• Tuesday, November 12, 2013

    Meat inspection: Pass or Fail.

    I have seen a few urban-myth stories about “Grade D” meat sold in fast food restaurants. These stories make it sound like the meat is barely edible, just a step above dog food. This would imply that meat is categorized on safety with letters like A, B, C, D. That is simply not the way things are done in this country.

    When meat is evaluated for safety and wholesomeness, it either passes and is sold for human consumption or it fails and cannot be sold for human consumption. Pass or fail: there is no middle ground.

    To be legally sold in the US, meat must be inspected by a USDA inspector. In some states (27), if the meat will not cross state lines for sale, an inspector from a state inspection agency may inspect the meat. Meat that will be sold across state lines or exported must be inspected by USDA.
    USDA logo

    If animals are to be slaughtered, the USDA meat inspectors must be there and observe the entire process. They have to inspect the live animals before they are slaughtered. At that point, they qualify as passed, suspect, or condemned. Animals that are considered ‘suspect’ are held for a time and reevaluated before they can be passed. Sick and dying animals do not pass inspection. Only healthy animals that can walk on their own are allowed to be harvested for food. 

    USDA inspectors observe the slaughter process and make sure the animals are humanely harvested. The animal is required by law to be stunned and rendered insensitive to pain, before the animal dies by massive blood loss that it does not feel. Dr. Temple Grandin has made it her life’s work to ensure that animals are handled and slaughtered humanely in meat processing plants. Meat companies use her methods and advice for humane handling in the plant and humane slaughter. If you are interested, she has made videos of humane stunning of beef and pork that you can watch.

    After the animal dies, inspectors observe the entire slaughter process and will look at the carcass and all of its parts and pieces to make sure it was truly healthy and is safe to consume. They look at the head and lymph glands, the heart, lungs, liver and other internal organs. They make sure the carcass is clean and was not contaminated during the slaughter process. I have a blog post about all the steps in the slaughter process that help to make sure the carcass stays as clean as possible.

    Once the slaughter process is complete, the inspector will declare each carcass as pass, retain, or condemn. Animals that need further diagnosis are held in a locked area of the plant.  They are “retained” for further testing. Any carcasses that are condemned are deemed inedible and removed from the food supply.

    Carcasses that pass inspection are stamped with a purple, edible ink. This stamp will contain a number that corresponds with the plant where the animal was slaughtered. These are called ‘establishment numbers.’ Each USDA-inspected meat processing facility has a unique number given to them by USDA. These are for slaughter and processing plants. You can visit the establishment number page on the USDA website and find where a particular item was processed, or you can look up the numbers of plants by searching where they are located.
    Inspection stamp
    This picture came from Jenny Dewey Rohrich and
    her blog at Chico Locker and Sausage.
    Beyond slaughter, inspectors work in all types of meat plants to oversee the daily processes. They may work in the non-slaughter areas of a slaughter plant or in other types of meat plants that do not slaughter animals, such as sausage plants or grinding facilities. They watch all the aspects of production and work to insure that the meat is processed in a safe manner. They may check temperatures of meat or production rooms, make sure everything is stored properly, watch that employees follow all the food safety regulations, take samples of meat or food contact surfaces for pathogen testing, or check that all the food safety paperwork is filled out correctly.

    Side note: Inspectors work for the US government and are paid with tax-payer dollars for their 40-hour week. If they work overtime, the companies have to pay for their hours. Many of them work in shifts just like the plant employees do.

    A meat product has passed several levels of checking and rechecking to ensure that it was produced safely and labeled correctly before it reaches the consumer with its inspection stamp. Any product that has passed inspection and been stamped or labeled with the USDA inspection stamp is edible and fit for consumption. If it’s not, it failed.

    There is no barely-edible or partially-passed meat under USDA inspection.

    Here are a few more resources about meat inspection:

    ·         A video with Dr. Chris Raines about meat inspection

    ·         Facts and a history of Meat Inspection from Texas A&M University

    ·         A blog post about meat inspection from Chico Locker and Sausage Co, Chico, CA.

    Tuesday, August 13, 2013

    The Mom at the Meat Counter is Expecting

    As some of you may know, our family is expecting a new addition! Vallie will have a baby sister, due in mid-November. Everyone at our house is very excited about the new arrival, especially the big sister.
    Vallie drew this picture of our family
    after we told her the big news.

    This is my second pregnancy. My first was pretty typical, I guess. I had some morning sickness for the first few months. I gained some weight. I fretted about everything. What to eat, what to drink, what medicine to take, what products to use. They painted the hallway in my office and the ladies I work with made me leave the building.

    You know, when you are pregnant, that’s when you first realize the world of moms. All the great advice and experience that other moms are willing to share with you. It’s great to have friends and family that want to help and to know that they all want the best for you and your baby. But, just like everything else, you get a lot of conflicting information.

