Everyone is so stressed out these days.
As a small business owner, a father of three, and a husband just trying to keep things together, I have a full dance card when it comes to getting through my week. That means that I spend most of my waking hours in different levels of teeth-grinding stress.
But, I’m not alone, am I?
According to a recent Gallup poll, America is tied for fourth place—with the unlikely peers, Sri Lanka and Iran—for the world’s most stressed country. Study after study has highlighted how stress is a bad thing for productivity, health, and happiness. There’s even anAmerican Institute of Stress trying to get to the bottom of all this.
It’s gotten so bad that doctors are developing a vaccine for stress. I mean, it’s like it’s become polio or something.
But did you know that stress can also negatively affect the meat we eat?
Not only are stressed animals unhappy and unhealthy, but for decades we’ve known that an anxious animal ain’t any good to eat. And although we mention this phenomenon in every one of our bi-weekly butcher classes, I’ve never really explored why.
It turns out the science behind this is quite literally an acid trip; but a pretty straight forward one.
Temple Grandin is the godmother for humane animal husbandry, and wrote one of the most influential manuscripts on the importance of humane slaughter practices. As an aside, Claire Danes also didn’t do a half-bad job of portraying her in the eponymous Golden-Globe-winning biopic.
Basically, Grandin found that after slaughter, an animal’s cells continue to convert glycogen—the primary fuel for muscles—into lactic acid. This is a naturally occurring compound that also makes my muscles ache after a good workout at the gym. It also happens to keep meat tender, pink and tasting fresh after processing.
However, when an animal is under stress just before slaughter—which can be due to long distance transport, loud noises, crowding, fighting, or abuse—that animal can release Adrenaline, the “fight or flight” hormone. Adrenaline increases the heart rate and uses up glycogen in the blood stream. Less glycogen means less lactic acid.
This is bad news for flavor country.
Low lactic acid affects different kinds of meat, differently. But in general, it makes meat less tender, lose its natural color and flavor, and accelerates spoilage.
If you’ve ever tried to eat a spawning salmon, you’ve experienced this process up close and personal.
Salmon use up every last bit of their energy when they leave the ocean to swim—sometimes hundreds of miles—to their freshwater birthplaces in order to reproduce. These “zombie fish” are so energy-depleted when they arrive that you can pull them out of the water with your bare hands. But don’t even think about eating them. Google the descriptions of “spawned out” salmon fillets, and you’ll come across such delectable culinary adjectives as “mushy,” “tasteless,” and “puss-like.” Yum!
So it is with domesticated animals that are trucked halfway across the country, prodded and kicked into a corral, hooked up to some kind of Clockwork Orange conveyor belt before being dispatched by a nervous, and extremely sweaty captive bolt operator. It’s a heart-racing experience that sucks the glycogen out of my muscles just thinking about it.
But wait there’s more.
Before we get too nanny state. Stress isn’t new to animals. Certainly, a boar, bison, or sage hen isn’t living some pastoral, zen-like life out on the prairie. I mean, what happens when Mr. Wolf or Johnny Mountain Lion pays a visit? Obviously, animals have things they freak out about in nature. But it seems that constant low levels of stress—more associated with domesticated animals—can be even worse than the “one bad day” variety.
In her book Farmacology, Daphne Miller, MD explores how chronic, low-level stress, common in factory-farmed chicken coops, can be worse than the “fight or flight” kind of anxiety when it comes to nutritional value and production.
Miller’s book points to research from Rockefeller University neuroscientist, Bruce McEwen, which compared factory-farmed egg-laying chickens with pasture-raised birds. The factory bird’s experienced higher frequency of chronic, low-level stress. This led to increased incidence of depression, obesity, and an expanded amygdala—the brain’s anxiety neuron. Although factory hens laid more eggs than their pasture-raised sisters, their ova were lower in protein and vitamins, and the birds had shorter, less productive lifespans.
It’s never easy to talk about where our meat comes from, even for those of us in the industry. But at ECB, we take animal welfare and humane slaughter very seriously. Not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because we know our concern with the entire process ensures our guests receive the highest quality, best tasting product around.
Just like our farmers, we honor the lives of the animals we work with right up to the end, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.