Translating Food Technology

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Sunday February 18, 2018

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?


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.

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



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


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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