    So, in true mom fashion, I thought I would share what I am doing, more specifically, what foods I avoid or take extra precautions with, to take care of my little Pumpkin (That’s what we call the baby. We called Vallie Pecan).

    I am a meat scientist. I am not a Medical Doctor, and I want to say first that you should always talk with your doctor about diet and take your questions to him or her. Also, foodsafety.gov has a great check list of foods to avoid during pregnancy that would be good to check out.

    Deli meats – Deli meats, like ham and bologna, and hotdogs are cooked and ready to eat from the store. But they are kept at refrigerated temperatures and typically not heated again before you eat them. Deli meats are dangerous because of Listeria, a bacteria that is particularly harmful to pregnant women and has been shown to cause miscarriages, still birth, and pre-term labor. Pregnant women are 10 times more likely to become infected with Listeria than the general population.

    Unlike most bacteria, Listeria can grow in cold temperatures, like those we store deli meats at in the refrigerator. Meat companies use lots of interventions to eliminate Listeria, but even if they keep it out, Listeria can be introduced to the package when it’s opened and handled in the fridge. 

    What can be done? Completely eliminating deli meats and hotdogs may not be a problem for some women, but I have a Subway across the street from my office and I LOVE hotdogs, and sometimes it’s just impossible to avoid. If I must eat deli meats, I heat them up in some way. Either I stick them in the microwave until they steam or I boil them. Hotdogs are great on the grill or boiled, but they can be microwaved, too. When I eat at Subway, I have my sandwich toasted. Even though I don’t really want it that way, the toaster gets the meat really hot and steaming.

    Some sushi I tried in Hawaii. I don't think this
    had any raw fish in it.
    FishI am normally not a big fish eater. I only recently tried sushi and sashimi. However, from now until November, I will stay away from raw fish. Raw fish could contain several  types of parasites and bacteria that would cause very serious problems in a pregnant woman.

    As far as cooked fish goes, those from the top of the food chain like Shark, Mackerel, and Swordfish, I avoid completely. Those fish species potentially have high levels of mercury that could cause birth defects.  I limit my intake of any type of fish to two meals a week or less and only one meal of albacore or ‘white’ tuna.  Tuna may also contain mercury. Other fish may contain low levels of mercury or other toxins that can hurt your baby.

    I know that fish can be a great source of protein and omega-3 fatty acids, but I take a DHA vitamin supplement to help with brain and eye health in my baby.

    Everything else

    I love chicken salad and egg salad sandwiches, but I only eat them when they are made fresh. I wouldn’t buy them in a store or a restaurant, or eat them after a day in the fridge. They could potentially contain Listeria. (Ham and tuna salad would fall in this category, too.)

    A comment on this post reminded me that the grilled chicken found on salads in restaurants may also have been cooked in advance and served cold. Unless its cooked in the restaurant right before you eat it or its reheated, I would stay away from it. Just ask your waiter about it.
    Raw eggs and the potential Salmonella that they may carry can be especially dangerous for pregnant women, so I make sure to cook my eggs thoroughly and I don’t eat raw cookie dough or lick the spoon when baking a cake or cookies. Some people make ice cream with raw eggs, and it’s not that time of year, but eggnog is sometimes made with raw eggs. You can buy pasteurized eggs at the store for your homemade ice cream or eggnog.

    *9-4-13 Amendment* I just learned this weekend that Caesar salad may contain raw egg yolk, especially if it is prepared at a restaurant. So, last night at Carrabba's, I asked the waitress if there were raw eggs in my salad. She said that they were pasteurized! Store bought Caesar salad and dressings would be prepared with pasteurized eggs.*

    Some soft cheeses such as Brie or Feta may contain Listeria or E. coli if they are not prepared with pasteurized milk. You can check labels to make sure cheeses are made with pasteurized milk.

     I usually don’t drink unpasteurized milk or juice anyway, but especially now. That means no raw milk.

    Raw sprouts are not typically something I eat, but they have been linked with outbreaks of E. coli and Salmonella, so I will stay away from them completely for right now.

    Not food, but important

    Cat poop may contain a dangerous parasite that causes Toxoplasmosis, which can cause problems with pregnancy even abortion.  So, let someone else clean out the litter box and stay away from stray cats. Be sure to wash your hands after petting your cats.

    Vallie recently adopted a turtle (Princess). Turtles can carry Salmonella, so I make sure to wash my hands thoroughly after touching Princess or anything inside her habitat. Be careful of any reptiles or amphibians.

    We have cattle and spend lots of time at fairs and shows. Even healthy animals can carry bacteria that can make you sick, so I’m sure to wash my hands when we come inside from the barns. If you go to the fair or a petting zoo, be sure to wash your hands after you or your kids touch any of the animals.


