In recent months, there have been many challenges facing the beef industry over lean finely textured beef (LFTB or “pink slime”), transgluterase, EPA fly-overs, antibiotic use, and animal rights activists’ attacks both in the legislature and on the farm (Harris Ranch). This is a function of the today’s media and social networks, and has led to the American consumer becoming more concerned about how their food is raised than ever before. These concerns do not fall on deaf ears as technology use and animal welfare have been at the heart of industry efforts for decades. The question becomes not only what technologies and techniques to use, but also how best to showcase to consumers that the best management practices are being used.
Survey information compiled by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), shows that concerns over production practices are especially prevalent in the Millennial generation (ages 18-32). This is an age group that is important for the beef industry to capture to ensure future domestic markets, though current market conditions make it difficult as beef prices rise. The Millennial generation is starting to graduate from college, begin their professional careers and start families. This is a generation that is highly affected by price but is also more likely to be influenced by production practices. They are a generation that has grown up on the internet and in social media and are highly influenced by sensational headlines regarding LFTB, mad cow disease, antibiotics, or Clenbuterol. Millennials are also a main target for animal rights organizations, such as Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), who are focusing on this generation when promoting their vegan agenda.
In order to win the battle for consumers and secure beef’s future on the center of America’s plate, our industry needs to focus on using management practices that are not only science based, but also accepted by the consumer. This might seem to be a daunting task, but it really isn’t as difficult as the face value. Global Animal Partnership (GAP) is one of largest humane handling programs and audits in the United States, with products going to retailers such as Whole Foods and restaurants like Chipotle. GAP has representatives from both HSUS and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), who serve on their standards board. Step 1 of the GAP program is predominately composed of practices that a majority of producers are using along with almost all natural beef producers. As an industry, we are using practices that even our greatest enemies can approve of, but unfortunately folks don’t believe it without the third-party audit.
The management practices consumers are most interested in (aside from their ideas of enough food, water and sunshine) is the use of antibiotics, growth promotants and animal handling. Issues such as LFTB and transgluterase are of interest to them, but those are more processor and retailer related matters, which by all means cow/calf producers should be educated enough to speak about, but they have little control over the processes. These practices are more related to the rancher or feedlot operator.
The use of antibiotics on farms is a hot button issue with the American public due to the perception that it is overused and causes antibiotic resistant bacteria that will affect human medicine, and this in turn is coupled with worries about residues in the meat supply. As producers, we are responsible for ensuring safety and minimizing residues by adhering to withdrawal periods and label instructions. This involves following Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) protocols for drug administration. It remains important to always give injections in the neck, at prescribed levels and subcutaneously if possible. Anti-microbials, such as ionophores, are also thrown into this category for their sub-therapeutic use. Part of the solution to this issue is education from the grassroots level in how these drugs are used and the safety behind the research and the responsible use by ranchers.
Growth promotants are typically lumped in with antibiotics in the belief that we “pump our cattle full of hormones and have to give them antibiotics to keep them healthy.” While this idea might seem silly and unfounded to a producer, according to NCBA research over 18 percent of Millennials believe just that. Growth promotants mainly refer to implants and beta-agonists, which are most commonly used in a feedlot setting but have some use by ranchers. Critics fear residues, especially with hormone implants. In the case of attacks on technology, knowledge is power. At a recent NCBA meeting, Dr. Jude Capper stated that the extra beef from implants and beta-agonists on a single carcass supply seven children with school lunches for the year. Research has also shown that the difference in estrogen levels in an implanted steer versus a non-implanted steer equate to 0.4 nanograms per four ounce serving (1.6 nanograms for implanted steer), whereas three ounces of soy oil, a typical vegetarian protein supplement, contains 168,000 nanograms of estrogen.
The issues regarding animal handling revolve around the same issue of animal welfare. It is disheartening how quick the public is to believe a video put together by an animal rights group of poor handling and production practices and to extrapolate that it is representative of the entire industry. It is amazing to see how people pay attention to an issue like the E6 Ranch incident and lose sight of the millions of dollars producers have put into animal behavior research, facilities and training. The thousands of producers who attend seminars annually conducted by industry leaders Curt Pate and Dr. Ron Gill on animal handling know what good husbandry is and put it to use in their own operations. Feedlots and ranches across the country continue to upgrade their facilities in the vein of Temple Grandin’s research and protocols to better handling practices. This is an issue that must be attacked from a grassroots level in order to prevent consumer dissatisfaction and government overreach.
All of these technologies and practices are topics we need to be prepared to defend in the near future and it will take an effort from the entire industry to do it. As an industry, we have relied on the science behind what we do to defend our practices for a long time. In today’s media environment where a “mommy blogger” can shut down production of a safe USDA approved product like LFTB with no history of bacterial contamination, science isn’t enough.
As ranchers, we must address the public that is generations removed from the farm and open the barn door. Whether it is hosting a farm or feedlot tour, talking to your congressmen or just the organic Whole Foods shopper down the street, we must act. We stand today on the top of a slippery slope that could lead us toward government regulation of the European vein, where supply is stifled and good producers are forced out of business. It will take producers, backgrounders, livestock market operators, feedlots and packers uniting together to use technology safely and effectively, use animal husbandry wisely and to spread the word publicly to enhance this industry’s image and preserve our way of life.