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?
Courtesy of modern video technology and creative mixing, country music superstar Martina McBride sits in with the King on his classic holiday wish for you and yours.
Q Why do farmers just leave their corn to whither and die in the fields? Shouldn't they be harvesting it while it's still green and lush?
A Of the corn your consumers see as they drive the state’s highways, roughly 99.3 percent of it is not the sweet corn they’re familiar with from your produce section, but the “yellow dent corn” used in livestock feed, processed foods and ethanol. That distinction is important because unlike sweet corn, which is harvested while the corn stalk is still green and the corn is immature and juicy, yellow corn is harvested only after the kernel has dried and hardened to a starchy stage. What appears to the average consumer as dead standing cornstalks in the field are actually considered mature, harvest-ready stalks by the farmer.
Yellow corn actually reaches that physiologically mature stage weeks before harvest begins. However, because much of the billions of bushels of corn American farmers grow is stored for months to years before it’s sold or used, it usually must be dried in order to prevent spoiling while in storage. Corn can be reliably stored at about 15 percent moisture without suffering quality losses. Corn standing in the field in mid to late September is typically about 35 percent moisture. So, farmers must dry that corn before storing it.
They have generally one of two ways to do that drying: One, they can use grain dryers that are in effect huge fans that heat air using propane and blow it through the grain one large batch at a time, drying the corn much as a blow dryer dries your hair. Or, they can let Mother Nature dry it for them—depending on weather conditions—by leaving it standing in the field for several weeks to months after it reaches maturity.
Typically, farmers use some combination of those two methods to dry corn before storage, and, as with many farming practices, it’s often a delicate balancing act that’s refined through years of experience and much research. Naturally, it’s in the farmer’s best interest to leave the corn standing in the field as long as possible, to take advantage of the natural drying and save on costly propane. However, it can be a huge gamble that risks an entire year’s crop. As the corn kernels are drying, so is the stalk that holds those ears of corn. As they dry, they become brittle. That brittleness brings the potential for valuable ears to fall to the ground, where they can no longer be practically picked up by today’s modern harvesting equipment, and thus go to waste. Fall and early winter winds also pose a risk to a standing field of corn, as does sudden rain and snow that prevents the heavy equipment from being able to get into the field.
So, farmers use a number of tools to help even out the demands for drying time, including different seed varieties that dry at different rates, different marketing tools that allow differing levels of moisture, and different combinations of artificial drying, natural drying and storage options—all based on the anticipated weather conditions for the season. Hitting the “sweet spot” is a good example of how, despite all its science, profitable farming remains an art form, as well.
Several "undercover" animal-rights videos have now shown farmers appearing to mutilate baby pigs in large farms. Why do pig farmers do that to newborn pigs?
Almost all pigs raised in this country, whether in large barns or in small houses on outside lots, undergo what is commonly called "processing," usually within a week of being born. In most cases, that involves these practices:
Teeth clipping: Although not as common as it used to be, many pig farmers still routinely clip the tips off the piglet’s eight eye teeth, often appropriately referred to as “needle” teeth. Because piglets often are born into litters composed of eight, 10 and even 12 siblings, competition for space at the mother pig’s udder can be fierce. That competition often leads to fighting that can cause injury not only to the snout and face of fellow littermates, but to the sensitive teats of the mother—which can leave her reluctant to nurse, eventually depriving the young pigs of needed milk. By using either sharp sidecutters or an abrasive grinding tool, farmers remove the sharp end of the tooth to dull them and prevent their use to hurt other pigs.
Ear notching: Ear notching uses a system of shallow notches in the skin of the ear to permanently and inexpensively number baby piglets so they can be inventoried and tracked throughout their lives. Farmers typically remove one of more notches about a one-quarter-inch deep on both ears, which corresponds to a unique number for the pig and its litter, based on where the notch lies on the ear. Although little formal research has been done to try to quantify the amount of pain and distress the practice causes, farmers have traditionally compared it to ear piercing for a young girl—it does cause brief pain, which is apparent from piglets shaking their heads for several minutes after the procedure, but any longterm suffering is likely insignificant.