    In the mean time, I have been eating a lot more protein lately. Seems I am just not satisfied without it. So my diet contains lots of egg and cheese sandwiches, lean beef steaks, hamburgers, and chicken.  Any type of food borne illness can be devastating for a pregnant woman and her baby. So, I’m extra careful to cook my hamburgers to 160° F, my poultry to 165°F, cook my eggs thoroughly and use a meat thermometer. I keep all the food safety rules (Clean, Cook, Chill and Separate) in mind when I’m working in the kitchen.


    There are so many questions when you’re pregnant. I hope this post answers more questions than it generates, but if you have one, please let me know!

    Friday, July 19, 2013

    Land of Plenty and Plenty is Wasted.

    Janeal Stephens Yancey age 5
    Me at Vallie's age. Living in bliss.
    We live in a country of plenty. I was blessed to have been born into a family that never worried about hunger or where our next meal was coming from. As a kid, I’m sure I crossed paths with kids who didn’t know if there was going to be supper for them that night, but I was oblivious to their problems. I wish all children could live in the bliss of a childhood I had, but unfortunately, that is not the case.

    In the US, 1 in 5 children are food insecure, meaning that they lack access to enough food to maintain a healthy lifestyle. I look at my daughter and it breaks my heart to think about the parents in my neighborhood who don’t have the means to provide enough food for their children.

    Globally, the numbers are even grimmer. Hunger is the #1 risk of health in the world. More people die from hunger than AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis, combined. Every 7 seconds, somewhere in the world, a child dies from malnutrition. I could go on and on about hunger, but that is not the topic of this post.

    By the year 2050, it is estimated that the global population will rise to somewhere between 9 and 10 billion people. As people live longer and more enriched lives, more people will enter the middle class and will demand more food. It is estimated that the world will need to produce 100% more food than we do today to feed those people. We are already using most of the land and resources that we have for food production, so most of that increase in food production (about 70%) will have to come from finding ways to produce food more efficiently.

    Food may become a scarcity.

    It is estimated that one third of the food produced today in the world is wasted. That is about 1.3 billion tons of edible food wasted or lost every year.

    Last summer I attended a conference and a whole session was devoted to food waste. Three speakers from the meat industry presented some really eye-opening facts about food waste and what can be done about it. They included Dr. Brian Smith from Hawkins, Inc., Dr. Brad Morgan from Pfizer Animal Heath (now Zoetis), and Dr. Benjy Mikel from Mississippi State University. I wanted to share some of their information in a post.

    In developing countries, edible food is lost mostly during the early and middle stages of food production, largely due to corruption and lack of infrastructure. The challenges in those countries are in getting the food to hungry people in a wholesome manner. Consumers in the developing world waste very little of the food that reaches them.

    In developed countries (USA, western Europe), food is largely wasted at the consumption stage. Tons and tons of food in these countries is discarded even if it is still wholesome and edible.

    Cooper siblings
    My grandmother (in pink) with some of
    her brothers and sister. Part of the
    Greatest Generation, they did not waste food.
    In the USA, food waste has increased 50% since 1974. That doesn’t surprise me when I think about my parents’ and grandparents’ attitudes about food waste compared to those of my generation. My grandmother was the youngest of 14 children and was born in the first year of the Great Depression. Do you think she wasted food? No way.

    A few more facts about American food waste:

    ·         People in the USA waste approximately 1,400 kcal/person/day

    ·         3,000 lbs of food is wasted every second in America, enough to feed 650 Americans

    ·         50% of leafy vegetables are wasted

    ·         33% of bread is wasted

    ·         12% of meat is wasted

    ·         22% of vegetables are wasted


    The US could save roughly 2% of its total energy consumption in one year if we stopped wasting food. That’s roughly equivalent to 300 million barrels of oil.

    Spending on food
    In developed countries, we waste food because we can afford to. In my grandparent’s time, they didn’t throw out food because it wasn’t as cheap and accessible as it is today. In the US, only about 6.9% of our disposable income goes toward food. In China, they spend 32.9% of their disposable incomes on food, in Brazil, 24.7%. Some countries are spending over 40% of their disposable income on food.

    If we were spending 6 or 7 times as much on our food, we would probably be much less likely to waste it, but increasing the cost of food in this country is not the answer. When you look at individual food stuffs, you see that cheap foods, such as cereals, have much higher total waste and much more waste at the consumer level than more expensive foods like oilseeds and meat. You wouldn’t just forget about those $30 steaks you bought and let them go bad in the fridge, but a $3 box of cereal is more easily forgotten. Of course, shelf life plays a big role in food waste, too. Dairy products are overwhelmingly wasted at the consumer level. I can’t count the times I’ve poured 1/3 to ½ of my gallon of milk down the drain because it spoiled before we drank it.

    Not only do we lose resources that were used to produce food that was eventually wasted, wasted food creates another problem in that all once-food, now garbage must be transported and disposed of somewhere. Food waste in landfills contributes to methane production and greenhouse gas emissions. According to a story by NPR, food accounts for 20% of the waste created in New York City. It costs $100 million per year to haul it away.

    What can be done?

    Dr. Mikel told us that the world produces enough food to feed everyone, even the 9 or 10 billion people that will be here in 2050. We can work through programs like Heifer International and USAID to help people in the developing countries to have access to enough wholesome food.

    AND, there are lots of ways to change our habits in this country and be conscious about how much food we are wasting.

    ·         Controlling portions and minimizing food waste at home is the first step.

    ·         Make a shopping list based on what you ate since you went to the store last.

    ·         Know how much you can eat at restaurants and don’t be afraid to share a meal. In the US, we tend to control our intake and overeating by leaving food on the plate.

    ·         Make it a habit for small kids to share a meal, either with you or each other. (This has been a new challenge for Vallie. She is very opinionated about her meals.)

    ·         Understand use-by and expiration dates. Most of the time these dates are just about food quality and not food safety, meaning that the food may lose a little taste, but it is still safe to eat. (For meat and dairy items, I would still stick close to the freeze-by dates.)

    ·         Do some research on proper handling and storage times for perishable foods. The internet is full of good advice.

    What is being done on a corporate level?

    ARAMARK – a company that supplies meals to students in dining halls has eliminated trays from its dining halls on several campuses. Remember that students pay to eat at dining halls by the meal, not by the food item, so there is not a financial incentive to limit the food they pick up. When they were not provided trays, students picked up less food. They were probably still free to go back for seconds. Sounds like a small change, but at the University of Alabama, they saved 6,000 pounds of solid waste per week by eliminating trays. ARAMARK has implemented the program at 300 universities and saved over 15 million pounds of food waste. They also saved water and energy by not washing all those trays.

    TESCO – a grocery store chain in the UK has taken several steps to help reduce food waste. They changed the buy-one-get-one-free coupons to a buy-one-get-one-free next time coupon. Same savings for the consumer, less likelihood of food being wasted. They have also implemented a ‘fresh indicator’ label on some of its food products to help consumers know when the food is ok to consume. This label is based on time, temperature, when the food was opened, and several factors and lets the consumer know whether the food is fresh or not based on a traffic light label of green, yellow, or red.

    Some countries are taking an active role in helping to reduce food waste.

    ·         South Australia has included food waste as a big part of their Zero Waste SA program.

    ·         The United Kingdom has website to help consumers control food waste called lovefoodhatewaste.com as part of their Waste & Resources Action Program (WRAP)

    ·         South Korea is the world leader in lowering food waste. They accomplished this by taxing people for food waste. Consumers are required to pay a fee for food waste. This measure has reduced food waste by 20% and saved $4.3 billion in US dollars.


    When we think about food waste on a global scale and we see figures like 1.3 billion pounds of food wasted, it seems overwhelming.

    When I open my fridge and see forgotten leftovers, a wilted bag of salad, and expired milk, I feel like a failure.

    I am trying to approach food waste like I do any bad habit. Little by little, I try to get better.  Some days, I will falter, but tomorrow, I will try to be better. Just being conscious of the issue will be a big help.

    What are some other steps we could take to waste less food?


    I have a few more great links and figures:

    My friend, Dr. Jude Capper, of Bovidiva wrote a great post just yesterday on this same topic. Her insight is great.

    The Food Network did a great special on Food Waste called The Big Waste. It is definitely worth watching!

    Jonathon Bloom wrote a book called American Wasteland. His website is full of great links.

    I thought several of the figures from Dr. Mikel’s talk about where food is wasted were very informative, so I’ve included them below:

    Food waste by countryFood waste by country and point of loss
    Fish and seafood waste by country
    Dairy waste by country

    Tuesday, July 9, 2013

    What Temple Grandin wants the world to know: How clean is the slaughter plant?

    One of the keynote speakers at a meeting I attended last month was Dr. Temple Grandin, world renowned animal welfare expert. If you haven’t heard, Dr. Grandin's story (frankly I don’t know where you’ve been hiding). She uses her unique perspective as a person with autism to help the livestock industry better understand animal welfare. Her life story has been made into an HBO movie.

    Dr. Temple Grandin's bookDr. Grandin spoke for over an hour and gave us lots of advice, one piece of which was to tell more of our story in the meat industry. She said that consumers want to know basically two things about their meat:

    1. How did you kill it?

    2. Is it clean?

    I think Dr. Grandin does a great job of addressing question 1 in the beef and pork slaughter videos she made with the American Meat Institute. I will warn you that these videos are graphic, but they are definitely worth watching if you have questions about animal welfare in slaughter plants.

