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Last Updated: Saturday, 22 November, 2003, 15:46 GMT
Diet craze boosts US beef sales
By Susie Emmett
In Nebraska

Everybody's jumping on the low-carbohydrate diet bandwagon. In the United States - home of the body beautiful - it is the 21st century American cowboy who is reaping the rewards.

In the weak morning light, hundreds of adolescent cattle are on the move.

The beef business is booming
At the rear and on both flanks of the close-knit anxious herd, wide-brimmed-hatted cowboys, their blue jeans wrapped in suede chaps, spur their horses to muster the steers up to the ridge and the wide-open Nebraskan grazing beyond.

Were it not for the fleet of silver metal livestock wagons parked at the road edge, it could be a scene from a century ago.

In the US the beef business is booming. Demand is unprecedented but no meat can come in from Canada since a case of BSE, or mad cow disease, there earlier this year.

On top of that, sales continue to rise not least due to the faddish popularity of the protein-only Atkins diet.

Alan Jansen should know. He proudly claims to have lost 40 pounds on beef.

We push for industrialised agriculture... but in America we have more obesity, diet and health problems
Sue Jarrett, Rancher

He takes his seat at his big desk from which his flawless wife and daughters smile out at me from a framed picture.

Fifth-generation farmer Alan Jansen fattens 35,000 animals a year. He takes me, in a truck the width of a terraced house, up on the cattle pen-covered hill behind his office to see the most recent arrivals: 200 just-weaned Angus-cross calves mooing mournfully for their mothers now a state away.

Mass production

Mr Jansen's animals pile on the pounds from more than rich high-corn feed. They get chemical help too. Slow-release hormones implanted in their ears will push their metabolism to lay down more muscle faster.

Appetite stimulants keep them consuming and contagious infections - which can get rampant in such crowded conditions - are kept at bay by antibiotics.

Most American consumers are happy with this method of production - some are not. And even some ranchers have their doubts.

Finding my way to meet such ranchers was no problem by day. By night in the vast inky blackness it was nigh on impossible.

Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston
Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston are said to be Atkins devotees

Nearing the Jarretts' ranch just over the state border into Colorado - both late and lost - I phone for directions.

"You'll have no problem tonight," rancher Sue Jarrett tells me. "Our neighbour's house is on fire."

The ominous glow on the horizon was, when I was close enough to see, being tackled by ranchers and homesteaders from all around.

Out in the plains there's no official fire service; the ranchers run their own. Fire out, I was invited to sit with the singed and sooty to sip ice-cold beer.

Not only do the Jarretts and their neighbours fight fires together if need be, they ranch or farm the same landscape and soon will, just like their homesteading forbears, take to the hills and hunt.

Working the land

The men discuss their provisions for the trip - especially the alcoholic ones - so with one eyebrow raised I sceptically ask whether they expect to kill anything at all.

They took my question well. Dean Jarrett tells me how one man returned early from the previous year's hunting trip chastising his wife for not packing him any clean underwear to which she replied, "You'd have found it if you'd opened your gun case!"

Firefighter Ray's father runs a feed lot, fattening 5,000 cattle on contract for small ranchers.

Next day I find him at home in front of a widescreen television bidding in a video auction of steers two states away. He sends me a little way south with Sue, his sister-in-law, to see what the small ranchers and feed-lotters are worried about.

I've never seen anything like it. One of the dominant meat and grain companies in the United States has just set up one of the biggest feedlots in the country: an industrial factory of flesh.

Production line

In a square mile well over 100,000 cattle are confined in floodlit and tightly packed pens intersected by trackways, with feed wagons trundling up and down ceaselessly disgorging high performance feed into concrete troughs.

In the centre is a dominating massive mountain of maize, and at its base the stacked mighty bales of alfalfa look like grey-green cubes of sugar.

Cattle housed in small enclosures

This is dry country and with every step the animals send up clouds of dust to join the haze hanging over the whole site.

Sue breaks the silence. "Awesome, isn't it?" I nod.

Aside from the style of production, the sheer scale of it is raising many issues in my mind.

Where does all the muck go? How can they possibly care well for so many?

Sue's continuing. "We push for industrialised agriculture like this to raise more food, but in America we have more obesity, diet and health problems. Isn't naturally-produced meat on a smaller scale better?"

And did I eat much beef on this trip? Not a lot. But what I saw and heard gave me plenty to chew over.

With American beef, there's an awful lot at stake.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 22 November, 2003, at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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21 May 03  |  Business
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28 Apr 03  |  Business


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