How Many Burgers Can You Make from One Cow?


Story at-a-glance -

  • An average cow, which yields about 200 kilograms (or 440 pounds) of usable meat, could make 4,500 hamburgers at McDonald’s
  • The Iowa Beef Industry Council says you could make nearly 1,000 quarter-pound burgers from the ground beef from one 1,000-pound steer
  • CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation) ground beef is typically an amalgam of meat from different cows, from different slaughterhouses

By Dr. Mercola

Have you ever wondered how many hamburgers come from one cow? Online Magazine Today I Found Out reports that with an average cow, which yields about 200 kilograms (or 440 pounds) of usable meat, you could make 4,500 hamburgers at McDonald’s.1

The Iowa Beef Industry Council reports a different number based on quarter-pound hamburgers.2 They note that you could make nearly 1,000 quarter-pound burgers from the ground beef from one 1,000-pound steer.

These numbers may not be as far off as they seem, considering the original McDonald’s hamburger is considerably smaller than a quarter-pound burger.

Suffice to say, you can feed quite a few hungry mouths with the meat from one cow and, in fact, joining a local food coop and going in on an entire side of beef is often a more economical choice as well. In that case you can have the meat processed any way you’d like; and you needn’t fill your freezer with thousands of burgers…

One Hamburger Might Come from Hundreds of Cows…

Ironically, while one cow can provide meat for thousands of burgers, that doesn’t mean your burger came from one cow, particularly if it’s a burger made out of CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation) meat.

Ground beef is typically an amalgam of meat from different cows, from different slaughterhouses. So one burger could have come from hundreds of animals and different parts of the world. This raises the risks of contamination significantly, even beyond the risks of CAFO meat alone.

For instance, in 2000 the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) released a study that found 89 percent of US ground beef patties contained E.coli O157:H57, a particularly deadly strain known to kill one in 20 of those infected.

The rate applied to ground beef from large batches, about 3,000 pounds or more, that were mixed together before being ground into hamburgers.3

Most CAFO cows are fed grains (oftentimes genetically modified grains, which make matters even worse), when their natural diet is plain grass. Grain diets create a much higher level of acidity in the animal's stomach, which E. coli bacteria need to survive.

Although only very low levels of the bacteria were detected in some cases, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) notes:4

“While the actual infectious dose is unknown, most scientists believe it takes only a small number of this strain of E. coli to cause serious illness and even death, especially in children and older adults.”

In addition, according to FSIS:5

“If the pathogens are present when meat is ground, then more of the meat surface is exposed to the harmful bacteria. Also, grinding allows any bacteria present on the surface to be mixed throughout the meat.”

Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria Also Detected in the Majority of Ground Beef Tested

It’s not only E. coli you have to worry about in your beef. In 2013, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released a report that found 55 percent of ground beef tested contained antibiotic-resistant bacteria (and so did 81 percent of ground turkey, 69 percent of pork chops and 39 percent of chicken).6

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria infect 2 million Americans every year, causing at least 23,000 deaths. Even more die from complications related to the infections, and the numbers are steadily growing.

Nearly 25 million pounds of antibiotics are administered to livestock in the US every year for purposes other than treating disease, such as making the animals grow bigger faster.

The drug-resistant bacteria that contaminate your meat may pass on their resistant genes to other bacteria in your body, making you more likely to become sick.

Drug-resistant bacteria also accumulate in manure that is spread on fields and enters waterways, allowing the drug-resistant bacteria to spread far and wide and ultimately back up the food chain to us.

You can see how easily antibiotic resistance spreads, via the food you eat and community contact, in the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) infographic below.

How Antibiotic Resistance Spreads

Source:, Antibiotic Resistance Threats in the United States, 2013

A USDA Inspector General Report also revealed that beef sold to the public has been found to be contaminated with a staggering 211 different drug residues, as well as heavy metals.7

Hazardous growth-promoting drugs like Zilmax and Ractopamine are also routinely used in American CAFOs, and as much as 20 percent of the drug administered may remain in the meat you buy. Their use is disturbing when you consider that side effects in cattle include brain lesions, lameness, heart failure, and sudden death…

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All Hamburgers Are Not Created Equal…

I've often said that the differences between organic, pastured (grass-fed) beef and that from animals raised in confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) is so great that you're really talking about two completely different animals (and the same applies to other animal meats, and animal products such as dairy and eggs).

