NOT ON MY PLATE: Do You Know Where Your Beef Comes From?


Harris Ranch Beef feed lot in Coalinga, California

In life there are occasional profound moments of realization. Perhaps the gut-reaction that accompanies those moments is the impetus that sparks change. For me, the practice of humane husbandry in agriculture is a hot button issue. I believe that consumer education and awareness are the keys to affect lasting change; change that is better for us and better for the animals raised for our consumption.

I recently had occasion to travel south on I-5, that interminable stretch of California interstate that transects the central San Joaquin Valley between the Bay Area and Los Angeles. I was driving along as mile after mile melted into the endless oblivion–when I became aware of a terrible smell wafting through the car.

I was approaching Coalinga–an otherwise forgettable place but for Harris Ranch Beef, a commercial feedlot operation on the east banks of the freeway. Here, on approximately one square mile of land, thousands of beef cattle await slaughter; standing in cramped pens atop their own hardened excrement, packed like sardines as far as the eye can see.

Passersby on I-5 may hit the accelerator and avert their eyes in an attempt to avoid looking at the horrific sight, but they cannot outrun the putrid stench of disgrace that assaults their senses and lingers on long after the cattle fade from view. This cannot be ignored.

It’s a sickening scene. I can still feel the bile rising in my throat as I hasten to pass. Anyone who has traveled past Harris Ranch can relate to what I’ve described. It was this feedlot and its unforgettable odor that inspired author Michael Pollan to write The Omnivore’s Dilemma, his renowned treatise on modern-day factory farming.

Large scale commercial farming, which became popular following WWII, has given rise to feed-lot operations like Harris Ranch. Make no mistake about it; this is big business. A family owned operation for over forty years, Harris Ranch produces an estimated 150,000,000 pounds of beef per year as of 2010. This 800 acre feed-lot operation has a population of over 100,000 cattle at any given time.

Sadly, the meat that is processed at Harris Ranch is what most people will purchase at their local grocery store for their family’s consumption. This ranch, the largest feedlot on the west coast, is where the vast mast majority of super market beef comes from nationwide.

Critics have labeled the Harris Ranch operation “cowschwitz“, a nickname referring to the hundreds of cattle slaughtered daily at the facility, and the deplorable living conditions the animals endure prior to their demise.

Typically, cattle arrive at Harris Ranch after spending eight to ten months at pasture on off-site partner ranches to be “finished” at the feedlot for an additional four months on a diet of grain: primarily cheap, commercially produced crops of GMO corn. On their website, Harris Ranch states that it “purchases Midwestern corn by the trainload.” This practice of feeding cattle grain allows profit-driven commercial ranchers to fatten their animals faster resulting in quicker turn around time from birth to slaughter.

But because cows are ruminants, with stomachs designed to digest grass not grain, feeding them corn wreaks havoc on their digestive tract. As a result, the animals can develop severe health problems. To counteract these effects, it has become common practice for commercial farms to include a daily ration of antibiotics in their feed. GMO corn, along with these antibiotics, serves as the basis for Harris Ranch’s “scientifically formulated” rations.

In fact, little is known about the long-term effects of eating animals that have consumed genetically engineered food. Generally, the meat of grain-fed cattle is lower in omega-3 fatty acids (the “good” fat), with higher levels of fat than animals raised entirely on a grass diet. Pesticides from commercial grain crops are also known to accumulate in the fatty tissues of these animals, and it is unclear if the resulting residues are passed on to the consumers who eat them.

Harris Ranch spends a great deal of time and money putting a palatable public face on their operation. Their website boasts photos of juicy steaks, and rooms at their luxury hotel–not photos of their feedlot. Website rhetoric also spins a good deal of PR addressing the food safety standards of their operation, highlighting facility sanitation and residue testing of their beef (for antibiotics and pesticides) as though this is the standard we should set for the meat we consume.

Critics of commercial feed-lot farms point to the increase of cancers, obesity, and other ailments which have steadily increased since it became standard practice to feed cattle cheap grain laced with antibiotics.

Advocates of commercial farming answer that sustainable farm practices like pasture feeding animals may improve our health, but ultimately increases the time between birth and harvest resulting in higher food costs to consumers.

All this doesn’t begin to address the lack of sustainability in commercial farm practices. Ironically, the Harris Ranch website states the following regarding this issue: “The land is not just where we raise our cattle, it’s also where we raise our families. Sustainability means ensuring the land will provide for the next generation by not only focusing on the well-being of our livestock, but also by maintaining the ranching environment”.

Are they kidding? What “environment” are they referring to? Can they actually believe that the cattle crowded into stinking pens standing on compacted refuse, spending their last months without a shred of grass in sight, are part of a livable environment worth touting? Do their families actually live anywhere within olfactory distance of this place?

For me, these issues of humane and sustainable agriculture are critical. As a meat-eater, I have come to terms with the fact that another living, breathing creature has given its life to supply the food on my plate. That’s a hard fact to swallow–one that consumers are spared when they plunk a neatly wrapped cellophane package of meat into their grocery cart without a second thought for the life of the animal that produced it.

I strongly urge you to think before you buy commercially farmed meat. We have an ethical responsibility to demand that the animals raised for our consumption are treated with respect, dignity, and compassion. In doing so, we honor the sacrifice they will make to nourish us. Can we really afford to look the other way?

