The last 45 days have seen a line of announcements by food retailers and quick-service restaurant chains that they would soon begin to deman their pork suppliers phase out the use of "gestation crates," individual stalls in which pregnant and newly delivered sows are housed. Spurred by criticism from animal rights groups that the practice is cruel, Smithfield Foods, the country's largest pork farm, first announced in 2007 it would gradually abandon the practice over a 10-year period. Animal-rights groups have lobbied heavily against the practice, often successfully. Ballot initiatives banning sow stalls have passed in many states, and threat of action has led to voluntary agreements to cease their use in other states and Canada. Although Smithfield had earlier backed off on its promise because it was facing financial hardship, Smithfield President and CEO Larry Pope said the company’s hog operations had converted housing for 30 percent of its sow herd and was now back on track to meet the 2017 goal.
Since March, Wendy's, Burger King, Safeway, Sonic, Denny's, McDonalds, Cracker Barrel and Kroger have all released statements in conjunction with the Washington-based animal-rights group Humane Society of the United States announcing they plan to pressure pork suppliers to abandon the practice.
“Kroger believes that a gestation crate-free environment is more humane and that the pork industry should work toward gestation crate-free housing,” said that company in a press release co-authored in early June with HSUS.
“Kroger’s has taken a very important step for animal welfare in declaring that the pork industry must find an exit strategy for its use of gestation crates,” said Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of HSUS.
Faced with the continual barrage of negative media fanned by HSUS and other animal-rights advocates, grocers and their customers may rightly ask, if so many people believe the practice of crating pigs is inhumane, why do most farmers still use them?
1. It makes indoor housing practical. First, many critics are correct when they say sow stalls are a result of the indoor housing pig farmers evolved toward in the 1970s and 1980s. However, their criticism doesn’t necessarily mean indoor housing is a bad thing—most farmers moved their pigs indoors because they believed it benefited the animals, as well as the caretakers. Indoor housing made sense because it protected both animals and farmers from weather, predators, parasites, and also because it made animal performance both better and more predictable (Pigs left outdoors typically use about a quarter of the feed they eat just to keep warm in winter, for example.)
Once farmers moved pregnant sows indoors, though, they found the traditional group housing for pregnant sows that sufficed in mud barnyards didn’t work well indoors. So they turned to individual housing as the practical solution.
2. It protects individuals from the animal's natural aggression. Why didn't that group housing work for sows housed indoors? Like people who push and crowd to get on a bus where only a few seats are empty, yet will be relaxed and courteous when they know seats are available, sows will fight, wound, and even kill one another when they think their access to feed is at risk. When farmers move 350- to 550-pound bred sows--which are only normally fed a set amount of feed once daily to control their weight--into indoor group pens, sows begin to anticipate the feed delivery, understand there will only be a set amount to go around, and begin to fight for the lion’s share of it. As a result, weaker sows will be injured, as well as be starved of their allotted feed portion. At the same time, the "boss" sows will eat too much, making them overly fat, which will eventually harm their ability to give birth to and feed a healthy set of baby pigs.
By instead training sows to eat in individual stalls before putting them into groups, farmers are in effect training them that fighting doesn’t earn them any additional feed. Each individual is ensured the correct amount of feed and the ability to eat it in peace and safety.
3. It improves the farmer's ability to manage individual animals. It would be disingenuous not to recognize that individually confining animals does also improve the farmer’s ability to manage them, by making it easier and quicker to give them medications, check their condition, and perform other tasks. However, the additional expense of crating sows (it is more expensive to build individual crates than group-housing pens) likely couldn’t justify those management concerns; the predominant reason is to prevent group fighting. Stalling is a trade-off between full mobility and reassurance of feed.
So the question becomes, is it right or wrong to force these trade-offs on an animal? The late Dr. Stan Curtis, who spent his career at University of Illinois studying questions of how animals think and the effect of modern envorinments on them, believed it was. Before his death last year, Curtis was vocally critical of today’s animal behaviorists who conclude that assessing an animal’s well-being based on the animal’s “feelings” was a valid method of assessing the cruelty of practices like gestation crates.
“As long as we can’t yet measure how a pig feels, let alone measure the depth of any such feeling—which everyone agrees we can’t do—we can only speculate, surmise, analogize and anthropomorphize,” Curtis said. In other words, according to Curtis, what humans feel when they see a sow in a crate speaks only to how that human would feel were that human confined in a crate. It says nothing about how the sow feels. Farming decisions can’t be based on those human feelings. “What we cannot do is know, set thresholds, define limits or draw lines. How then is it reasonable to expect producers to manage pigs on that basis?”
To Curtis and those who follow his thinking, the only accurate measure we have of whether the animal is suffering in a crate is what he called the “Performance Axiom:” The best single set of measurable—and manageable—indicators of an animal’s state of being will be how well it produces and reproduces compared to its predicted potential. “When bodily resources become limited because a pig is in a situation requiring extraordinary adaptation, productive processes will be the first to decrease. We can measure that. Reproductive functions will be next. We can measure that. Maintenance processes, which ensure survival, last. These observed reductions in measurable performance traits are the earliest, most sensitive indicators that a pig’s well-being has been disturbed—much more sensitive than behavioral patterns that may indirectly signify some emotional reaction,” he said.
And the research shows that although both group housing and individual crating have advantages and disadvantages, sows peform as well or better in crates than they do in stalls, as long as both systems are managed well. Paul Sundberg, a veterinarian and vice-president of science and research for the National Pork Board, summed it up well in a Washington Post article. “The key to sow welfare isn't whether they are kept in individual crates or group housing,” he said, “but whether the system used is well managed. "[S]cience tells us that [a sow] doesn't even seem to know that she can't turn ... She wants to eat and feel safe, and she can do that very well in individual stalls."
If it's spring, it must be meth season.
Recent news reports about illegal labs manufacturing the drug methamphetamine from Fairbury (http://beatricedailysun.com/news/local/meth-lab-discovered-in-fairbury-alley/article_7dff5843-bf1d-5a4f-8c5e-436f3ebe5bce.html), Waverly (http://journalstar.com/news/local/crime-and-courts/police-find-meth-lab-arsenal-in-waverly/article_8496e3e7-2322-5925-b599-e2007e9f58c8.html) and others have raised the perrennial question: If illegal methamphetamine labs make such ready use of the common crop fertilizer anhydrous ammonia, why do farmers continue to make it their most popular source of crop nutrients?