Aside from the contamination risks, the animals’ radically altered diet also affects the nutritional composition of the meat. For example, when raised on a grass-only diet, levels of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) are three to five times higher in the meat compared to CAFO beef.

CLA has been found to have a wide array of important health benefits, from fighting cancer to decreasing insulin resistance and improving body composition. Grass-fed beef also tends to be leaner, and have higher levels of vitamins and minerals such as calcium, magnesium, and potassium. It also has a healthier ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats.

Unless labeled as grass-fed, virtually all the meat you buy in the grocery store is CAFO beef, in which still other tests revealed that nearly half of the meat sold in US stores is contaminated with pathogenic bacteria—including antibiotic-resistant strains.

Grass-fed beef is not associated with this high frequency of contamination, and their living conditions have everything to do with this improved safety. This doesn’t only apply to beef, of course. It also applies to poultry, which should be organic and pasture-raised (or free-range certified), as well as fish, which should be wild-caught – not farm-raised.

Grass-Fed Beef Is Better for You, Better for the Planet, and Better for the Cows

It’s important for so many reasons to seek out meat that comes from responsibly raised sources. For example, a joint effort between the USDA and Clemson University researchers determined a total of 10 key areas where grass-fed is better than grain-fed beef for human health.8 In a side-by-side comparison, they determined that grass-fed beef was:

Lower in total fat Higher in beta-carotene Higher in vitamin E (alpha-tocopherol)
Higher in the B-vitamins thiamin and riboflavin Higher in the minerals calcium, magnesium, and potassium Higher in total omega-3s
A healthier ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids (1.65 vs 4.84) Higher in CLA (cis-9 trans-11), a potential cancer fighter Higher in vaccenic acid (which can be transformed into CLA)
Lower in saturated fats

Another troubling aspect of grain-fed cattle involves the well-being of the animal and, consequently, the health effect this has on you. Common consequences among grain-fed CAFO cattle include:9

  1. Acidosis. During the normal digestive process, bacteria in the rumen of cattle produce a variety of acids. Saliva neutralizes the acidity from grass-based diets, but grain-based eating in feedlots prohibits saliva production. The net result is "acid indigestion."
  2. Animals with this condition are plagued with diarrhea, go off their feed, pant, salivate excessively, kick at their bellies, and eat dirt. Over time, acidosis can lead to a condition called "rumenitis," an inflammatory response to too much acid and too little roughage and results in inefficient nutrient absorption.

  3. Liver abscesses. From 15 percent to 30 percent of feedlot cattle have liver abscesses, which result when bacteria may leak out through ulcerated rumen in cattle and are ultimately transported to the liver.
  4. Bloat. During digestion, cows produce gas and when they are on pasture, they belch up the gas without any difficulty. Grain-based feeding causes these gasses to become trapped and results in bloat. In more serious cases of bloat, the rumen becomes so distended with gas that the animal is unable to breathe and dies from asphyxiation.
  5. Feedlot polio. A highly acidic digestive environment may result in the production of an enzyme called "thiaminase," which destroys vitamin B1, starving the brain of energy and creating paralysis.
  6. Dust pneumonia. In dry weather, the feedlot can become a dust bowl, which springs the cattle's immune system into action and keeps it running on a constant basis, ultimately resulting in respiratory ailments and even death.

Where to Find Naturally Raised Healthy Meat

Currently, meat in supermarkets will be labeled 100 percent grass-fed if it came from pasture, but if it contains no label it’s probably CAFO-raised. An alliance of organic and natural health consumers, animal welfare advocates, and anti-GMO activists are working together to tackle the next big food labeling battle: meat, eggs, and dairy products from animals raised on factory farms, or CAFOs.

This campaign, which aims to have CAFO foods labeled, includes a massive program to educate consumers about the negative impacts of factory farming on the environment, on human health and on animal welfare, and hopes to organize and mobilize millions of consumers to demand labels on beef, pork, poultry and dairy products derived from these unhealthy and unsustainable so-called “farming” practices.

In the meantime, you can boycott food products from CAFOs and choose to support farmers who produce healthy pastured grass-fed meat, eggs and dairy products using humane, environmentally friendly methods. You can do this not only by visiting the farm directly, if you have one nearby, but also by taking part in farmer's markets and community-supported agriculture programs, many of which offer grass-fed meats. The following organizations can also help you locate grass-fed beef and other farm-fresh foods in your local area, raised in a humane, sustainable manner.

Where to Buy Locally Grown Food Infographic Preview