• Tuesday, November 13, 2012

    Pig housing: gestation stalls

    What if I told you that twice a day, I tie my four-year-old to a chair and leave her there for an hour?
    No matter how she pleads or cries or protests, she has to be tied down. Some days I strap her to a chair for 9 hours or more.
    Before you call Child Protective Services, think about a car seat. It is against the law for me to transport my small child anywhere without strapping her into a car seat. She may not like it, but its best for her.
    Everyone understands the dangers of not using car seats. No one will argue that they are not needed to keep our children safe. People understand how dangerous car wrecks can be. We haven’t always used them (my parents weren’t strapped in car seats), but people now agree that they are needed to keep kids safe.
    Kid in car seat
    Happy kid... tied to a chair
    People don’t know much about pig farming. 
    Most people think of Wilbur or Babe when they think of pigs on farms. Cute little pink pigs that make smart-alecky remarks to the sheep. But, that’s not reality. Real pigs are much different.
    • Did you know that grown sows (momma pigs) can weigh as much as 500 pounds?
    • They are huge animals. They may stand 4 feet tall.
    • They can be very dangerous animals. Pig farmers can tell very scary stories about a pig hurting or even killing someone.
    There has been a lot of news in social media and on the internet about gestation stalls, or maternity pens, used in the pork industry. Several food companies and restaurants have declared that they will be phased out in the next few years and some states have even passed legislation banning them.

    Most people know very little about pork production and why gestation stalls are used. People see pictures and hear terrible stories about farmers ‘abusing’ pigs and think, “Wow, how can we let this happen?” The problem is that we are not hearing the whole story. So, I decided to write a post about them, to help explain.

    What are gestation stalls?

    Gestation stalls are small pens that farmers put sows (momma pigs) in while they are pregnant. They provide each pig with a specific amount of food and all the water she wants, but there is not a lot of room for her to move around. They can lie down, but not turn around. They are artificially inseminated (bred to the boar) in those pens and stay there until they are about to have their babies. Then they move to a different type of pen.
    Pigs in Gestation Stalls
    Photo courtesy of Standing Oaks Enterprises.

    A friend of mine who is a pig farmer in Ohio sent me these pictures of pigs in gestation stalls on his farm, Standing Oaks Enterprises. You can check out his blog at Acorns for Thought.

    Why do farmers use them?

    First, they use them to protect the pigs from each other. Just like people, pigs pick on each other. If you have a group of pigs together in a pen, they will fight to establish a hierarchy, to determine who is the boss. In the case of sows, some will become ‘bully sows’ and will literally fight and pick on inferior sows until they are physically separated or one dies. These pigs stand waist-high and may weigh as much as 400 or even 500 pounds. A 200-lb man is no match for them. Fighting sows are very dangerous.

    Second, farmers must control how much feed the pigs eat. Also like people, pregnant sows are very hungry. But, unlike most people, they don’t know to control how much they eat to keep from getting obese. If allowed to eat all they wanted, the pigs would be morbidly obese, they would shorten their lifespan, and it would be wasteful. If the sows were mixed, some sows would hog (no pun intended) all the feed and overeat, while others would starve. So keeping them separate allows the farmer to feed each pig exactly what she needs.

    Gestation stalls with feeders
    Photo courtesy of Standing Oaks Enterprises.
    Another pic from Standing Oaks. You can see the pigs feed in bins above their stalls.

    Since I've been working on this post, I participated in a radio show with a pig farmer from Missouri, Chris Chinn. She was asked about gestation stalls and had a couple of points I wanted to share. She said that her farm used to use group housing and that the bully sows ate too much and had big babies and trouble in labor. She also said that the weaker sows had small, unthrifty babies. When they switched to gestation stalls, they found that they used less medicine because the sows didn't injure one another fighting.

    Right before the sow has her babies, the farmer will move her into a farrowing crate. These are pens that are large enough for the sow to stand up and lie down, but she has to do it slowly. Remember these sows can weigh as much as 500 pounds. Their piglets may only weigh 3 or 4 pounds. They can walk soon after they are born, but not very well. If the momma pig lies down too quickly, she could squish her babies.
    Farrowing crate
    This photo is from Flikr, used with permission
    This is a picture of a sow with her babies in a farrowing crate. See how little they are.

    Research shows that there are advantages and disadvantages of using gestation stalls. One study gave pigs the choice of remaining in a group pen or in a gestation stall and found that the pigs preferred to stay in the stalls most of the time. In a video of a farm in Indiana, the farmer has European-style gestation crates, where the pigs can choose to go in or out of the stalls. He says they stay in their stall over 90% of the time.

    In response to all the pressure from food companies, some farmers have removed their gestation stalls and changed their barns to group housing. Others have installed European-style pens that give pigs a choice of where they can be.

    Big changes in animal housing need to happen slowly. Don’t think that we can just ban stalls and walk away feeling good about our animal welfare practices. Pigs and people will suffer if we don’t find acceptable alternatives.

    The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) put together a task force to address sow housing that included several vets and a representative from HSUS. The task force concluded that any sow housing systems had advantages and disadvantages, and that farmers and animal scientists should work together to retain the advantages of the current systems and improve on them.

    I hope that veterinarians, farmers and food companies can work together to determine what is truly best for pigs. I don’t think anyone has an easy answer right now. Even the animal welfare experts say that there are no easy answers when it comes to housing pigs.

    I think this quote from Dr. Temple Grandin is very meaningful, “Nature is cruel, but we don’t have to be.” She said it many times. Animals are cruel to each other. Farmers do their best to keep animals happy and healthy. Just like parents with car seats.

    Here are a few more resources about gestation stalls and pig housing.

    · A good Q and A about gestation stalls and their history.
    · A nice video about modern hog farming, including gestation stalls.
    · A good video from Humane Watch about pigs and maternity pens.
    · The report from the AVMA task force on sow housing.

