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The Ethics of Belgian Blue Double Muscling

Schatzie has bachelor's degrees in animal science and English and a master's in education.

Detailed posterior double-muscling in the hind quarters of a Belgian Blue cow

Detailed posterior double-muscling in the hind quarters of a Belgian Blue cow

The Quest for Ethical Genetic Experimentation

Belgian Blue cattle originated in Belgium as the product of crossbreeding between local red-pied and black-pied cattle and cattle imported from England in the late 1800s. The breed became recently established with the founding of the Belgian White Blue herd book in 1973 (Lips, Tavenier, Decuypere, and Van Outryve). Modern breeds of Belgian Blue cattle are the creation of genetic engineering conducted by Professor Hanset at an AI Center in Belgium (Oklahoma state website), with the specific goal of expanding the muscular content of the animals as much as possible.

Belgium Blue cattle are characterized by this extreme muscling, known as "double-muscling," the result of a mutation in a myostatin gene that prevents control of muscular growth. This mutation causes extreme over-development of muscle in the cattle, which provides great benefits to producers and consumers, but causes harm to the animals. The continued growth of lean-quality meat sales, despite accompanying ailments due to the cattle's genetically-imposed composition, brings into question how far we as a society should be allowed to alter the natural order to ensure a profit.

A highly profitable Belgian Blue bull

A highly profitable Belgian Blue bull

There are many advantages to raising the Belgian Blue breed of cattle. First, because of the increased size of the cattle, "double-muscled carcasses have significantly increased muscle mass expressed as retail product yield and produce a leaner product" (Fahrenkrug, Cases, Keele, and Smith). This is a benefit to the producer, who will make a larger profit in sales, and a benefit to the consumer who will gladly buy this leaner, and therefore healthier, product.

However, these cattle are susceptible to many medical complications. Some problems attributed to the Blue Belgium's highly-muscular physique involve macroglossia, which causes a swelling of the tongue that may also interfere with a calf's ability to nurse and cause premature death; congenital articular rigidity, a chronic ailment that affects a calf's ability to stand on its legs, also affecting its ability to nurse; cardio-respiratory problems which can cause death in calves within two days of birth, due to insufficient oxygen intake; and dystocia (Lips, Tavernier, Decuypere, and Van Outryve), which is a general term for birthing complications.

Dystocia is the most common medical complication, and although "factors affecting dystocia are similar in double-muscled cattle to those in non-double-muscled cattle [...] the occurrence of dystocia is greatly increased in double-muscled cows" (Fiems, Campeneere, Caelenbergh, and Boucque). These birthing complications necessitate operative assistance, specifically caesarian sections, which occur in double-muscled cattle as often as 89.5 percent of the time (Fiems, Campeneere, Caelenbergh, Boueque).

This need to undergo constant operations is a topic highly open to ethical criticism. These animals have been bred for specific characteristics which include the inability to safely give birth to healthy offspring. So, in a sense, unhealthy and unnatural breeds are being created for the benefit of commercial producers, with no thought to the discomfort and pain of the animals. It is assumed that "caesareans cause a lot of suffering to the animals, but also that their high incidence is an indication of the excessive instrumentalisation of these animals" (Lips, Tavernier, Decuypere, and Van Outryvre). Scientists have similarly tried to increase the meat in sheep and pigs by inserting modified growth genes into the animals. This experimentation also resulted in reproductive abnormalities, and "sexual behavior was anomalous; females were anestrous and boars lacked libido" (Rollin). Scientists use animals as instruments to meet their goals, but have little thought as to the resulting harm to the animals in the process. Their creations have produced pigs so unhealthy they have no desire to proliferate, and cattle which have the potential of being mortally harmed each time they give birth.

A Holstein cow, which when crossed with a Belgian Blue can result in a more functional, healthier animal

A Holstein cow, which when crossed with a Belgian Blue can result in a more functional, healthier animal

A way to potentially lessen this occurrence of dystocia would be to cross a Belgian Blue cow with a Holstein or to select for Friesian Holstein cattle. All types of cattle are of comparable weights (at slaughter purebred Belgian Blues weigh around 508 lbs, crossbred Holstein and Belgian Blues weigh around 514 lbs, and purebred Holstein Friesians weigh about 489 lbs), and although both alternate breeds have a high fat percentage (Belgian Blue's have 11.4%, Crossbred Holstein and Belgian Blue's have 21.3%, and Purebred Holstein Friesian's have 25.6%) they also have a lower occurrence of caesarean sections (Lips, Tavernier, Decuypere, and Van Outryve). In one study, Belgian Blue's required caesarean sections in 91.5% of all births, whereas crossbred Holstein and Belgian Blues and purebred Holstein Friesian cattle had a combined frequency of less than 12% (Lips, Tavernier, Decuypere, and Van Outryve).

