All farm animals were “free ranged” for most of the duration of human existence. Free ranged meant that they were relatively free to consume the natural food in their surroundings such as grass (dairy cows and beef cattle) and bugs, and seeds for chickens and similar animals. This changed dramatically in the past century. Farming became “industrialized” and animals were raised in whatever way could boost yield and profit most.
The result of this change has been a dramatic alteration of the nutritional content of food derived from animal sources such as dairy, meat, and eggs. A reality of life is that we are what we eat. Over the past several decades, we have been eating “bad” food which has created bad health. It is estimated that between 60% and 75% of all health problems now are caused by nutrition. While many appreciate that we are what we eat, it is not well recognized that we are also what “the animals whose product we eat have been eating”.
For example, meat, eggs and dairy used to contain more omega-3 than omega-6 fatty acids. The omega-3s are known to be important in protecting the heart and vascular system, improving immune function, helping inflammatory disorders such as arthritis and much more. These food products now have a markedly reduced omega-3 content because the animals eat a diet which does not allow them to make these nutrients. Omega-3s begin in green food (grass) as a precursor, and the animal converts these to active omega-3s and deposits them in their fat.
The chart below shows the difference in the balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in the diet of cows and cattle from several decades ago (grass fed) and now (grain fed).
A unique omega-6 fatty acid in dairy, congugated linoleic acid (CLA), is the only anti-inflammatory omega-6. It complements the action of omega-3s strengthening their anti-inflammatory activity. While dairy from grass fed cows has significant CLA, it is reduced by 75% with grain feeding.
The first party suffering from these feeding changes is the animal. They live in crowded conditions with weakened immune systems. This results in the second problem, they must be fed high amounts of antibiotics to survive. The second party to suffer is the consumer of the resulting animal product. We now eat meat, eggs and dairy which have a marked reduced omega-3 fatty acid content, and we suffer the same ill health effects. We also consume the antibiotics as “secondary passthrough” which weakens our immune systems further.
Human pass-through antibiotics exposure is now thought to be greater than the total average from human therapeutic antibiotic use. Antibiotic use in food animals is now about 15 to 20 million pounds each year. This excessive use is responsible for the emergence of several highly antibiotic resistant infections.
A study at the University of Iowa found that 70% of the commercial “factory” hogs tested had antibodies showing MRSA exposure as did 65% of the factory farm workers. The recent outbreaks of salmonella and E. coli in commercial foods is related to more tough, antibiotic resistant strains of these organisms. Study at the University of Kentucky found that within 1 year there is a 70% drop in the animals who do not have antibiotic resistant E. coli in their stools when the antibiotics are removed from the feed. Countries such as Denmark have prohibited antibiotic use in animals used for human consumption and have had dramatic drops in human antibiotic resistant infections.
The second food change that negatively impacts humans is that grain feeding has greatly increased saturated fat percentage in animal products. When animals are fed more grain than grass, they get fatter more quickly yielding greater economic return. Unfortunately, almost all of the 25% greater weight of a 4-5 year grain fed steer is fat. Worsening the problem, this feeding increases the saturated fat by 6-7 fold at the expense of the healthier monounsaturated fats.
The term used to imply natural animal feeding by grazing is “free ranged”. Some care must however, be used in selecting foods with this designation. Unfortunately, the food industry has had far more influence over policy definitions used by the USDA and FDA than has the greater public concern. Below is a photo of a commercial chicken house where “free range” animals are raised.
If something does not look right by your concept of that term, it is only because you cannot see the other side of the wall. The photo below shows the other side.
If the chickens have an access door to this enclosed concrete pad, they are legally “free ranged.” The access does not have to occur the first several weeks, and the animals become condition and will not venture out as they age even with the opportunity.
The real value of natural free ranging is, of course, that it allows the animal a natural diet which favorably affects animal product quality. This cannot be replaced by confined feeding of only grains and the opportunity to walk on a concrete slab if so desired!
The best solution is to buy local free ranged where the producer is known. Next best is to use a national or regional producer known to truly free range. Also understanding better how to read a label can help. There are a few additional issues.
• Organic simply means that the animal’s feed was raised without pesticides. It does not necessarily mean true free ranged or hormone free.
• Many commercial animals are treated with hormones to artificially raise production. Much of this also passes through eating their products. There is considerable concern about both premature hormone exposure and excessive hormone exposure in humans.
If a producer goes to the trouble to raise animals organically, hormone free and free ranged, they will distinctly display it on the packaging. Do not assume that organic means all of the above.
We are truly what we eat, but we are also what the animals whose products we are eating have been eating!