Another lawsuit last week over news reports about "Pink Slime" and the damage done to people's livelihoods means more media attention to a topic that engenders immediate disgust with most shoppers. If the food system has learned anything from the market fallout over lean, finely textured ground beef, its that being safe isn't good enough anymore (if it ever really was). Media and other critics of modern food production are ramping up the attack on products that, even if they're proven safe to eat, they deem to be too high in the unnatural "yuck factor." Here are seven of the next potential targets grocers need to be aware of.
Gelatin. Vegetarians in particular may want to avert their gaze from this description. This common ingredient in everything from Jello dessert to gummy candies to ice cream to frosted cereals to yogurt is the product of a not particularly appetizing process involving the controlled chemical digestion of collagen found in the skin, boiled bones, connective tissues, organs and intestines of pigs, chickens and cattle. If lean finely textured ground beef is "pink slime," then gelatin certainly qualifies as "pig-skin jam."
Carrageenen. The vegan-acceptable form of gelatin, this seaweed extract is created through a process of harvesting, drying, grinding, filtering and cooking cultivated seaweed in a hot alkaline solution. Used like gelatin as an emulsifier and thickening agent to keep foods shelf-stable, it also is sometimes injected into meats to help them hold water. Although long considered safe and actually listed by USDA as an organic product, the additive has recently been attacked by one organics advocacy group as an unacceptable synthetic ingredient. If that attack gets traction, get ready for increased media attention on this "seaweed slime."
Transglutaminase. Used in a variety of commercial applications, from binding small pieces of raw meat together to form whole cuts, to maintaining the integrity of sausages without use of casings, to improving the texture of meats like sushimi and ham, to thickening and strengthening doughs and dairy products, to even creating novel products like lamb and scallop combinations or meat and vegetable pastas, transglutaminase is made by refining animal blood or fermenting vats of Strep bacteria. Transglutaminase comes from the same family of enzymes that cause human skin and hair to hold together and blood to clot. This one's already been stuck with the less than flattering name "meat glue."
Mechanically separated meat. Ironically, the ubiquitous Internet photo that helped launch the pink-slime flap was not a photo of lean finely textured ground beef at all, but instead of mechanically separated chicken (and debate even exists as to whether the photo really shows that, or is instead a clever forgery). Regardless, mechanically separated meat and mechanically separated poultry exist. They are USDA-approved processes for recovering the edible parts of meat formerly left on animal and bird carcasses because they were too cost-prohibitive to remove by hand. Used since the 1960s, the mechanical separation process has been refined based on the original technique of passing the remaining carcass parts through a seive under pressure to remove meat from the bones. Contrary to Internet conventional wisdom, the process does not grind whole animal carcasses. Mechanically separated meat is used in cheaper processed meats like hot dogs, frozen entrees and chicken strips. Can you say "flesh batter?"
Carbon monoxide. Taking advantage of the same biological mechanism that causes it to bind to the hemoglobin in human red-blood cells and asphyxiate people exposed to high levels in car exhaust and faulty home furnaces, modified-atmosphere and controlled-atmosphere meat packaging uses a trace of carbon monoxide gas (along with others like carbon dioxide and nitrogen) to help prevent packaged meat from turning brown in the coolor. Such controlled packaging has been a boon to the now-estimated $10 billion case-ready meat segment--the only method by which many small retailers without an in-house butcher have been able to maintain a meatcase. By preserving the color of pre-packed and shipped meat longer, it has helped spare part of the estimated $1 billion retailers lose yearly from marking down or throwing away meat that, although perfectly safe, is no longer attractive enough to move. Meanwhile, study after study has proven the process safe, as well as the fact that beef color says nothing about whether beef is safe or unsafe to eat due to age. Look for this "exhausted meat" to continue to draw undue attention.
Sand. Silicon dioxide, or sand, is added to many foods and pharmaceuticals as an anti-caking agent to absorb water and prevent other ingredients from binding together. It can be found in salt, dry soups, spices on snacks, coffee creamer and others. Made by either boiling it out of solution or adding chemicals to precipitate it out, it is widely considered to be safe. At the same time, it is also commonly used in a wide array of non-food products that consumers might find disconcerting, including commercial glues, paints, greases and lubricants, paper, plastics and coatings. Let us call this ingredient "Grit's What's for Dinner!"
Antifreeze. The colorless, nearly odorless, clear, viscous liquid known as propylene glycol is widely used in foods, from solvents for colorings and flavorings to a emulsifer. Unfortunately, this chemical cousin to the poisonous chemical ethylene glycol is also commonly used as an airplane de-icer, a plasticer, a photographic film developer, a hydraulic fluid, even one of the oil dispersants used to clean up the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon spill, and, yes, automotive antifreeze. "Antifreeze for recipes," anyone?
The point is not to offer the media even more easy opportunities to make what many at the farm level saw as an unecessary, unwarranted and silly attack on food technology as was the criticism of lean finely textured ground beef. The unfortunate fact of food-system life is that literally thousands of food ingredients and processes can be attacked with clever enough presentation and language.
Where does that leave the food retailer? When it comes to countering consumer's initial impulse of disgust triggered by unflattering media, according to the research of Brown University professor Rachel Herz, an expert on the psychology of smell and emotion and author of the new book That's Disgusting: Unraveling the Mysteries of Repulsion, disgust is a natural impulse, but it is also a learned impulse. What disgusts us depends on our culture, psychology and our expectations, she says--and disgust can be most piqued when we are surprised by an ingredient--as many believe was the case with pink slime, which in spite of critic's characterizations is still simply beef. Disgust that is learned through cultural cues (as critics of tobacco have successfully demonstrated, for instance) can be unlearned,as well, she argues (much as society has unlearned earlier dusgust based on racism and other prejudices.) It requires creative understanding of the psychology of disgust and perception about consumers and the culture surrounding them.
Following in the footsteps of neighboring Missouri and Colorado state legislatures, which have introduced state bills that would require all food that is a product of GMO technology sold in the state to be labeled as such, at least two U.S. congressmen have announced support for similar legislation at a national level. Several other states that have introduced such legislation in order to, according to supporters of the measure, “…give consumers the freedom to choose between GMOs and conventional products.”
Who can be against consumer choice? You may be, once you find out what GMO labeling really entails, and what it ultimately means (and doesn’t mean). Here are six good reasons to think hard about supporting mandatory GMO food labeling.
Is it or isn’t it? Like the spongy label claim of “natural,” the definition of “genetically modified” can be subject to the eye of the beholder. Strictly speaking, nearly every modern food item you stock today has been genetically modified from its original plant or animal ancestors—a scientific and often highly technological practice that plant and animal breeders have refined for millennia. Opponents of making those improvements through modern techniques, in an attempt to draw a bright line at the laboratory door, use equally vague terms like “biotechnology” and “natural means” that ignore the quite unnatural but non-GMO technologies that support the natural acts of animal and plant breeding—from physically removing the male parts of corn plants in order to force cross-pollination between varieties, to chemically washing the semen of dairy cattle in order to increase the percentage of (more valuable) female cattle born.
Then, atop that confusion add the dimension of animal products. First, if animals are not genetically modified themselves, but only the natural offspring of genetically modified breeding stock, are those animals to be defined as GMO? It’s unclear from a careful reading of most state bills whether they would or wouldn’t be considered so. Second, what of non-GMO animals that are fed GMO feeds? Would they become what they eat, forcing them to labeled as GMO? In the case of organic, for instance, feeding an organic cow non-organic feed renders the milk and meat non-organic; would the same be true of GMO?
Though it may eventually be possible to precisely define what biotechnology is and is not, translating those precise terms into a meaningful two- or three-word label claim becomes an exercise not in clarity, but in confusion.
Wouldn't it be easier to label what’s not GMO? Biotech crops have now been cultivated for more than 15 years, providing food for millions of people over the course of those years. In the United States, according to the Biotechnology Industry Organization, which represents biotech companies, 88 percent of corn, 94 percent of soybeans and 90 percent of cotton are now biotech varieties. And because corn and soybean meal are the No.1 and No. 2 ingredients in livestock feed, it follows that the majority of beef, pork, poultry, eggs and milk are now fed biotech crops. Putting aside the obvious questions (see below) of the practicality of teasing apart the two food streams from one another in order to label them, the real question remains of what would be unlabeled at the end of the day. In fact, many biotech advocates argue this is the end game of mandatory labeling--to simply remind consumers how pervasive the technology has become, and to make more-lucrative non-GMO niche foods stand out in bright contrast. "If labeling is allowed, poorly informed critics of genetically enhanced foods would use it to demonize by labeling,” Roger Beachy, a biotechnology pioneer told the Nebraska Governors Ag Conference in Kearney in early February.
Where do you stop? It’s easy to argue “consumers want to know if they’re buying GMO.” Numerous polls, in fact, find consumers say they want GMO products labeled—up to almost nine in 10, according to a recent CBS/New York Times poll. But the obvious follow-up question that’s never asked is the more important one: “What do you want the label to tell you about GMO?” The typical consumer doesn’t even know enough about what they don’t know about GMO to ask the question, a reality that explains the trend you see in which consumer support for labeling goes down the more they learn about biotechnology.
As long as consumers hear unchallenged assertions in the media that GMO is unsafe and high-risk (which it categorically is not, at least according to National Research Council of the National Academies of Science, the American Medical Association, the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization), then pro-labeling surveys like the CBS/Times one might just as well ask consumers, “Do you want your food labeled “Safe” vs. “Unsafe?” In that sense, it’s a wonder the portion demanding labeling is only nine in 10. However, if you concur with the scientific authorities that biotechnology is safe--that it’s no indication of food safety-- then the pressing question becomes: What’s the real reason consumers need to be given a choice between GMO and non-GMO? It opens up the proverbial Pandora’s box of what safe-but-potentially-objectionable food trait should be labeled next. Irrigated crops vs. non-irrigated (no difference in safety, but could withdraw water from the environment)? Hand-picked vs. machine-picked (no difference in safety, but could be encouraging illegal immigration)? Small farm vs. large (no difference in safety, but could be encouraging corporate consolidation of farming)? Patented seed technology vs. heirloom? You may argue a portion of your consumers want to know each of those, but you’d likely not support the law to mandate it.
Should the state be supporting marketing puffery? Granted, biotech seed and animal companies oppose GMO labeling because they’ve invested billions in research and development of the products that come from them—a fact often “exposed” by advocates for mandatory labeling. But an equally inconvenient truth that seldom gets exposed to sunlight by lazy media reporting is the fact that most labeling initiatives are underwritten by the country’s organic and natural-foods industry. Whether their underlying objection to biotech foods is genuine or not, there’s no denying they would enjoy a market windfall should the government officially sanction their product lines by proxy by requiring their competition to put a label on their products that has been associated—by them—with questionable food safety.
Do we want to needlessly, and painfully, divide the distribution channels? If you thought COOL labeling was a headache, you haven’t seen the first of it should GMO labeling see fruition. State-by-state adoption, as appears to be the strategy of GMO opponents, would require the system set up two markets—a state-wide market only and then one for the rest of the country. And even if GMO labeling were adopted on a national scale, pulling apart the two systems would create the costs, headaches and product shortages that have plagued the organic system—only on a huge scale.
Doesn't this just take us further down the road of compounding apparent confusion and undue fear? Which is to say, confusion in the system, not the consumer, that is. Trust is already falling in the world’s food system, and despite labeling proponents’ claims they’re only giving consumers information they need to improve that trust, experience demonstrates the opposite is bound to occur. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration considers biotech foods to be substantially equivalent to non-biotech foods, and likely will continue to do so until good science counsels otherwise. Inviting the credibility fiasco that is the rbST-milk labeling issue (“From cows not treated with rbST, but there’s no significant difference shown between milk derived from rbST-treated and non-rbST-treated cows”), or the hormone-free chicken chicanery (growth hormone use has been illegal in U.S. chickens four nearly four decades), on nearly ever food package is a recipe for diminished faith in food, not strengthened. The food regulatory system is backing itself into a corner in which, by trying to appease one small but vocal segment in the name of “consumer choice,” it leaves itself less room to validly object to doing it for the next special interest that comes complaining. New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman, GMO-labeling advocate though he is, accidentally gets it right when he shrilly points out the very contradiction he’s agitating for: “…when feed corn is contaminated by [GMO] ethanol corn, the products produced from it won’t be organic. (On the one hand, USDA. joins the FDA in not seeing GE foods as materially different; on the other it limits the amount found in organic foods. Hello? Guys? Could you at least pretend to be consistent?)” Exactly right, Mark: Consistently wrong is still wrong.
"Butterball's Turkey Shortage Might Ruin Your Thanksgiving," the Huffington Post breathlessly warned (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/11/16/butterball-turkey-shortage-thanksgiving_n_4283980.html) online readers a couple of weeks ago. The story, apparently spurred by a press release from a small New England grocery chain, made the Internet rounds, claiming that Butterball, with a 20 percent share of the U.S. turkey market, had halved its nationwide shipments of fresh turkeys bigger than 16 pounds because of production issues that had delayed their growth.
The National Turkey Federation cautioned against panic, noting that all but 20 percent of U.S. turkey sales are frozen, not fresh. Even Butterball said fresh turkey accounts for only about 15 percent of its stock. So what's the real turkey supply situation?
USDA reports turkey meat production in third-quarter 2013 was down 2.7 percent from a year earlier, at 1.44 billion pounds. The decrease in turkey production was due to a lower number of turkeys slaughtered--down 5 percent from a year ago--as average liveweights at slaughter were actually higher. This is the fourth quarter in a row where the number of birds slaughtered has been lower than in the same quarter a year earlier; however, the drop in the number of birds slaughtered was partially offset by gains in the average liveweight at slaughter to 29.9 pounds, 2.5 percent higher than a year earlier.
Turkey meat production in fourth-quarter 2013 is forecast at 1.48 billion pounds, 4 percent lower than a year earlier. Again most of this decrease is expected to come from a smaller number of turkeys slaughtered, with only a small gain in average liveweight at slaughter. Turkey meat production in 2014 is forecast to be 6 billion pounds, which would be an increase of 1.7 percent from the previous year. Production is expected to begin to expand in the second half of the year as turkey processors determine that falling feed costs more than offset lower prices and strong competition from the broiler industry in both the domestic and export markets.
Yet even with lower turkey meat production over the second and third quarters of this year, overall turkey stocks have remained above the previous year throughout 2013. Cold storage holdings of turkey products at the end of September were 542 million pounds, 4 percent higher than a year earlier. Stocks of turkey products totaled 216 million pounds at the end of the third quarter, almost identical to the previous year. The fact that stocks of turkey products are about even with the previous year is due partly to the lower overall turkey production and partly to continued relatively strong turkey product exports. For 2014, the quarterly ending stocks forecasts are expected to be slightly higher throughout the year. With higher stocks of whole birds, there has been downward pressure on whole turkey prices. Prices for whole frozen hen turkeys at the wholesale level averaged $1 per pound in third-quarter 2013, down from $1.08 per pound in third-quarter 2012. Whole frozen hen prices are expected to average $1.01-$1.05 per pound in fourth-quarter 2013, down about 3 cents from the $1.06 per pound average in fourth-quarter 2012. The quarterly price forecasts for frozen whole hens in 2014 are expected to be very-close-to-slightly-lower than the levels seen in 2013.
Recent news reports about Russian and Chinese buyers closing their borders to U.S. pork over concerns about the feed additive ractopamine suddenly thrust this decade-old product into the news, threatening to make it the next "pink slime" you must explain to nervous shoppers. What is ractopamine, and should your shoppers be concerned about its use?
Q: What is ractopamine?
A: Ractopamine is a synthetic compound that belongs to a class of organic chemicals called "phenethanolamines" which function as what are known as "beta-agonists." In humans, beta-agonists, like albuterol, are used to treat asthma because they stimulate the muscles of the airways to relax and improve airflow. In animals, beta-agonists function as what are known as "repartitioning agents." Repartitioning agents signal the muscle tissue to change how it devotes the energy the animal extracts from the feed it eats into muscle vs. fat. Fed for a short term, they can cause animals that have the right genetics to devote more of that nutritional energy to making muscle, which becomes meat, and less to putting down fat. That repartitioning ultimately not only improves the consumer acceptability of the meat cuts, it also improves farmers' profitability by using less feed per pound of animal grown. Ractopamine has been approved by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration for use in pigs in the United States since 1999, for cattle since 2003 and for turkeys since 2009. It is similarly approved in about two dozen countries around the world.
Q: How much ractopamine is used?
A: Because ractopamine functions in a particularly unusual way, having its highest impact on the animal's growth at the top of its growth curve--that is to say, just as it is peaking in growth and preparing to go to processing--it can be used for relatively short periods of time, rather than throughout the animal's entire life. In swine, for instance, it is used only for about the last 45 days before animals leave the farm, and only at a rate equal to about one to 2.5 packets of Kool-Aid mixed into a ton of feed.
Q: Is it safe?
A: Like every animal drug that farmers are allowed to use, ractopamine has been through a carefully monitored series of experiments overseen by the FDA to guarantee it is safe for both the animals that receive it and the people who eat the meat from those animals. Because the animal clears ractopamine from its body quickly compared to some other animal drugs--pigs, for instance, eliminate 85 percent of the drug between the time they leave the farm and the time they enter the packing plant--little of it remains in the slaughtered animal's system. Any trace residue that does is far below the level FDA considers safe for longterm consumption, based on animal tests that build in a wide margin of safety. In addition to the FDA and the United Nations (Codex) food safety body, 28 other regulatory authorities globally have accepted the research that says human food produced using the compound is safe for humans. In more than a decade of use, no adverse human health reports have been associated with people eating meat from animals fed ractopamine.
Q: If it's safe, why are other countries banning it?
A. The controversy over ractopamine illustrates the problem with agreeing on scientific standards in world trade today. Unlike the United States, in which FDA relies on specific scientific standards of measurement in approving products, other countries, particularly the European Union member countries, open the drug approval process up to consumer input, as well. That effectively means that when drugs are approved, they must clear not only scientific hurdles, but social ones, as well. That difference in philosophy may ultimately seal the fate for ractopamine and the efficiency improvement it means for American farmers. Some packers are already moving toward producing a ractopamine-free supply to protect export markets. Should that dual-chain become too expensive to maintain, the packing industry could conceivably move toward forcing farmers to give up the proven safe product in order to protect their export markets.
File this one under the No Good Deed Goes Unpunished department: When it first developed the process to treat ground beef with trace levels of ammonia hydroxide to help abate the seemingly intractable problem of E. coli contamination in that staple product, Beef Products Inc.’s process was considered groundbreaking. The South Dakota company has been credited in large part with helping reduce the incidence the U.S. Food Safety & Inspection Service found of E. coli positives in ground beef samples from 4.5 per thousand in 2009 to 0.8 per thousand in 2011.
Little wonder, then, that many in the ground beef business began a concerted push-back after McDonald’s, Burger King and Taco Bell staged high-profile announcements in December announcing those chains would no longer purchase the company’s beef trimming products that one former FSIS employee hung with the catchy name “pink slime.”
Ten Lessons Retailers Should Take away from the Latest Criticism of Animal Farming, from Food-Chain Communications President Kevin Murphy
The latest undercover video secretly shot by a planted hire working for the activist group Mercy for Animals shows workers identified as employees of the nation’s fourth largest pork farm throwing and kicking young piglets, smashing one pig’s head to the floor to kill it. But there's a great deal of context missing from the inflammatory video scenes, and there's some important lessons grocers can learn from it, regardless of whether or not they are familiar with common farm practices.
Click on the play button to hear Kevin explain the ten lessons retailers can learn from this latest video
Mercy For Animals contacted officials at Costco, Hy-Vee, Kroger and Safeway, according to the Associated Press, gave them access to the video before its public release, and demanded they stop buying pork from this farm supplier. MFA Executive Director Nathan Runkle said this was one of the group’s first attempts to affect changes by directly attacking grocer retailers, a trend that is likely to increase.
During the more than 50 years’ of food-chain communication experience represented by the principals at Food-Chain Communications, we have followed and actively studied what we now have come to coin the Food Morality Movement. This is a movement that seeks to condemn the modern food production system on the grounds of religion, ethics and morality. This ultimately is the root of the accusations against this pork farm and its retailing partners.
We believe debating the food system on the grounds of the Food Morality Movement is unfamiliar territory to most of its members, from retailers to farmers. And it requires tactics that are equally unfamiliar. For instance, activists like MFA understand this is not boxing; it’s jujitsu. Just as the ancient Japanese martial art uses a bigger and better-armed attacker's energy against him, rather than directly opposing it, MFA and like-minded activists are successfully searching the food chain for just the right pressure point, the place where they can inflict the greatest paralyzing pain to the entire system. Increasingly, that’s you, the grocery retailer.
Unfortunately, too many retailers aren’t prepared to respond with a defense against jujitsu; they still think they’re boxing. If you’re going to effectively respond to this new-age criticism, here are 10 things to consider:
Avoid knee-jerk PR. I realize this is Public Relations 101, and trust me, I understand the urgency to rush a response to the public when you’re the focus of such heated attack. But the “any response is better than no response” school of thought is a losing proposition in this new fight. MFA, like other animal rights organizations, invests heavily in communication. Study this latest video yourself, and you’ll see: They are masterfully scripted, shot, edited, scored and presented to evoke deep emotion. When food-chain communicators let their own emotion (that is, fear) drive an immediate, shot-from-the-hip response, they’re bound to rush statements into the public debate that do more damage than damage control. Sometimes it’s OK to say “We don’t know what this is all about yet, but we promise to find out.”
Know the context.A favorite saying of mine goes, “A text taken out of context is a pretext.” It’s an apt description of this latest video. Only until you understand what’s going on around the people “caught” on tape abusing animals can you begin to understand—and help your customers understand—that all is not as it seems. Much of the cruelty exposed is planted in the mind of the beholder long before the fleeting image reinforces it. For example, the worker pictured at 2:10 into the video “juggling” and “throwing” the baby pig is actually in the process of doctoring newborn pigs, probably in this case giving the piglet an injection of iron to keep him healthy as he grows. The pretext you see out of context is cruel handling; what you see in context is a worker who, highly efficient at his job, is moving through a single step in a process he likely repeated hundreds of times in the course of the morning that followed the clip, quickly injecting the pig and tossing it to his co-worker who—for the sake of reducing the pig’s stress level, is equally quick in returning it to the comforting presence of its brothers, sisters and mother.
Now, you can rightly argue that may represent a couple of workers who are possibly getting hasty and sloppy in their job, even possibly violating corporate standard operating procedures. But cruel?
Warning: Extremely graphic video
Know the heart of the messenger. When Iowa Select Farms, the target of the video, reassures the public it “has a long-standing history of meeting high-quality animal care standards” and “a commitment to animal welfare and continuous improvement,” the response falls flat because it misses the ultimate point of the attack. Mercy for Animals is simply using criticism of Iowa Select’s animal care practices in order to advance a larger agenda: MFA believes humans do not have a right to use animals as they see fit.
Look at the group’s own words in its mission statement:
So, even though the video pretends to be aimed at forcing Iowa Select to be more humane in handling the pigs it eventually turns into food, the very fact that MFA considers “slaughter” to be unnecessarily cruel clearly demonstrates the group will accept nothing short of vegetarianism. That’s their Achilles heal where effective response to the attack lies.
Truth in Food interview (http://truthinfood.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=77:mary-eberstadt-interview&catid=10:previousissues&Itemid=2) last year. Activists who want to reinvent the modern food chain in their own image understand that fact, and they understand shattering the united chain into inter-fighting elements not only works in their favor, it’s a prerequisite to rebuilding it through revolution.
interview on Truth in Food (http://truthinfood.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=70:smith-interview&catid=10:previousissues&Itemid=2) with animal-rights opponent Wesley J. Smith, author of a Rat is a Pig is a Dog is a Boy. He quickly dispatches the concept that animals are moral beings, capable of entering into a moral contract and thus owed the rights reserved to humans. Understand that argument, and retailers can begin to understand that adequate defense is not the soft middle ground of improved welfare standards, corporate commitment to continuous improvement in humane care, and other PR boilerplate. It’s the bright line of moral and immoral, right and wrong, unethical and ethical. That’s the new ground we have to either choose to fight upon, or risk having the ambush staged there, catching us wholly unprepared.
One important goal of our Farmer Goes to Market program is to bring you farm-related news you're not getting from the other mainstream media outlets. Here's this month's breaking news: You may have read the news reports about the "landmark" agreement between the nation's top animal-rights organization and the egg-farmer's association. But there's an important aspect you probably haven't heard about, as this month's Farmer Goes to Market feature story points out here (index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=25:politics-aug2011&catid=16:politics&Itemid=114). The agreed upon legislation, if it passes next year as advocates hope, will give egg farmers up to 18 years to change their barns to accommodate the new requirements. However, we have learned that it's only within three years that every egg sold in the country will have to be labeled as to how those hens lived.
As the Country of Origin Labeling experience taught us, three years is a tight window in which to impose what will likely be burdensome labeling and merchandising changes, especially when the required information keeps changing as you go along.
But the point that ought to have grocers more concerned is the impact it will have on consumers, both before and after the labeling restrictions go into effect. Do you know what's "humane" and "inhumane" when it comes to housing hens? What does "enriched housing" mean? Why is it important that hens be able to "scratch?" Is 144 square inches of cage space more humane than 67 square inches? Why? How many perches should hens be allowed per cage? Should they be elevated, or not? How big should their dust-bathing area be?
All these questions and many more will be raised when shoppers come face to face with new federally required egg labels. And when the consumer asks those questions, they won't be asking them of HSUS or UEP. If you don't have answers to those questions, and more, you'd better get them, and fast. The United Egg Producers relieved some of the nearly unbearable pressure being put on them through lawsuits and state ballot initiatives by agreeing to make some longterm changes. But in the process, they dropped a whole lot of explaining onto you, which you're going to have to be able to do in a relatively short term.
The HSUS/UEP agreement shows that others in the food chain are now more than willing to leave it in our hands, regardless of how well prepared we are to answer for them. So I encourage you to do more than just read the Farmer Goes to Market newsletter. Send me questions you have about this issue. Let me know what kind of support material you need from your partners in the food chain to help come up with answers to questions you can't even form yet. Let me know if you're willing to invest a day out of the office to tour an egg farm, and put your questions directly to the farmer.
Nebraska Grocery Industry Association
Almost from its beginning, the story of American farming has been the story of lowering food costs for consumers by replacing increasingly scarce human labor with technology. First, it meant substituting literal horse power with internal-combustion horsepower in the early 20th century. In the early 21st century, it's been replacing the work of physically walking crop fields with viewing them remotely via aerial drone. For 2017, you can expect even more exponential leaps toward the increasingling technology-centric farm—perhaps no more aptly sympolized than by the unveiling of the first farmer-free tractor at this year's Husker Harvest Days held in mid September near Alda. Those technological improvements will continue to drive down costs of farm products or add value, or both.
Already, the level of technology on today's farms might astound those who still hold the imaged promoted by the slow-food and local-farms movements. That giant threshing machine you see along the highways cutting wheat, corn and soybeans every fall, now nearly the size of a small home, is already a satellite-navigated system of thousands of moving parts, less guided by the operator inside the climate-controlled cab than it is monitored by him, since it's likely being steered by a computer. The hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of crops being processed through the combine are constantly monitored, their progress displayed on a computer terminal, alerting the operator to important measures, from the bushels per acre to the moisture level of the crop. Before it was even planted, the field it's harvesting may have been reviewed by satellite spectrum analysis in order to help choose the best combination of crop, seed variety, number of plants per square foot and needed fertilizer additions by region of the field—even by row. A computerized planter may have adjusted those factors on the fly, making real-time tweaks where the data dictated. Next might have followed a computer-guided pesticide sprayer that changes the quantity and type in areas of a field that are more disease-prone. Aerial drones may have flown low over thousands of acres to help the farmer spot any suprise increase in pests, disease or specific weeds without ever leaving his farm office, sending that data to a worker's cell phone or an unmanned vehicle to locate and kill the specific outbreak of bugs or weeds in the field.
That's all apparently just the beginning. The drive to further automate farming will only accelerate, according to experts. Here are trends that will continue to drive technological change in farming:
Increased demand for high-quality outputs. Today's drive away from commodity crops and toward value-added foods may not require technology, but technology will be the key to make their production cost-effective. The so-called Internet of Things is coming to agriculture as a result, demonstrating the added value of smart webs of connected and remotely controlled objects. One example: The holy grail of meat production known as transparency and traceability. A future interconnected web of objects from the cattle ranch to the meatcase could not only permit consumers to know where a cut of meat came from, but theoretically could even affect the production of that cut by placing market-of-one custom orders that only an interconnected system could execute efficiently enough to make it affordable.
New social and political priorities. If consumer dollars aren't necessarily driving demand toward high-tech, some of the socio-political priorities are. Modern tractors and farm trucks, for instance, use advanced diesel technology that has brought their emission of pollutants down to almost zero. Remote monitoring and data analysis guided by computer has also made an impact in improving the well-being of farm animals, even as pressure continues to cut back on the use of more traditional tools that ensure animal welfare, like antibiotic-based medications.
Changes in farm structure, practice and culture. On average, computing power doubles about every 12 to 18 months, according to conventional wisdom. That incessant improvement has left a lot of affordable computer capability available to harnass on the farm, says Wisconsin professor of biological systems engineering John Shutske. "Big Data" has arrived, creating a "virtual tsunami of data" to drive decision-making by a group who, in the course of just one generation, went from keeping little or no production records to collecting, analyzing and mining data on everything. That trend toward big data, coupled with the Internet of Things will make artificial intelligence available to assume simple decision-making for the farmer in areas like pest management, scheduling operations or optimizing animal health or crop health treatments and regimes.
Beyond that availability of tools, a change in attitude has also opened up young farmers to new ways of doing business. The "shared economy," for instance, has changed some farmers' way of thinking about equipment use, a traditional drain on farm economics. Farmers who used to be willing to spend today's equivalent of $500,000 on a large harvesting combine just to see it sit idle 95 percent of the year are instead open to software-based equipment-sharing arrangements like AirBNB that spread that cost of capital over many farms.
Biotechnology. Not simply the mechanical, but the bio-mechanical, will continue to revolutionize farm technology. The better understanding of genetics at a molecular level brought about by the GMO revolution has made farm production more economical by reducing the greatest remaining source of unpredictability: Living nature. Owing to biotechnology, plants and animals raised on tomorrow's farms will be more controllable and more reliable.