    Wednesday, October 24, 2012

    More about beef farming

    Janeal Yancey: Moms on the Farm Tour
     This is me on the bus on our
    Moms on the Farm tour.
    A few weeks ago, I worked with a group of ladies in agriculture to host the Moms on the Farm tour. About 30 ladies attended a tour of a dairy and a beef farm, and then returned to campus for some cooking demonstrations by the Arkansas Cattlewomen. We plan to repeat the event in the springtime and improve it. There were lots of great questions and the ladies were really interested to learn about where their food comes from. All the questions and interest have become a great resource for my blog posts.
    Marsha Hedge: Moms on the Farm Tour
     Mrs. Marsha Hedge talking to the ladies about
    her beef farm during Moms on the Farm tour.
    We visited a single-mom, beef farmer, Mrs. Marsha Hedge, who has about 40 cows. She used to have over 100 cows, but because of the drought this past summer, she had to sell about 60% of her herd. So, now she is working off the farm part-time and going to school part-time to get her teaching certificate. Most beef farms have circumstances similar to hers. Ninety percent of beef farms in the US have fewer than 100 cows, and the average size of a US beef farm is about 44 cows. Most beef farmers have to work off the farm or have some other type of income to make a living, or their spouses do.

    Anyway, Marsha raises the calves from her cows until they are weaned and she sells them to another farmer who will either take them to grow some more on green pasture or to a feedlot to eat grain. This seemed to surprise the ladies on the tour that the beef cattle from the farms around Northwest Arkansas don’t go directly to slaughter. One lady wanted to buy a calf from Marsha to slaughter and another asked if she sold her beef to WalMart. Marsha doesn’t have any calves that are the right age or size for slaughter.

    As a host, I should have done a better job explaining that the beef industry is segmented. Cattle sold for beef production may have several owners in their lifetime. I wrote a whole post about the beef industry in February with lots of facts and figures, but I didn’t talk about the different kinds of beef farms in the US.

    What are these different types of farms?

    1. First, you have beef farms that raise calves to be sold as bulls and heifers (young females) to other farmers. These are called seedstock or purebred farms. Their cows and bulls may cost crazy amounts of money, but they hope to raise animals that will be in demand by other farmers to buy to improve their herds. Most of the time, they only have one or two breeds (like Angus or Simmental), and they specialize in genetic traits that other farmers want. They may have really lean animals or cattle that raise calves with lots of tasty marbling. Other traits are important to farmers, too, like growing fast and having small calves so the cows don’t have trouble in labor. There are books and websites full of numbers reporting these traits of purebred cattle. A knowledgeable farmer can evaluate these figures to buy a bull or a heifer that will improve traits in his or her herd.

    Ed Yancey: Red Simmental heifer
    This is a picture of my husband,
     Ed, exhibiting one of our
    purebred heifers at a fair

    If you go to the fair, the farmers that you see exhibiting are usually purebred farmers. They bring their animals to the fairs to show them off to other breeders and to potential buyers.

    Most of the 'fluffy cows' you see on the internet are actually very expensive purebred bulls.

    2. Second, you have cow-calf farmers. Marsha, the farmer we visited on our tour, is in this category. She bought bulls from a purebred farmer and bred them to her cows. She keeps the best of her heifers (girl calves) to go back to the cow herd, but she castrates her bull calves to become steers, and the steers and most of her heifers go to market to become beef.

    Marsha Hedge; Simmental cross cows
     These are some of Marsha's cows.
    Her bull is the solid red one on the left.
    He is from a purebred breeder.
    He actually looks a lot like our bull.
    Like most cow-calf producers, Marsha’s cows are cross-bred, or a mix of several different breeds. In the industry, we call them 'commercial' cows. Also like most cow-calf farmers, Marsha uses grass growing in her pastures to feed her cows. She buys them hay and some other nutritional supplements, when the grass isn’t enough for them, but she wants them to eat grass as much as they can. Cattle are great at using grass to grow and make protein.

    Marsha weans her calves off their mothers at about 500-600 pounds, which is about 6 to 7 months of age. Then she sells them to one of the next two types of beef operations.

    3. The third type of beef farm is a stocker farm. These farmers buy weaned calves and let them grow. Sometimes they eat grass and sometimes they feed them grain, whichever is most economical for them at the time. The Peterson Brothers of I’m Farming and I Grow It fame, have a stocker cattle farm. They buy cattle that weigh 400-500 pounds and feed them until they weigh 800 to 900 pounds.

    4. The fourth type of farm is the feeder or the feedlot, like the one owned by Anne and her family over at Feedyard Foodie. Here, cattle are fed grain in addition to hay or other forage and supplements. Feedlots will feed cattle until they are fat enough to harvest. They are usually only there for about 4 to 6 months. In the meat business, when cattle are fat, we say that they are ‘finished,’ meaning that they are ready to go to the processing plant. Finished cattle may weigh anywhere from 1000 to 1400 pounds, some even more.

    In the US, people like to eat grain-finished beef. We prefer the taste and tenderness associated with it. I know that not everyone likes it, and there is beef from cattle that have only been fed grass available to buy for those who prefer it that way.

    Covered Feedlot in Michigan
     Cattle in a covered feedlot in Michigan.
    Notice that they are eating a
    chopped-up mix of grain and hay.
    In the western US, feedlots are huge, outdoor facilities, but I visited a cattle covered feeding operation in Michigan on a trip with students a couple of years ago. You can see the cattle are eating a chopped up mixture of grain and forage.

    The meat processors send buyers to the feedlots to buy the cattle once they are ready. Then the cattle are sent to the processing plant for harvesting.

    Now, lots of farms may be any combination of these segments. For instance, our family has some purebred cattle that we raise bulls and heifers for sale, and we have some commercial cows that just raise calves for market. So we are kind of a mix of the first two. Some farmers may have cows that raise calves and have a stocker section of the farm, too, especially if they have lots of green grass. Farmers have to figure out what works best for them considering the nutrients available and the market for cattle.