In the North Bay where I live, Harris Ranch Beef is sold at Costco, Grocery Outlet, Lucky, Safeway, and Mill Valley Market. It is also the meat you consume when you patronize In-N-Out Burger. When you buy this meat you support the businesses that mass produce feed-lot raised beef.

Instead, use your spending dollars to send a clear message: not on my plate. Pledge to eat meat  unadulterated by hormones, pesticides, or antibiotic residues. Strive to support ranches that raise beef humanely on pasture grass.

As a consumer, choose to spend a little more at the check out register to support local Bay Area ranchers like Stemple Creek and Magruder Ranch who embody true sustainable farm practices in raising the beef cattle that will come to your table.

Categories: Farms & Ranches, Food PoliticsTags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

10 comments

  1. I’m a little late to this game. Watch COWSPIRACY and read the book The Sustainability Secret and you’ll realize that animal products, in particular grass-fed beef is in no way sustainable. This is coming from someone who has spent thousands on grass-fed and free range, raw milk from my farm, etc. Now I’ve come to terms with what I was doing and vote with my dollars by leaving animals off my plate. There is no such thing as humane slaughter and there is no good way to kill a being who doesn’t want to die. It was all part of my path going through that phase I suppose.

    • Thank you for taking the time to read and share your perspective. While I support your decision to go meatless, I still feel there is a very relevant conversation to be had among those who choose to eat meat for supporting ranchers who believe in humane treatment, transparency, and ethical practices. Not everyone will take the path you have chosen, but everyone who eats meat should know who raised it, and how it was raised.

  2. Hi. Thank you for posting your article. Everything you wrote about the cow lots in Coalinga, CA is absolutely correct. I have passed by the cow lots on the 5 freeway many times on my way to Sacramento. Thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of cows are packed together in very small pens filled with mud & crap. They have to lay in it and look out between the bars upon open fields. When you drive by, you can see the sadness in their body language. Any pet owner knows when their pet is sick and depressed. Well multiply that by 500,000+. They are all waiting, waiting, waiting for the trucks to come take them to slaughter. It’s heartbreaking to see. People speed by, close the vents and look away trying to pretend they don’t see anything. What we should do is look at it carefully. Then in a collective effort, with the county & the state, strive to make changes on how the animals are to be treated with more dignity. I don’t expect everyone to stop eating meat & yogurt but we do need to treat animals, all animals, with more dignity and respect. They too are living beings and creatures of God. We are human beings, gifted with the ability to empathize, to show compassion and with intelligence to make changes in how we do things. Let’s make some changes! WE ARE BETTER THAN THIS!

    • Thank you for your comment. I feel you your passion and outrage and I agree; we are better than this! I encourage anyone who eats meat to “know your farmer, know your food.” If possible, purchase direct from farms that raise grass-fed & finished livestock and pastured hens. Shop at your local farmers market and speak with the producers directly to find out how their meat animals are raised. As a responsible consumer, I only choose to eat meat from animals raised in a humane & sustainable way. I encourage everyone to send a message with their spending dollars by doing the same.

  3. Excellent article! And terrific writing. I have driven by this place several times and been similarly assaulted by the sight and smells.

  4. Karen, great article. As one who has driven down Hwy 5 more times than I care to remember, I know the stench well and make sure I’m on re-cycled air the entire trip. And lets not forget that along with the anti-biotics and cheap grain that is tearing up their insides, these cattle are also breathing good, pesticide ridden, Central Valley air at the same time infused with the methane gas the poor things produce because of the horrible diet. The only thing that bums me out about your article is that despite giving up commercial beef years ago and only eating beef products from Tara Firma for quite some time, I still get a good buzz from the occasional In and Out Burger… I guess that’s off the table now too!!! Damn. MP.

    • Sorry to put the kabosh on your burger Mike, but depending on where you live there are some great options for getting a grass-fed beef burger. Try Pearl’s in Mill Valley, Weezy’s Grass Fed Shed in Terra Linda, Pasta Bella Saute & Grill in Sebastapol, and Brody’s Burgers & Brews in Santa Rosa which all feature grass-fed, sustainably raised beef in their burgers. Thanks for reading and be sure to pass it on!

  5. Wonderful article Karen! Where might somebody buy these sustainable meats? Which nearby stores sell these?

    Thank you for so compelling a view. You are right … we speed up and shut off the vent whenever we pass Harris Ranch! Luis

    • The best place to purchase meat from animals raised on sustainable, local farms is at our Marin County Farmers’ Market at the San Rafael Civic Center, every Sunday & Thursday from 8:00AM-1:00PM year-round. There you can buy fresh and direct from the source with no middle man. You can also contact those ranches I mentioned personally on their websites to see which local markets may carry their meats. Generally these ranches are small and sell direct to the consumer. Tara Firma Farm in Petaluma has a CSA subscription program where you pay a flat fee to receive a box of their grass-fed meat weekly/monthly etc. You can also purchase their meat from their farm store on site–plus it’s a fun field-trip for the kids. As far as local markets, Whole Foods Market carries grass-fed beef, and tends to support farmers who raise animals ethically and sustainably. When I inquired at Paradise Market, the butcher told me they did not carry grass-fed beef, but could order it–good to know since many customers probably assume they’re getting quality just by shopping there. It always pays to ASK! Also–don’t be fooled by a label that reads “organic” beef. This only means that the rancher fed the animals a certified organic feed, and does not necessarily speak to the quality of life or living conditions of the animals themselves. Whew! Guess that about covers it for now. Thanks so much for reading!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: