Due to an ever-increasing interest in organic foods and animal welfare, farmers have been scrambling to paint cattle-rearing in a favorable light.
But when police found a capsized box of red skittles on a rural highway, consumers finally got an inkling as to how “sweet” that ranch life really is.
Skittles on the Highway
The story first made the news in January, when police officers stumbled across hundreds of thousands of red Skittles scattered across the Dodge County Highway in Wisconsin.
The sheriff’s department launched an investigation, and learned that the red candy fell off a truck, during transportation and were frozen in place. But where were they being taken to?
Why, a cattle ranch, of course!
Officers noted that the candy was missing the Skittles logo, but recognized it by its distinct smell. Mars, Skittles’ parent company, later confirmed that the candy belonged to them.
However, the specific plant the candy was taken from denied selling candy to cattle farmers. Mars has since launched an investigation to find out what happened.
Why Farmers Feed Skittles to Cows
But why feed Skittles to cows? And how long has this been happening? According to Fortune, the practice of feeding candy to cows dates back several decades, but recently became popular again.
In 2012, when the Midwest suffered its worst drought in 50 years, the price of corn spiked. Looking for a cheaper way to provide carbs for their cattle, farmers turned to candy.
Since many cows are raised on farms with access to lush, green grass, many might wonder why not let the cows graze? After all, what’s cheaper than the food already shooting up out of the earth?
According to Michael Pollan, a Berkeley professor, food journalist, and cow owner:
Cows raised on grass simply take longer to reach slaughter weight than cows raised on a richer diet, and the modern meat industry has devoted itself to shortening a beef calf’s allotted time on earth.
Does the Color Make a Difference?
In a market where instant-gratification is a measure companies need to meet to satisfy customers, candy for the sake of speed makes sense. However, there’s no reason the Skittles had to be red, or any reason the candy had to be Skittles.
A food blogger and researcher who works in the meat-import business, and who asked to remain anonymous, told us, “There is no reason why they had to be red… It was rather that the factory didn’t get a full run of all the other colors, so they chucked the red ones as waste.”
Dr. Judy Morgan, a veterinarian and holistic vegetarian, says that another reason the Skittles were discarded is “because they didn’t have the logo imprinted correctly”.
Other Unconventional Foods Fed to Cattle
But candy isn’t the only unconventional food fed to animals. In fact, experts agree that of all the alternatives to grass and corn, candy is probably the most healthy of the lot.
The anonymous researcher, whose company specifically imports grass-fed beef, shares that some of the food fed to cows include “‘chicken meal’, spent grains from the brewing industry, [and] other sources of animal protein.”
Dr. Morgan confirms that candy is the least of the cows’ problems as far as food is concerned. She shared that other common food items legally fed to cows include expired dairy and eggs, stale bakery products, and restaurant waste. The worst part is that the food often gets ground up in their containers.
This even includes hard plastic.
Dr. Morgan explains:
Plastics contain phthalates, which can damage the liver, kidneys, lungs, and reproductive system. The phthalates transmit through the cow into the milk that we drink and give to our children.
In fact, cows aren’t the only ones affected by the seeming disregard for animals and what they need. According to Susan Thixton, the author of the Truth About Pet Food, your beloved Fido and Mittens may be in danger, too.
In one of Thixton’s most recent pieces on this issue, she writes:
Evanger’s Pet Food company files a $20 million lawsuit against its meat supplier, but in the court documents the pet food company discloses they directly lied to consumers. The meat used by Evanger’s was labeled “inedible”, it was not ‘human grade’ as the company told consumers and retailers.
As terrible as this is, the pale silver lining is that we don’t intend to eat Fido and Mittens. At least, I hope you don’t.
But for millions of Americans, beef makes up a big portion of their diet. So how do the cows’ eating habits, impact consumers’ health?
Impact on the Health of Cattle & Consumers
According to the FDA, the practice of feeding animal protein to cows – often beef – is what leads to the mad cow disease problem. Hundreds of people have become infected with mad cow disease around the world, though this is not a widespread problem in the United States.
Next to mad cow disease, candy looks like a much safer alternative. However, experts disagree on whether or not it counts as an actual healthy supplement for meals.
Dr. Morgan points out that candy is basically high fructose corn syrup, so it’s just corn in another form. Feeding cows defected candy also helps reduce the waste at landfills, while providing a good energy source.
A 2014 study conducted by the Department of Animal Sciences at the University of Illinois, Urbana, made similar conclusions. The study found that a diet containing up to 30% chewing gum and packaging material can increase daily gain and feed efficiency.
Dr. Morgan, however, cautions that even without the plastic thrown in, there are other big health problems associated with feeding candy to cows. Artificial dyes have been shown to be carcinogenic, and this is passed on through milk from dairy cows.
According to Dr. Morgan, another life-threatening concern of feeding cows sweets is E coli. Unlike mad cow disease, E coli is not so distant a threat in the United States.
In 2015, Chipotle and its customers suffered an E coli outbreak. The customers have recovered, but reports show the company has yet to bounce back from the blow.
The connection between sugar and E coli is not as bizarre as it sounds. Dr. Morgan explains that sugar tends to “promote more pathogenic strains of E coli bacteria by changing the pH of the gut contents”.
These bacteria are passed into the waste and body fluids of the cow. This then often contaminates fruits and vegetables, especially when cow manure is used as a form of fertilization.
Know Your Food
So is the cattle-life as sweet as it appeared in the beginning? Only if eating vegetable oil and plastic still counts as “sweet” when sprinkled with candy. And as Dr. Morgan explained, candy comes with a whole new set of concerns consumers should be aware of.
In the end, the health and cost benefits of feeding candy to cows are only worth it when the candy is removed from their packaging, and when the sugar in-take is closely monitored. Grass-fed cows also pose a much safer option; provided that the grass they eat hasn’t been polluted by candy-fed cows carrying the E Coli virus.
Since not even vegetarians (or pets!) are safe from this one, consumers’ best bet is to know where their food comes from, and the processes behind its production. It won’t change the outcome, but consumers can at least make better purchasing decisions by staying informed.
It’s often said that if we all had to slaughter our own meat, most of us would be vegetarians. But knowing what “our food” has been eating lately may very well have the same effect.
I would like to extend a special thank you to Dr. Judy Morgan for her patience, unbiased advice, and invaluable recommendations. This piece would not have been possible without your contributions.