    Marsha Hedge; Red calf

    So, these calves that we saw at Marsha’s grazing in the fields with their mothers in Northwest Arkansas will probably be sold soon. Then, they may spend a few months grazing and growing on a stocker farm in Oklahoma, and then be sold to a feedlot in the panhandle of Texas. Once they are fat, they may be sold to a processing plant in Kansas and their beef may go to any and all parts of the US. Not only do the calves have several owners throughout their lifetime, they have also probably traveled several hundred miles.
    I hope that you understand a little more about the beef industry, and the next time you are buying beef at the store or eating a juicy steak, that you will know that a little more about the path that got the beef to your plate. 

    Please feel free to ask any other questions you may have about beef or cattle.

    Thursday, September 13, 2012

    Moms on the Farm Tour

    Did you know that more people feel more knowledgable about doing their taxes than they do about making healthy food decisions for their familes?

    Its true. Only 2% of our country's population work in agriculture to make the food to feed all of us. People don't understand where food comes from. This is most of the reason I started my blog, and I hope my posts have been helpful.

    Now, I am working with other women in agriculture to host an event called Moms on the Farm Tour. We are going to take a bus load of non-farm ladies to a beef farm and a dairy so they can see up close where their food comes from. Several ladies with farming backgrounds will join us to get to know our tourists and help answer any questions they may have one on one.

    Then, we are going to have cooking demos by the Arkansas Cattlewomen to learn new ways to prepare food from those type of farms.

    I'm so excited!!!

    This is the flyer for our event.
    Hopefully, this will be the first of many of these tours. We would like to eventually take ladies to poultry farms and vegetable farms and fruit orchards and vinyards. There are lots of farms producing lots of different foods practically in our backyards!

    Do you live near Northwest Arkansas? Would you like to join us?

    Our first trip will be October 8. Monday, Columbus Day. We will all travel in a bus from Paulene Whitaker Arena in Fayetteville to two farms.

    1. Triple A Dairy in Centerton. It is managed by Susan Anglin. She blogs about being a dairy mom on her blog, the Spotted Cow Review.

    2. Hedge Farms in Lincoln. It is managed by Marsha Hedge. She doesn't have a blog, but here are some pictures of her cattle.

    We have invited women from all walks of life to join us. Several of them are local food and mom bloggers. I can't wait to get to know more women in our community and to connect with some other women bloggers.

    Please join us and tell your friends!

    Check out our webpage and our facebook page.

    Thursday, August 16, 2012

    the Mom in the Livestock Barn

    Today, I am going to step away from the Meat Counter and become the Mom in the Livestock Barn. I became the Mom at the Meat Counter largely because of my involvement with FFA, and my favorite activity in FFA was exhibiting livestock (mostly sheep and a few pigs). From 5th grade to my senior year in high school, my family attended hundreds of livestock shows from Houston to Denver and just about everywhere in between. I married into a cow-showing family, so, now, my family enjoys exhibiting sheep and cattle at fairs.  
    My daughter exhibiting her first calf, Water Lilly. It was a special class for bottle calves and small children.
    Thousands of people take their kids to the County Fair, State Fair or the Stockshow and Rodeo in their city every year. Probably more like millions. Great! What a great way to learn about food and agriculture and spend time with your kids. Go! Enjoy!

    When you go to the fair, you and your family will see and hear (and smell) things that are new and different from your everyday lives. You probably have lots of questions and, if you’re like me, you don’t know who to ask and you’re afraid of being out of place or in the way. Don’t worry. We know about this stuff because it’s what our family does and what our kids are into. Your family may be into karate or competitive cheerleading or chess. If we went with you and your family to a karate match or cheerleading competition or chess tournament, we would have just as many questions and would feel just as out of place.

    So, I have been thinking about some tips that I could share with other moms when they take their kids to the fair.

    1. If you want to pet an animal, ask its owner, first. Animals at the fair are gentle, but they may not be used to small kids, so be sure to ask someone before you pet or let your kids pet any of the animals. Most fairs have a petting zoo, where kids can pet ‘til their heart’s content.
    This is my daughter at the petting zoo at the National Western Stock Show in Denver.
    It was free, so we were regulars.

    2. Don’t let kids stick their hands or toys (or anything) in the pens with the animals. My sister once had a pig named Fido because he would bite like a dog. Rabbits are known to bite, and little fingers look a lot like worms to chickens.

    3. Put the bottles and snacks away. The animals at the fair are clean and healthy, but there are still bacteria from their poop that may be on them that could make you sick. So, keep your snacks and bottles in your bag.

    4. Keep kids hands out of their mouths and away from their faces, too.

    5. Make sure you wash hands before you eat. In fact, go wash them after you leave the barn. Wash with soap and warm water for 30 seconds. I would wash the kids’ faces, too.

    6. You may want to bring a small bottle of hand sanitizer along. Most fairs have sanitizer stations in the barns and outside the petting zoo. Hand sanitizer is okay for right after you leave the barn or petting zoo, but washing with soap and water for 30 seconds is best. If you use hand sanitizer, make sure young kids rub it until it’s dry. If they eat it, it could make them sick.

    7. Don’t push baby strollers down the aisles in the cow barns where the cows are walking. Most cows are not used to baby strollers and it may scare them. If you want to see the cows, watch from the main aisles, or carry small children. You don’t want to get cow poop on your wheels anyway.

    8. I would keep strollers and small kids out of the way of pigs, too. Pigs are low to the ground, but they will weigh 200 to 280 pounds. There are usually ways to get to see the animals without worrying about being stepped on.

    9. Ask questions. People who bring animals to the fair are there to show them off. The kids are proud of their projects. They have been working with them for months. Encourage your kids to ask the kids who are showing questions. Here are some good ones.

    a. What is your animal’s name?

    b. Is it a boy or a girl? How do you tell the difference?

    c. How old is he (or she)?

    d. Have you already shown? How did you do?

    e. What do they eat?

