Search Farmer Goes to Market

Search Site

Worry about Zilmax?When Tyson Foods, the nation's largest meat processor which buys roughly a quarter of all beef cattle, announced it plans to suspend buying cattle next month that have been fed the short-term feed additive Zilmax, it raised the potential for yet another round of questions from your beef shoppers about this "growth hormone." Here a few points to help you answer their questions:

  • Zilpaterol, the active ingredient in Zilmax, is not a growth hormone in the same sense as the other steroid-type hormones that have been used in cattle for decades. Zilpaterol is more correctly categorized as a "growth enhancer," which is of the category known as "beta-agonists." Beta-agonists work by signaling the animal's body to devote a greater portion of the energy derived from feed to growing muscle rather than fat, which in effect increases the amount of meat produced given the same amount of feed.
  • It's important to clearly understand Tyson has raised no food-safety concerns about the additive, which the product's maker, Merck Animal Health, was quick to confirm. "Zilmax has a 30+ year history of research and development and rigorous testing," the company said in a prepared statement. "Worldwide regulatory agencies have reviewed extensive data on Zilmax and have concluded that use of Zilmax according to the label is safe in cattle."
  • Tyson's complaint about the additive, which it informed cattle feeders of by personal letter, was that unnamed "animal scientists" have raised concern about a possible connection between its use and the ability of animals to walk when they arrive at the processing plant. The company said it was suspending purchases in the interest of precaution, until the question could be settled. Merck also disagrees with the animal welfare claims Tyson has raised. "We are surprised by Tyson’s letter. We are confident that, based on all of the available data on Zilmax, the experience reported by Tyson is not attributable to Zilmax. Indeed, Tyson itself points to the fact that there are other possible causes and that it does not know the specific cause of the issues it recently experienced."
  • In an online essay, medical doctor Richard Raymond, a former USDA undersecretary for food safety, succinctly summarizes the safety of beta agonists in general, including zilpaterol. He writes here:
    • Although Zilmax has been on the market in the U.S. just since early 2007, beta-agonists have been used in U.S. pork production since 1999 and in US cattle production since 2003. They are also approved for use in turkeys, although not widely used.
    • More than two dozen countries around the world also approve beta-agonists for use in food animals.
    • Beta-agonists are a particularly safe additive, he says, because they are broken down and excreted from the animal's system quickly, leaving little or no residue in the meat. For the most part, they are never detected in meat sampled by USDA; when a rare positive does pop up, it is far below the maximum residue level set for human safety by FDA.
    • Beta-agonists have been used and studied in human medicine for decades. They are commonly used in young children via inhaler to treat asthma attacks and in pregnant women to prevent premature labor and protect unborn babies. "If we give them in significant doses to our most vulnerable patients, including young children, pregnant women and their unborn babies, most people would agree then that it is safe to consume meat from animals supplemented with beta-agonists when it is basically undetectable," Raymond argues.

Baby carrot danger

Because the Internet and social media have become such important sources of information for grocery shoppers, Farmer Goes to Market regularly tracks food-news and food-safety warnings found in those sources. We will bring you regular updates on food-news reports that, by nature of their contamination with factual inaccuracies, insunuation and incomplete reporting, present a real risk to harm the average citizen's understanding of the food chain and food production.

This month's alert centers around another Facebook food scare, this time about the hazard of poisoning by chlorine related to eating baby carrots. What's the truth behind this latest social-media driven food panic about how baby carrots are grown, how they're processed, and the real risks involved?


From the Department of Life Education:

Baby Carrots: The following is information from a farmer who grows and packages carrots for IGA, METRO, LOBLAWS, etc.

The small cocktail (baby) carrots you buy in small plastic bags are made using the larger crooked or deformed carrots which are put through a machine which cuts and shapes them into cocktail carrots - most people probably know this already. What you may not know and should know is the following: Once the carrots are cut and shaped into cocktail carrots they are dipped in a solution of water and chlorine in order to preserve them (this is the same chlorine used in your pool). Since they do not have their skin or natural protective covering, they give them a higher dose of chlorine. You will notice that once you keep these carrots in your refrigerator for a few days, a white covering will form on the carrots. This is the chlorine which resurfaces. At what cost do we put our health at risk to have esthetically pleasing vegetables?

Chlorine is a very well-known carcinogen, which causes Cancer. I thought this was worth passing on. Pass it on to as many people as possible in hopes of informing them where these carrots come from and how they are processed. I used to buy those baby carrots for vegetable dips. I know that I will never buy them again!!!!

