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Monday December 11, 2017


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.

Not often do you get the inner workings of a laborious and exhausting annual western ritual called "working calves" in such gorgeous photography. Take a slide tour through the many jobs involved in turning free-grazing calves into young beef animals.

Working the Fall Calves

By Marlboro Man.

Over the last two months, we’ve been working all of our fall calves (calves born in the fall of last year). This winter has been a constant stream of feeding and working calves, which we’ve been too busy to chronicle lately, so last week I decided to take the camera and get a few pictures. See more...

In the call for reducing farm antibiotic use, let's make sure we're comparing apples to oranges

When the U.S. Centers for Disease Control announced its annual Get Smart About Antibiotics Week earlier this month, to remind people to use antibiotics intelligently in order to avoid losing the effectiveness of these important medicines, it brought out media reports citing a statistic so commonly used as to now be widely accepted as fact: " Over 70 percent of antibiotics go to livestock, not to people," quoted health reporter Martha Rosenberg, for example. Most commonly, media and Internet pundits repeat the statistic that anywhere from 70 percent to 84 percent of all antibiotics used yearly in this country go to food animals. Let's take a deeper look at those figures:

Real numbers?

Although antibiotic availability is strictly regulated by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, the reality is that the amount of the drugs actually used is not publicly known. Ironically, although now FDA carefully tracks and reports a summary each year of the tonnage farmers use, a similar figure for the amount used in humans is not. Even reliable estimates of the amount of antibiotics people use are decades old. The percentages commonly cited by news media are similarly only suspect estimates, not only because they rely on those old estimates of human use, but also because they rely on estimates of farm animal use  based on numerous unproven assumptions, several of which are clearly wrong (like the fact it creates out of thin air tonnages for two drugs that although they were FDA-approved were never sold in the United States.)

Meaningful numbers?

Even if you're willing to accept the 70 percent to 84 percent figures at face value, it's important to ask whether the statistic is even relevent. Here’s how to put the numbers into perspective for your customers:

  • Each year, America’s farms grow one third more animals and birds than the combined human population of the entire world. Those 9.5 billion birds and animals outnumber the U.S. human population by more than 31 times. Shouldn’t their antibiotic use be higher?
  • In addition, farm antibiotics — like most medicines, whether animal or human — are given to animals according to their weight. So you can only meaningfully compare the relative use between animals and people on a pound-per-pound basis. Not only does the U.S. population of farm animals outnumber humans, it also outweighs the U.S. human population — by almost 3.4 times. Again, since dose is based on weight, we should naturally expect animals to consume more antibiotics. In this case, their share of the total strictly by weight should be 77 percent.

Farm animals outweigh the human population three to one

  • Rather than hogging all the antibiotics, farm animals on a pound-per-pound basis actually use only a fraction of the antibiotics humans do. Based on one estimate by a USDA veterinary researcher, pound-for-pound, each human and pet consumes 10 times more of the nation’s supply of antibiotics than each farm animal uses.
  • Opponents of farm medications use another statistical sleight of hand to further inflate the implied risk that farm antibiotic consumption might be contributing to antibiotic resistance. Not every type of antibiotic they loop into their calculations is relevent to the resistance debate. Several antibiotic classes — those known as ionophores, bambermycin, carbadox, tiamulin and arsenicals — are never used in humans. So, their use in farm animals poses no risk of causing human antibiotics to fail. Subtract the drug manufacturers’ own estimates for how much of those antibiotics are used from the inflated statistics, and the oft-repeated 70 percent figure immediately falls to only 58 percent.

Not all antibiotics are equal

  • Finally, when you recalculate the estimated use of antibiotics by converting the dosage for farm animals into a comparable human dose — what’s known as an “allometric calculation,” which comes as close as possible to making an apples-to-apples comparison between the dose given humans and the dose given animals — it grows clear that farm use is not out of line. Depending on which allometric model you use, farm animals should be consuming from 2.1 to 3.7 times more antibiotics than humans in order to receive a comporable dose. In other words, an appropriate share for farms, based on the best numbers we have, should fall between 70 percent and 79 percent.

Pound for pound, pets and humans use 10 times the antibiotics of farm animals

Get ready to fight the 'yuck factor'

Have the media opened the door to a new barrage of food ingredient criticism based on the "yuck factor?"

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."


Seaweed, anyone?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."


Meat GlueTransglutaminase. 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."


Flesh batterMechanically 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 monoxideCarbon 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 in your foodSand. 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 in food?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 here?

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.