    Dr. Grandin encouraged us to share what we know as meat scientists about the answer to question 2. I really felt like she was talking directly to me.

    The week before my meeting, I was part of a research team that collected some samples in a beef slaughter plant in Arkansas City, Kansas. (Since I posted this, the plant I visited, Creekstone Farms was featured in a story by the New York Times. Check it out and be sure to look for the pictures from inside the plant.)  As I was watching the process, I found myself in awe of the amazing number of steps that were taken on each and every animal to keep the meat clean. I have spent time in countless slaughter plants, and I have seen these steps in action. When I eat meat and when I feed it to my family, I know that the meat is safe and wholesome because I’ve seen what is done. I’ve learned about it in class. I’ve visited with the researchers who validated the steps. But, to stand and watch it all in action is awe-inspiring.

    One of the most amazing facts about these slaughter facilities is how fast they operate. Some may operate as fast as 300 to 400 cattle per hour. The plant I worked in last month operated at about half that speed, but even at the slower speed, that means a new beef carcass rolls past every 24 seconds. If you watch Dr. Grandin’s videos, you can get an idea of how fast the carcasses move through the plant. Another great video to watch is from the Oprah Winfrey show. Reporter, Lisa Ling, toured a beef slaughter plant in Colorado. You can see several of the steps to transform a steer into a beef carcass and eventually, ground beef.

    So, these animals are moving through the plant at pretty fast rates, and they roll on a sort of disassembly line past dozens of workers. Each of these workers has a specific job to do. The first few steps in the process have to do with humanely stunning and bleeding the animal and hanging up its carcass on the rail.

    Then the disassembly begins.

    Skinning a carcass
    Skinning a carcass
    (It is hard to get permission to take
    photos in a slaughter plant. These pics
    are courtesy of my friends at Texas Tech
    from a plant in Latin America. The process
    is pretty much the same as the US.)
    Removing the skin. The hide (skin) must be removed. Some plants will wash the animal’s hide to help lower the dirt and bacteria on it, but all plants have to treat the outside of skin as dirty and the meat as clean. Dirty and clean are not allowed to touch. Most of the employees involved in this process will make a few quick cuts with their knives to remove part of the skin from the carcass as it goes by, and then the carcass rolls on to the next employee. When they are cutting the skin, their knives may get dirty. After they make their cuts on each carcass, the employees will wash their gloves and dip their knives into a sterilizer bath containing 180°F water before the next carcass comes to them. That way each carcass is processed using a clean knife.

    I would say that the workers spend as much time cleaning themselves and their equipment as they do actually cutting on the carcasses.

    Removing the internal organs - Eviscerating
    Removing the internal organs.
    He is not on a moving conveyor,
    but you can see how clean his
    boots and aprons need to be.
    Removing the internal organs. In the videos, you may have seen the workers removing the stomachs and internal organs from the carcasses. These workers are some of the most highly skilled in the plant. This is a very important job because the contents of the stomach and the intestines can be just as dirty as the outside of the hide, and one slip of the knife can result in the contents of the stomach or intestines spilling on the carcass. If that happens, all the meat with gut contents on it must be trimmed away and sent to inedible products. Because this job takes more time and skill, there are several workers doing the same job at once. They actually stand on a big conveyor belt and travel down the line with the carcasses. You may have noticed that the guts and organs are in very close contact with the workers boots and aprons. Once they are finished with a carcass, they will walk back up the line to their next carcass and in the plant I recently observed, they walked through a foot bath with 180°F water and wash their aprons, gloves and knives. So they are essentially sanitizing themselves every few seconds all day long.

    All the little details. You may have noticed in the videos that large pieces of equipment are used to remove the feet and huge saws that split the carcasses. Those are also sterilized in 180°F water between carcasses. The tail is often wrapped in a plastic bag to keep it from touching the meat. The large machine that removes the hide is constantly being washed with 180°F water. Places on the carcass where the initial cuts were made are the most susceptible to contamination, so the plants have a steam vacuum machine to sterilize those areas and vacuum any possible contaminants away.

    Final carcass prep. The last step in the slaughter process is a final cleaning of the entire carcass. It is actually passed through a steam tunnel or a wash cabinet to kill bacteria that may have found their way onto the carcass. Some plants spray the carcasses with an organic acid rinse to kill bacteria on the surface. Then, the carcass is moved to a very cold room (called the hot box because the carcasses are hot when they go in there) with high air velocity to chill it as fast as possible. It is actually below freezing temperature in the hot box because meat freezes at 28°F. The cold temperatures control the growth of bacteria.

    Meatingplace.com has a great spotlight of Greater Omaha Packing and the steps they take to ensure the meat is as clean as possible.