Tail docking: For reasons animal scientists still don’t quite understand, older pigs will occasionally fall into the vice of biting the tails of their pen-mates. If it becomes excessive enough to cause an open wound to the tail of the bitten pig, it can then escalate into a destructive “feeding frenzy” in which most or all pigs in the pen are attracted to repeat the habit. In severe cases, it can lead to infections, spinal abscess, paralysis and even death among the victimized pigs. So a common practice to help prevent tailbiting is to dock the tail while the baby pig is young--much as the tails of some breeds of young dogs are docked. Is it painful? Again, common sense would suggest it probably is, but researchers aren’t certain as to the degree. The entire tail does have developed nerves, even in the youngest pig, so it's apparent some pain may be felt. Docked piglets can be seen wagging the tail stump or clamping it between their back legs for a few moments afterward, which scientists believe does indicate a pain response. However, most pigs return to normal feeding almost immediately after the procedure, which farmers take to indicate as the best sign it causes no longterm consequence.
Castration: Almost all pork farmers carry out the longstanding practice of surgically removing the testicles of male pigs to prevent the tainting of pork with foul odors and off flavors, as well as to reduce aggressiveness of older boars. The vast majority still do it by cutting open the scrotum and cutting or pulling out the testes--without anaesthesia. Until fairly recently, it was assumed by farmers that young animals did not have as highly developed nervous systems as older animals, so they felt less pain when the process is done at a young age--the same rationale for circumsicing young boys without anasthesia. As with the other practices, some are now questioning that assumption. However, most farmers still concur in the belief that castrating before weaning causes much less stress than waiting until pigs are older, and the behavioral indications--eating, returning to interacting with the group, ceasing to squeal immediately after they're returned to the security of their mother and littermates--all indicate little or no long-term suffering.
Each of these common procedures can be performed in a matter of minutes--even seconds--by a farm-hand experienced in husbandry. What may look to the untrained eye as a flurry of knives, pliers and needles punctuated by screams of "terror" is a well-orchestrated execution of necessary procedures that, although they may cause short-term pain or distress to the confused piglet, benefit the animal over the long term.
Have a question about Why Do Farmers Do That? Use the comment section below to ask, or click here (mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org) to email the editors.
Food giant Walmart announced in late May it would begin requiring farms supplying its animal products to agree to meet certain standards of "humane treatment" of farm animals, including restrictions on use of antibiotics. As part of this latest move, the retailer which reportedly now controls one-fourth of the world's grocery food sales will "ask" all its U.S. fresh and frozen meat, deli, dairy and egg suppliers to watch for and report animal abuse, change buildings and management practices that crowd animals or cause avoidable pain, and write out and report on their animal-welfare policies.
Walmart's action joins those of other retailers and restaurants making similar "voluntary" demands on their suppliers. Burger King, Hyatt and Sodexo have announced they will sell eggs that come from cage-free birds only. Fast-food chain Chipotle claims it sells only “all-natural,” and “antibiotic-free” pork. McDonald’s, Applebee’s, Denny’s and Safeway are just a few of the large food buyers and sellers recently announcing they will begin or have begun to demand farmers stop using gestation crates in raising pigs.
Advocates argue all these moves come in response to growing consumer demand for better animal welfare. “Since 2013, the number of consumers who say it is important that their grocery store practice animal welfare has grown from 17 percent to 21 percent,” says the Food Marketing Institute's June 10 41st annual U.S. Grocery Shopper Trends study. A survey conducted by the American Humane Association, which audits and certifies farms for animal welfare standards, claims 93 percent of nearly 6,000 respondents said buying products from humanely raised animals is "very important," and nearly three-quarters said they would be willing to pay more for it.
But does consumer demand really support Walmart's new dictates? Should community grocers follow along? Here are three good reasons to be cautious about this emerging trend toward demands on production and marketing practices, from traceability to environmental standards to animal-welfare and other “sustainability” claims:
Studies prove the seemingly simple term "animal welfare" covers some complex nuances, says Belgian professor Filiep Vanhonacker, not only in objective terms but also in consumer perception. Some consumers infer animal welfare from a subjective combination of animal-welfare aspects, often clouded and colored by confusing marketing that uses imagery of pastoral farms and "happy" animals. Other consumers may take a more studied and objective approach based on specific standards, but even those can often be unsubstantiated and even contradictory. Case in point of this paradox: Walmart's announced restriction on use of antibiotics could be--and has been--argued by some experts to actually be an impediment to improving animal welfare.
All those uncertainties cloud the real consumer demand picture hiding behind those rosy studies like FMI's.