Photos courtesy:

  • Gelatin: Ann Larie Valentine/Flickr
  • Seaweed: Brittany0177/Flickr
  • Transglutaminase: Wikimedia/The Boathouse at Sunday Park



Anti-GMO campaigns targeted sweet corn this summer“Consumer concern about [Genetically Modified Organisms] is increasing rapidly in the United States and Canada,” announces the promotional materials behind a new anti-biotechnology campaign launched against retailers this summer. (Even as, the same material recognizes, “Polls show consistently that the majority of North Americans don’t really know what GMOs are, or what genetic engineering is.”)

Between market-based campaigns like the non-GMO Project and legislative and ballot initiatives like California’s controversial November ballot measure that would force cumbersome and expensive labeling requirements, genetically modified food ingredients are the hot political topic. But as the non-GMO Project’s disclaimer about polls recognizes, it’s not a true grassroots movement arising naturally from consumer demand. It is instead a movement that a small group of passionate activists are playing upon the uncertainties of consumers—and voters—to promote.
The latest Gallup data, for instance, shows three out of five Americans say they follow news about biotechnology only rarely or not at all. And more importantly, the number who don’t concern themselves with the topic is actually increasing, according to Gallup, not going down. Nevertheless, the non-GMO project PR department advises, “As awareness grows, it’s essential for leaders…to communicate effectively.”

Let's borrow some communication advice from the anti-biotech PR specialists

So in the spirit of borrowing the best ideas, take a look at these seven tips for effectively communicating about biotechnology from the non-GMO handbook and how you can adopt their ideas to effectively answer consumer questions:

1. Repetition is essential—If we want our message to penetrate mainstream consciousness we must have a unified voice.”
Excellent advice, and advice grocers understand perfectly, since most are in their customers' mailboxes at least weekly, and more often via new media. Grocers already have the shopper’s consciousness--and apparently the trust of at least eight in 10 of them, according to polls. More importantly, the grocer’s unified message is heard every time a shopper walks through the doors. And that message? No system has proven itself more effective and more worthy of the trust to reliably and cost-effectively feed the world than today’s food system that ends at your checkout lane. Local, community focused grocers have earned that trust because they understand the system, its checks and balances to ensure products, including GMO products, are not only safe, but available where, when and at a cost that takes only about a dime out of every dollar a consumer earns.

2. Start with the basics—Use every engagement as an opportunity to inform about what GMOs are and to offer a call to action.
Basics, indeed. And what are those basics? Here’s one: Experts agree the system will need to grow and produce as much food in the next few decades as the world did in the past 10,000 years combined in order to sustain the planet’s growing demand for food. Biotechnology is one technological tool that not only helps farmers grow more food on the same or less land, but also helps them:

  • Combat pests using fewer pesticides
  • Reduce the load on the environment by tilling the ground less
  • Cut their use of fossil fuels by more efficiently cropping the acres they have.

And as for the call to action? Unlike state and federal regulatory dictates that require the vague will of the consumer to be translated through some anonymous, distant bureaucracy, the grocers’ system directly asks each individual consumer, face-to-face, to either believe in them or not, and to back that faith with their own money. That call to action is unmistakable, and it usually goes something like this: “I can take you on 3…”

3. Appeal to common sense—Avoid getting bogged down in facts and figures and instead stay focused on the big picture—we have a right to know what we’re eating so that we can make informed choices.
Leaving aside the obvious question of how a consumer makes an “informed choice” about technology without facts and figures, let us take the non-GMO project PR experts at their word and focus on the big picture. Not only has the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said there is no need to label GMO products unless the technology substantially changes the nutritional makeup of the food, but also the safety of biotech products has been officially confirmed by:

  • The American Medical Association
  • The Society of Toxicology
  • The International Life Sciences Institute
  • The National Academy of Sciences in the United States
  • The Royal Society of the United Kingdom
  • The World Health Organization
  • The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
  • The European Commission

Meanwhile, the test of “common sense” can also be put up against another important question the opponents of biotechnology are typically silent about: How can seemingly reasonable people so disagree on the same issue of technology using the same scientific studies? Common sense might suggest we consider underlying motivations.  Take the top contributor to the California ballot iniative, Dr. Joseph Mercola and his Illinois-based Resources LLC, which has sunk about $1.5 million into the labeling initiative. Mercola has built an online empire giving sometimes questionable nutritional advice, and although the non-GMO project makes a show of appearing to involve the grocer in cooperative change, Mercola’s sentiment is anything but sympathetic to the conventional food-distribution system:

Anti-GMO campaigner Joseph Mercola

“Conventional grocery stores are not really the best places to get your food,” he writes. “ the long run, and as much as possible, you're better off getting your food from a farmer's market or community-supported agriculture program. Food grown on a smaller scale, and especially locally grown organic food, is generally safer and more nutritious than the factory-farmed food typically sold in grocery stores.”
Likewise the Organic Consumers Association and its political lobbying arm, the Organic Consumers Fund, which has pumped nearly $1 million into the California initiative. Although its supporters, too, slot products into conventional supermarkets where they can, most are not shy about promoting direct-from-farmer sales that aim to replace, not supplement, the conventional grocery channel.

