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A Careful (Food) Consumer


As I am exploring Agriculture and therefore the origins of my food, I am becoming more and more aware of nutrition and all the buzz that surrounds it. While America has been on the alert for many years now (as obesity rates are climbing), at 116 pounds soaking wet, I really wasn’t that interested. I enjoyed veggies and salads, but I also downed 10-12 Oreos every day after school or class. I knew that eventually, my weight would start to catch up to me, and I was pretty worried how that would affect my lack of self discipline in the kitchen. Now that I’m cooking for myself, I have taken a more vested interest in my nutrition. The healthier I eat, the better I feel. And strangely, the more active I am, the more I actually crave the healthy foods. I begin to gravitate towards carrots as an after class snack, for example.

In all of this personal nutrition research and development, I even occasionally read the nutrition facts on a label or an article about healthy foods (Hey, I’m not totally reformed). When I began working in the beef industry, I began learning how nutritious beef is in a balanced diet. Protein, Zinc, B vitamins, Iron…you name it! The most interesting fact I learned about meat as a nutrition source vs veggies is the organic chemistry of it all. Now, that was not my best subject, so many of the details have since been forgotten, but the point will forever be ingrained with me: The actual molecular structure of meat is more conducive to human digestion than many vegetables of equal nutrient level. So…say vegetable A has x grams of protein, and meat A has the same x grams. Given the shape and form (molecularly) of the two, your body is able to absorb MORE protein from the meat than from the vegetable. (Maybe someone more in-tune with OChem or human nutrition can help me with some concrete facts??)

Either way, whether you are an avid meat lover like me, or a passionate vegetarian, these differences are important to realize. They are NOT explained on a nutrition label (if there isn’t enough space for one valuable Ochem lecture in my brain, there certainly isn’t enough space on a 2″x2″ label). So if it is essential to your beliefs to cut out something, make sure you are doing all the research you can. And try to look at both pro-your-choice articles and against-your-choice and make your answer as smart and unbiased as it can be. Before I preach about beef, I often look at vegetarian and animal rights activists articles and ponder whether or not their information challenges mine in a way I need to re-evaluate or research further.

When it comes to food, I believe that being a varied omnivore is the best way to achieve all the nutrients your body needs. I don’t believe in diets that cut things out…whether that be carbs, meats, or even sugars. And I weigh 116 lbs remember, so despite my scientific back up, I’d say I have a reasonable handle on the concept. Nature works so well together because each part of it has different pros and cons and compliment and balance another. Eat meat. Eat beef. But don’t trade a salad for a burger at every meal. I was always told the more color you have on your plate, the better you are doing at reflecting nature and therefore achieving the best balance your body can ask of you.

What I know about “pumping antibiotics into your future steak or hamburger”


“104.7!”

image courtesy of http://www.agandfoodlaw.com

“Bio 11!”

Someone moves to fill the syringe with 50 mL’s of dark, syrupy liquid and attaches a 3/4″ needle. Five small injection sites later, a steer leaves the chute with a clang.

*(normal temp is 101.5, so 104.7 as referenced above is considered very sick)

Every day, I inject numbers of sick, fevered* cattle with antibiotics. Cattle that will soon be entering the supermarket as your favorite burger or steak or brisket. By now, every American is well versed in the dangers of overusing antibiotics both in animals and people. Giving your toddler antibiotics for every round of sniffles will make a medicine-resistant germs that will infect your loved one later, and leave them prone to more allergies. Antibiotic residues entering your body through food has been linked to having the same effect (although these studies are still largely inconclusive).

So let’s consider this: Are we creating super bugs that can run rampant through our population, making us miserable and sending medical experts reeling for new drugs to stop the ever-stronger pathogens??

