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10 Reasons to Stop Eating Beef (and other Fast Food)

by Jonathan Campbell

Beef-eating is portrayed in the U.S. almost as a patriotic endeavor. Our favorite sports heroes - from Michael Jordan to Drew Bledsoe - are featured in McDonalds ads and toys. We are literally bombarded with ads for McDonalds, Burger King, and Wendy's. But there is something very odd about all this. There are hints (or front page headlines) telling us that there is something wrong with all this beef consumption.

In fact, a quick study of the issues surrounding beef consumption finds some very disturbing facts:

1. Beef contains significant quantities of the most toxic organic chemical known - dioxin. This chemical is toxic in the trillionths of grams. (A trillionth of a gram, called a picogram, is one million millionth of a gram. A gram is about 1/30th of an ounce.) Dioxin has been linked to cancer, endometriosis, Attention Deficit Disorder (hyperactivity in children), reproductive systems defects in children, chronic fatigue syndrome, immune system deficiency, and rare nerve and blood disorders. A single hamburger (a little less than 1/4 lb, or 100 grams) contains up to 100 picograms of dioxin. That is 300 times as much as the EPA says is "acceptable" for a daily dose for an adult! There are some scientists who say that there is no acceptable dose; they say that any dose can cause toxic effects, because dioxin is a hormone disrupting chemical which changes the functioning of our cells, against which we have no defense. The dioxin comes from microscopic particles of ash from incinerators that have settled on grass and crops eaten by the beef cattle, pigs, and chickens. All farm animals are affected - even herds grown on "all-natural" feed. See dioxin.

2. The huge amount of beef that we consume, in combination with the usual side-orders of other fatty foods (such as french fries) and caffeine and refined sugars (cola beverages) appears to be one of the major causes of obesity in the U.S. and Europe. Beef is "dumped" into our schools by the beef industry and the USDA - beef producers are paid by the government for "surplus" beef (the vast amount they cannot sell) which is subsequently "donated" to school lunch programs, helping our children to get hooked on this unhealthy food.

3. Beef production is the major cause of the destruction of the world's rainforests. The high price of beef encourages ranchers to burn the forest to create new rangelands. The fragile, thin rainforest soil cover is quickly destroyed by grazing in 1-2 years, and the ranchers move on to burn another area, in a never-ending cycle of destruction. Thousands of species of plants and animals have already been destroyed forever, as well as straining the earth's ability to convert carbon dioxide into oxygen. At current rates, the rainforests will be totally destroyed in 30-50 years.

4. Beef production is the major cause of "desertification" around the world - the rapid degradation of marginal, low-rainfall soil areas into desert. The constant pounding of the hoofs of cattle disturbs and eventually destroys the delicate root systems which keep the topsoil layer intact. Erosion by winds or storms removes the topsoil, leaving the sand or clay subsoil layer behind.

5. Beef production is a serious social justice issue. Beef cattle and their grazing land take up nearly a quarter of the land mass of the earth, to supply beef to the U.S., Europe, and Japan. About one third of the world's grain harvest is used for feed for cattle instead of food for people. In the U.S., that figure is over 70 percent. It takes 16 pounds of grain to produce a single pound of beef. This, in a world where nearly a billion people lack enough food, is unjust. Beef production for the developed parts of the world is severely limiting the amount of food available for people in the poor and developing world.

6. Beef can harbor a deadly new germ, called e. coli O157:H7. This new germ is now a major cause of serious food poisoning. Beef and dairy cattle can carry the germ with no apparent adverse health effects. The germ, found in cattle feces, has contaminated beef and produce grown with cow manure. So far it has killed dozens of people and sickened thousands. In August, 1997, 25 million pounds of beef were recalled, the largest food recall in the world's history, because of O157:H7 contamination of beef destined to Burger King restaurants. The precautions against the germ - including cooking to 160º F (71º C) - reveals a disgusting side of beef production - there is no way to prevent fecal contamination during slaughter. See O157:H7.

7. The consumption of beef and fast food "restaurants" that promote it have created a new, super-exploitative work environment. High school students and people in poverty have learned an old social order - the sweatshop. The frenetic pace of a McDonalds or Burger King at lunch or dinner time is easily a match for the non-unionized factories and garment shops of the '20s in the U.S. (or most developing countries today). But this is the modern U.S. sweatshop, where we are all members of a "team" working for the common good - minimum wages and windfall profits.

8. Beef consumption has created a self-perpetuating and rapidly-expanding distortion of local economies all over the world. As more McDonalds "restaurants" are established and beef consumption rises, more arable land is consumed for grazing and cattle feed. In developing countries, the local economy changes from one based on local food markets and trade to one based on beef exports, enriching a few wealthy landowners and merchants and impoverishing the rest.

9. The "fast-food" industry giants that promote beef - McDonalds, Burger King, and Wendy's - have created and encouraged an artificial, plastic, uniform, standard "restaurant" environment that, because of their powerful advertising media, discourages diversity and local and ethnic culture in restaurants and in food choices. Beef - served as hamburgers - has been the driving force for this shift in how we view food and eating in the U. S.

10. The beef "fast-food" industry, notably McDonalds and Burger King, especially targets children in its marketing. As a result, millions of children (and in many cases, their parents) associate eating at those "restaurants" as a fun, positive, healthful eating experience. Obesity and other afflictions associated with excess animal fat intake and sedentary lifestyle are now affecting young adults and children in increasing numbers.

Sources: 1994 EPA Dioxin Reassessment, Dying From Dioxin by Lois Gibbs, Beyond Beef by Jeremy Rifkin, fact sheets from the McLibel case (Great Britain), Diet For A Small Planet by Francis Moore Lappe, Mother Jones magazine.

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