    Most fairs and shows will have an area where kids can go to learn about livestock and all of agriculture. Go check it out. Sometimes there are even hands-on exhibits and games to play. Check out the fair website to know where to go.
    Sorry about the flash. Here she is at the Farm Bureau Booth at the Southwestern Stock Show in Ft. Worth. Notice her pig ears.

    Lastly, you may have some questions about Swine Flu and catching the flu from pigs. The pigs at the fair should be healthy, but if you are concerned, I would encourage you to check out the CDC’s page. All of the precautions listed above should keep your family safe. And, for a little entertainment, you could always check out Putnam Pig’s views on the subject.

    So, go! Have fun! Ask questions! Eat lots of good food! Learn about agriculture! Come back and tell me how much fun it was!

    Friday, July 20, 2012

    Antibiotics in the meat supply: Residues vs. Resistance

    There has been a lot of news coverage and proposed legislation lately calling for the banning of antibiotic use in farm animals. People can get very frightened when we talk about antibiotic resistant bacteria or antibiotics in the meat supply.
    This has been an especially personal topic for me because our family recently had a scare with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. In May, my daughter had a little lump behind her ear. I found it over a weekend and by Sunday evening, she was running a low fever, so we went to the doctor on Monday morning. By 6pm, we were admitted to the hospital with a very high fever and a freshly-lanced abscess. It took 2 of days of testing, and she was diagnosed with MRSA (methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus). She spent three nights in the hospital on IV antibiotics. Now, she’s fine and back to her little rotten self.
    MRSA - Antibiotic-resistant Staph
    Experiences like ours are very scary, and I know there are a lot of parents with much worse stories to tell than mine. However, most people know very little about antibiotic-resistant bacteria like MRSA. When they hear about antibiotics in relation to our food supply, they don’t know what to think.
    First, what exactly are we talking about?

    Antibiotics administered to animals headed to the food supply.

    Why are animals given antibiotics?
    There are two main reasons why animals are given antibiotics.
    1. The most obvious reason is that animals are given antibiotics when they are sick or injured to fight infection.
    Most people agree that it would be inhumane to withhold a drug from a sick animal and allow it to suffer. Even organic farms and antibiotic-free farms have a protocol in place to treat a sick animal and remove it from their herd.

    2. Sometimes animals are given antibiotics to prevent them from getting sick. 
    Just like kids, young animals are prone to infection. In some farms, animals live very close to one another and they are not very clean creatures (you just can’t teach a piglet to wash his hooves), so if one gets sick, they could all get sick very quickly. That could spell disaster for a farmer, so some farms choose to feed a low level of antibiotics to prevent disease.

    3. Some antibiotics are given to improve how fast and efficiently animals grow.
    There are new rules about antibiotics from FDA as of June 2015. I'm doing some research on them to make sure I understand them before I share what they mean in this post. Thanks for bearing with me. 
    You may have heard a statistic in a news story that said that 80% of the antibiotics sold in the US are given to livestock animals. That number is largely disputed. First, it is impossible to know how many antibiotics are sold in the US, for use in livestock or in humans. Second, a large percentage of drugs used by farmers are not useful in human medicine. Lastly, livestock represent a larger population of bodies than do humans. And, cows and pigs are a lot bigger than humans; pound for pound, they need more antibiotics. What is the real number? Who knows?

    What about antibiotics in my meat?
    When people in the food industry talk about antibiotics, there are two terms they use: antibiotic residues and antibiotic resistant bacteria.
    Antibiotic residues’ refers to actual antibiotic chemicals that have been given to the animals, either fed or given as injections, remaining in the edible tissue (meat, fat, or even milk).
    The Food and Drug Administration regulates the approval and use of antibiotics in animal medicine. Any antibiotic that is given to a food animal has a specified ‘withdrawal time’ which is the amount of time that the antibiotic has to be withdrawn from the animal before it is slaughtered. These times are based on how long it takes the animal to process the antibiotic so that it is eliminated from the body. Farmers must wait to slaughter an animal for that amount of time after giving the antibiotic to the animal or they will be breaking the law.
    The Food Safety Inspection Service (part of USDA) monitors the meat supply and tests for antibiotic residues in the meat. The levels of antibiotic residues found in the meat supply are very low (below 1%), and tests are done on a worst-case scenario basis, which means FSIS tests the tissues that are most likely to contain antibiotic residues (liver and kidneys) and they test a larger percentage of suspect animals (old cows, animals with injection scars, etc.). Although the levels are not zero, I am not really worried about antibiotic residues in meat.
    A group called the US Farmers Ranchers Alliance has a video of experts discussing antibiotic residues.

    Antibiotic-resistant bacteria’ refers to bacteria that are not easily killed by common antibiotics, they are resistant.
    How do bacteria become resistant to antibiotics?
    Bacteria are everywhere, and there are millions of species, strains, and serotypes… all fancy ways of saying ‘different’ bacteria. Bacteria have a genetic code, just like humans, and they change and evolve with each generation. Unlike humans, they multiply at crazy-fast rates, so their genes can change at fast rates. When you introduce something to kill the bacteria like antibiotics, most of them die, but a few live. The ones that live may have had something in their genetic code that allowed them to survive the antibiotic treatment. All the other bacteria are gone, so that leaves more room and food for the left over bacteria to grow. When they grow, they pass their antibiotic-resistant genes to the next generations. Eventually, those antibiotic-resistant bacteria are spread around, and found all over the place. We have to learn to fight them in different ways.
    A study from 2003-2004 found that MRSA (the bacteria my daughter fought) was in 1.5% of American noses. That was 8 years ago, and the bacteria have been spreading since then, so the numbers are probably larger now.
    Are antibiotic-resistant bacteria in my food and how did they get there?
    Yep. Antibiotic –resistant bacteria are in our food supply. They are everywhere.
    Our food is handled by several different people and goes through several steps to get to our plates, and bacteria can be introduced at any of those steps. Some people want to blame the use of antibiotics in animal feed and that may be part of it, but it is likely that several actions contribute to the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
    Can it make me and my family sick?