First, we need to understand that there are very similar principles involved with human and animal antibiotic use. Just because we’ve learned antibiotics are NOT the answer to everything, especially viruses which can’t be cured with them anyway, doesn’t mean there is not a place for them. There are times when antibiotics are incredibly useful. Ever had strep throat? Antibiotics are a life-saver! Without taking antibiotics, strep throat poses the risk of becoming bad enough to hospitalize you for kidney damage or heart valve inflammation. Before antibiotics, people died from simple sickness. The same is true in cattle. It is not the answer for everything, but it can ultimately prevent a death by treating an illness before it overtakes the animal’s body or spreads to the entire herd to create an epidemic. And a dose of antibiotics can save significant levels of animal suffering, which I think most human beings would agree is our invaluable responsibility for the animals in our care.

Second, not only do veterinarians monitor the use of antibiotics in food animals, but the FDA is incredibly involved. They do continuous studies to ensure that there are no residual drugs, hormones, or pesticides of any kind entering your body through a steak, hamburger (or veggie!). They work directly with the drug companies to test the meat treated with antibiotics. Over the years, injections have been moved onto the neck (instead of the rear) to help both with bruising the animal and the damage to the meat. These FDA restrictions have also lead to withdrawl times, which are well-known and strictly enforced by every working member on the feedyard. A withdrawl time is set by the FDA and printed on the drug label for easy access. Many steps are taken to ensure no antibiotics are in the cows system at all by the time they are slaughtered:

Cattle are restrained in a chute for cattle/person safety, cattle comfort, and injection accuracy. Photo courtesy of http://www.morandindustries.com

  •  Animals are only injected in the neck instead of the rear of the animal. This means that in fact, the more popular cuts of beef (round, steaks, etc) are not ever directly injected with antibiotics. Antibiotics are also injected subcutaneously, or just under the skin, instead of directly into the muscles that you eat.
  • Several injection sites are used in order to prevent a high concentration of antibiotics in one region. If the medication is not properly spread out, it can sort of ball up under the skin and does not circulate properly (therefore not being as effective in treating the sickness)

These are the acceptable injection sites as set out by Beef Quality Assurance

  • The withdrawal time (in the case of Bio, ~30 days), means that any animal given Bio absolutely under NO circumstances can leave the yard for that time period, until it is positively known that the animal does not have any trace of antibiotic travelling through their bodies.
  •  Every animal that is run through the hospital receives a hospital tag. This tag is individual to this animal, and is also entered into a computer database.
  • Any animal that receives an antibiotic gets a notch cut out of the ear tag in a specific area to signify which drug has been given, so you can look at the animal and see that they have been treated during their stay on the feedlot
  • The computer system tracks the date and dosage of every trip through the chute, whether or not it gets antibiotics
  • If an animal has received 3 doses of antibiotics and comes back sick again, it is deemed “Chronic” and will be put down if it becomes too ill/fails to recover. Even feedlots recognize that there is a point to which antibiotics are not doing their job, and continuously treating an animal not only increases risk of it retaining an illness, but also stresses an animal. Unfortunately, if an animal doesn’t get better after our best efforts, the best option is to put the animal out of his misery and continue to protect the people consuming beef daily.
  • When a pen of cattle is shipped (to slaughter), all animals of that pen are checked to be sure they are “clear” –they have met every withdrawl time and therefore are not containing any drug residues.
  • Any animal that is not clear must be moved to an entirely different pen prior to the ship to ensure that no one accidentally adds them to the truck.
  • As the pen ships, it is entered as such in the computer. The computer also checks again for any “Hot” (not met withdrawal times) animals. If after all the human checks, the computer finds that a hot animal is on the truck, the entire truck must be stopped on the highway and turned back to the feedyard, where every animal is unloaded and reloaded only after they have ensured that hot animals have been moved off the loading area into the designated “hot” pen. It is very rare that it ever gets to this point (it hasn’t happened in my 5 months here, and I have only ever heard of 1 instance…and many employees have been around for 10+ years)
Antibiotic rules are constantly modified and checked on. Every person administering antibiotics must know the withdrawal times and responsibly give the proper dosage in the proper areas– not only for animal comfort and well-being, but for ours as well. It’s a very detailed system, with many back-ups and checkpoints. Straying from any label guidelines is strictly prohibited and illegal. And trust me, no feedlot can afford to risk being shut down by simply not following directions on a label. Veterinarians are also constantly checking on our practices. They are tailoring the medication programs to better help the animals and to reduce overall antibiotic levels. They are updating staff on new study results. Our vet visits once a month with graphs and notes on all of our treatment histories and data. He reviews every doctor practice that we carry out, and gives us new goals or criteria to go on for the next month. The FDA checks their studies not just when a new drug first reaches the market, but afterwards as well to ensure that no results change as time progresses. To read more about FDA regulations on drug use in food animals, you can visit their website here.

Healthy Cows are Happy Cows! Photo courtesy of http://www.ericcressey.com

Food, Inc…A critique


So, FINALLY, after years of being in the Ag world/business, I had the opportunity to watch the infamous “Food, Inc” documentary/movie that is out and popular amongst millions of Americans. There were a few major things that stuck out to me in particular as I watched. And after hearing so many stories of people who became vegetarians because of this documentary, I had some pretty high expectations. I tried very hard to go in to this viewing with an open mind. But honestly, after about 5 minutes, this video started losing my confidence–fast. Even still, I like to find the positive in things, and this documentary was no exception.

The Good:

  • The soybeans.

I have to agree that the whole idea of “owning” a seed is really problematic to Agriculture in America. I have heard many stories similar to those in the documentary of farmers losing battles with companies like Monsanto because the genetics have ended up on the farmer’s land. It is amazing to me that many of these cases are won by the big companies. Any person who has taken a basic Biology class should recall that “Tree Sperm” or seeds are spread and fertilized through a variety of methods…but almost all of them require the seeds to travel across long distances of land. Tumbleweeds, wind, birds, etc are all responsible for spreading new plants to different areas. It is absolutely impossible for neighboring farms to keep their particular strains entirely separate. It has nothing to do with being a theif and everything to do with the laws of nature. I hope that farmers and cooperations can come to an understanding and allow for everyone to exist and compete in the market. We do not allow monopolies in this country and I sure hope as we move forward in all areas of business that we enforce the right to a competitive market. I plan to do more research about the truths of this issue and I’ll get back to you.

  • The push for people to take interest in what they are eating.

Just in the last 50 years or so, America has become more removed from its sources of food. My great-uncle and great-grandparents (? or some family far in the past) had their own little farm. Not enough to avoid the grocery store altogether, but a few chickens, goats, and vegetables. Even as a younger child, every summer we grew our own vegetables and herbs (I can’t say we still do, but I hope to return to that soon). Nowadays, the thought of picking your own warm eggs or drinking milk fresh off the cow with the cream on the top is just so…old-fashioned. Or even…dirty. What I like about the “hippies” of this country, and documentaries such as Food, Inc. is the idea that maybe the “old-fashioned” had some great wisdom. They had such rich, tasty, homemade foods. “Preserves” were made yearly in recycled glass jars, and “preservatives” had not even a hint of similarity in meaning to today’s food additives. This idea of really taking the time to learn how and where food comes from is still at the very core of today’s agriculturalist/Farmer, and I do think it’s great that more and more everyday American’s are “circling back”, in a way, to become once again familiar with their nourishment.

 

  •  Urging people to demand more than just cheap prices.

I feel that there is a great push in this nation and across the globe for people to become more aware of not only what they eat, but how their lifestyle affects everything from business to the environment to international relations. As the Agricultural Revolution has continued, humanity has continued to strive for “more on less”. Let’s look at the invention of the cotton gin. This machine allowed us to produce more cotton on less labor, therefore allowing it to be sold cheaper. The result that was not necessarily foreseen, however, is the effect on required slaves. Instead of reducing the number of slaves needed by having a machine that worked quicker, it provided the opportunity to sell cotton to more of the globe. This, in turn, actually increased the number of slaves needed, to keep up with the new demand. (You can Google this phenomenon, but it is also explained here). Similarly, we have learned how to raise more meat on fewer resources. Instead of only being able to afford meat once a week, you can have meat in your diet once a meal. While this has a great opportunity to have a balanced diet of meat, fruits, vegetables, etc year-round, day or night, wealthy or poor, it also raises new concerns. Are cheap prices and “availability to all!” really the best choice for America? or the Earth? Are we willing to research whether organic or free range or [insert any food buzzword] really is better for not just the environment, but everything else too? It is hard to argue that producing more veggies and meat on less land is the wrong choice, simply because…aren’t we feeding the world?! Aren’t we saving other countries from starvation because we can produce enough food to not only provide for Americans, but for other nations in need? I believe the point is to continue researching, continue studying cause-effect, and continue improving our system so that it is well-rounded, and not just all about making food so incredibly affordable. As we [humankind] are coming to realize, no matter how ingenious we are, we will not be able to sustain and exponential expand in population. How that relatively new realization affects our decisions on Agriculture (and even decisions on human life) should be very interesting to see. Let’s not make it into a war between one side or the other. It is not environmentalist against humanitarian against farmer. It needs to be a collective decision that evaluates each concern. The world is not black and white evil vs good. It is a bunch of grey area compromises.

The Bad and the Ugly:

  • “The Farm Fantasy”.

The beginning of this film shows images used in packaging of fields and pastures, dotted with silhouettes of seemingly delighted livestock.  And then it uses the phrase “farm fantasy”, and goes on to explain how this is an untruth about Agriculture. I had to laugh out loud. How is this a fantasy? I understand their intention of pointing out that there are “factory farms”, but the existence of such things does not negate the existence of down-home lush green pastures. Do people really buy that? I mean, are there really people in suburbia or metropolitans who have not, on some drastically long and painful family road trip, passed such a beautiful farm as the ones I see daily? These “fantasy” farms absolutely do exist.

www.benzinga.com

This scenic picture is absolutely real.

Little pieces of paradise dotted around the nation. And let me share something else with you. If you’ve noticed them becoming few and farther between, you can probably blame your own neighborhood just as equally as a large company like Smithfield. Because your need (and mine, for that matter…I grew up in suburbia too you know) for a nice lawn and 3 car garage and 4 bedrooms for 2 people type of home has grown some fabulous neighborhoods. And at least in North Carolina/Virginia, many of these neighborhoods are called things like “Fairfield Farm”. Do you know why that is? Because your pretty little brick house was built by a contractor who bought out that little all-American farming family and put a row of mailboxes on what USED to be Fairfield Farm. It’s tough cookies for any small business, and that includes small farmers. There’s a buy-out price for everything, and unfortunately, that includes “fantasy” farms. But they haven’t all been bought out yet, and don’t forget that.

  • Very Talented Editing 

This is something that is in no way new to the world of journalism, sensationalism, book-writing, etc. Call it “persuasive writing”, call it whatever. The idea is to show bits of truths to create a specific effect and achieve a certain goal. While it is very successful at accomplishing the goal at hand, the viewer/reader/audience must be very careful before assuming that these bits of truths are the whole. entire. truth. As I watched Food, Inc, I noticed that I was feeling a rising sense of injustice. I kept looking over to my brother and friend and saying, “Feedlots don’t LOOK like that!” “It isn’t LIKE that!”. I didn’t mean to say “they staged all of this and nothing about it is true”. What I mean is, the way the documentary is filmed, you walk away feeling a certain way. Because I have experience in feedlots, I shall focus on that part because I can promise and give my word, 100%, that I know what I’m talking about. The movie  never REALLY go into great discussion about the overcrowding and inhumane conditions of a feedlot. But didn’t you walk away feeling that? Didn’t you think to yourself, “Ew. Look, they can’t even move. They’re like little sardines. How dreadful”. The editing was very clever. This is similar to what you saw:

Lots of cattle. Shoulder to shoulder. Barely enough space to turn around. This picture is small and not of great quality, but the point is still obvious: overcrowded and miserable. Who would want to live on one of those? How do we allow food to be grown that way? Poor cows. This is a picture of a small truth of feedlots, as shown by documentaries such as Food, Inc, that lead you to believe an untruth.

Now let’s look at the whole truth of this image:

courtesy of google image: feedlot

True, they are still on dirt. But they absolutely have the space to leave each other’s sides. They could certainly get to the feed by spreading down the bunks on that entire side of the pen, instead of bunching in that corner. They have friends (cattle are a herding species, and they naturally aggregate), they have a nice view of green, they have readily available food and water. And they definitely, definitely are not packed shoulder to shoulder. I’m sure you can see which part of the 2nd picture I cropped in order to make the first. Similarly, I’m sure Food, Inc cameramen used a close-up of the cattle to silently depict a crowded, awful cow hell. They neglected to show you images of their open surroundings. They left out the visual information that these cattle could clump and unclump on their own accord at any point in time. While the documentary claims to want to expose the whole truth to you, it really doesn’t do that, does it? It does a great job of showing you bits of the true story. It does a great job of opening your mind to the possibility that food production is not what you once thought. And now I aim to do the same. Perhaps food production is also not what you believed it to be after watching this film. Does this second image change your opinion of the first?

  • The poor mother who lost her child to a hamburger
There is an absolutely heart-wrenching and traumatic story throughout the film about a mother who loses her young son to E.Coli. She wages a war against the food industry and we watch her struggles. The film shows how unfair it is that the large company won a case, and has made it difficult for her to publicly discuss her own food choices. I absolutely agree with her that her son’s death is a tragedy and something should be done about it. What I don’t agree with is her proposed solution. If you were to witness a slaughtering, there are endless precautions taken to avoid foodborne disease. The animals are skinned in such a careful manner that it is highly unlikely for disease-carrying fecal matter from the hide to turn inside out and contaminate the meat. In this particular case, I do believe the meat was recalled after her son contracted the disease, which of course makes it a more complicated scenario. I do not mean to sound unsympathetic or cruel, but the reality is that this boy’s death was likely preventable…even with contaminated meat. It was, I’m sure, a terrible accident.
But every meat has an internal cooking temperature that destroys possible foodborne disease. These diseases (salmonella, E. Coli, etc) are largely passed to humans by consumer error. It is highly likely that either 1) the beef that the mother bought was not properly refrigerated or frozen when she took it home from the store or 2) she did not cook it to the safe 160° (each meat’s magical temperature varies). If both of these very simple but crucial items were done correctly, I am confident her son would be very alive and well.

“Any foods likely to be contaminated with pathogens should be heated to 160°F; at this temperature, most pathogens are killed very quickly. Check the temperature with a thermometer to be certain the food is fully cooked.”

You Can Prevent Foodborne Illness – [a very detailed and helpful resource released by Washington State University, Oregon State University, and University of Idaho that can be found here ]

Now of course, a large company pointing this out to a grieving mother would seem outrageous and unethical. Of course it would be enraging and devastating to hear advice on proper cooking temperatures or food safety precautions after such a horrific loss. Instead of campaigning against meat industries, I wish this mom was out promoting safe cooking. She could save a lot more lives and a lot more hospitalizations by pleading mothers, fathers, cooks of any kind, to please cook the meat thoroughly! Restaurants have the disclaimer at the bottom of every menu these days. It does not read “if we buy contaminated meat from the wrong factory, you may come down with food poisoning”. It reads “Uncooked meat is highly discouraged because it can cause foodborne illness”. And it reads this way for a very good reason.

Sick Cattle & Hot Shots


When I first began working, I thought I could surely get by without using a hot shot. The truth is, sick cattle really are much different than normal, happy cattle. Just like people, they get grumpy when they don’t feel good. They become uncooperative because their noses are runny or their heads hurt from their fever or their lame leg is painful to walk on. But also like sick people, sometimes you have to have a little bit of pain (shots or even the emotional drain of visiting a people-doctor) in order to feel better (or even survive altogether). My first day experience definitely opened my eyes to the idea that sick cattle are not to be treated the same way as healthy cattle.

