Where's the beef?

Nov 25, 1998 at 12:00 am

Last year, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association announced a $72 million campaign to convince Americans that beef is what we want. In some ways, it was like gilding the Guernsey. Despite public concerns about mad cow disease, bovine growth hormones, cancer and clogged arteries, the cattle industry remains the largest segment of American agriculture.

This year, the projected retail value of all the beef consumed in America will be $51 billion -- almost as much as the gross national product of Ireland. Beef is still what's for dinner.

So it pains us to make the most un-American of inquiries: What if we woke up tomorrow a nation of vegetarians? Would Gateway computers need a new logo? Would scantily clothed hunks be called "beetcake"? Would the guards of English royalty become "Beaneaters"?

There are more members of the Moral Majority than there are vegetarians (who've comprised only 5 percent of the population since 1982). Still, we thought it would be good to test your Veggie Variable. Hey, nobody believed salsa would outstrip ketchup as the number one condiment, either.

1. If Americans became vegetarians, we'd all become the svelte, agile humans we were meant to be. True or False?

Well, it's true that the United States is the fattest nation on earth (the Center for Disease Control says that more than one-third of Michigan residents were overweight in 1996). And vegetarians do tend to be skinnier than meat-lusters. But it doesn't hold true that we'd all be skinny if we were vegetarians.

"Americans are overweight because they consume a lot of fat, protein and sugar," says Dr. David Klurfeld, chair of the department of nutrition and food science at Wayne State University. "But you can be a vegetarian and have a high-protein, high-sugar diet, too."

Your average soy burger is full of protein, as are cheeses, says Klurfeld. And who's to say Americans won't sink to the fattest common denominator even as vegetarians?

Just look at our track record. According to business reports, Nabisco hit a gold mine when it began the fat-free Snackwells line of cookies and crackers in 1995, which grossed $476 million that year. But by 1997, Snackwells sales had plummeted to $274 million. Once you leave fat, you'll always go back.

Here's betting the United States of Vegetarians would still suck down cheese enchiladas and fried mozzarella sticks while watching Ally McBeal waste away.

2. If Americans became vegetarians, there would be fewer threats to the environment. True or False?

We let you have this one: It's true.

According to the National Center for Atmospheric Research, cows could be responsible for between 7 percent and 21 percent of the methane in the atmosphere. After carbon dioxide, methane is the second most dangerous greenhouse gas. Methane is released by the belches and manure of cattle, dairy cows, buffalos, goats, sheep, camels, pigs and horses. They've got us coming and going.

3. If Americans ate less beef, the corporate pigs would simply export our habit of eating cows. True or False?


Last year, McDonald's spent $16 million defending its good name against two fat-deprived vegetarians in London. That's about equal to the amount Hong Kong will spend importing American beef by the end of this year. Wake up and smell the jerky. You don't spend that kind of money just to roll over and say "Moo" when Americans decide to eat heart smart. Either we eat their beef, or they'll ship it overseas.

Don't believe us? Last year, Japan -- a country full of notoriously healthy eaters, imported 222,250 metric tons of beef from the United States costing a whopping $817.7 million. Mexico and Canada spent $207 and $164 million respectively on American beef last year. And earlier this month the U.S. government agreed to include at least 120,000 metric tons of beef in the food aid package for Russia.

Bottom line: Beef is like crack and roaches. You move it out of one neighborhood, it pops up in the next.

4. If Americans stop eating beef, cardiologists and oncologists would go out of business. True or False?

"Not necessarily," says Wayne State's Klurfeld. While it's true vegetarians have lower cholesterol, less heart disease and live longer, Klurfeld says there's no clear evidence that their good health is directly related to their diet.

"Vegetarians generally have healthier lifestyles. They tend not to be smokers or drink in excess and they exercise more," explains Klurfeld. "But meat eaters who don't smoke or drink are also healthier."

For proof, Klurfeld points to studies on Seventh Day Adventists and Mormons, which are groups that work strenuously and abstain from smoking and drinking. But the Adventists are mostly vegetarians, while Mormons eat lots of meat. If meat alone caused cancer and heart disease, the Mormons should suffer higher rates, but they don't.

In fact, adds Klurfeld, without vitamin supplements, vegetarians have problems getting enough vitamin B-12, calcium, iron and zinc, which can lead to other health problems. And a University of Minnesota study shows that vegetarian teens are nearly four times as likely to engage in intentional vomiting and eight times as likely to try to lose weight by using laxatives than nonvegetarians.

"The more sensible thing is to eat smaller portions of meat and bigger portions of fruits and vegetables," says Klurfeld. "It doesn't have to be all or nothing."

Food View:

Oskar Gaenssle, 83Retired butcher, Detroit

"I never wanted to be a butcher, but that is what my father did and so that is what I had to learn how to do. Starting when I was 14 years old, people would bring us rabbits and I would have to kill and clean them, but I never liked doing it. I used to think, 'These animals didn't do anything bad to me, why should I have to kill them?'

"When I was older, and working in the slaughterhouse, it was a very hard job. Sometimes I would think people should stop all this eating business so I wouldn't have to do it anymore. But I needed to work to support my family, and that was what I knew how to do."