    Cleaning the slaughter floor. Large slaughter plants may operate as many as 16 to 18 hours per day (two 8-hour shifts). At the end of the work day, the slaughter floor is usually a pretty dirty place. That’s when the clean-up crew comes in. Each and every night, a third shift of workers will come to the plant and clean the entire place from top to bottom. Every piece of equipment, every surface, every knife, even the floors and the walls are cleaned with soap and 180°F water and sanitized. Every day. Before operations begin the next day, quality control workers will inspect and swab areas of the kill floor to ensure that the cleaning was thorough. USDA inspectors also evaluate the cleanliness of the facility prior to start up. Similar procedures are used to clean the rooms in the plant where the carcasses are cut up, too.

    If you ever have the chance to visit a slaughter facility, beef, pork, or lamb, take a few minutes to notice all the steps and procedures that workers use to help to ensure that the meat is processed as safely and cleanly as possible. It is really awe-inspiring. I learn something new every time I visit a facility.
    I’m sure this post has generated lots of questions, please feel free to ask. If I don’t know the answer, I’ll find someone that does.

    Thursday, May 30, 2013

    What about our Carbon Hoofprint?

    A cow in Hawaii
    A cow in Hawaii
    Notice the Pacific in the background
    Animal Agriculture and the Environment

    As a meat producer and a mom, I hear a lot of information about animal agriculture and the environment. Some groups claim that meat production is one of the main driving forces hurting the environment. They claim that we need to go ‘back to the start’ in food production, insinuating that we should go back to producing food the way we did decades ago.

    Earlier this month, I wrote a post about the enormity of the meat industry, and the massive numbers of animals and people it takes to keep 313 million Americans fed meat each and every day. We can’t go back to the food systems of 1950 and expect to be able to feed everyone that we have to feed today. Not only would food be much more expensive, taking our food production systems backwards would be bad for the environment.
    1954 rotary phone and iPhone
    Do you want to go back to the 1950's way of communicating?
    This week I had a wonderful opportunity to attend an agriculture symposium hosted by Alltech, a Kentucky-based company that makes a wide variety of products used in different aspects of food production. They are a very innovative company and it’s exciting to learn about all the new possibilities in agriculture. (but, more about Alltech in a future post).
    Alltech logo

    One meeting I attended at the symposium focused on the Carbon footprint of animal agriculture. There are several animal scientists and agriculturalists who have focused their research on limiting the impact that food animals have on the environment.

    It’s true that producing food from animals results in the production of green house gasses. All animals breathe out carbon dioxide and cows produce methane in their stomach when they digest their food. It’s just how their systems work. Regardless of the way a farmer produces food (grass fed, organic, antibiotic free, or conventional), some green house gasses are going to be produced.

    I was excited to learn one of the speakers at the symposium was my friend, Dr. Jude Capper, author of the Bovidiva blog. But, unfortunately, the storms early in the week delayed her plane and she wasn’t able to make it to the symposium. She sent me a link to her slides and I’ve seen her speak before. I’ve even discussed her research in my post about the beef industry.
    Dr. Jude Capper
    Dr. Jude Capper

    According to Dr. Capper, animal agriculture contributes to 3.1% of the total US carbon footprint. I love the analogy she uses to explain the environmental impact of animal agriculture. She compares two vehicles; the first gets 5 miles per gallon, the second gets 35 miles per gallon. You automatically think that the first vehicle is an environmental nightmare and the second is a much more environmentally-friendly choice. But wait… the first vehicle is a bus carrying 50 passengers and the second is a car carrying 4. That means, that for a 350 mile trip, the bus can carry 50 passengers, getting 250 people miles per gallon, whereas the car only carries 4 and gets 140 people miles per gallon. Now, which one is better for the environment?

    The same rules need to be applied to animal agriculture. The more productive an animal is, the smaller its impact on the environment.

    Dr. Capper goes on to compare animal agriculture of today (her data is based on numbers from 2007) to that of 30 years ago (1977). One cow of today produces 131% of the beef that one cow would have produced 30 years ago, and each pound of beef produced requires only 81% of the feed, 86% of the water, and 66% of the land a pound of beef required thirty years ago. Using our modern practices, farmers today are producing more beef and using fewer animals and less natural resources. She goes on to say that a pound of beef today results in 80% of the manure, 80% of the methane, 89% of the nitrous oxide and has 82% of the carbon footprint that a pound of beef had in 1977.

    The carbon footprint of animal agriculture will decrease when animals breed and have babies as often as possible, when they are healthy and free of disease, and they will produce much more food with improved genetics. (In animal agriculture, when we talk about improving genetics, we are not talking about creating GMO animals. We are simply talking about breeding the best to the best and getting babies that are even better. Some scientists can use the animal’s DNA to tell them which animals carry the best genes and use them to decide which animals to use for breeding.)

