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Transparency In The Meat Industry

gwyneth-made-me-do-it-logofarmLast week, my father forwarded me an email from the president of Consumer Reports, urging its subscribers to voice their opinion, and help stop the over use of antibiotics in humans and animals who aren’t sick. Just days prior, my father and I had gotten in a pretty heated debate about this same issue, and after receiving this email from a company he views as a credible source, called to tell me that perhaps I did have a point in the changes we had made with our food choices.

Farmers and corporations who are raising animals for meat production on a large scale, are currently under attack from concerned consumers who are exposed to growing reports of how our food is raised. From animal rights activists angered at the continued use of gestation crates, to reporters and TV personalities like Dr. