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Organic, Natural, Grass-fed or Conventional: What is the right choice?

I was on a first date the other day when my date, who is very health and fitness conscious, was telling me about a discussion she had with a friend about organic beef. Apparently they had decided that it was healthier for you because it was “organic”. Little did she know, she hit one of my ‘hot button” issues and got my typical one minute speech on the fact that there is little difference in nutritional values just differences in how the cattle are raised. I didn’t go through the entire subject since I think I spooked her with my passion on the whole subject, but I’ll go through it for you here.

Organic. Organic farming involves using only what comes about naturally. They fertilize with compost or manure. The cattle generally don’t receive antibiotics or hormones. They can receive qualifying vaccinations and synthetic medications if cattle are sick. Feed must also be from an organic source, probably the hardest part if you don’t produce your own feed. It is a system that is similar to the “Ole’ McDonald’s Farm” from 1900 that most people picture when they think of farming.

While it is sentimental way to do things, it is higher cost with decreased production. It also requires a lot of record keeping and cost with the verification of practices to qualify for the “organic” label. Simply put, while it is an emotionally appealing system, it is not economical way to produce beef in the quantities needed for current populations. If all agriculture switched back to this system there would be a lot less food available, meaning a lot more hungry people in the world that just can’t afford it.

Now I have no problem with people who make the choice to raise their animals organically and go through the USDA defined process for “organic” verification. I do have a problem with those who demonize the entire modern agriculture system in order to market their product (I’m looking at you, Joel Salatin). These folks believe that their method is the best way to raise beef and some produce a good product which is liked by a small group of Americans that are willing to pay the extra cost for the process.

While organic farmers might believe that some agricultural practices are harmful, USDA and FDA tests and approves of all these systems and products. So the opinion that what they are doing is safer and healthier is just a theory with little or no scientific evidence. If you want that product and are willing to pay extra for it, I’m glad you have the choice. It’s free enterprise at work. But if you produce it, please promote your product and system for its own virtues rather than demean the rest of us for using technology.

Natural. This practice is harder to define because USDA hasn’t put an exact definition on what “natural” is. The accepted definition is cattle that haven’t received any antibiotics or hormones. They are vaccinated giving them resistance to prevalent diseases. The majority of cattle are verified through an affidavit at the producer level and stringent specs at the feedlot level, though some retailers are requiring a third party audit all the way through the system for verification.

These are the steaks that I personally buy. For hamburger, it really doesn’t matter as long as it has the right fat content for me (80-20). It is not due to any health concerns, but because the product tends to eat better since implants tend to have a small effect on tenderness. It is just a more consistent product and eating experience in my opinion. Scientifically the difference is not significant but with my cooking skills it helps.

Grass-fed. These are cattle that are never fed concentrates (grains). They are developed to finish weight on total forage. The flavor is much different and it tends to be tougher than grain fed beef because of decreased fat and age of the animal. Grass-fed can also be kind of hit or miss. A savvy producer will graze steers on high energy forages like alfalfa, clover, wheat or barley during the finishing stage to get them to marble. This is basically feeding them grain without harvesting it and yields a product with more fat, but some producers use typical forages so the cattle have a gamey taste (in my opinion) and are tougher. There is a health benefit with the increased Omega-3 fatty acid ratio compared to grain fed.  I eat sushi and other fish dishes to get my Omega-3s, at least then I enjoy eating it.

This is another system from days past. It was used extensively in the 1800s and is still used today in Brazil, Australia, and Argentina. If prepared correctly (cooked very slowly), it can be very good but it takes a lot of time to produce and prepare. It would take millions of additional cattle and acreage to maintain production in this system.

Conventional. This is the typical method of producing beef in the US. A steer will be vaccinated as a calf, receives antibiotics if he is sick, is fed ionophores to improve feed efficiency and lessen risk of coccidiosis, and probably be implanted at the feedlot. Any products that he received have withdrawal periods that will be adhered to in order to eliminate any possibility of residue in the meat. He will be slaughtered in a USDA inspected facility and come to your plate as a healthy individual who produced a wholesome beef product.  His beef might have a small difference in hormone levels but as I pointed out previous, it is a minuscule amount of difference.