It's important to bear in mind, Texas Tech ag economist Darren Hudson reminded economics scholars in a 2010 article, companies--like Walmart--have always tried to shape public opinion to differentiate their brands and increase consumers' willingness to pay a better price. But that kind of supply-side manipulation says little about what consumers are really willing to pay for. Hudson cites studies noting that when consumers who say they favor animal-welfare standards are asked if they still favor them if they cost more in price and taxes, their support significantly wanes. He considers the scientific literature supporting true economic impact of animal welfare to be "scant."
The fact is the economics research generally agrees that willingness-to-pay estimates are inflated, due to respondents' tendency to answer based on their own hypothetical assumptions and their unwillingness to give the politically incorrect answer to surveyors. Consumers may in fact be willing to put money on the counter for animal welfare, says Danish ag economics professor Laura Mørch Andersen, but so far it's only to a small degree. "Our results," she writes, "suggest that the stated willingness to pay observed in opinion polls...to a large extent is just cheap talk." Her work cautions retailers to consider the market for higher welfare products to be only a niche market, capable of attracting only certain consumer segments. Walmart's across-the-board requirements are precisely the opposite of the segmented and targeted marketing strategy necessary to make animal-welfare labeling profitable--particularly when you consider the consumer segments being most directly targeted, meat eaters, are the consumer segment that most value taste and related sensory attributes and consistently value them above animal-care issues.
Furthermore, it's important to consider whether consumer demand is being manufactured or inflated by interests like the growing cottage industry in certifying animal farms as humane. American Humane Association, for instance, the same "no animals were harmed in the making of this movie" non-profit that audits commercial movies, shows revenue of about a half million dollars a year and pays out about $1.7 million in expenses on its farm certification program, according to 2014 IRS documents. Although tiny by comparison to WalMart's sales, that kind of money earned from only 10 percent of all animals raised for food demonstrates at least the potential exists to create a demand for welfare auditing even absent any real consumer demand. (Note: American Humane Association did not respond to Farmer Goes to Market's request for clarification on its income and expenses derived from auditing and certifying farms.)
But perhaps the most compelling evidence that consumers say they want voluntary production constraints like Walmart's but won't pay for them comes from the biggest real-world experiment in such practices so far, says University of California at Davis economist Tina Saitone. Numerous studies demonstrate consumers routinely tell surveyors they will buy more organic foods at a price premium, yet the market share for organic in the United States has remained stalled over the last decade at only about 3 percent of food sales. Saitone calls the difference between experimental studies and the real marketplace a "vast chasm."
Saitone's most recent research, scheduled for publication in an upcoming issue of the American Journal of Agricultural Economics, deftly takes apart the argument that WalMart's dictates are nothing but free-market "consumer choice" giving shoppers a wider range of choices. In the case of restricting antibiotic use in animals to improve their productivity, Saitone writes in "What Happens when Food Marketers Require Restrictive Farming Practices?" the practice ends up costing all farmers on the production side and all consumers on the consumption side. In a nutshell, she observes, the problem is that most of the food produced by restrictive agreements ends up going into marketing channels in which a premium can't be captured. In other words, even though McDonalds, for instance, may buy 18 percent of a hog in terms of cuts (bacon, sausage, ham), it's not possible to raise a "partially antibiotic-free" hog. That means even though that 18 percent antibiotic-free pork may conceivably earn a premium, the remaining 82 percent that's antibiotic-free but going into conventional channels will have incurred the added cost without hope for added price premium. The same argument could be posed for WalMart's humanely-raised animals. At the end of the day, the demand by such a powerful market entity will increase costs for the entire chain, including you.
It's a reality that free-market philosopher Milton Friedman illuminated more than 40 years ago. In arguing against the then-fashionable trend for businesses to demonstrate their "social responsibilities," the economic theorist and University of Chicago professor objected to small boards of corporate directors imposing such social-justice demands on their customers. By spending somebody else's money to underwrite a general social interest, Friedman believed, big business is in effect imposing a tax by dictate that is counter to the American way. "We have established elaborate constitutional, parlimentary and judicial provisions to control these functions, to assure that taxes are imposed so far as possible in accordance with the preferences and desires of the public--after all, 'taxation with representation' was one of the battle cries of the American Revolution." By short-cutting that process, as Walmart has done, over-bearing big business appoints itself legislator, executive and jurist to decide whom to tax by how much and for what purpose. Walmart's dicates are precisely that kind of extra-governmental regulation in action.
Two recent USDA reports illustrate the good news/bad news aspect of current U.S. beef cattle markets. The survey data confirm the good news that American cattle farmers are actively expanding the beef-cattle herd, which will eventually lead to greater beef supplies and more moderate prices as a result. The bad news: That rebuilding process is going to be long and slow, at least to start.
Supplies are still tight. USDA's July Cattle report contained USDA’s first estimate of the 2015 calf crop and it came in 1.2 percent higher than that of 2014, at 34.3 million head. If the estimate is true, 2015 will be the first year the calf crop has grown by 1 percent or more in more than two decades, according to Iowa State ag economists Chad Hart and Lee Schulz. Young female cattle now make up 16.1 percent of the total U.S. cow herd--another 20-year high mark--which means cattle ranchers are now holding females off the market at a rate consistent with levels during the large expansionary phase of the early 1990s, diverting them into producing more calves down the road, but temporarily cutting into the beef supply as they do so.
We have a long way to go to recover from the lost numbers brought on by continued drought during the last decade. The number of "feeder calves," those ready to go onto the final phase of feeding before being marketed as beef, are still tight. Feeder cattle supplies have been within the range of 34.87 and 35.50 million for the past four years, and that 35.25 million average of those four years still falls 8.4 percent lower than the average for 2004 through 2010—the last years in which we saw what they consider an overall increase in feeder cattle supplies.
Much of that year-over-year increase in feeder cattle supplies is being fed by a relatively larger increase in the number of light calves, those under 500 pounds. What that statistic means is that even though the overall supply of calves available to put on feed is increasing, the majority of those are those light calves, which won't be big enough to go into feedlots until late in the year and into next year. So don't expect any significant impact on beef supplies to appear until 2016. Beef cattle inventories are increasing right now, but the supply of beef will actually fall another 1 percent or 2 percent in 2015 following the 5.7 percent year over year decrease in 2014. That adds up to sustained high wholesale prices for the near future.
Omaha Sen. Burke Harr (http://news.legislature.ne.gov/dist08)'s LB544 (http://nebraskalegislature.gov/bills/search_by_number.php?DocumentNumber=LB544&Legislature=104th), introduced into the legislature in late January, would allow community organizations to establish community public vegetable gardens on vacant public land. Harr said the measure "would help address food insecurity in communities across the state."
Tim Rinne, state coordinator for Nebraskans for Peace, told the legislature's Agriculture Committee it was the state's role to encourage citizens to grow more food locally in order to prevent hunger. “The farther we get away from our food supply, the more food insecure we are,” he said.
But Harr and Rinne's conclusions assume a reality that may not necessarily hold true, according to study scheduled for publication in an upcoming issue of the journal Agriculture and Human Values. In it, French and Canadian social scientists conducted in-depth interviews of 25 gardeners in Paris and 14 in Montreal working in collective gardens across those cities. The aim of the questionnaire was to assess how important actually producing food was to the gardeners.
The found that of the 39 gardeners interviewed, 33 did mention the possibility of producing food as one of their motivations. However, only about one-third--14 of the 39--said growing enough food to eat at an affordable price was a motivating factor in working the public gardens. That handful of gardeners who said they considered the public garden economically beneficial said so for one of two reasons:
More than half of the gardeners interviewed considered that the garden was not economically advantageous, the researchers reported. In fact, some gardeners considered that the vegetables produced at the garden ended up costing more than those bought in shops. It's also noteworthy that although "sharing" the bounty of the public garden with other people was one of the food-related reasons for participating, the check-box on the questionnaire for "food bank"--an option city officials advised the research team should be included because it was a common destination for public-garden produce--went unticked on every respondent's questionnaire.
So why do they garden? In contrast to the production of food, users of the public space to garden cited these "multifunctions," according to the research:
Although production of food is often rooted within those other functions, the research team noted, in the relatively affluent northern hemisphere, self-production of food doesn't typically have a subsistence function, as it does in the relatively less affluent southern hemisphere, "where food-producing urban agriculture has a very important role in the food supply.’’
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.
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.
Because the Internet, social media and e-mail chain letters have become important sources of information for grocery shoppers, Farmer Goes to Market regularly follows those sources for food news and food-safety warnings. We will bring you regular updates on such food-news reports, testing them for accuracy and context, so you can convey the realities to your consumers.
This month, like our previous report on Facebook claims about dangers of chlorine in baby carrots, another long-lived Internet-driven theme claims scrambling eggs is the next big danger. Because scrambling an egg breaks its yolk and therefore allows the cooking heat to oxidize the natural cholesterol found in it, according to these Internet health experts, scrambling is the most risky form of egg preparation—riskier even, it seems, than eating them raw. Oxidizing the egg yolks increases the level of very low density lipoproteins in the cholesterol, which is the form of cholesterol most linked to coronary disease. Accordingly, the ranking of dangerous egg cooking practices, from least to most, goes like this:
It's a very elegant scientific theory, save for one small problem. "Not only is this ranking silly," says molecular biologist and senior fellow for the American Council on Science and Health Julianna LeMieux, "it's dead wrong."
This theory that never dies completely dismisses an important fact about cholestrol and nutrition. Yes, eggs contain cholesterol. And yes, whipping the yolk and heating oxidizes it, converting more of the cholesterol into the VLDL form. The problem is the lipid profile of the cholesterol is irrelevent, because it never reaches the bloodstream in the form it's consumed. All cholesterol, regardless of its form, only gets converted into VLDL (the worst form), low density lipoprotein (bad), or high density lipoprotein (good cholesterol) after it's digested and reaches the liver. How the liver converts those components into VLDL, LDL or HDL and then sends them into the bloodstream is genetically determined and affected only peripherally by diet and exercise. That's why, for most people, the cholesterol you get from your diet makes little to no difference in HDL or LDL levels.
The real irony of the Internet advice, LeMieux argues, is that the only real risk in eating eggs comes with the "best" alternative in the list above: eating raw eggs.
Eating eggs raw does bring a chance, although small, of causing harm. In about one in 20,000 times, she says, eggs can carry Salmonella bacteria which can cause a stomach bug. And that risk is the same whether the eggs are organic or not. So if they're playing the odds, cooking, regardless of how consumers choose to do so, is a safer bet than eating eggs raw.
"Diseases of affluence," they are called, the so-called Western-World diseases caused by stuffing ourselves with too much sugar, red meat and other rich food, and working it off with too little hard labor: obesity, heart disease, acquired diabetes, high blood pressure and more. As a society, we are mortgaging our health to squander our relative wealth on modern, processed diets bought from large agribusiness companies controlled by rich, fat white guys. And the antidote, according to the new food movement? Eat simpler, eat organic, eat local, eat non-GMO, eat paleo, eat socially responsibly, eat closer to the land, eat brown, eat Native American. In short, go back to eating like we used to eat when we were too poor as a society to be obsessed with keeping up with the gastronomical Joneses.
But what if it's less about the health than it is about the show? Has eating poor become the new symbol of affluence?
Texas A&M University ag economists tested a sample of 201 non-students from a midsized college town, selected by local newspaper advertisement in order to mirror the typical grocery shopper. They then gave participants a battery of survey questions regarding their shopping behavior as it relates to feelings of prestige, prominence and social status, in order to rank them on a well-accepted marketing scale that classifies shoppers along a continuum from those who buy simply to satisfy basic needs to those who buy just to show off. As the researchers anticipated based on other such work, the group broke along typical lines:
The researchers then asked participants to bid in a silent auction to buy lettuce and spinach that was labeled as either conventionally grown, hydroponically grown or organically grown. The meaning of each category was explained in detail to participants. They applied sophisticated statistical modeling to guage the willingness of shoppers in each of the categories to pay for each type of food. They found:
If it's true that the new ethical eating is simply conspicous consumption, and that, as VOGUE writes, "Wellness has become an important part of the luxury lifestyle... Eating right can give the privileged class a sense of moral superiority," how does the grocer communicate that basic-food luxury? Consider how you might manage your organics bin within these basic tenents of marketing luxury goods, from Jean-Noël Kapferer, author of Strategic Brand Management, and Vincent Bastien, former CEO of Louis Vuitton Malletier and author of The Luxury Strategy:
Remember, you don't launch luxury brands, you build them progressively. Successfully marketing luxury begins with understanding what a luxury brand is, and isn't, and then steadily promoting those traits. "In order for conspicuous consumption to exist, there is a need for others to be aware of the purchase so that it signals status," the Texas A&M study authors write. "Consumers evaluate conspicuous goods based on quality attributes and the prestige and social status derived from consuming them." Promoting organic and local as luxury depends on maintaining and building what the scholars call "socially constructed preciousness."
