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Meat Mysteries: The Beef Edition

As we have shared in our previous “Meat Mysteries” articles, “The Chicken Edition” and “The Pork Edition,” Americans eat a lot of meat. According to Statista, the United States tops the chart as the country with the highest annual meat consumption per capita. On average, one American consumes 219 pounds of meat every year. 58 of those pounds are beef.

As with chicken and pork, the main areas of concern with eating beef come in the forms of processed beef and eating beef at fast-food restaurants.

Fast-food facts

As shared in our earlier articles, the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) reported that on any given day between 2013 and 2016 approximately 36.6% of American adults consumed fast food. Men consumed a higher percentage than women as did adults between the ages of 20 and 39 than any other age group. 

Although the NCHS has not released more current statistics for adults eating fast food, they did release additional data focused on children and adolescents. Per that report, 36.3% of children and adolescents consumed fast food on any given day between 2015 and 2018. 

Regardless of which report you focus on, Americans are eating large quantities of fast food. Per NCHS, fast food is “Associated with increased intake of calories, fat, and sodium.” It continues to provide high-calorie food that is considered to be poorer in quality.

While there has been an increase in the amount of chicken and faux-meat products sold in fast-food restaurants in recent years, beef, specifically burgers, still continues to be among the highest-selling fast food. When you think of fast-food restaurants, we would guess that many of your answers are some of the top-selling burger chains, such as McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Sonic Drive-In, Five Guys, and In-N-Out Burger. Even Taco Bell, Chipotle, and Subway sell their fair share of beef products in the form of ground taco meat, carne asada, and roast beef deli meat.

What’s so bad about processed beef?

Both fast-food restaurants and food companies are in business to make money. They are always on the lookout for ways to maximize their profit. This may mean using cheaper methods to produce their food products. Unfortunately, cheaper meat products often equal less healthy food options.

100% real meat?

This has been a long-standing question when it comes to processed meat and meat sold at fast-food restaurants. To emphasize why this continues to be a question, we want to share a “fishy” tale about a tuna fish sandwich from Subway. Why share a story about tuna in a beef article? You’ll see it at the end.

As shared in an article by Healthline, a lawsuit was filed claiming that Subway’s tuna fish sandwich did not contain tuna. This would be a big if found to be true. Of course, Subway maintained that the tuna used in the sandwich was 100% cooked tuna. 

In an attempt to find an answer, samples were sent to a commercial food testing laboratory. The lab reported that “no amplifiable tuna DNA was present.” A lab spokesperson went on to state that there were two possible conclusions. First, “either the tuna products are ‘so heavily processed’ that it was impossible to make a clear identification of tuna, or ‘there’s just nothing there that’s tuna’ in the samples sent over.”

Again, what does this tuna story have to do with beef? Well, this same question is asked over and over regarding burger meat from fast-food restaurants. Perhaps you’ve heard rumors of pink slime being added to meat mixtures. Or there’s the rumor about using horse or other animal meat.

It is important to know what’s in the beef before you agree to buy it. Here’s one tip that might help. Per the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), any fast-fast brand with more than 20 locations nationally must post nutritional information. You can check the website for any large chain to see what’s in their meat. The page might not always be easy to find from their home page. But, it is there.

Reading the label

As food companies continue to find ways to improve shelf-life for their products, they continue to rely on meat preservation methods. Unlike pork, beef doesn’t have as many processed products. But, the food industry has still found plenty of ways to cure, smoke, dry, can, or salt beef to preserve it.

Examples of processed beef include the following:

  • Beef franks
  • Beef jerky
  • Beef sausage
  • Canned beef
  • Corned beef
  • Deli meats (roast beef or pastrami)
  • Meat-based preparations (e.g., canned ravioli stuffed with beef)
  • Meat-based sauces (e.g., spaghetti sauce with meat)

As with fast-food restaurants, the FDA has standards that must be maintained on all food labels. Knowing what to look for can help you, as a consumer, to watch out for harmful substances that can be found in processed food. For example, do you want to consume something made with “mechanically separated meat?” 


In our “Chicken Edition,” we talked about nitrates, nitrites, and salt. In our “Pork Edition,” we shared information about other additives and preservatives in processed meat. While those are also found in processed beef, let’s talk about fillers. 

Fillers are considered additives since they are added to meat products. But, why are they added? Fillers help to increase, or bulk up, the weight of the meat with cheaper ingredients. This allows the meat industry to keep prices lower for certain meats, like hamburger. 