The line between what genetic alterations are acceptable and those that should be deemed inhumane is open to debate. However, any animal that has been so changed that it is incapable of safely and painlessly reproducing is no longer a natural and healthy animal. Animals should not be created so that any necessary function in their normal lives causes them pain or potential death. Animals should be bred, raised, and treated so that they do not experience any discomfort, and definitely not in a way that we know with certainty that pain and suffering is inevitable for their survival.


Schatzie Speaks (author) on July 31, 2019:

Hi Kendal, Remember, it's not about their appearance so much as their quality of life with so much extra muscle. They suffer as a consequence.

Kendal Jenner on May 20, 2019:

I find these cows attractive

Schatzie Speaks (author) on November 25, 2013:

I am all for a good healthy debate but could we please try to keep it civil? Cursing and name calling detracts from any valid point and I don't read beyond the first expletive. If you have a strong argument you don't need to use empty, offensive language to get recognition.

Thank you

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you people need to get your facts straight on November 24, 2013:

All u meat haters don't no anything I run a feed yard and all our manure gets used and u show me one water source that gets ruined from manure my feed yard is right by a river and the banks are covered with green tall grasses all these arguments are liberals wanting power and money fine get rid of farmers your food doesn't grow on a grocery store shelf u idiots

Florent on April 09, 2013:

Fuck that, I'm going vegetarian! I can't stand this awefull and greedy industry built on mass slaughter. I'm sure some farmer are good people raising their animals the best they can but I doubt they make up a large part of this giant meat production machine.

bull shit on November 22, 2012:

you need to listen to your own argument, it is bull shit, in this economy do you think every belgian blue cattle breeder, breeds for these kinds of calving problems. I have raised belgian blue cattle, and the terminal cross using a belgian blue bull has less calving problems then most other breeds, because the frame size of most belgian blue's is so much smaller then other breeds. All the belgian blue breeders I know work very hard to reduce and get rid of any bulls or cows that have these kind of problems, because the one time I had to have a c-section done it's cost was about 250 dollars, now add that to the cost of keeping the cow and the bull for one year, then subtract what the animal will bring in when sold, the c-section just ate up all the profit.

Steph on March 19, 2011:

Would you be so kind as to direct me to your references? I am doing a welfare project on this topic and you have brought up many good points.

dr-moo on March 15, 2011:

Aside from a number of errors in the article, which have been addressed by a number of the people commenting, it has generated very good discussion. as to the ethical depbate, how is this different than selecting dogs so they are huge like Great Danes or those you can fit in your pocket. and they all get food resources that could otherwise feed humans.

UQStudent on March 08, 2011:

Interesting article you have written here. But I have to agree with Melinda on this account. Also, adding my own 2c here, there isn't just one generic Belgian Blue. Like with any stock animal, they all look different in different countries. The Australian Belgian Blue just look like well-fed Hereford crosses in build and conformity. The European Belgian Blue cattle however, are the ones you see the most pictures of, with that superior twist. The National Geographic interviewed what was I believe a French laboratory managing and breeding such cattle. Youtube 'Super Cow' and watch the NationalGeographic channel video; it was quite good at explaining the facts in a clear and concise way.

If you want to see a very good example of how breeds of stock differ just because of the country they are in, research Australian, American and English Black Faced Suffolks. The English Suffolks are these stunted and borderline mutated animals with deformed legs, faces and severly elongated spines. The American Suffolks are absolutely massive in terms of height and length. And the Australian Suffolk is in the middle; tall, long and well muscled animals. You can't simply condemn a single breed without acknowledging all the facts; such as, they aren't all the same.

lobonorth on March 03, 2011:

Congratulations to authors of the comments as well as to the author of the piece that is the catalyst for the debate.

