The Unexpected Number Of Cows A Single Burger's Meat Could Come From

When you think of a single-patty burger, you probably aren't thinking of the cow. Meat is such a common staple in the American diet and manufactured on such a mass industrial scale that more often than not, people see the ground fresh of animals far more than the actual animals themselves.

Even through our language, a distance is put between the animal and the end product: pork is the word for pigs, and beef is the coded word for cows. When one stops to think about what their hamburger is actually made of, the leap of logic isn't too far of a hurdle: most people are aware that their patty was made from a cow. What most people don't know, though, is exactly how many cows make up the ground meat in between their burger bun.

One journalist, Roberto A. Ferdman, formerly of The Washington Post, came to the epiphany that his burger was likely a mash-up of muscle tissue from multiple cows, but he wanted to investigate how many that multiple actually was. The answer was — unsurprisingly or not, depending on your familiarity with the meat industry — more than a few. Ferdman found that one single McDonald's patty can contain the meat of up to a shocking 100 cows. For context, according to the USDA's Economic Research Service, the average size of a cattle herd in 2017 was 43.5 cows, which means one burger alone can take down 2 ⅓ cow herds.

Got beef with beef?

At one point during his investigation, Roberto A. Ferdman had called beef processor National Beef, a national provider that also ships worldwide, to find out if and how the company measured how many cows were killed and ground into its products. He was told that the spokesperson would get back to him, but ultimately got ghosted.

Ultimately, a burger made from a single cut of meat from a single cow is a rarity, and most hamburgers that are consumed from fast-food joints (via Insider) or from frozen boxes found at your supermarket are likely a product of the industrialized meat industry: the quality of meat is often sacrificed for profitability. If the idea that your burger is made up from a mash-up of hundreds of cows unsettles you, it's no wonder because that consumption would not be possible in the natural world of eating.  

The jury is still out on whether or not eating a burger made of the scraps of hundreds of cows is ethically better than a single cut of steak, but either way the high number of different animals you're eating when you chow down a burger might make you pause. We might not often think about cows, but if we think about them a bit more, we can reflect more on how our food is produced and whether or not we want to eat in a more mindful way.