues to feed a family of four.

Guest's picture
Guest

I've been a vegetarian ever since I was a baby, so I dispise any hunting or killing of any animals.
Now my uncles would disagree with me.
Oh, well.
Great articles by the way. Loved to read them to get a lot of helpful info.
Thanks again:)

Guest's picture
Guest

I paid $4.50//lb for ground beef today and am really fed up with the way food prices have shot through the roof lately. At first I was thinking the increase in fuel costs may have been the cause, but now that fuel prices have gone back down, food prices still continue to rise. What we ALL need to do is BOYCOTT meat purchases. Meats are notoriously perishable and I believe that if everyone just quit buying it, the stockyards would drop their prices when the meat started rotting on the shelves. Meat is a totally nonessential food group anyway and the only reason we eat it is because we have been programmed by the meatpacking industry to believe that it is actually good for us. News flash - it isn't. Your body will perform MUCH better on fresh fruits and vegetables than it will on meat anyway. The problem with Americans is that they tend to just sit back and allow themselves to be taken advantage of far too easily. The recent fuel price increase was a prime example. People were content to believe any lie that was told to them - like "The Chinese are using more oil now" or "There is only one refinery in the US that makes diesel fuel". If we ever intend to get out of this financial hole we are rapidly descending into, one of the key areas that must be addressed are the high food costs. "Bailing out" Detroit, or Wall Street is not the answer - if people can't buy enough to eat they definitely aren't going to even think about buying a new car - from ANY manufacturer.

Guest's picture
Guest

One of the largest expenses for all Americans today is medical costs. The main reason that the average American is so unhealthy is that they do not even understand what a truly healthy diet even consists of. They allow their eating preferences to be dictated by speed of preparation and the sales pitches of mass media selling their products. When God placed Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden - he didn't give them a gun and matches and tell them to kill all the animals. He DID however say that they could eat the fruits of all the trees except one. We should take that as a "hint" that our bodies are DESIGNED to process plant products and not meat products. If you want to really do yourself a favor, forget meat completely. Think about it - eating meat is actually very risky especially when you consider that every antibiotic, every disease, every hormone that an animal has been exposed to during it's lifetime is now being ingested and assimilated into your body's cells. Not to mention the high use of red food coloring to make the meat appear "fresh" only to get it home and then see it's actual brown color when you open the package and start to cook it. I came across a good URL about meat production that may also be of interest in helping you to break your habit of eating meat. http://www.tagnet.org/trenchtown/meat.htm - check it out - and just remember that the choices you make regarding your diet and health will always repay with compound interest in your later life.

Guest's picture
djs0570

Lynn, I did some research this morning after reading John Robbins "Diet for a New World". I think it bears some discussion during these difficult economic times.

Through July of this year, prices for commodities were skyrocketing. Just recently, prices have collapsed and issues such as food security tend to fade. However, prices were (and are) affected more by central bank liquidity bubbles than by actual supply and demand.

In 2007 grain consumption outstripped grain production for the fifth year in a row, and grain stocks are at record lows. Rainforests are being destroyed to grow grain crops to feed animals (60% of the US corn crop is fed to animals). Now biofuels place a huge new demand on the corn crop.

I really think it's time for people to consider this carefully before we get into a situation where food "choices" are no longer choices- see previous comment. The government will not take the lead on this, much less the corporations. We can only achieve economic and environmental efficiency through individual action.

Thanks very much for your post.

DJS

Guest's picture
Guest

What you need is not campaigns against meat and fight against meat industry etc. but on the other hand positive action towards vegetarian food. e.g. Why not fast food serving only vegetarian food? If you get milk from compassionate farms then milk is not a problem. The reason vegans are against even milk is since in USA and western countries wen dairy farms are non-compassionate.
In many parts of India (may be not true now but true even till 15 years back) cows are treated normal till its normal death. The profit margins are low but since consumption is low and milk is not wasted it is sustainable.
So back to the positive action methodology (something like in the secret book thesecret.tv) instead of fighting and having protests if many investors put their money to create many I am talking about thousands of fast foods that serve delicious and nutritious food which is vegetarian then next to McDonald someone will have a choice. Next to burger king there can be a vegetarian fast food. If you closely study the cuisine especially from India there are several may be in hundreds of food dishes which have similar protein / nutrition value like meat dishes.
So the main factor is how to bring out in a systematic way a cultural change in food habits that is more sustainable. e.g. One southern fast food dish is adai dosai which is a flat pan cake like dish made from a lot of pulses and protein rich split peas family of grains (I am from southern part of India). Unfortunately these cuisine are only consumed in fancy restaurants and are not popularized like how something like a burrito is popularized. Food taste is not by birth but by habit and taste formation. If a child born here is transported off to India and lives there for 15 years the child will hate burgers. So if people have choices from childhood days within USA next to fast foods like McDonalds then their taste in 15 to 20 year time will change. Slowly the population will change in the habit which is more sustainable. e.g. like in Ghent Belgium where the city positively advocates 1 veggie day per week.

Guest's picture
Guest

This is a very good article, but I have a question. How do you suppose to solve all these problems without abolishing animal products all together? I’m an Ethical/Spiritual Vegan and I promote abolishment to all animal products. I’ve done a lot of research about this issue and I have many friends who are Vegan activists for many years and the facts are supporting Vegan diet without compromise!!!

Lena