Now, some facts:

  • It's true cocktail carrots are typically washed in a chlorine-and-water solution before packaging. But most other ready-to-eat fresh vegetable products, like bagged salads, are as well. Packers use automated equipment, trained technicians and regular monitoring on packing lines to ensure disinfectant concentrations remain at levels that are effective for the water, produce and other conditions, yet remain below allowed tolerance.
  • Alarmed consumers may argue that they don't "dip their carrots in chlorine" so why should their food manufacturers? In fact, however, since most public water systems are chlorinated, consumers drink up to a 4 part-per-million chlorine-and-water solution every time they take a glass of water from the tap.
  • The truth is the minor concentrations of chlorine used to disinfect produce are set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and are recognized as safe at those concentrations. Cleaning vegetables in chlorinated rinse is a safety measure meant to protect shoppers' healthy by helping control possibility of foodborne bacteria, and is in fact allowed even under USDA's organic standards.
  • White blush, the "white covering" mentioned in the post that sometimes appears on refrigerated carrots is the harmless discoloration that accompanies moisture loss storate abrasion during storage. It is unrelated to chlorine in rinse, does not affect taste of the product and has no nutritional impact.

Heard an instance of food news you would like us to examine? Use the comment section to send us an immediate alert!

As retailers continue to buy into the "sustainable food" message, farm organizations are responding by arguing that using technology permits more food to be raised using fewer resources, which improves sustainability. Advances in productivity driven by technology in beef production over the past 30 years, for instance, have reduced the carbon footprint and overall environmental impact of its production, argues Washington State assistant professor of animal science Jude Capper. Comparing the environmental impact of the US beef industry in 1977 to 2007, she says, shows that improvements in nutrition, management, growth rate and slaughter weights have significantly reduced the environmental impact of modern beef production. That technological boost improves beef's sustainability, she argues.

“These findings challenge the common misconception that historical methods of livestock production are more environmentally sustainable than modern beef production,” said Capper.

How sustainable can technology be?A recently released study by Greenpeace International, however, challenges the notion that efficiency improvements can make modern meat production sustainable. It should give grocers a stark reminder of how far apart the two ends of the spectrum are when it comes to compromising on an acceptable “sustainability,” and how unacceptable their most profitable category remains to a segment of society.

Greenpeace’s 36-page report, Ecological Livestock, identifies what the 2.8-million member environmental-activist association believes are the practical options for reducing livestock production and consumption to fit within ecological limits the world will face by 2050. Although it targets Europe as the best example of the Developed World’s contribution to livestock-based environmental damage, the writing on the wall should be clear to American beef retailers, as well.

Greenpeace’s definition of “ecological farming” could have come right of the Beef Checkoff program’s sustainability project: It “…ensures healthy farming and healthy food for today and tomorrow, by protecting soil, water and climate, promotes biodiversity, and does not contaminate the environment…” And in case you’re tempted to dismiss Greenpeace's recommendations as simply vegetarian-driven, take note that the report actually concedes a necessary role for livestock and meat production in a sustainable system: “Ecological livestock integrates farm animals as essential elements in the agriculture system; they help optimise the use and cycling of nutrients and, in many regions, provide necessary farm working force,” it says. “Ecological livestock relies on grasslands, pasture and residues for feed, minimising use of arable land and competition with land for direct human food production, and protecting natural ecosystems within a globally equitable food system.”

Yet the similarity in definition of the end masks a vast divide in the means to get there.  The very marvel of increased efficiency farm groups hold up as evidence of its sustainability condemns it in the eyes of the organization’s report:

“It is often suggested that gains in livestock production efficiency, for example by technological advances, will compensate for growth in livestock numbers, and thus ameliorate its impacts. However, given projected livestock expansion by 2050 and current impacts on safe operating space of the planetary boundaries for biomass and biodiversity, nitrogen and greenhouse gases, the magnitude of efficiency gains would have to be disproportionate to be sufficient. For example, [one study] calculated that efficiency gains would have to be between 136 percent and 433 percent to maintain livestock impacts within acceptable impacts level.... The magnitude of these efficiency gains makes them very unrealistic within the next 50 years.  … the livestock sector will effectively double in number in the next decades, and its impacts will also multiply. Technological advances and gains in efficiency will not be sufficient to limit unacceptable damage to our planet’s resources.”

What's the bottom line, according to Greenpeace?

Only a “drastic reduction in livestock numbers,” coupled with a system in which livestock only remove the amount of resources they put back into the system, and in which the higher productivity of the entire food system (not just individual parts, like beef production) with minimal inputs, will suffice as "sustainable." In order to meet the realistic goal of simply holding livestock production at year 2000 levels by year 2050, Western Europe would have to cut its consumption of meat by more than three times current levels. Although Greenpeace doesn’t do the math for us in the report, that target would require U.S. consumers to cut their meat consumption to fully one-fourth of current levels.

What would 'sustainability' do to your meat sales?

Last year was the driest year on record, beating even the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s, said rancher Mike Kelly, from Sutherland, speaking at this year's Water for Food Global Conference, May 5 through 8 in Lincoln. Yet not only did his farming operation not suffer devastation, neither did the wildlife and habitat that shelter on his family's operation. How did he and thousands of other Nebraska farmers and ranchers accomplish that seemingly impossible task? By intelligent land management using today's technology to stretch the use of water. Click on the video below to watch an excerpt of Mike's comments. Go here to watch more videos about managing agriculture to use water wisely.



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.

S5 Box