If the election of Donald Trump and the conversative-populist movement that unpredictably brought him to office accomplishes nothing else, it stands to even further weaken the average American's trust in traditional institutions. For better or for worse, according to an annual Gallup poll, less than a third of Americans on average say they have either "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in 14 traditional institutions, including the military, the police, the church, the medical system, the presidency, the supreme court, public schools, banks, organized labor , the criminal justice syste, TV news, newspapers, big business and Congress. It is the third straight year in a row Gallup has reported that phenomenon. But Trumpism is less the cause than the result—Congress, banks, organized religion and the news media have all suffered a decline in public trust for a decade now.
And the result for 2017 and beyond: Absent those trustworthy institutions, everyone has now become his own food and farming expert. Expect this often unsettling trend to continue, affecting your food sales. Witness:
Mercola, Food Babe and David Wolfe. Joseph Mercola, the 61-year old osteopathic physician, natural-foods purveyor, and founder and video star of Mercola Health Resources, who once famously advised his readers to avoid grocery stores if they want healthy food, shook off a mid-April 2016 $5.3 million settlement with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission over false-advertising accusations. According to the Chicago Tribune, Mercola sold tanning beds for up to $4,000 apiece by reassuring consumers not only were they not harmful, but in fact actually reduced their chances of getting cancer. Mercola's website empire continues to flourish, though, offering unsound advice on health issues from vaccination to flouride in water to organic food. By one estimate, his site continues to attract an estimated 5 million to 7 million visits monthly. And he still lists more than a quarter million Twitter followers and 1.5 million Facebook followers.
Similarly, Vani Hari, a.k.a. "Food Babe," the internet blogger who grew a guilty penchant for fast food and disdain for science into an estimated 3 million viewers and a best-selling book deal, and David Wolfe, informercial star turned "rock star of the superfoods and longevity universe" whose Facebook following now outnumbers the entire state of Nebraska five times over, continue to flourish by pandering to the worst suspicions about food and health.
Critical media—gone. Whether you love or hate the mass media that the Trump movement has so successfully positioned as disloyal opposition, there's little arguing that business has been so economically hollowed out that meaningful journalism is on the ropes. The information vaccuum being created is being filled by more partisan sources, often without being recognized as such. One recent example: The National Grocers Association's Education and Leadership Weekly newsletter in January included the story "Should we be labeling genetically modified foods?" Although an important question, and one Farmer Goes to Market has examined in the past, the "custom-content" story written for NGA members based its reporting on questionable claims from an activist organization with no balanced critique of the dubious science behind those claims. Get ready for more of that style of advocacy journalism disguised as news.
Rogue agency Twitter feeds. In testament to the dilution of trust in institutions, a curious phenonomen accompanying Trump's election starkly illustrates even the government institutions themselves no longer trust their own authority. President Trump's reported attempts to put a "gag order" on agencies including USDA and the Environmental Protection Agency—reports which themselves now appear to be "fake news"—spawned "resistance teams" of agency scientists and other employees who took to their own Twitter feeds to post "unofficial" discussions of issues they believed were being repressed by the new administration, from climate change to food and drug issues.
Sustainability according to the marketing department. With little to no meaningful regulatory definition and an apparent public appetite to hear them—even if apparently no true consumer demand can be proven—the world of product claims about food justice, sustainability and health have become the Wild Wild West, where everyone's rushing to stake a claim. Case in point: The new HowGood label, which in the past three years has expanded its services into grocers in 26 states and more than 250 stores, including a highly visible Giant Foods pilot project. The 20-year-old system, which attempts to boil up to 70 different indicators down to a simple good/better/best labeling system, includes measures of pesticide use, fertilizer control and animal welfare. But it also includes more shadowy measures of packaging, "labor accountability," "reputation index," and simply how much information a company is willing to divulge to them.
Amid this trend toward the shattering and scattering of food authority lies some good news for the grocer, although it's a mixed blessing: Gallup's surveying does show Americans retain some trust in institutions, in particular, the military, the police and you—small businesses. So opportunity to lead exists. But the bad news is that it's not hard to squander that fragile trust. A recent survey shows almost half of consumers say they don't trust what food labels tell them. Today's food marketers trying to sell product claims are borrowing the grocer's credibility to do so, and if those claims don't live up to customer expectations, it could be that trusted retailer who ends up holding the bag.
Despite the reality that Republicans swept the November 2016 elections, winning not only the presidency and both houses of the U.S. Congress, but also gains that put them in control of both legislative chambers in 32 of the 50 states, with veto-proof majorities in 17, along with 33 of 50 state governors, the political climate is far from consensual. A growing rift over several issues that many might have considered already settled long ago will continue in 2017, amounting to what could rightly be called political schizoprhenia. Even in Nebraska, areas of hot disagreement will continue to strain some former alliances, including:
Immigration. President Trump's promised overhaul of U.S. immigration law, including strengthening the southern border with Mexico to prevent illegal immigration and to increase enforcement efforts to detain and deport illegal immigrants, has put him at odds with much of his support base in American agriculture.
As a result of the chronic labor shortage U.S. farms face, it's been estimated that as many as one in four U.S. farmworkers are foreigners without legal documentation. A 2012 USDA study predicted that tightening border enforcement and cleaning up the federal government's temporary visa program for farmworkers could have significant negative impacts on U.S. farms, in particular, fruit and nut growers, vegetable producers and nurseries. A similar study underwritten by the American Farm Bureau in 2014 found changes most similar to what President Trump has proposed would cause unacceptable harm to American farms. Farm Bureau called instead for policies that would permit workers with experience in agriculture but no legal status to stay. Trump's popularity in rural America notwithstanding, success for Trump's southern wall is likely to require a big gate be included.
Trade. Despite that widespread support by farm states for Trump, who ran on promises of renegotiating trade deals to favor American business and bring back manufacturing to this country, the reality is that the farm economy—and surrounding communities, as in Nebraska—is increasingly dependent on world trade. With net farm income projected to be down nearly 40 percent over the last three years, according to a USDA report from late December, farmers will continue to be dependent on export markets to support depressed prices and declining profits at home. According to current estimates, about one-third of all U.S. farm income comes from exports. Yet, Trump spent much of his campaign attacking multilateral trade deals that support U.S. agricultural exports, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership proposal, which American Farm Bureau estimated would have added $4.4 billion annually to the U.S. agricultural economy. Economic analysis conducted by Nebraska Farm Bureau last year showed that virtually every county in Nebraska would have benefited from the agreement, which would likely have increased agricultural cash receipts by more than $378 million a year.