    Dr. Capper is a big proponent of using technologies to increase the amount of food each animal produces, including feeding animals in feedlots as well as utilizing antibiotics, hormones, and beta agonists. These have such a positive impact on productivity that one cow raised using them would produce enough extra beef to feed seven children with school lunches for a whole year! Some of these technologies are banned in Europe, but that decision results in 244 million metric tons of extra beef that must be imported to European countries each year.

    Many people think that producing animals using all grass systems would be better for the environment, but that is terribly inefficient. Animals fed only grass need about 7 more months of growing time to be ready for harvest and they are about 175 pounds lighter than those fed grain. If all US beef was produced on grass, we would need 131 million more acres of land (75% of the size of Texas) and 468 billion more gallons of water (equivalent to that used by 53.1 million US households).

    When you consider how large the global food supply is and how diverse the farming practices are, it’s easy to see how small changes to improve productivity can make huge differences in the amount of total food produced. Just controlling parasites in a small, 35-cow herd can result in enough extra beef to supply 19 families with their annual beef demand. Worldwide, disease in animals causes a 20% loss.

    The next speaker at the symposium (really the first speaker since Jude couldn’t make it) was Dr. Frank Mitloehner. It was great to see Dr. Mitloehner at Alltech. He was a graduate student at Texas Tech when I was an undergraduate and was the teaching assistant in some of my classes. Dr. Mitloehner is now a leading researcher in animal agriculture and its impact on the environment. He uses the term ‘sustainable intensification’ when he discusses improving the impact of animal agriculture on the environment. 
    Dr. Frank Mitloehner
    Dr. Frank Mitloehner

    He told us that the global population will triple in his lifetime and most of the human population growth will occur in the developing world. Farmers will have to produce enough food to feed 9 billion people by 2050 and they will have about the same or maybe a little less land than they have today. So efficiency is key. In the US, we have the most efficient food system in the world, meaning that our farmers produce the most meat, milk and eggs using fewer natural resources than anywhere else in the world. It takes 5 cows in Mexico to make the same amount of milk that one cow can produce in the US. That’s 4 more cows eating feed and hay, drinking water and pooping.

    Developing countries are really far behind in animal husbandry, and that’s understandable. Dr. Mitloehner stated that the best way to improve the environmental impact of animal agriculture worldwide would be to help these developing countries produce food more efficiently. In the developed world, he says that the environmental impact could be improved by learning ways to utilize animal waste to produce energy. (Some farmers already capture the gasses from their manure to produce electricity.)

    Now, we know that being more productive and producing more food is good for farmers, but some countries even take it one step further. The next speaker was Aidan Cotter from the Irish Food Board. He told us about a program in Ireland, called Origin Green that measures the carbon footprint of individual farms in Ireland and allows them to compare themselves to other farmers.

    Origin Green logo

    They measure the inputs and outputs of each farm and grant sustainable accreditation to farmers that are producing efficiently. Their accreditation focuses not only on carbon produced, but also measures efficiency of production, like how often the cows calve, how young they are when they have their first calf, how heavy the calves are at weaning, and how efficiently they gain. If a farmer needs a boost in efficiency, the program works with them to help them improve their farm. This accreditation is quite lucrative because beef factories pay a premium for cattle from farms that are certified as sustainable. The supermarkets that sell the beef in Europe demand beef that is produced sustainably.

    During the question and answer period, Dr. Mitloehner brought up a point that I think is very important. In developed countries like the USA, 1/3 of the food we produce goes into a landfill. All the food that is wasted contributes to greenhouse gas production and the national carbon footprint, but it isn’t used. That is such a travesty. Both Dr. Capper and I have since written blog posts about food waste.

    I hope this post was helpful. I really think that the impact of animal agriculture on the environment is something that is largely misunderstood. Please comment if you have any questions. If I don’t know the answer, I’ll find someone who does.

    Both Dr. Capper and Dr. Mitloehner have been interviewed in the Meat Mythcrusher video series and their videos have some great insight into their research.

    Tuesday, May 14, 2013

    Its a HUGE HUGE HUGE industry!

    In my job, I have lots of great opportunities to see the inside of food processing facilities and farms that most people don’t get to see. That’s part of the fun of being a meat nerd. I am always amazed by the sheer size and scope of the industry when I get to see these facilities in action.

    Huge pile of neatly-stacked bacon
    Mound of bacon.
    For example, I was in a pork processing plant last summer and I was standing in the middle of the bacon slicing room. The slicers are these huge machines with circular blades like 4 feet across. They move so fast you can’t see them. They sliced pieces of bacon faster than I could count. I found a really cool  bacon slicing video on youtube.