    There are some forms of dangerous food borne pathogens like Salmonella and E.coli that have developed some resistance to antibiotics. That means that if you get one of these bacterial infections in your gut, it will be harder for doctors to help you fight them. But, even the non-resistant forms of these bacteria are very dangerous and can make you very, very sick.
    What can I do?
    Antibiotic resistant bacteria are susceptible to foodsafety measures such as cooking food thoroughly and keeping raw food away from cooked food. 
    • Cooking kills antibiotic-resistant bacteria just like it kills antibiotic-susceptible bacteria. Use a meat thermometer to be sure you cookmeat thoroughly
    • Hot soap and water wash antibiotic-resistant bacteria off of counter tops and utensils. 
    • Antibiotic-resistant bacteria cannot grow as well in cold environments just like the antibiotic susceptible strains, so getting fresh food and leftovers chilled quickly is very important.
    • Antibiotic-resistant bacteria can’t jump through the air from raw food to cooked food, so keep raw and ready-to-eat foods separate.
    Anything else?

    The main two bacteria species that we hear about when we talk about antibiotic resistance are Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and Clostridium difficile. Although they are huge issues in the medical industry, the CDC does not see them as a risk in the meat industry. Food safety practices should keep you from getting sick from these bacteria in your food.

    However, you may have heard that MRSA has been found in 6.6% of pork samples in a US study. I emailed the author of that study for this post. She was really nice and said that the worry with MRSA in meat is not as much about getting sick from it being in your food as it is about the MRSA spreading from the raw meat to other surfaces and being introduced to a scratch or an open sore and causing severe skin infections, like the one my daughter had.

    Lots of bacteria from raw meat can cause skin infections if they are introduced to an opening in the skin, and these antibiotic-resistant ones are very hard to fight. So, my advice is to be extra careful with raw meat, especially with children (face it, they are dirty little monsters. I’ve seen mine lick the bottom of her shoe.).
    Keep raw meat separate from other food from the time to pick it out at the grocery store until you cook it.  
    • Use a plastic bag to keep raw meat away from other food items and away from surfaces like the bottom of the grocery cart.
    • Wash your hands after handling raw meat
    • Wash down the countertop with warm soapy water after it came into contact with raw meat (even in the package)
    • If you have a cut on your hands, wear gloves when handling raw meat (like when you make hamburger patties.)
    • Don’t let very small children handle or be in contact with raw meat
    My friend Karen sent me this picture of her grocery cart. Her roast is in its package away from the rest of her food. Looks like she put a piece of butcher paper under it. Way to go Karen!

    There have been studies connecting antibiotic-resistant E. coli bacteria from chicken to urinary tract infections. If I have been handling raw meat, I wash my hands before AND after going to the restroom.

    I called and asked the pediatrician if there was any way to know where the MRSA that infected my daughter came from, and there was not. The doctor told us that lots of people are infected with it and kids ‘pick their nose, then pick their wounds.’ Gross.

    What about buying meat from animals that have not been given antibiotics?

    There are companies and farms that offer meat from animals that have never been given antibiotics. I’ve talked about such programs in a previous blog post. If you choose to buy those products because you want to support the practice of never giving animals antibiotics, that’s fine, but you should know that meat from these farms are not guaranteed to be free from antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The meat is not any safer than the meat that does not make that claim. A recent study found that the levels of Staphylococcus aureus and MRSA in pork were the same regardless of it being from pig farms that did not use antibiotics.

    Denmark has banned the use of sub-therapeutic antibiotics and the results have not been positive for their pork industry. Jeff Fowle, a rancher and blogger from California discusses the ramifications of Denmark's decision in his blog.

    Like I said earlier, there is lots of info on the internet about antibiotics (residues and resistant bacteria) in meat and in general.

    I don’t know all the answers. Here is a list of a few more resources if you are interested.

    MeatMythCrusher Video with Dr. Keith Belk

    National Residue Program Fact Sheet from AMI

    AMI Fact Sheet about antibiotics

    NCBA facts on antibiotics

    CDC page on antibiotic resistance

    Antimicrobial resistance learning site for vets

    FAQ from AVMA (American Veterinary Medical Association)

    Wednesday, May 23, 2012

    Kids eat paste. Why worry about meat glue?

    You may have recently seen something on the internet, social media, or the news about something called ‘meat glue.’ What the heck is that?
     What the media refers to as ‘meat glue,’ is known in the meat industry as transglutaminase (TG) or beef fibrin. They are enzymes used to bind proteins together. Enzymes are proteins that cause chemical reactions to happen in living things. There are several types of proteins in the body, proteins that hold things together (think tendons), proteins that make things move (muscle), proteins that break down food to produce energy (some of these are enzymes), proteins than break down other proteins (some of these are enzymes used as meat tenderizers), and proteins that help build other proteins to help them function correctly.
    TG and fibrin fall into the last category. They help to build other proteins. They cause proteins in muscle to bind with one another to form a strong bond. So in meat, they can help bind two pieces of meat together.
    Why is it used in the meat industry?
    Beef tenderloin
     Muscles are all kinds of crazy shapes. Some are huge, some are long and skinny, some are shaped like triangles or trapezoids or who knows what. It is hard for butchers to take those muscles with all those different shapes and form them into cuts of meat that are the size and shape that people want to eat. For example, the tenderloin is the most tender muscle in the body and is used to make filet mignon. It is about as big around as a base ball at one end and tapers down to a point at the other. On one end, butchers can cut nice pretty round steaks, but as they cut more and more steaks, they get smaller and smaller. As the butcher gets closer and closer to the small end, the pieces are too small to make a nice steak. They are still the most tender muscle in the body, but they won’t make pretty, portion sized steaks. So, meat scientists and chefs use TG or fibrin to stick two tenderloins together with the skinny end of one adhered to the fatter end of the other one and visa versa. It is still tenderloin, still the most tender cut in the body, but with TG, butchers can cut more, pretty round steaks. More meat for everybody!