Loss of those trade deals need not be all bad, if the new administration moves agressively toward one-on-one trade agreements that benefit the United States, as Trump also promised. But for now, Steve Nelson, Nebraska Farm Bureau president, said his organization was disappointed with Trump’s decision.
Food companies driving proxy farm regulation. Perhaps no better example of how food politics have been turned inside out exists than this: Even as big-business food companies adopt and promote high-profile positions that require their farmer-suppliers to agree to self-regulate practices ranging from environmental sustainability to animal-welfare, Scott Pruitt, Trump’s pick to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, has openly attacked many of the previous administration's environmental and animal-welfare regulations. Pruitt sued the EPA in 2015 over the proposed Waters of the United States rule, which would have placed regulation of ditches and small creeks under EPA control as "navigable waters." He also helped write Oklahoma's ballot question 777 last year which would have required courts to recognize the rights of farmers in that state to farm as they see fit.
Taxes and the budget. The Nebraska state government's projected $911 million budget shortfall as this year's legislative session opened spells continued division over how to solve the funding shortfall, often making for an uncomfortable fit among otherwise natural political allies. While farm groups push for a reduction in what they believe to be crippling local property taxes, businesses are urging the state not to hide a continuing overall high tax climate by simply shifting those taxes onto a state level, where accountability could be lower.
When USDA releases its longterm agricultural sector outlook for the next ten years later this month, the projections through 2026 covering commodities, trade and aggregate indicators of the farm sector will give retailers a glimpse of the next decade's expectations. Once the agency makes it available, you can access the entire report here (Adobe Acrobat format). Until then, here are some highlights of what the report will show:
Less Land in Crops; Conservation Continues. As prices for most crops have fallen from highs of recent years, U.S. farmers have responded by planting fewer and fewer acres to the major field crops. That decline is expected to continue, as the acres planted for corn, sorghum, barley, oats, wheat, rice, upland cotton and soybeans is projected to remain below 250 million acres. Wheat, corn, and cotton account for most of the decline between these years. Much of that idled land will remain in the government program that compensates farmers for removing the most environmentally sensitive land from cropping use.
Corn Ethanol Use Remains Level. Ethanol production in the United States is projected to fall over the next decade. But even with the U.S. ethanol production decline, demand for corn to produce ethanol continues to have a strong presence in the sector. While the share of U.S. corn expected to go to U.S. ethanol production falls, it accounts for over a third of total U.S. corn use throughout the projection period. Use in feed to produce farm animals that produce your meat, milk and eggs remains the No. 1 use of this farm staple.
U.S. Appetite for Meat will Stay Strong. Per-capita consumption of meat and poultry will continue, although more moderately than in the past, with chicken still leading the plate by almost double over beef and pork.
U.S. to Continue as Meat-Growing Power. In order to feed both those domestic consumers and a growing international meat market, U.S. farmers will continue the upward trend in production of the major meats.
Increasing Animal Productivity. A theme illustrated in USDA's projected data: U.S. agriculture will continue to produce more and more food using fewer and fewer resources. Here's an example: The amount of milk put out by the average U.S. dairy cow is almost three times what it was compared to 30 years ago. That means the size of the nation's dairy herd will continue dropping, even as milk supply continues to climb.
Young Nebraska farmers are taking up the challenge of tomorrow's agriculture.
Fifteen minutes of fame is simply too much for these, the most annoying Internet memes we can't wait to see die in 2017:
Sure, we get it. You don't promise to drain swamps without uncovering some mud at the bottom of it all. But the yuge flood of Trump memes, videos and Facebook rants has made America's Internet grate on our nerves again.
Granted, the Internet has produced some artful forms of this, the most desparate appeal to empty accomplishment since the soccer participation trophy. But whether it's the natural parent of disaster-prone small children in us, or the simple dread this trend could all turn suddenly gallon-smash nuclear, we'd like to see it trashed.
So many memes about a child-napping gorilla shot dead, so many reasons to hate them, from racism to all-out obscenity. But the best reason of all? No better example exists of the Internet's propensity for turning the most innane symbol into everyman's platform to stamp their feet and shout at the sky.
As if the world needed another reason to hate the frat-boy who could never actually convince any fraternity to accept him, Seth Rogan, his latest YouTube supermarket prank only makes us cringe at the potential for copy-cats, from the artful-but-annoying to the plain-old inexplicably stupid.
The potty mouth that launched a thousand clips, this 13-year-old wore out her welcome even before Dr. Phil came back from station break last September. Yet she has gone on to launch her own meme, cashy YouTube remix and the ultimate sign you have Internet-arrived: A Snopes myth debunking. Howbow dah?
The farm and ranch families represented by Nebraska Farm Bureau are proud sponsors of the Farmer Goes to Market program. We take great pride in supporting Nebraska's agricultural foundation. A key part of that effort is to make sure we produce safe and affordable food. This newsletter is an important part of our effort to connect the two most important parts of the food chain -- the farmer and the grocer -- with the goal of increasing consumer awareness and information about how their food is raised in Nebraska.
The Nebraska Grocery Industry Association was formed in 1903 by a group of Omaha grocery store owners, wholesalers and vendors to allow them to promote independent food merchants and members of the food industry, and to promote education and cooperation among its membership. NGIA continues to represent grocery store owners and operators, along with wholesalers and vendors located throughout Nebraska, by promoting their success through proactive government relations, innovative solutions and quality services. NGIA offers efficient and economical programs. NGIA also lobbies on both a state and national level, ensuring that the voice of the food industry in Nebraska is heard by our representatives.
The Nebraska Corn Board, on behalf of 23,000 corn farmers in Nebraska, invests in market development, research, promotion and education of corn and value-added products. The board aims to work closely with the farmer-to-consumer food chain, to educate everyone about the role corn has in our everyday healthy lives. The Nebraska Corn Board is proud to sponsor the Farmer Goes to Market program to help bring its mission of expanding demand and value of Nebraska corn to the consumer, through the strongest touch point in that chain: the Nebraska retail grocer.