It does seem that ethics tend to lose out when those who make the money and rule the world weigh principle against profit. My sense is that you don't want to leave decision making up to corporations if you place other considerations above pure profit.


MEATEATER on February 17, 2011:

GET A GRIP PEEPS! we is doin wat nacher intned, mybe jus spedin it up a bit... MEAT... YUM!

BOOOOM on November 24, 2010:

OH and my resources are "Sustaining the Earth" by G. Tyler Miller and Scott E. Spoolman as well as my economy course and my family.

:x I agree with one of the first comments, I would really like to see the resources you got about the health issues of Blue Belgium Cattle.

BOOOOM on November 24, 2010:

Cannonball you are being absurd. The government can apply a tax to households with an over abundant amount of children OR they can actually fix our education system and try to educate our youth on our population growth and the effects it has on the environment. Nobody chooses to address it because environmental issues aren't in a critical enough state to heavily impact our daily lives. Everyone continues living their daily lives without taking the steps to fix things. Livestock in the United States alone produce 20 times more waste than is produced by the country's human population. Only about half of all manure is used as fertilizer, the rest is polluting our ground water and aquifers (settlements near feedlots are literally drinking shit water from their wells). Industrial livestock is one of the WORLD'S biggest water consumers. Producing 8 ounces of grain fed beef requires 6,600 gallons of water. (This does not include the water used inside of slaughter houses.) There is also going to be a HUGGGE increase in pressure on marine life, since many fish are caught and turned into fish meal and fish oils that are then fed to cows (Fish oils are a good source of Omega 3 and it eases inflammation in the joints. This is good for large animals and will be extremely important for Belgium Blues)

However, simply not eating meat will not solve anything and selectively breeding cows with mutations WILL help with the yields, but there are several ethical issues with doing things like this. Genetic biodiversity in cattle is declining. Many of the meat cows in the United States are the spawn of the same 5 bulls. They artificially inseminate the cattle to produce more yields. By doing so, disease and many biological issues will adapt to the cow's genetic make up and will infect many of these animals. Nothing has to be sacrificed. We choose to do this consumption is the way our economy works. If we find alternatives to beef and mixed up our diet as well as using more efficient methods of obtaining meat (they are out there, but many industries do not want to put in the money to change their system to something more expensive), then we would be in much better shape and we wouldn't have to "sacrifice" the quality of life of most farm animals.The way agribusiness works (and I know this because my father's side is full of farmers) is that the more yields you produce, the more land you get, the more money you get. But by trying to manage such a large area of land, many of the practices are wasteful and destructive.

Buy locally. Don't support large industrial farms who are destroying our country. Support America. Etc. Etc.

Cannonball on October 01, 2010:

We, as human, are on top of the food chain. Sacrificing other species to ensure our better well-being is inevitable. Do not judge on the animals' behalf. Until you think of a way to reduce the unbalanced population of human hence decreasing the need of resources, there is nothing you can do. We eat meat,and we will need more at what ever the cost, full stop.

doesn't matter on September 21, 2010:

i enjoyed what you wrote, you do have a point. when line breeding does cause health problems something needs to be done different, and usely is. if you have a breed that you have to do a c-section 89.5% of the time, their not worth having as far a production goes, so that tells me it must not be that big a problem. and you pointed out to crossbred the blues to lessen the operation rate during birth. blues are crossbred when used for beef production. i can say, growning up on a farm in oklahoma and working in a custom packing plant, the holstien is the worst choice for a beef production breed, they are for dairy production and for good reason. they produce over 17,000lbs of milk a year, they have a very low muscle mass campaired to other breeds and have large frams. about 45% of the hanging weight of a pure holstien is bone, other breeds are about 30 to 35%. your best choice would be the angus, others would be the hereford or the limousin breeds

Melinda on March 07, 2010:

Your title "The Quest for Ethical Genetic Experimentation" is curious in that you discuss the Belgian Blue Beef. You specify Belgian White Blue herd and the resulting "Modern breeds of Belgian Blue cattle are the creation of genetic engineering conducted by Professor Hanset at an AI Center in Begium (Oklahoma state website), with the specific goal of expanding the muscular content of the animals as much as possible."

