Ground beef, the beef in fast food hamburgers, originates from the tougher cuts of the cow, including the chuck, flank and round sections. Once upon a time, the neighborhood butcher was the primary source of ground beef. The ground beef was made from the leftover cuts of the one or two sides of beef that had been butchered that day. Back then, even when it was a wholesaler who was processing meat into ground beef, the scale of operations was small and such that the beef was distributed locally and was often made from locally slaughtered cattle.
The ground beef used today for most fast food hamburgers originates from large slaughterhouses and grinder operations. Modern plants can process 800,000 pounds of hamburger meat a day, from many thousands of different cattle. A study done by R.P. Clayton and K.E. Belk in 1998 concluded that a single 4-ounce ground beef patty was made from, on average, at least 55 different animals to, at most, an average of 1082 animals. Is that what you picture when you hear Wendy’s advertise their “old-fashioned hamburger” or what you think you’re getting in that “100% All-Beef Patty” from McDonalds? Most hamburgers and ground beef in fast food restaurants represent “many bits of many cows”.
Similarly, when your mind’s eye conjures up that image of the cattle from which that hamburger came, are you imagining lush, lazy pastures of prairie grasses and grain? For the cows who gave their ultimate to be your fast food lunch, that picture is imaginary.
First, they are likely not grazing in pastures. About ¼ of U.S. ground beef is made from worn-out dairy cattle, stressed from the rigors of industrial milk production and who now have declining outputs of milk. Large beef processors such as ConAgra operate enormous feed lots, each holding up to 100,000 head of cattle. Eric Schlosser in Fast Food Nation states that for the three months before they are slaughtered, the cattle there are eating feed dumped into long concrete troughs.
Second, most are fed corn-based feeds, not the “blue grama and buffalo grass off of the prairie”. A 2008 study by A. H. Jahren and R. A. Kraft found corn to be “the almost exclusive food source of the beef and chicken served in fast food restaurants”. The authors argue that a diet consisting of fast food and products with high fructose corn syrup — including soda, another standard offering of fast food restaurants - has been blamed by nutritionists for contributing to rising rates of obesity and diabetes in the United States as well as other health problems, including heart disease.
Along with the feed, the fattening of cattle is aided by anabolic steroids implanted in their ears. Dosing these animals with antibiotics is also widespread. Given the industrialization of cattle-raising, it should be no surprise that antibiotics are used. Nor should it be surprising that traces of those steroids and antibiotics can make their way into the fast food burger that you eat. With modern slaughterhouse, grinding, packing and distribution operations, there are many chances for contamination of the beef that is ultimately served in fast food restaurants. From the use of worn out dairy cattle who are more likely to be diseased, to the crowding of thousands upon thousands of head of cattle in feedlots, to the prospect of one diseased cow affecting the meat of thousands of other cows with which its meat is ground and combined, the opportunities for contamination in the making of fast food hamburgers are rife. Unfortunately, every so often we learn of tragedies from contaminated fast food such as the Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak in the winter of 1992-93 that Schlosser discusses. More often, though, the frequent outbreaks of lesser degree sickness from contaminated fast food fall below our radar.
The chart below provides nutritional information for "regular" hamburgers and cheeseburgers as well as some speciality burgers from the menus of Burger King, McDonald's and Wendy's.
|Item||Restaurant||Size (g)||Calories||Tot Fat (g)||Sat Fat (g)||Trans Fat (g)||Chol (mg)||Sodium (mg)||Carbs (g)||Protein (g)|
|Double Whopper w/Cheese||Burger King||398||1010||65||24||2.5||160||1530||53||53|