Some sick cattle handle the idea and process better than others. Some are so sick, they just kind of look up feebly as if to say “whatever you want to do, fine. I feel so crappy, I don’t want to fight. Can you help me?”. But other cattle are more like myself when I’m a patient- “Hell, NO I don’t want you to check my temperature or force me to eat soup or get a shot. GO AWAY”. These cattle, the ones like me, are the ones that are dangerous. These are the ones like that Hereford I saw during my first 30 minutes on this job. They are the ones who forget about the whole being a normal cow, having a flight zone, behaving like a prey animal thing. These are the ones who will come charging at you with every intention of killing you. Or these are the ones that simply will NOT move into the chute to get their diagnosis and/or medicine.

This causes a lot of frustration. When you are trying to do a good thing, and no one seems to be listening to you saying that what you are doing is, in fact, a good thing, it makes you mad. And yes, we realize that the animal can’t rationalize and we can’t pull it aside and explain that the process will be short and the shot won’t hurt too bad and that soon enough, they’ll be back with their friends. But nonetheless, we just want them to cooperate! The faster and quieter they go through the chute, the less stress on them. This is especially crucial to the severe cases. Cattle that are bloated or just too sick can easily die in the snake while waiting their turn to be doctored and released. We try to get those cattle to enter first, so we can get them in and out as quickly and nicely as possible, but sometimes they dash into the snake in the completely wrong order.

And we have had some die in the chute. Some of these likely would have died within a few hours anyways, but it is still a sinking-stomach situation to have one die while you are trying desperately to make it better. Especially when you know that they were suffering quietly behind an animal that balked and clogged the flow for 20-30 minutes because it was being stubborn and you were struggling to find a humane way to convince it to move forward.

This is where hot shots become especially useful. The hot shot looks like a stick about 3 ft long and has a very dull prong at the tip. Sometimes, just waving the hotshot as an extension of your arm can help guide cattle in the direction you need them to go. Other times, such as when the cattle are already loaded into the snake, it becomes necessary to administer a small jolt of electricity to the backside of the animal. Just as electric collars for dogs, the jolt helps redirect the animal’s brain from one mode of thinking to another. This allows the animal to try something different. (As dogs get shocked when they move forward through the invisible fence, they usually take the jolt as a sign to stop and go back to where they were before the shock). With balking cattle (or backwards-moving cattle), the shock redirects the brain into a forward moving motion (shocking the back of the body makes them move forward away from the source). The jolt only lasts as long as you hold the prong to the animal while pushing the button. In my experience, it takes less than a second of electricity to get the desired effect. The skin may raise on the hide temporarily, but in 3-4 minutes there is absolutely no sign of damage to the animal. The pain of the shock goes away even faster than that: as soon as the prod is lifted. It is a very decent practice and when used correctly, hot shots can literally be a life saver.

Feedyard Addresses Animal Welfare


The day prior to officially starting my job as a vet-tech/doctor/intern, I was required to sit through 8.5 hours of safety videos and packets. While much of this was very routine and rather boring, I do find it important to point out one very large document that was reviewed with us by a manager prior to our signature. It included detailed regulations on how to handle cattle. While some seem obvious, such as no scooping any live animal with the telehandler (like a back-ho), there were also specific areas of the body that were not to be prodded with the hot shot (electric prod). These included genitalia, anus, and face, for example. There was also a note that 90% of all cattle should be able to run through the snake and chute without use of such a device in the first place.

We also watched a 40-minute video made by Temple Grandin, who is a world-renowned animal behavior specialist who designs animal facilities that cause the least possible amount of stress to livestock during handling, processing, and slaughter. She is responsible for most of our facilities’ designs, and she detailed how use this equipment, as well as how to move cattle in a quiet and stress-free manner.

The regulations and guidelines are much more extensive than this post outlines, but I was pleasantly surprised to see the welfare issues discussed and addressed from the very beginning. With some of the awful stories going around the internet and news about beating of animals and misuse of tools, it was a relief to see the company’s strict stance on this matter, and their efforts to make all their employees aware of proper handling techniques and expectations.