Organic, Free-Range, Natural
With all of the organic, free-range and natural options at the grocery store, it’s easy to get confused as to what we are actually purchasing and why. Scientists believe that up to two-thirds of American cattle used for slaughter are treated with hormones to make them grow at a faster rate than normal. Meanwhile, America’s dairy cows are given a genetically-engineered hormone called recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), which increases milk production as well profits for the beef and dairy industries. It is important to step back and consider what this means for consumers.
Although the United States Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration claim generically-engineered hormones are safe, there is an increasing concern that hormone-treated meat and milk might be harmful to human health, as well as the environment.
Consider this: The average dairy cow produced almost 5,300 pounds of milk a year in 1950. Today, a typical cow produces more than 18,000 pounds.
In addition to growth hormones, many types of food given to livestock contain antibiotics. The main concern that many experts have with using antibiotics in cattle, pigs or chickens is the threat of creating antibiotic-resistant bacteria. According to the Organic Consumers Association, bacteria that have become antibiotic-resistant can infect humans and create fatal illnesses.
Research is still being done to determine the actual effects of hormones consumed through meat and dairy. Butter, meat, eggs, milk and cheese are implicated in higher rates of hormone-dependent cancers, whereas breast cancer has been linked particularly to consumption of milk and cheese.
Hormone residue in cow manure enters the soil and groundwater in that area. Apart from impacting the gender and reproductive capacity of fish and the aquatic ecosystems, there are concerns about traces of growth hormones finding ways into the food we eat, though there are no conclusive studies.
What You Can Do
Milk is a food of great complexity and contains high levels of beneficial nutrients, including calcium and vitamin D. If you want to avoid the health effects of hormone-treated food, look to small family farmers who don’t use artificial hormones on their animals. By purchasing your food from local, sustainable farms, you are supporting a system that ensures the health and welfare of the farm animals, as well as protects you and your family from potential hormone-related health risks. Lastly, since hormones reside in milk fat, drinking skim milk is one option. Getting calcium from green leafy vegetables is another.
Understanding Beef and Milk Labels
Conventional: The cattle have possibly been fed corn and other grains on an industrial feedlot, even if it started out on grass. Grain is used in the place of grass as it is quicker and cheaper, and translates into a faster turnaround and higher profits. However, grains are tough on the digestive system of cows and make them vulnerable to sickness. The cows then require antibiotics. They are also routinely given growth hormones.
USDA Certified Organic: The cattle is raised on grass or grain-based feed that does not contain animal by-products. These animals are not given antibiotics (unless required by a veterinarian, and then the animal loses organic status) or growth hormones. To address animal welfare concerns, cattle are raised in conditions “which allow for exercise, freedom of movement, and the reduction of stress appropriate to the species” and “access to pasture.”
Grass fed or pasture finished: These cattle are raised only on grass or hay, no grain. Studies indicate that grass-fed beef contains higher levels of Omega-3 essential fatty acids than conventional beef.
No hormones/no antibiotics: The USDA allows this label for growers who provide documentation. Keep in mind that “hormone-free” and “antibiotic-free” are not USDA-approved designations.
Natural: This does not really mean anything in regard to how the cattle was raised. The USDA’s policy is that all fresh meat is natural, and it can’t contain any artificial flavors, colorings, or preservatives.