So what is the right choice? That’s up to you. All of these methods are safe and produce iron rich, high protein delicious beef. Grass-fed is the only product with a nutritional difference. The method that you (the consumer) prefer is available and that is your choice. The greatest part of this country, in my opinion, is that freedom. If you want a safe, price-competitive product, you can eat conventional. If you want to pay more for the practices that suit you, you can eat organic, grass-fed, or natural.

You can feel good about any of those choices because a grand majority of producers, feeders, packers and retailers care deeply about how beef is produced and the animals producing it (more on that next week). And you can receive the health benefits of beef in a balanced diet.

So whatever your choice, on behalf of cattle producers everywhere, I hope you enjoy your steak.

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Posted by on May 4, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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What’s in the beef?

I read the following in a recent press release on MeatPoultry.com and I thought I would share.

According to the office of U.S. Rep. Louise Slaughter (NY), more than 60 fast-food companies, livestock producers, meat and poultry processors and retailers received a letter from the congresswoman asking for disclosure of the use of antibiotics in the products they sell.

“In the past year alone, we have had more outbreaks of antibiotic-resistant Salmonella associated with contaminated meat and poultry than any other year, leaving behind a trail of victims that cannot be treated with common antibiotics,” she wrote in the letter sent to fast-food companies.

Companies are asked to respond to the letter by June 15, 2012, providing information about their policy with suppliers regarding antibiotic use; consumer education programs relating to antibiotic use; percentage of meat and poultry supplies that come from animals given antibiotics for therapeutic vs. non-therapeutic reasons; and any planned policy changes regarding the use of antibiotics.

“Consumers have a right to know what’s in their food,” said Slaughter. “We just want to know, ‘what’s in the beef?’”

Some of you might know Mrs. Slaughter from her 2007 legislation titled The Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA), which aims to limit the use of antibiotics in the livestock industry. In December, she authored an Op-Ed piece for the Huffington Post, “What’s in Your Christmas Ham?”

She is still trying diligently to move this legislation through Congress and is now turning to the media to drum up a public outcry in order to move it. Her theory is that long term feeding of antibiotics to livestock will cause pathogens to develop that are resistant to antibiotics. This would let bacteria experience a non-lethal dose of the antibiotic so they have the ability to adapt. Antibiotic resistant strains of Salmonella are generally used as examples. Most research shows this is not reproducible but there are many political forces pushing this agenda.

The simple fact is that there is very little antibiotic feed for growth promotion. Some tetracyclines like aureomycin are used during periods of stress or as a mass medicate to prevent illness for groups in a new environment, but are not fed throughout the feeding process. The large amount of fed antibiotics in USDA or FDA statistics are ionophores (Rumensin and Bovatec) which have some antimicrobial properties but are mainly used to shift the rumen’s volatile fatty acid production to enhance the production of propionic acid. This yields enhanced gains and feed efficiency which is good for the environment with less feed being used to produce beef and less greenhouse gas emissions emitted from the back end of the cattle. Ionophores are not used in human medicine and pose no threat but the industry is in danger of losing them as a tool with Mrs. Slaughter’s legislation.

I can understand the fear and believe that antibiotics like tetracyclines and pencillins should be used judiciously to ensure health of both animal and man. But with broad based legislation, we throw the baby out with the bath water. We reduce producers’ ability to treat animals in a timely manner, prevent infection and improve production efficiency, all for a theory. Scientists are split and no connection between antibiotics used in animals and resistant bacteria has been proven.

Another potential cause of antibiotic resistant bacteria is the prevalence of antibiotic prescriptions in human health care. “So you have a cold? Here have some antibiotics.” The common cold is a virus and antibiotics don’t kill viruses. Also, a large group of people don’t complete their cycle of antibiotics. They feel better so they stop taking the pills. This also exposes bacteria to levels of the antibiotic that are non-lethal allowing them to adapt.

To put it simply, we, as beef producers, use these FDA approved products according to label instructions or through extra label instructions from a veterinarian to treat sick animals and to prevent illness in some cases. There is no rampant use of antibiotics in the industry for the simple fact that they are very expensive. Ranchers work in a small margin commodity business that punishes overspending. So the sick are treated, cattle are vaccinated or illness is prevented, in order provide the best health and care for the animal, not to improve gains.

