Busting the Myth: There are No Happy Cows

Avatar Gaye Levy  |  Updated: December 16, 2020
Busting the Myth: There are No Happy Cows

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cowsOver the course of the past few months, I have spent a good deal of time reflecting on my mostly healthy diet, my relatively good health, and the possible if not probable relationship between the two. It has been quite the journey of discovery.

Starting with the documentaries Forks Over Knives (what we put on our forks may eliminate the need to the surgical knife), Food, Inc. (big business taking controlling our food supply), Hungry For Change and the Temple Grandin story, I have tried to debunk some of the hearsay out there so that I can make sensible decisions about the foods I consume.  And believe me, there is a lot of mis-information and innuendo out there.

Today, without getting preachy, I would like to challenge you to open up your mind to altering the way you eat not only for your own long term health but also for long term sustainability of the agricultural resources on our planet and the humane and responsible treatment of farm animals.

There Are No Happy Cows

If I were to suggest a single source for beginning the education process, I would start with the John Robbins book, No Happy Cows.  For those of you that are not familiar with John’s work, he is the son of the founder of the Baskin-Robbins empire.  But instead of taking over the family business, he chose to become a food activist and an advocate for diets rich in fruits, vegetables and plant base products.

This book will lead you through a path of discovery, including:

  • Soy products, good or bad?
  • Grass-fed beef, is it all that it is cracked up to be?
  • The dirty deal with industrial food production
  • Greed as it relates to the food we eat

Heavy stuff, I know but thankfully, it is written in an easy to read, non-judgmental (to the reader at least) manner.

Perhaps I have been naïve, but most striking to me was his description of the deplorable conditions our farm animals must endure, from chickens to cows to pigs.  This took me back to a piece about young calves I saw on 60 Minutes in the 70’s – to this day I have never even taken a taste of veal.  It was that revolting.

Here is what the Humane Society says about the treatment of young calves:

Intensive confinement of calves raised for veal has long raised pointed concerns regarding the animals’ welfare.  Traditional production practices include individually isolating calves in narrow wooden stalls or pens, which severely restrict movement, feeding the animals an all-liquid diet deliberately low in iron, and prematurely weaning the animals. Stressful conditions lead to a high incidence of stereotypic behavior and illness.

Scientific reviews of the welfare of intensively confined calves raised for veal have concluded that the young animals suffer when reared in conventional systems.

The Truth About Milk Cows

There is a  well-known “Happy Cows Come from California” marketing campaign by the California Milk Producers’ Association in which healthy, talking cows stand on spacious, green pastures and declare that “great cheese comes from happy cows, and happy cows come from California”.  And yet nothing could be further from truth.  First of all, the commercial was filmed on the grassy land of New Zealand, and not California.  But more important, the book describes the truth about California cows:  most never see a single blade of grass.Holstein_dairy_cows

Instead, they are housed in pens where they can not turn around and where they stand knee high in their own excrement for most of their adult life.  They are injected with hormones, fed antibiotics, and in Robbins words, “treated without compassion like four-legged milk pumps.”

And then there is the issue of hormones in our milk.

Dairy cows are injected with human growth hormones (rBST) in order to increase milk production.  Did you know that infants in China who are fed formula have been growing breasts?  According to the official Chinese newspaper, medical tests performed on babies between four and fifteen months old found levels of estrogen as high as those in adult women.  The consensus is that the hormone rich formula is responsible.  And where did these hormones come from?  Milk from dairy cows.

Here is the part that I do not get: the United States is one of the few countries in the world that still allows bovine growth hormones to be injected in dairy cows.  This is banned in Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Australia and most of Europe.  Why is this happening?  Dare I say that our government (and this includes the politicians as well as agencies such as the US FDA) are more loyal to Monsanto, Eli Lilly, and other corporations with deep pockets than to the people they serve.

In John Robbin’s words as he explains the inspiration behind the title of his book:

There are no happy cows in the industrialized food system.  There’s something about that contrast between what they’re portraying and the reality that exists in California dairy production that strikes me as a perfect example of why we have to wake up.”

Turning the Corner as a Food Activist – A Personal Choice220px-Fairtrade

There is more.  Have you ever bothered to learn what “Fair Trade Certified” really means?  Very briefly, items that are fair trade certified carry an independent, third-party-verified guarantee that the farmer has been paid a fair price for his products, has had direct involvement in the marketplace, and has upheld environmental and labor rights standards.  You will find the Fair Trade Certified label on many agricultural products, the most common being cocoa, coffee, bananas, tea, and sugar.