    At the plant I was visiting, I think there were six lines slicing bacon all running at the same time, at least 16 hours a day, 5 days a week. That is an incredible about of bacon. That plant harvested 19,000 pigs per day in 2011. Processors get about 15.4 lbs of cured bacon out of every hog, that’s 292,600 lbs of bacon, PER DAY, in one plant! The daily hog slaughter in the US in 2011 was 438,630 PER DAY, that’s 6.7 million pounds of bacon, PER DAY!!!  
    Of course, there are 313 million people in the US and they usually eat three times a day, seven days a week. Not to even mention exports.

    (See how I can get lost in the enormity of our food system! I’m just a meat head.)

    chicks on a broiler farm
    A few of the 80,000 chicks on the Munyon Farm
    We went on a tour of farms with some ladies a few weeks ago called Moms on the Farm Tour. Some local chicken farmers, Jared and Anita Munyon were nice enough to allow our group to tour their farm on a Saturday morning. They have four chicken houses where they raise broilers for a company called Simmons. Each of their chicken houses hold about 20,000 chickens. That’s 80,000 chickens on their farm! They will get about 5 sets of chickens each year, so this one farm produces 400,000 chickens each year. There are about 30,000 farms that raise chickens in the US, and 95% of them are family-owned like the Munyon’s Farm. Americans eat, on average about 83 pounds of chicken each year, so we need lots of them to keep us supplied in chicken nuggets, breasts, and chicken wings, over 37 billion pounds of chicken meat.

    Red Simmental cow
    One of Vallie's beef cows. She has 13.
    The beef industry is even more amazing to me because the cattle come from so many different farms in so many different places in the US. There were over 34 million calves born in 2012 and the US produced over 26 billion pounds of beef, but 90% of the beef farms in the US have fewer than 100 head and the average herd size is 44 head. That means a whole lot of people have input in the beef industry; from folks like my dad with 8 cows to the Deseret Cattle Co. in Florida with 42,000 cows. That’s right; the largest cattle ranch in the US sits between Disney World and Cape Canaveral.

    Students making hot dogs
    Some students learning to make hotdogs.
    A little slower than the commercial plants.
    Then there are the hotdog numbers: It’s hard to know exactly how many hotdogs are consumed in this country, but it is estimated that Americans consume 20 billion hotdogs each year, which works out to about 70 hotdogs per person. On Memorial Day alone, US consumers will enjoy over 150 million hotdogs. That’s enough hotdogs to stretch from Washington DC to Los Angeles five times!!! During the summer time, US consumers will eat 7 billion hotdogs, or 818 each second.
    All of this meat has to be produced by somebody. According to industry stats, the meat and poultry industries employ over 2 million workers paying them over $68 billion in wages. See what I mean about a HUGE industry?!?

    When we buy our 2 or 3 pounds of meat at the grocery store or a steak a restaurant, it’s easy to forget that there are 313 million people in the US who are buying their few pounds of meat for this week, too. Our food system is huge! It’s really amazing to me that we can produce and distribute so much food each day.

    It’s also sad to know that so much food is wasted each day, but that’s another day’s post.

    Friday, March 8, 2013

    EUROPEAN Horse meat Scandal

    Toy horse
    Last week, a friend posted a question on facebook about horse meat found in food, and I have had a few questions asked about the horse meat scandal in Europe.

    So, I’m sure lots of people are worried about horse meat and all the stories about horse meat in the news.

    First, you need to know that this is a European issue. No meat in the US has been found to have horse meat in it. Ever. The chances of that happening here in the US is pretty much zero. My friend, Dr. Davey Griffin, from Texas A&M summed up why horses could never contaminate beef in the US. Here are his main reasons:

    1. Horses are not slaughtered in the US. We used to slaughter them here, and all of the meat went to export markets. Even then, we never had a problem with horse meat ending up in beef, pork, or any other products.

    2. The level of oversight in the US meat industry is greater than any other country. The USDA employs over 9,000 inspectors in meat, poultry, and egg processing plants all over the country. These inspectors have access to all operations in any plant that produces meat for sale.

    3. The US has very strict labeling laws. Even the tiniest mislabeling violation will result in a very costly recall that could bankrupt a company. It’s not worth the risk.

    4. The US doesn’t import meat from Europe or horse meat at all. We have no market for horse meat, so there is no economical reason for it to come into the country.

    5. It just doesn’t make economic sense. It just wouldn’t make sense to sneak it in to a plant and mix it in beef or pork. The risk is too great.

    I want to clarify that horse meat is a safe food to eat. I’ve never tried it myself, but it is regularly eaten in countries all over the world. I would probably try it, given the chance.

    So, don’t worry.
    Trigger in Branson
    Vallie loves Trigger, but she knows he's not in her hamburger.