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Imaginary poisoning in chicken and pork?When the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced in late August it was finally pulling its regulatory approvals for several old feed additives used in poultry and pigs that contain traces of arsenic, the media spun the move as FDA "finally putting an end to using arsenic" in animal feed. California's largest National Public Radio beacon was typical in its reporting, proclaiming "FDA Finally Bans Most Arsenic in Chicken Feed." Bloomberg News, similarly, pronounced FDA had at last "ordered the withdrawal" of arsenic-containing products from the market. More activism-oriented web outlets repeated and amplified the news, lamenting the fact that such a dangerous poison as arsenic was still being used up until FDA's announcement.

Not exactly.

A more careful reading of FDA's own announcement here hints at the truth. The agency in fact officially refused--not agreed--on Sept. 30 to act on a four-year-old petition filed by the Center for Food Safety and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy which demanded FDA revoke the decades-old approvals for the arsenic-containing compounds roxarsone, carbarsone and arsanilic acid. FDA correctly noted an inconvenient fact many of the news reports missed: Nobody was using the drugs in chickens and pigs anymore, because no company was selling them in this country.

  • The last two companies making roxarsone, Zoetis and Fleming Labs, pulled the drugs from the market voluntarily nearly two years ago, after some studies questioned whether they might be causing a level of arsenic in the meat that, although still considered safe, might be higher than the level formerly believed to result from using the additive. Rather than conduct the expensive testing required to reassure FDA of the safety of an old product, the companies instead opted to abandon the market.
  • Although the Center for Food Safety was technically correct in its contention four years ago that the three drugs were "used in 101 drugs added to feed for chickens, turkeys and pig," that statement is less a testament to the widespread presence of arsenic in animals than it is to the reality that government paperwork dies a glacially slow death. The truth is, although 101 different approvals may be written into FDA's books, none of them any longer correspond to an actual product. An analogy: The fact that 2 million 16-year-olds were licensed to drive in 1929 does not mean 2 million 100-year-olds are today careening about our streets and highways.

FDA in fact took two significant steps in August and September:

  1. It formally recognized reality, and--at the manufacturers' request--officially rescinded the license to sell the products that the companies were no longer selling and were not interested in maintaining the license on. Far from a "ban," this is a common paperwork procedure both FDA and the USDA--which regulates animal vaccines--regularly undertake at the request of the license holders. Typically, the action is to remove paperwork requirements and expense by companies no longer interested in selling products that, for one reason or another, have outlived their usefulness.
  2. FDA did, in fact, leave a single product on the market that contains roxarsone. It is used to prevent disease in baby turkeys and, although official estimates of its use are not available and the manufacturer will not say, industry experts say it is not a commonly used choice.  

Where then does that leave grocers who have to interpret this panicked food-safety string of news stories to consumers? A few points to put a little context around the reports include:

  • Although, granted, it’s not an easy sell for grocers to make, the reality reflected by reporting on arsenic in poultry, as well as the rash of reports earlier this year about arsenic levels in rice is this: Arsenic is present in a lot of food. Arsenic is a natural element present in earth’s crust, found throughout the environment—in water, air and soil. For that reason, it is inevitably found in numerous foods and beverages. Being able to detect measurable levels doesn’t necessarily say much about the source nor the risk to human health. For instance, much of the testing on arsenic levels in chickens, including the work that finally spurred roxarsone's withdrawal from the market, consistenly finds the levels are identical in chickens fed medicated feeds that contain trace arsenic compared to those never fed arsenic. Numerous common foods, as evidenced by the chart below, contain levels of arsenic vastly higher than chickens, whether fed arsenic or not.
  • Most media reports that fan the consumer attention on the word "arsenic" make no attempt to balance any minor risk of consuming arsenic from foods with the overall nutritional benefit of those foods. Just as grocers have to balance the risks of mercury in fish with the potential health benefits of consuming fish, they need to help consumers understand that giving up any particular foods because of arsenic fears are likely to actually cause more health damage than benefit in the long run.

Arsenic levels in foods

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.

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.

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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?

DANGER TO YOUR FAMILY!!

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?

Partners

In patnership with the Nebraska Grocery Industry Association

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.


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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.


Supported by the Nebraska Corn Board

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.


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