Oh, it also means that the items have not been genetically modified.

Now did I know this before?  I suppose I knew about it peripherally but never pursued it beyond that cursory knowledge.  After reading John Robbin’s description of the harvesting of cocoa (for chocolate) by children tricked or sold into slavery, I stood up and took notice.  Did I want to support this cruel and inhumane exploitation of the underclass when for a few pennies more I could purchase fair trade certified chocolate?  I think you know the answer.

And so I come around to the gist of the matter:  as with all things political and all things government, we have a choice not only with the food we eat but with the methods by which they are grown and harvested.  At some point we must make decisions for ourselves based upon health, budget and moral considerations.

To that end I suggest that we each become a food activist in a manner that is appropriate to your situation. Although what is right for one person may be wrong for another, you have no basis to judge unless you arm yourself with knowledge.  It is only then that you can become both judge and jury.

The Final Word

If you care about the rising epidemic of obesity, food contamination, the perils of GMO foods and the proliferation of controlled animal feeding operations, take a couple of hours to educate yourself.  Grab yourself a copy of No Happy Cows or watch one of the videos that are available for streaming through your Netflix account or for purchase.  Seek out more information at websites such as Green America.

What else?

  • When it comes to the food you eat, challenge yourself to take a look at your diet to see what you can do to add more plant based items to your daily fare.
  • As a consumer, seek out milk and dairy products that are rBST free.  Check your labels.  For example, Safeway store’s Lucerne brand – typically the lease expensive option in the dairy case – is rBST free.
  • Purchase only fair trade certified chocolate.  It is more widely available than you think and often at the same price as chocolate produced under the guise of tyranny.

Finally, recognize that ignorance is no longer bliss.

Enjoy your next adventure through common sense and thoughtful preparation!


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Spotlight Items:

No Happy Cows: Dispatches from the Frontlines of the Food Revolution:  If you can only get one book, this is the one to get. John Robbin’s book is well-researched, compelling and full of really eye-opening and useful information. This book covers a broad range of topics related to food, health and being human in a time of great tragedy and suffering on the planet.  It just might be a life-changer (it has been for me).

The Dark Side of Chocolate:  This is a link (free) to the documentary “The Dark Side of Chocolate”.  This will change the way you think about this sweet treat that is oh so healthy for you.  And you will never purchase a Hershey’s product again.  I know I said I would not get preachy but consider passing your concerns on to Hershey by clicking below.

Raise The Bar

Forks Over Knives:  This movie examines the profound claim that most, if not all, of the so-called “diseases of affluence” that afflict us can be controlled, or even reversed, by rejecting our present menu of animal-based and processed foods. The major storyline in the film traces the personal journeys of a pair of pioneering Dr. T. Colin Campbell and Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn.  The last time I checked, the film was available for streaming on Netflix.  If you prefer, there is also a book version: Forks Over Knives: The Plant-Based Way to Health.

Food, Inc.:  This is another documentary that will help educate you so that you can come to your own conclusions and make decisions about your diet that are right for you.  Also available at Netflix for streaming for free if you have a Netflix account.

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12 Responses to “Busting the Myth: There are No Happy Cows”

  1. My family has been farming ever since George Soule got off the Mayflower. He was the 35th signer of the Mayflower Compact and my grandfather 11 times removed. Everyone that I have ever know in our family and my wife’s also was free ranging. Cattle went to pasture. Penney, the Border collie, went to get them when Grandpa told her “go bring ’em in” about 5pmm. The sheep went to pasture. So did the pigs. The chickens scratched all around the farm and barnyard. The pens and stalls were clean. Plenty of fresh water. No hormones. Vaccinations against scours, but that was about it. The reality of todays mega-farms relating to animal production is disgusting and, I think, an affront to God, that what He has provided for us we deliberately mistreat. I’d like to put those producers in their own excrement up to their knees in a pen so tight they couldn’t turn around. Like the “Tiger cages” GI’s were kept in when the VC OR NVA captured them in the Nam. I can’t seem to win any lottery money, so I guess I just don’t have a lot of choice except to visit the Farmer’s Market dealers and see how they treat there animals. All mammals are capable of displaying some form of bond, peace, and contentment with, given the chance. No, I do not mean go jump in the lion’s den, or the bull’s pen. But common farm animals can become attached to people, and in that we can take some pleasure and joy.


