Another Perspective on Natural Beef

Sidebar by Ed Quillen

Livestock – September 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

IF YOU EAT BEEF and you’re concerned about your health, then residual antibiotics and growth hormones should be the least of your worries.

Instead, you should purchase your beef from a properly inspected facility or from a store that gets all its meat from one. And once you’re home, you should focus on refrigeration, sanitary habits, and proper cooking, because that’s where the biggest dangers to your health can creep in.

That’s the view of Jim and Terry Scanga, two brothers who run Scanga Meat on the outskirts of Salida. It started in 1950 as a two-room butcher shop run by Dean and Ellen Watters. Jim and Terry’s parents, Jane and Ralph Scanga, Sr., bought it in 1952, and it’s grown with the family ever since.

They’re involved in just about every phase of meat production after livestock leave the ranch — they have a feedlot for fattening, and they slaughter and process cattle, sheep, bison, and swine. They sell some at their own retail store, but most of their output goes to restaurants and institutions.

Jim and Terry don’t have much use for the concept of “natural” or “organic” beef — a poster on the wall of their retail shop shows a mangy flea-bitten steer and a poem called “ALL NATURAL BEEF” by Baxter Black, which observes that “Not one pesticide is poured on his hide, He’d be lonesome without all his bugs” which “give him something to do,” and concludes that “My steer is alive, weighs three twenty five, But he only turned seven last fall.”

For starters, Jim says, “all domestic cattle represent at least 5,000 years of deliberate and selective breeding by humans — cattle aren’t even close to `natural’ animals in the first place.”

And while there were legitimate concerns in the past with growth hormones and antibiotics in beef, “that’s not the case now.”

After World War II, cattle in feedlots routinely received small doses of antibiotics with their grain, to reduce the risk of infectious disease spreading in the crowded quarters.

There were fears that the residues in the beef, ingested by humans, would speed the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and in 1985, the National Cattlemen’s Association recommended that the practice be stopped.

Current surveys show that most cattle feeders have stopped the practice, and federal law now requires that cattle receive no antibiotics or hormones for 45 days before slaughter.

“The growth hormones are applied in such small quantities that even if they did remain in the beef, it wouldn’t make any difference,” Terry says, pointing to a study from Colorado State University.

That study, conducted by Dr. Gary C. Smith, says “Three ounces of meat from an [hormone-] implanted animal contains 1.9 nanograms of estrogen while that from a non-implanted animal contains 1.2 nanograms.”

A nanogram is a billionth of a gram, and a normal human male produces 136,000 nanograms of estrogen each day, and a female, 480,000. “Scientists agree that there could not be any physiological effect caused by the difference between 136,001.9 and 136,001.2 nanograms of estrogen.”

Much the same seems to hold in another study, conducted by the Department of Food Science at the University of Guelph in Canada.

Samples of both organic and regular commercial beef were tested for residues of antibiotics, hormones, pesticides, PCBs, sulfimides, tetracyclines (antibiotics), and trace metals. “The safety of beef produced without the use of animal health products is not really different from that of regular beef,” and “There is no evidence that food produced by any particular production system is healthier.”

So, in the Scangas’ view, organic or natural beef is something you pay a premium for — Coleman’s prices are 30% to 80% higher than Monfort’s — without getting any corresponding benefit, “unless you like the taste of grass-fed beef.”

There’s nothing wrong with that, Jim said, “but a lot of the promotion of natural beef implies that there’s something wrong with other beef when there isn’t. As far as I’m concerned, it’s fine to say `Our beef tastes great,’ but it’s wrong to make people think `Other beef is toxic.'”

The beef industry isn’t all that healthy these days. Cattle prices stay level while other prices — feed, land, water, transportation — go up.

And annual per-capital beef consumption has been declining in America, from 104 pounds in 1980 to 97 in 1995.

The mainstream industry has responded with generic campaigns like “Beef: It’s what’s for dinner.”

BUT SOME PRODUCERS avoid the generic mainstream and carve out niche markets, like the Oregon ranchers who market Blue Valley Angus. On a bigger scale, there’s Mel Coleman of Saguache, and on a much smaller scale, Ron Jones and his Salida longhorns — which Scanga processes.

“We are kind of caught in the middle on this,” Jim says. “As restaurant and institutional suppliers, we’re there with mainstream beef — if you need 400 pounds of T-bones, we’ll get them for you. As a local processing plant serving local meat producers, we’re also part of the specialty market.”

One of their best slaughter customers, for instance, is Haugen’s Mountain Grown Lamb, a “Natural Product of the San Luis Valley” which “contains no artificial ingredients” and is “only minimally processed.”

“If that’s what you want to worry about, that’s your right,” Terry says, “but I think that’s a diversion from the real safety issues with beef, which aren’t residual chemicals or antibiotics.” What beef eaters should worry about, he explains, is coliform bacteria, which has caused outbreaks of severe gastro-intestinal illness.

“A sanitary processing plant — and ours is clean and inspected continuously by the U.S. Department of Agriculture — is a good start, but even then you can’t eliminate all possibility. The stuff is everywhere.

“It thrives on the surface of meat. Heat kills it, so steaks and roasts, as long as the surface gets above 158°, are safe to eat.”

But hamburger is a different story — as a result of the grinding, almost the whole mass is potentially a coliform-friendly “surface,” and thorough cooking is required to kill the bacteria. “Rare steaks are fine,” Terry explains, “but make sure your burgers are cooked in the middle.”

That, and ordinary care like proper refrigeration and clean hands and utensils, “are what people should be doing to make sure that they’re eating beef in a healthy way. That’s a lot more important than where the cow was raised or what it was fed.”