4. Keep it positive—Most people don’t want any more bad news, so our messaging should stay empowering and solutions-oriented.
Couldn’t agree more. And what could be more empowering than giving every individual shopper the widest array of foods overseen by a competent food-safety system at a price that makes it easy to pick and choose based on their own priorities? Is handing the responsibility for selecting those foods off to distant third parties, many of whom have politicized motives to “revolutionize” the system, far beyond simply providing safe food, empowering or disempowering?

5. Focus on Moms—Moms are the single most important demographic, so make sure your communications offer value to them.
Sage advice, as any working grocer knows. But the question is, who offers them real value, anti-GMO activists or grocers? Consider the prespective of one non-profit advocacy organization for low-income citizens, the National Organization for African Americans in Housing. It complained to U.S. FDA in late 2007 that milk processors marketing milk produced without biotechnology were not only taking advantage of low-income consumers, but actually risking the health of constituent children. “We worry that low-income consumers — fearing ‘hormones in milk’ but unable to afford the more expensive ‘rBST free’ products — will stop drinking milk altogether and opt for less-healthy alternatives,” executive director Kevin Marchman wrote. In direct contrast to the shadowy and ill-defined "unknowns" proposed by anti-GMO campaigners, there's stark and direct evidence that scaring mothers away from serving their children the recommended servings of fruits and vegetables will have a direct, detrimental impact on their health.

6. Stick to the talking points—Again, repetition is essential. If we collectively drive home the same three talking points at every opportunity, our message will get through MUCH louder:

  • We have the right to know what’s in the food we’re eating and feeding to our families—we deserve an informed choice.

It would appear consumers already know what’s in their food—at least the lion’s share of it. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in the United States in 2011, 94 percent of soybeans grown were biotech; 90 percent of cotton is biotech and 88 percent of corn is biotech. Approximately 70 percent of processed food found on grocery store shelves contains ingredients and oils from biotech crops. Advocates of non-GMO foods already have the ability to give their consumers an informed choice by labeling their own products as “GMO-free.” In fact, the do precisely that by proxy every time they use the USDA Organic seal. Why then do they feel the need to impose that labeling through heavy-handed regulation on the other 90-plus percent of the food grocers carry? Could the excessive repitition be masking other motivations they'd prefer to avoid?

  • Genetically engineered foods have not been adequately tested; it’s unethical to be putting an experimental technology into the food we feed our families.

Biotech crops undergo intense regulatory scrutiny covering their growth in the fields to their delivery in the marketplace to ensure they are safe for consumption and do not pose any environmental hazards. Biotech crops and their food products are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency. Testing of biotech crops before they are introduced to market is so extensive, in fact, that it typically takes about six to 12 years and costs between $6 million and $12 million.

  • Nearly 50 countries require labels on GMOs, and many of these also have severe restrictions or bans against GMO food production or sale. We deserve the same level of protection and information as citizens in other nations around the world.

True enough. But what doesn't get said in the focus on other countries, particularly Europe, is their proscriptions on GMO technology don't necessarily occur because of safety concerns. More than 20 years ago, Europe’s Parliament officially recognized — even if stopping short of committing it to legislation — the legitimacy of what’s now known as “the fourth hurdle.” It says a technology like biotechnology seeking access to market must pass four hurdles — not the traditional three — in order to win approval. No.1, it must be safe. No. 2, it must be pure. And No. 3, it must be effective. But the new, fourth hurdle requires it also be proven to be environmentally benign and not socioeconomically damaging. Application of that fourth hurdle explains why Europe disallows not only biotechnology, but also many farm antibiotics, growth hormones and rBST--all considered perfectly safe to use by the U.S. regulatory system. (Even as, in many cases, Europe's own scientific organizations concur on their safety.)

7. Commit to ongoing collaboration—participate in regular “Managing the Non-GMO Message” meetings and webinars to help the movement stay coordinated.
Couldn't have said it better ourselves. Political movements aiming to "revolutionize" the U.S. food system are picking off individual grocers, grocery chains and other companies by attacking them one-by-one through consumer scare campaigns like the non-GMO campaigns. They are correct about the solution: Collaborating with others who have a stake and a belief in the conventional system to share information and knowledge empowers everyone. One excellent example: The Nebraska Farmer goes to Market program, which brings together grocers, farmers and everyone in between in order to reduce the vaccuum of information that naturally occurs.

Let us know what you think.


Supported by the Nebraska Farm Bureau

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.

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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