    Sometimes, chefs use TG or fibrin to get the bacon to stick to filet mignon. I’ve seen examples of it used on salmon and to make that imitation crab stuff.
     Where is it found?
    If these ingredients are used in a food that you buy at the store, according to USDA, the food must be labeled ‘formed’ or ‘fabricated’ or ‘shaped’, as in ‘Formed Chicken Breast’ or ‘Fabricated Steaks.’ A meat product containing TG or fibrin will also have an “enzyme” to transglutaminase enzyme” in the ingredient list. When you cook them, you should treat them like ground meat and cook them to at least 160°F for red meat and all chicken should be cooked to 165°F.  
    Of course, you can’t read ingredient statements when you dine at restaurants. You can always ask. Foods that are prepared prior to coming to the restaurant will have TG on their ingredient list, and a chef will be able to tell you if he or she is using it themselves. They should be trained in preparing foods containing TG safely, so it should be cooked to safe temperatures.

    Some people are concerned that TG or fibrin are going to be used to turn cheap cuts of meat into cuts that can be sold at a higher price. Cheap cuts of meat are cheap for a reason; nothing can change the texture or flavor to make them like filet mignon. If a chef or a company were doing something like that, not only would it hurt their business, it would be against the law. The USDA dictates labeling laws on cuts of meat, and only tenderloin can be labeled as ‘tenderloin’. The folks at the American Meat Institute stated that they do not have any evidence that these deceptive practices are happening.

    Furthermore, TG is too expensive to be used on cheap cuts of meat. Because of its price, you will only see it used on expensive cuts like tenderloin or salmon patties or in high-end restaurants where chefs demand higher prices. So, you’re not really consuming it very often. AMI estimates that about 8 million pounds of meat containing these products are sold annually, that is out of 49 billion pounds of beef and pork sold each year (0.016%).
    As a meat scientist, I think that TG and enzymes like it are neat and exciting. I think it is fun to see what chefs and the guys and girls in research and development come up with using them. I don’t feel like we are trying to trick anyone. And, I know to cook these products to 160°F.
    Here are some other good sources on transglutaminase and fibrin.

    • This video is the best I’ve seen explaining the process and showing how TG is used.
    • In this Meat Myth Crusher video, my friend Dr. Dana Hanson, from North Carolina State University explains how TG is used.
    • This is a blog post about meat glue from culinary blog called Cooking Issues.
    • This is a statement about binding enzymes used in meat products from the American Meat Institute.

    Wednesday, May 2, 2012

    A fourth case of mad cow disease and still the safest food supply in the world.

    As you may already know, a dairy cow in California was diagnosed with Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), commonly known as Mad Cow Disease. The 10 year old cow died at an undisclosed dairy farm, and the disease was found when her body was sent to a rendering facility. Here is the official release from USDA.

    Why am I not worried about this?

    First, the cow was not destined for our food supply. She was at a rendering facility. These are companies that dispose of dead animals and produce inedible products. There is a testing system set in place by USDA to test the bodies of a certain number of the cows for BSE before they go through their process.

    What about the milk she produced? BSE is not transmitted through milk.

    I heard on the radio last week that her offspring are going to be euthanized to keep them out of the food supply, too.

    What about the rest of the beef supply? BSE is not transmitted through meat, either. However, BSE is found in the nervous system. The USDA has very stringent rules in place to keep BSE out of our food supply.

    What are those safeguards?

    The molecule that causes BSE is only found in a few places in the body including the nervous system, small intestine, and tonsils. The small intestines and tonsils of all beef cattle are no longer used in the food supply. Also, BSE is much, much more prevalent in older animals. The USDA requires that beef processors look at the teeth of every animal slaughtered to determine how old they are. If they are older than 30 months, then the spinal cord, brain, eyes, and any parts that may contain nervous tissue are also removed from the food supply. They refer to those parts as Specified Risk Materials.

    Cows that have BSE have a very hard time walking and eventually get where they can’t move on their own. We refer to those cows that cannot get up on their own as ‘down(ers)’ or non-ambulatory. Down cows are far more likely to have BSE, and when cows are down, veterinarians cannot observe the signs of BSE. Therefore, if a cow is down and cannot get up, then she may not be harvested for human food.

    Also, BSE was previously transferred from cow to cow because meat and bone meal from cattle and sheep was fed to other cows as a protein source. The US (FDA) banned that practice in the 1997. So, we shouldn’t be spreading the disease anymore.

    Are the safeguards working?

    Yep. Like a charm. This was only the 4th case in the US ever and last year there were only 29 cases worldwide. In 1992, there were over 37,000 cases.

    Although some people were sickened in Britain in the 1980’s and 1990’s, no one in the US has been known to have been sickened from eating beef from BSE infected cows.

    How do cows get BSE?

    BSE is an infectious disease that is transferred from animal to animal in a rather unique way. The infectious agent of BSE is a protein called a prion (pronounced pree-on). All animals have prions. Prions, like all proteins, long chains that are folded up in a specific way. In healthy animals, the prions are folded into several helical shapes (kind of like a slinky gone wrong). Scientists call them alpha-helices.

      In animals with BSE, the prions have refolded and the helical shapes have changed to flat, sheet structures, called beta-sheets. These beta-sheets allow the prions to stick together and form plaques. Those plaques cause changes in brain function and make the animal sick.

    What is weird about BSE is that, when these bad prions are introduced to the body, the bad prions teach the good prions how to be bad. Somehow, they cause the healthy prions to refold themselves. Maybe we should call them zombie prions.

    So, when a bad (zombie) prion is introduced, it takes a while, but it can teach all the healthy prions to refold. How are bad prions introduced?

     1. Well, sometimes the prions just sporadically decide to change. That is really rare. But, when it happens, the animal will slowly form more and more bad prions until it becomes ill.