Feed the need. Despite the fact all boats in our society are floating higher with growing average afflence and some high-profile disavowal of riches, man's base need for some form of social stratification has not disappeared, Kapferer and Bastien argue. People still feel it vital to know their place in society, and luxury has the fundamental function of creating and reinforcing that stratification.
Luxury is where you find it. As the relatively small but consistent price premiums in the A&M study demonstrate, conspicuous luxury doesn't necessarily mean expensive. "Anything that can be a social signifier can become a luxury," according to Kapferer and Bastien. "By the same token, anything that ceases to be a social signifier loses its luxury status." Case in point: backyard swimming pools. Promotion and merchandising for organic products should reinforce the elements that make their purchase such social signifiers. It's the preciousness that matters, preciousness that results from making food harder, not easier to acquire, by placing often artificial constraints on its production: antibiotic-free, locally grown, animal-welfare-friendly, to name just a few.
Keep them believing. "No luxury brand can hope to survive if it relies purely on clients who are only interested in reputed signs of recognition, the symbol rather than the substance," say Kapferer and Bastien. Luxury customers will abandon you as soon as they lose faith in the symbol, which could explain the growing impatience by former apostles with organic that has been co-opted from the small, independent farmer by large corporations.
Obey the circle of fashion. Luxury is closely tied to fashion, they suggest, and fashion plays a key role in our social life by "recreating the rhythm of the seasons that was done away with by urbanisation." Can you say "Eat Seasonably?"
Lead, don't follow. In traditional marketing, the marketing duo write, client is king. Consumer package goods put the customer at the heart of the business and listen constantly to customers. The luxury brand, on the other hand, springs from the creator's mind, often driven by vision that borders on eccentric. Can you think of a better explanation for the growing popularity of biodynamic food, farming that counsels growing food according to the star alignment and fertilizing crops by burying amputated cow's horns filled with fermented manure in fields. "Don’ t look for equality with your clients," Kapferer and Bastien counsel. "...the brand must always dominate its client. As a result, a certain distance is preserved that is not supercilious or aloof, but nevertheless maintains an aura of mystery."
Be difficult to buy. "The luxury brand is something that has to be earned," they write. "The greater the inaccessibility–whether actual or most often virtual–the greater the desire." What better description of the local, sustainable, community supported agriculture movement? Notes University of Wisconsin professor Craig Thompson: If you set out to purposely design a food system that offered only limited selection, at limited times of the year, at higher prices, determined largely by what the producer had to sell rather than what the customer wanted, pushing items you often aren't familiar with and don't know how to use, you couldn't do better than today's alternative food systems. It's those very inaccessibilities of farmers markets compared to supermarkets that draw shoppers to be there, he says.
As more than 500 companies lined up before this week's deadline to get their bids in to build a prototype of the Trump administration's promised border-security "wall" between Mexico and the United States, agricultural interests were continuing to caution that America's farmers could be hurt by a planned crackdown on illegal immigration. Bloomberg Politics, for example, reported last year several sources within the nation's dairy industry were expressing concern even before Trump's nomination that building an immigration-tight wall between Mexico and the southern United States would cause the nation's milk-producing farms in particular to suffer.
The continuing debate over immigration and its peculiar relationship with U.S. agriculture here may raise the question with shoppers: Why do farmers hire so many immigrant, and sometimes illegal, workers?
Cost. If you believe the advocates for laborors' rights, it's all about cost control. Farmers hire immigrants, often undocumented, because they can pay them less than native workers, better control efforts to unionize and bargain, and keep them in low-level positions because they have fewer options. Although no doubt some farm employers are guilty of that exploitation, such a black-and-white picture of the economics of immigrant labor is too simple.
In one sense, the cost-control argument is correct. Migrant farm workers do get paid relatively little. But it's not because they're migrants. If's because they're farm laborers. The average wages for hired farm workers across the board in the United States are the second lowest category for all U.S. workers, trailed only by private household help. Underpaying immigrant labor is less about exploiting them than it is about the monetarily thankless task farming in general is: In U.S. farming and ranching, farm managers as a whole earned a median annual income of only about $64,000 in 2015, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That figure compares to nearly $86,000 for other managerial occupations in this country. The average U.S. corn farmer, for example, made only $25.63 per acre for his time in 2015, USDA survey data show. The average U.S. farm size is 434 acres. You do the math.
