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Last month, fast food giant McDonald's announced that they would only serve beef that had been slaughtered humanely, which typically involves the cattle being "stunned" with an electrical charge prior to slaughter. The primary reason for this policy change was pressure applied by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA.) The animal rights group is currently lobbying competitor Burger King to adopt the same standards.
But many people are raising questions about the so-called "stunned beef" and whether it is wise for Americans to consume it. Aside from the fact that it makes the animal's death less traumatic, how does the process of "humane slaughtering" affect the taste and (more importantly) the safety of beef products for their human consumers?
And the most controversial question: Do cattle taste better as a result of extremely poor treatment?
The science of beef taste is a complex thing. The taste of a piece of beef depends primarily on its water holding capacity, muscle color, and pH level. The best-tasting beef (keeping in mind that taste is a relative thing) will have a pH level of approximately 5.5. At pH levels of 5.8 and above, the tenderness and the "keeping quality" of the beef is severely affected. So the aim should be to keep the pH level right around that 5.5 mark.
So the question is: What factors affect the pH level, and how can it best be kept at the optimum level? There are several factors, but the primary cause of high beef pH is a deficiency of lactic acid. Lactic acid production requires an adequate amount of glycogen in the animal's muscles at the time of slaughter; glycogen production is stimulated by the presense of adrenaline that is released in stressful situations or in stressful periods of muscle activity.
Now, what does this mean in plain English? It means that animals that are "humanely slaughtered" do not taste good at all, because they are dealt with in situations where there is hardly any adrenaline flow (and therefore, hardly any glycogen production, and therefore, a pH level that is far too high.) In fact, Dr. Charles Wenzler of the United States Department of Agriculture has gone so far as to describe "stunned beef" as tasting "dreadful."
But it may go further than that. Dr. Wenzler has recently made claims in WorldNetDaily that the process of stunning cattle before slaughter can trigger the production of hormones that can prove damaging to human beings in the long-term. "The irony," Dr. Wenzler claims, "is that if humans eat enough of this stunned beef, they will eventually be reduced to the mental state of the cattle that they are eating, which is a perpetual stupor. In twenty years, you may have an entire generation wandering around aimlessly, putting themselves and others in harm's way. Is this worth risking over the perceived suffering of a cow?" (In fairness, it should be pointed out that the scientific community is not in total agreement with Dr. Wenzler.)
One thing is certain: the hot political topic will be how steakhouses interpret these studies. Tom Jorgenson, owner of the Teton Steakhouse in Jackson Hole, WY, already has his mind made up. "We slaughter our own cattle, and we work them hard," said Jorgenson in a recent interview. Jorgenson contracts with a company in Texas that actually has real cowboys herd the cattle up to Wyoming (with very few rest stops), where they are herded into small pens in dark barns. Jorgenson's kitchen crew then cranks up loud and scary music (music with high treble content and screeching woodwinds tends to frighten the cattle most.) They then charge the pen in full-faces masks, and repeatedly stab the cattle with pocketknives in non-critical locations. They then scream at and chase the cattle into the final holding pen where they are finally slaughtered.
Naturally, none of this makes Jorgenson many friends with PETA, which has held numerous demonstrations outside of his restaurant. Still, the Teton Steakhouse consistently is given awards for "Best Steak in the Midwest", which seems to indicate that the science of beef taste is indeed accurate (at least, it is in Tom Jorgenson's case.) "You can go to Burger King and eat stunned beef," said Jorgenson, "but if you come to my place, you'll eat the meat of a cow that had the Christ scared out of it .. and it will be the best steak you've ever had in your life, too!"
What do you think? Is increased suffering by cattle worth the taste, or should Americans be content to eat lower-quality "stunned beef", despite the alleged health risks?