    2. Sometimes it is genetic. The bad prions are passed from parents to offspring.

    The dairy cow in California has been found to have atypical BSE, which means she developed BSE in one of the above ways.

    3. BSE used to be passed between cows through feed. When animals are slaughtered, not every part can be eaten by humans. Some parts and pieces are converted to a product called meat and bone meal. Farmers used to feed meat and bone meal back to other cows as a source of protein. Bad prions were being spread that way in Britain in the 1980’s and 1990’s. When scientists realized that was happening, this practice was banned. So, the cow should not have gotten BSE that way.

    What about other animals?

    Cattle are obviously not the only animals that get this type of disease. Humans have similar diseases caused by bad prions known as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, Kuru (found in native people in New Guinea who practiced ritualistic canabalism), Gerstmann-Straussler-Scheinker disease, and Fatal Familial Insomnia. The bad prions in humans come from similar sources as cows; including genetic, sporadic, and from food (meat containg nervous tissue from cattle with BSE). Some people have gotten the disease through neurosurgery or eye implants.

    Scientists think BSE in cattle may have originated from a disease in sheep called scrapie. Meat and bone meal from sheep fed to cattle contained bad sheep prions.

    Deer and elk also get a disease called Chronic Wasting Disease. Big cats and exotic ungalates (antelopes etc.) contracted forms of spongiform encephalopathies during the height of the BSE epidemic in Europe.

    The safegaurds in place to protect humans are also protecting these other species.

    There are lots of websites with information about BSE.

    My friend Ryan Goodman at I am agriculture proud has compiled several sites.

    There is a new website called BSEinfo.org. Several of my links will take you there.

    If you have any questions or concerns, please feel to comment.

    Wednesday, April 11, 2012

    Sausage and Legislation.

    What are two things that you don’t want to see being made? Sausage and legislation.

    Thanks to CSPAN, CNN, MSNBC, and the 24-hour news cycle, we get to see legislation being made (or not made) all the time. So, we might as well learn about sausage, too.

    One day last week, we spent all morning working in the meat lab making sausage, and I snapped a few pictures and decided it would make a fun and informative blog post.

    First, why even bother making sausage?

    We went to Germany a few years ago and
    tasted several German sausages. Yum!
    You mean, besides tastiness? Sausage making has been used for hundreds of years to preserve meat. When salt and spices are added, it takes it longer for meat to spoil. Some sausages are very dry and acidic (think summer sausage and pepperoni). Bacteria can’t survive such conditions. Some sausages have been smoked to preserve them. The heat and the compounds from the smoke both serve this purpose.

    Today, sausage allows meat producers to add value to low-value cuts and to efficiently use every piece of the carcass. Old-time butchers used to say that when you harvested a pig, you used “everything but the squeal”. When you cut up a beef or pork carcass into steaks, chops, and roasts (and bacon, don’t forget bacon), there is always meat left over. The extra meat is ground through a grinder that cuts it into small pieces, making even the toughest meat fork-tender. I talked a little about this in the “not pink slime” and the “cooking burgers” posts. There is fat trim and lean trim.

    Here are pictures of our fat trim and lean trim.

    You could just grind it and mix it and cook it up, but how boring. Let’s make something more exciting!

    The fat trim was about 50% fat and 50% lean and was made mostly from belly pieces that we decided not to make into bacon. The lean trim was about 93% lean and 7% fat. It was made from ham pieces and pork chops that we had removed samples from. We mixed them together in a specific ratio to make sausage that was about 80% lean and 20% fat. You don’t want to make your sausage too fatty (for obvious reasons), but you also don’t want it to be too lean (it would be tough and dry).

    Side notes:

     ***In the US, pork sausage can be 50% lean and 50% fat and still be labeled pork sausage. Generally, commercial sausage is not that fatty because consumers want a leaner product.

    *** All of our sausage was made from pork skeletal meat. There are sausages made from liver or hearts or even salivary glands, but remember that if it’s in the sausage, it has to be on the label.

    We put our ground pork in a big mixer and added the salt and spices. We buy most of our spices pre-mixed, but sometimes we mix our spices from a recipe.

    This is where it gets cool.

    Muscle is made up of protein. To do what proteins need to do in the body, they exist in long, folded-up chains. When you add salt to meat, the salt reacts with the protein and starts to dismantle it on a molecular level. As the proteins unfold, they start to stick to each other. They stick to everything, even water. We added water to the sausage in the mixer, and the protein soaked it up like a sponge.

    This is the andouille on my glove. Looks yummy. See how it sticks to my glove.

    Some of the sausage recipes include cheese. We can’t just use regular cheese. We have to use a special, high-melting temperature cheese. If the cheese melted, you wouldn’t be able to see it in the finished sausage
    We added in the cheese as the sausage was mixing.

    This is some Jalapeno cheese sausage. You can see the cheese and the jalapenos in the finished product. Yum! I didn’t take this picture. It was on the website of my late friend, Chris Raines, called Academic Abattoir.

    Notice that Chris’ sausage was pink? Some of the sausage recipes call for the addition of cure (Sodium Nitrate). This gives the sausage it’s pretty pink color and cured flavor. Yum.

    After mixing it for about 2 or 3 minutes, we grind the sausage again.
    We always hold the meat in sanitized containers like this one. We call these ‘lugs.’ I don’t really know why. I guess because you have to lug the meat around in them.

    Then we moved the sausage to the stuffer which is kinda like a vacuum in reverse. You fill it up with sausage and a piston pushes the sausage up through a tube, called a horn. The size of horn dictates how much sausage comes out at once.

    This is a picture of some sausage in the stuffer.
    We stuffed some of our sausage into chubs. This was the recipes we weren’t going to smoke, like breakfast sausage, some Italian sausage, and maple-flavored sausage.
    This is another one of Chris' pictures.
    These are sausage chubs.