As the name implies, Belgian Blue Cattle originated in the small European country of Belgium. While today Belgian Blue cattle are their own fullblood registered breed, their roots can be tracked back well over a century to a crossing of Durham Shorthorns and Friesian cattle.

People describe these cattle breeds as "double muscle", but the total increase in all muscles is no more than 40%

Initially the Belgian Blue was developed, as most European cattle are, for their use as a dual purpose breed or, more simply, for both milk production and meat production. For most of the early to middle 1900s the breed tried to exist in the dual role. However, even at this early stage of breed development there was an increasing movement among many breeders to develop cattle of a more ‘meaty type’. Following the second world war, a liberated European economy quickly demanded an increased quality and quantity of meat, particularly those cuts of high retail value. This economic demand accelerated the development of Belgian Blue cattle in a more heavily muscled direction.

Finally, in 1974, the breed was divided into two branches, one for continued use as a dual purpose animal and the other exclusively for meat production. The vast majority of breeders concentrated their efforts on breeding the Belgian Blue for beef production. Today we see the result of the 150 years of work in the modern Belgian Blue. An animal that is structurally correct and sound, docile in temperament, fertile in breeding, and above all the ultimate beef machine. National Geographic did a segment on them, and the farm they filmed used an all natural selective breeding process.

Belgian Blues originated in the Ardenne Hills region of Belgium at the end of the nineteenth century when native dairy cattle were crossed with introduced Shorthorn beef cattle. Double-muscled cattle refers to breeds of cattle that carry a mutation which represses the myostatin protein, consequently augmenting muscle growth. Affected breeds include:

Belgian Blue



Many factors besides ethics and genetic experimentation are at work breeding cattle. Most cattle breeders want prize bulls for mating with compatable heifers. The Belgian Blue Bull is the "Ultimate Terminal Sire" for use on all other breeds of cattle. A first generation crossing greatly increases the yeild at slaughter and meat yeild on the carcass without causing more difficult calvings than any other non-double muscle breeds. It also greatly improves the quality of meat with less fat and cholesterol! Then there is the fact of economics, sustainability, climate change, and in fact there is struggle to stay a farmer or cattleman. Additionally, today they are at work to produce food for the consumer, in very difficult economic times, with a lot of strain on banks that help farmers.

Consumers do not want unethical animal treatment, which the information in the care of the animal reveals.

It just seems someone decided after over 100 years of the same processes that there were imperfections in some breeding decisions that are indeed questionable. As for the success or desirability of breeding to produce beef with these problems, most breeders avoid any of the scenarios that are the problems you call results from experimentation. You might like this 2003 article Beef Logic.:

Jessica on November 02, 2009:

Hi, I enjoyed your writing but wanted to ask if you could link me to the source where you got the information saying that the Belgian Blue breed was genetically engineered. All the reading I've done on the breed, including the website, has said that they were developed using selective breeding, with selection being primarily for the mutated myostatin gene.

I do think that we have to keep in mind that the majority of people who raise cattle for meat do not raise purebred animals but rather have some sort of commercial cross (hereford x angus is popular here). The smaller, more moderate frame animals are typically used because they fatten up quicker, have less problems with dystocia and are cheaper to raise because they require less feed to maintain. Belgian Blues and other 'exotic' breeds are usually used as terminal sires. Double muscled breeds are awesome for this because, please correct me if I'm wrong, the gene responsible for double-muscling is incomplete autosomal dominant, meaning that heterozygotes show increased muscling, but not as much as homozygotes. Meaning you increase yield while avoiding many of defects associated with double-muscling. Dystocia is still a problem but its comparable to if you had bred to any of the other large continental breeds.

I also wanted to ask where you got your slaughter weight numbers as I've been taught that most steers are slaughtered at 1100-1300lbs, unless your numbers are in kg which would make more sense. I also wanted to point out that its possible that the slaughter weights are all comparable because if the animals get much larger than that, then the cuts of meat will be too large to fit into the meat trays you buy them in at the supermarket.

I do agree though that humans as a whole need to be more responsible with their breeding. To add to this argument, instead of focusing on producers, you can also see the same problems in our pet industry. A good example would be the English Bulldog which also needs a C-section about 95% of the time, and is also known for its skin, eye, joint and breathing problems.

super cattle??? on June 20, 2009:

i think it is just wrong

we are trying to be to much like God...

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