Fillers can be made up of non-meat or meat products. Here are examples of common meat fillers:

  • Cereal binder - made of flours and oatmeal
  • Maltodextrin - starch-based additive
  • Textured vegetable protein - made from soybeans
  • Mechanically deboned meat - an amalgamation of leftovers from animal carcasses
  • Carrageenan - gel extracted from seaweed

Health risks 

Throughout our articles, we have shared that fast food is high in calories and low in nutrition. We’ve also mentioned the various additives and preservatives found in processed meat. But, there are studies that show that processed meat presents a greater health risk than fresh meat.

An article published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reveals that consuming at least five ounces of processed meat each week can be linked to a 46% higher risk of developing heart disease. For a serving of meat, the size of your palm is about three ounces.

According to the MD Anderson Cancer Center, eating processed meat can also increase your chances of developing cancer. The chemical preservatives used in the processing have been linked to colorectal and stomach cancer. This does not mean that eating beef jerky guarantees cancer. It just increases the chance.  

The problem at the source

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), almost 33 million cattle were raised in 2020 for the purposes of beef. The way that cattle are raised contributes greatly to the quality of the final beef product that makes its way to the consumer. 

The beginning stage of life as a calf is usually great. Many farms allow calves to be outdoors in a pasture where they can walk around, eat grass, and socialize at will. Despite how life began, many corporate farms use feedlots for the last six months of their lives. 

Feedlots are designed to “beef” up the cattle. Instead of ingesting a diet of grass, cattle are fed corn and other grains. Unfortunately, their stomachs are not meant for a grain-based diet. It ends up wreaking havoc on their digestive systems. To combat potential problems, the cattle are given antibiotics to stave off infections.    


According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “Antibiotic resistance is one of the biggest threats to global health, food security, and development today.” They continue by pointing out a number of human infections, such as tuberculosis and salmonellosis, which are now harder to treat due to human antibiotics being less effective.

As cattle farmers continue to rely on antibiotics, especially medically important antibiotics, this will continue to be an issue for the human population.

Fast food antibiotic policies

Over the past few years, as this has been of growing concern, some fast-food companies have developed policies around their use of animals given antibiotics. Feed Them Wisely provides a list, which they keep updated, that compiles information about the antibiotic policies of major fast-food chains.    

Here are the fast-food companies that have a current policy against the use of antibiotics in the beef they serve. We’ve included two companies that have committed to change in the near future.

  • Panera Bread (therapeutic use only)
  • Chipotle (no antibiotics ever)
  • Burgerfi (no antibiotics ever)
  • Subway (committed to no medically important antibiotics by 2025)
  • Taco Bell (plans to use beef without medically important antibiotics in the near future)

Here are the companies that do not currently include beef in their antibiotics policy. This does not include companies that don’t have a publicly available policy.

  • Dunkin’ Donuts
  • Jason’s Deli
  • Carl’s Jr.
  • Papa John’s
  • Burger King
  • Domino’s 
  • Pizza Hut
  • Wendy’s

Know your source

Whether you decide to eat a hamburger from a fast-food restaurant or buy beef from the grocery store down the street, we encourage you to be an informed consumer.

Here are some tips to help you:

  • Read the label. When buying processed meat, check the ingredient list so you know what you’re getting. Things to consider avoiding are nitrates, nitrites, and anything with a long chemical name. The more natural the ingredients, the better. This also goes for buying fresh meat. Look for labels like grass-fed, natural, no added hormones, no antibiotics, non-GMO, and organic.
  • Check fast-food restaurants' websites. As we mentioned, the FDA requires any chain with 20 or more national stores to post the nutritional facts online. If you’re concerned about what’s in that hamburger, look. Then you can decide if it is worth the calories.
  • Reduce portion sizes. This goes for fast food and processed food. Instead of getting that double-patty burger, get a single patty. Instead of eating a roast beef sandwich every day for lunch, find an alternative lunch that doesn’t include deli meat.
  • Find a local farmer. Most communities have local farmers who maintain sustainable farming practices and sell their products to local residents. As you look for one, feel free to ask them questions about how they raise their cattle or process their meat. Some even offer to ship if you’re not local.

Grand Peaks Prime Meats is a local farm that is based out of Idaho Falls, Idaho. For more than 65 years, they have been providing high-quality meat to their customers. They work with livestock operations that are committed to raising the animals responsibly. They also focus on creating high-quality products whether it is a filet mignon or ground beef. 

Grand Peaks Prime Meats offers a variety of beef and other meat products. If you live in the Idaho Falls, Pocatello, or American Falls area, they offer home delivery on specific days. If you live outside the area, they can ship your order to you. Check out their beef products to see what is currently available. You’ll enjoy every bite!

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