With that said, according to USDA, average hourly farm worker pay for 2016 was $12.98, which is above both the national $7.25 minimum wage and the BLS' $10.43 average hourly wage for grocery cashiers. Yet it's widely accepted in the farming community those wages often aren't sufficient to motivate legal citizens to turn down unemployment payments, SNAP cards, Section 8 Housing and other benefits that might dry up should they accept employment in the often difficult business of farmwork. That leaves farmers with little choice than to hire immigrants, they say.
Shortage. With a national unemployment rate that peaked at 9.5 percent during the 2009 recession and still lingers at about 5 percent, along with a real unemployment rate that's still more than 9 percent, many have a hard time believing farmers when they claim they can't find enough workers. But according to Texas A&M ag economists Dennis Fisher and Ronald Knutson, those general averages don't paint an accurate picture of the farm-labor supply. Their recent work shows reports of labor shortages are in fact real, if you consider the labor markets at the local, not national, level.
Their figures show that the national farm labor force is made up of approximately 1.1 million workers, which has been relatively stable for at least the past decade. But their data also indicate substantial seasonal variability in that supply. For example, the total number of workers ranged from 802,000 in January 2010 to almost 1.35 million in July 2010. And they believe even those national data do not reveal the more extreme seasonal hiring fluctuations that occur in local markets. In addition, Fisher and Knutson challenge the notion that immigrant farm labor is mobile and thus fluid to move to areas of shortage. They cite studies demonstrating three out of four immigrant field-crop workers work at a single location within 75 miles of their permanent home, and they predict the percentage of settled workers on livestock farms is even higher. America may have surplus of farm labor as whole, but locality, the shortages are often acute. At the local level, the farm labor shortage is real.
Bureacracy. One reason estimates say the number of immigrant farm workers working illegally in this country is from 50 percent to as high as 70 percent is that all other factors equal, the cost difference between hiring an illegal and legal immigrant often prices the legal out of the market. The federal government's guest worker program is hampered by bureacracy and delay, they write. Before an agricultural employer can use the program, he must demonstrate the domestic labor supply can't meet his requirements and that hiring immigrant worker won't drive down wages of similar native workers. A University of Florida study reported in February found complying with the pre-hiring requirements of the guest-worker program to hire one citrus picker from Mexico added $1,900 to the cost of that worker. Fisher and Knutson cite the story of a Georgia blueberry grower that illustrates the practical outcome of such regulation. In order to rectify the fact that 90 percent of the 67 workers the grower hired over the course of a year were working illegally, he decided to apply for guestworker approval. After following all prescribed procedures, only 13 workers accepted jobs, six worked for three days or less, only two worked for more than two weeks, and none finished the harvesting season.
Desire and ability. “The notion that immigrants are taking jobs away from American workers is simply not true,” said Missouri dairy farmer Randy Mooney in conjunction with release of a study by the National Milk Producers Federation showing 51 percent of the nation's dairy employees are immigrants. “Dairy farmers have tried desperately to get American workers to do these jobs with little success — and that’s despite an average wage that is well above the U.S. minimum wage.”
One of the widely held sentiments for preferring Mexican immigrants that farmers don't often openly talk about is they believe they're better at the job. A more rural population (although that's changing in Mexico as it is in the United States), along with some cultural traits often leave Mexican immigrants more suited to farm work, particularly livestock-related work, than native Americans.
Research suggests that's not just prejudice. A November 2016 study by the American Immigrant Council supports the notion."Our findings challenge well-established perceptions of individuals working in low wage service jobs—such as janitors, maids, or caregivers—as socially invisible workers performing tasks requiring little or no skill or special training," the study says. "In contrast to these perceptions of the disadvantaged and unskilled migrant farmworkers, we found substantial skill transfers, skill development, and social mobility among the migrant farm workers in our study. Of the male migrants who entered agricultural jobs upon arrival in the United States, for example, 80 percent said that their agricultural experience and knowledge of planting and harvesting crops in Mexico helped them learn new ways of doing things in their agricultural jobs abroad."