    We stuffed some of the sausage into natural casings. What are natural casings? Remember when I said that we use everything, but the squeal? The best sausage casings are made from pig intestines. They are washed and washed and washed and cleaned and treated and washed some more.

    Before we stuffed them, we soaked them in water to hydrate them and flush them out one more time.

    Here is what the casings look like in a package.

    If you buy sausages in the store that have been stuffed into natural casings, it will say so on the package.

    The casing goes over the horn, and the stuffer pushes the meat into the casing. It makes a long tube of meat. You can see the cheese in our sausage in this one.

    I have a video of our meat lab manager stuffing the sausage into the natural casing.

    After the sausage is stuffed in the casing, you have a long tube of sausage that looks like this.

    If we left the sausage like this, it would be very hard to handle in getting it smoked and cut into serving-size pieces. So, we linked it.

    To link the sausage, we pinched the sausage casing and twisted it. You have to alternate the direction that you twist the casing or you will untwist previous links. In big commercial sausage plants, they have machines that link the sausage as it comes out of the stuffer.

    I have a video of linking, too.

    This is what the linked sausage looked like. This was some of our jalapeno, cheese recipe.

    We allowed it to rest in the cooler overnight. That gave the protein a little extra time to soak up the flavors of the spices.

    The links all stay attached to each other until we cook it. When it’s cooked, the sausage links are hung over a metal stick and hung in the smoke house. In the smokehouse, they are cooked with heat and smoke is applied to give the sausage that nice smoky flavor. Yum.

    This is a picture of a couple of students at a processed meats workshop from about 5 years ago. They are not my students, but I think that they are now both gainfully employed. You can see the linked sausage ready to go in the smokehouse.

    This is a picture of our finished product. It was quite tasty!

    This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to sausage making. There are so many other neat things to talk about, like fermented sausage, different casings, hot dogs, canned sausage, pickled sausage, and other cooked meat specialties, but I guess that will all have to wait for another day’s post.

    Friday, March 23, 2012

    How would you like that cooked?

    You order steak or a burger at a restaurant and the waiter or waitress asks, “how would you like that cooked?” What is your response? Well, if you are ordering a steak, there is no wrong answer to that question. HOWEVER, you should ALWAYS order hamburgers or any other ground meat dish cooked to medium, medium well, or well done. I always order mine medium well.

    Why should hamburgers be cooked to medium well, but steaks can be cooked to rare?

    Today, I visited a Family and Consumer Science Class and demonstrated to them the answer to this question with play-doh. (I had to fight the little Daughter at the Meat Counter off the play doh.) I took some pictures to share on my blog.

    When steaks are cut, there is a possibility that bacteria (disease-causing germs) could be on the surface of the steak. Steaks (and roasts, too) are whole-muscle cuts, meaning that they have been cut into serving- or cooking-size pieces, but the internal portion of the cut is still undisturbed. So, those bacteria are going to only be on the surface of the steak, and when you cook it, the surface will be the first to get hot and it will get the hottest. Any bacteria on the surface are going to be killed in the cooking process. The internal part of the meat does not have to get hot enough to kill any bacteria. So cooking steaks to rare or medium-rare is perfectly safe.

    Do you like my little play-doh steaks? The green dots are the bacteria (only on the surface). The Daughter at the Meat Counter thought they were peas.

    Ground beef is made from smaller cuts of beef that are trimmed away from the steaks and roasts. They are not lower quality or inferior in anyway other than they are too small or too tough to make good steaks are roasts. (Actually, which parts are cut into steaks and roasts and which parts are ground into hamburger is largely driven by ground beef demand. People like hamburgers.) These parts and pieces (trim) are kept in large containers and transported to the grinding room in the plant. All of these little pieces could have bacteria on their surfaces just like the steaks above. Several companies have researched different ways to treat the trim pieces to lower the bacterial count on the surface.

    Here is my play-doh trim. It’s smaller and cut into irregular pieces. The bacteria are still only on the surface.

    Here is where the difference is. The trim is ground. When meat is ground, it is pushed through a metal plate with small holes. Behind the plate, is a rotating knife that cuts the meat and allows it to be pushed through the plate.

    This is not play-doh. I actually have pictures of real meat! Yay! You can see the round strands of ground beef coming through the plate.

    Now, any of those bacteria that were on the surface of the meat are mixed up and spread all throughout the ground beef. When we make patties out of the ground beef, the bacteria could be on the surface or anywhere inside the patty.

    These are some patties we made for a research project. Real bacteria don’t have color and you can’t see them on or in your patties.
    It is easier to see the green, play-doh, bacteria mixed in with the red in my play-doh patty.
    When I tore open my little play-doh patty, the students could see the green bacteria all throughout the patty.

    So, when you cook patties, you should always cook them to 160 °F. USE A MEAT THERMOMETER. Make sure the thermometer is inserted into the middle of the patty.

    When you order hamburgers at a restaurant, ALWAYS order them to medium or greater.

    If you have other questions about food safety, I wrote a blog post about food safety in September.

    A common conversation over steak dinners with meat scientists is how we order our steaks. I order my steaks cooked to medium-rare. Why, you ask? Well, there are two main types of protein in meat that affect tenderness, connective tissue (holds it all together) and myofibrillar (causes the muscle to contract). These two proteins react differently to exposure to heat. Connective tissue (collagen) protein dissolves to gelatin when it is heated, so it becomes more tender. The myofibrillar proteins harden as they are heated and become tougher. The optimum combination of collagen dissolving and myofibrillar hardening happens at about the temperature of medium-rare. Yum.

    Some people don’t like the serumy (bloody) flavor associated with medium-rare and they want their steaks cooked longer (my mom). I guess that’s ok. If you like more well done steaks, I suggest you buy steaks with more marbling (USDA Choice, Prime, and Certified Angus Beef). The extra marbling protects the tenderness of those steaks when you cook them more.

    Like I said, there is really no wrong answer to the question, “how would you like your steak cooked?”

    However, you must cook hamburgers to medium (160°F) or greater.