  2. Well, I know there are some happy cows – those on my Grandparents small farm. Three to be exact: Creamy, Buttercup, and Ginger. Well cared for, acres and acres of grass and wildflowers. Buckets of wild apples in the Fall. Life as a cow can be very good!

  3. my cows are happy. at 1600 to 1800 dollars for a cow /calf pair it is evident that they are an investment to be taken care of. the only antibiotics used are for pink eye (painful and potentially blinding) and pneumonia in calves . mistreatment is a myth. do you want a 1200 lb cow with attitude from abuse rushing you in the middle of a pasture? these animals are sociable and appreciate fresh clean water and the occasional grain and molasses treat. it should be noted that I buy my meat at Harter House for the two of us. 80 cows on 330 acres, 70 year old owner in SW missouri

  4. I get a big ignorant grin anytime I hear someone pooh-poohing our food supply and the problems with the “American” diet. For sure some things could be done better and I suppose for the “feelings’ of our hairy and feathered meat suppliers, a little nicer. However, for all the noise, it was less than a hundred years ago when to reach the ripe old age of fourty was considered an accomplishment. Today, we routinely live into our nineties with a fairly good quality of life. It ain’t all bad folks. Unless you happen to be a planet with six billion folks taken a dump on you every day.

    For me, I follow the two thousand year old rule of “all things in moderation”. Not that I will live as long as Methuselah, Hell, I don’t even want to. But, there is wisdom in them ‘thar’ words. The human body is remarkebly able to overcome just about anything thrown at it if it is given a big enough variety of dirt, bugs, plants, meat and water. With these it can concoct a counter to just about every invasion known. The only thing wrong with the “American” diet is we are way too clean and not enough variety.

    PS “all things” is a bit of a stretch. Anything resembling a booger or, okra(ish) or, eggplant(ish) are not in my larder……or garden.

  5. Modern farming is about production and profit, the livestock are production units, not living breathing feeling entities. I rather doubt though, that cows in milk are ever left standing in manure, the cost to that production would be too high, mastitis and foot rot mean cows out of production or early culled, and expensive cost and time spent on veterinary care. Dry cows possibly might be, and feedlot cattle frequently are. The reasons milk cattle are never out on grass anymore would be the cost of the amount of land needed for pasturage, and the fact that they have been bred into such heavy milking machines that pasture of any type would not give them the nutrient level they need to maintain that milking capacity.
    This is the road we are on, what our modern way of living and food consumption is based on and requires, and the only way this will change and find its way back to something more sustainable and morally acceptable is with consumers choosing better with their buying power, and realizing that there is always a cost somewhere in any system when things are made easier. Any time you build a better machine it costs more. Anytime you breed for one trait in an organism you lose something else. A balance has to be maintained, so a gain in one area means a cost in another. Those altered cows in a very structured and short life are paying much of the cost for higher production and plentiful milk in the grocery store.
    The farmers left who still want to grow heritage and naturally produced food need consumers choices of that food, and those consumer’s voiced outrage at the continuing legal manipulations and economic stifling of these farmer’s ability to continue to grow that food. They are under attack, have been so for a long while, and are loosing.

    • Thank you for weighing in on this matter.

      I know for many, the extra cost of food grown in a healthy and sustainable manner is an issue but for those with a few extra dollars to spend, the long term benefits for everybody (the farmers, the animals, the consumers) are abundant.

      As I have said before, if those who can speak out (whether with their voice, their vote, or their pocketbook) don’t, then who will?


  6. So much mythology, so little time. The statistics don’t support any of the popular food biases. Eating a particular food or avoiding a particular food has no effect on your health or life span unless you have one of a handful diseases that require a special diet. These fads come and go, science proves them to be pure BS. But they keep popping up everytime some huckster writes a new book about some ‘good food or bad food” and someone reads it and naively buys into it hook line and sinker.

    • “GoneWithTheWind” Ha!Ha!

      That’s what my wife calls me. I don’t think it’s the same kind of wind though 🙂

  7. From personal experience, I can now attest to the differances in the meats (chicken, beef, pork) that I buy, the “grocerer vs Amish”. The last time I bought chicken from the grocerer, a year ago, I was very disappointed. Disappointed being an understatement. While preparing it, I had to cut off yellow fat, the skin and after preparing it, the taste was not only bland, but tough. I decided right then to start shopping the Amish Market, which we are lucky and blessed to have several in our area. The Amish have a sign that states “No hormones or antibiotics”. My family and I are not only satisfied in the freshness, no grease, but the health benefits that we know are more beneficial. I also find the prices are not more, but the same,.

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