In early March, USDA confirmed a highly pathogenic form of bird flu in a breeding flock of 73,500 Tennessee broiler chickens. Alerted after hundreds of birds died suddenly, the agency identified the cause as a strain of the flu virus that came from wild birds, unrelated to the virus that caused the 2015 U.S. outbreak, but deadly and contagious nonetheless. Officials destroyed the entire flock to keep the virus from spreading, as well as worked with workers to ensure they didn't carry the disease to other farms.
Although the avian fluenza response plan worked as designed, this latest outbreak may have marketers wondering: Are we at risk of facing turkey, chicken or egg shortages should another widespread outbreak occur similar to the last one, in 2015? USDA called that 2015 outbreak the largest animal health emergency in U.S. history, costing farmers nearly 50 million birds and a conservatively estimated total economic impact of more than $3.3 billion before ending in June of that year. Retail turkey prices weren't noticeably affected, but egg prices soared in response.
Where do poultry markets stand going into this upcoming flu-risk season?
Chicken. Broiler meat production in January was 2 percent above last year at this time, at 3.5 billion pounds, owing mostly to an increase in the number of birds slaughtered, USDA reports. December production was 3.3 billion pounds, 4 percent above December 2015 on a per day basis. Preliminary data suggested that February production was also higher than a year earlier on a per-day basis; however, bird weights may have been lower, masking a larger number of birds in the supply than implied by the slaughter data. Growers appear to be continuing a trend toward sending birds to processing at lighter weights, in order to alleviate some reported quality problems. These recent developments, as well as the recent resumption of growth in average weights, contributed to increased expectations for first-quarter production. The forecast was raised 50 million pounds above the previous first-quarter forecast.
Meanwhile, stocks of broiler meat in cold storage as of Dec. 31 were 783 million pounds, 6 percent below a year earlier, but 3 percent above November, largely due to a higher breast meat total. Year-ending stocks for 2017 were increased 30 million pounds.
The March 5 announcement confirming avian flu led some countries to restrict imports of poultry from this country, although most of these countries had limited their restrictions to poultry and products from Tennessee or from within a more limited area in the vicinity of the finding. Although those restrictions would in theory save some supply for domestic use, only a small proportion of U.S. broiler meat would be affected by these restrictions, USDA says.
Eggs. In late February, USDA revised egg production estimates upward for the last two years, bringing the size of the U.S. table-egg layer flock as of Jan. 1 higher by about 4 million birds from the previous estimate, to 314 million birds, a record level for that date. This led 2017 production forecasts for both table and hatching eggs to be increased substantially from the February forecasts, totaling 2.82 billion eggs more in aggregate for the year.
In fact, December data for the average number of table-egg layers in the national flock was the highest since the series began in 1984. This contributed to higher-than-expected production for the fourth quarter, at 22.8 billion. In addition, the nation's flock appears to getting more productive, now laying 80.6 eggs per 100 hens, an all-time record.
As with chicken meat exports, the appearance of flu in Tennessee will likely lower U.S. egg and egg product exports, but exports in 2017 are now forecast to reach 305 million dozen, a 9-percent increase above 2016.
Turkey. Turkey farmers appear to be making up for losses incurred during the last flu outbreak. USDA reports production grew 5 percent in January 2017 compared with a year earlier, as the industry continued to build on the gains made in 2016. Recent growth is largely due to increased young turkey placements from turkey hatcheries, which have averaged 6 percent higher over the last 6 months compared with the same period a year earlier. The forecast for production in the first half of 2017 was raised 15 million pounds to account for the placement expansion. Total production in 2016 reached 6.0 billion pounds, an increase of 6 percent over 2015 and 4 percent greater than 2014. Year-ending stocks reached 279 million pounds to close out 2016, the highest since 2012. As a result, 2017 ending stocks were increased to 300 million pounds.
Alliance farmer Russ Finch demonstrates the greenhouse he designed and built using circulating geothermal heat to successfully brave Nebraska winters and grow hundreds of pounds of citrus fruit every year on an energy cost of $1 a day!
Nearby Ashland, Kan., rancher and horseman Garth Gardner received overwhelming support from the community after he and his family were forced to scramble to save their homes, ranches and animals from one of the worst wildfires in state history. But what he received one morning in an unmarked envelope with no return address left him in tears.
"My Lord this country has some special people in it!!" he told social media.
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.
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 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.