Natural and non-hormone treated cattle programs are becoming more popular with the consumer and more ranchers are buying in for the premiums. I get to work with a number of these ranchers because Limousin work well in these programs. For most, it is doing business as usual with their record keeping and methods being verified by a third party.

All antibiotics have a withdrawal period set forth by FDA to prevent them from being in the system of the animal when slaughtered. Cattle must pass pre-mortem and post-mortem health inspections by USDA veterinarians at processing. Processing plants have plans in place to prevent contamination that were partially described in “Do Cattle Understand Death?” These plans also account for a wash post mortem, time spent in a freezer, cleaning procedures at every juncture and testing of final products for contamination by USDA inspectors before they are shipped.

Most foodborne illness can be accounted for after the cattle have left producers’ hands and by undercooked food. I appreciate a good rare steak, steak tartar or a burger cooked medium but these do come with the risk that any bacteria present, either from the cook’s hands or other contamination, might still be alive.

So what’s in the beef? Delicious protein, iron and fats that contribute to healthy, happy, well-nourished people, all thanks to producers that look out for their animals and the public’s health.

 
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Posted by on March 2, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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Your Burrito with a Side of Deceit

Some of you might have recently been exposed to Chipotle’s two minute commercial entitled “Back to the Start” featuring Willie Nelson singing “The Scientist” when it played during the Grammys last week. I could address the fallacy involved in the symbolism that is supposed to represent modern day agriculture as a factory, how infeasible it would be to try to produce enough food for the world if we used the practices they seem to endorse or the simple facts of humane handling of livestock, but I’ll save that for another time. I do want to share with you an experience I was privileged to have this past summer involving Chipotle.

Last July, I had the opportunity to tour a large processing facility with a small group of ranchers that raise all-natural Global Animal Partnership (GAP) approved cattle that are processed at that plant. Once we got there we met a VP of procurement from Chipotle that would be touring the facility with us. As we went around the facility I stayed close, asked questions and listened to his questions of the plant managers. While touring the facility, he was mainly focused on traceability from the live animal to box. The handling facilities impressed us all including him. I know the cattle that were qualifying for the all-natural label going through that plant were not fed in the environment shown in the commercial and that did not seem to matter.

Don’t get me wrong, the feedlots that I have seen that are shipping to that facility are first class and they and their producers use the best handling practices available. They are feedlots in the Midwest and the cattle and beef have to be shipped the same as any other beef. They are the type of feedlots that Chipotle seems to be campaigning against in their commercial.

To quote Chipotle’s website, “When we started purchasing naturally raised beef in 1999 we could hardly find any suppliers that met our standards. We’ve put a lot of work into poking, prodding, convincing, and occasionally applying guilt to ranchers in order to get more and more suppliers to meet our naturally raised standards.”

For Chipotle to imply that their cattle are grass-fed or their beef producers changed their practices because they had an ethical problem with modern production is simply false. I understand that they display dairy cattle in the commercial but most of the public don’t know the difference. All-natural cattle are raised like most of the animals in the country with the only exception that they don’t receive antibiotics or growth promotants, which is a growing niche that is sold throughout the country and internationally. It should be noted both the antibiotics and growth promotants that are used in production are FDA approved, tested and used within the guidelines set out by both the USDA and the FDA to unsure that they are safe.

Some producers have never used implants and they produce their cattle naturally because that is what fits their environment and their cattle’s genetics. Some of these people raise natural for the premium that exists. Simply put they didn’t have to “apply guilt” to ranchers but offer a premium which is what they did. I’m not sure if Chipotle only buys GAP approved cattle but if they do people should understand that most progressive operations use the practices set forth in those guidelines, and there is a large premium for getting approved.

I can understand Chipotle’s desire to set themselves apart but to do it by demonizing the entire livestock industry is completely unreasonable. The best thing we can do as farmers is display our operations to the public every chance we get. And to vote with our dollars. I for one will not be returning to Chipotle again. Qdoba serves the same product minus the deceit.

 
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Posted by on February 22, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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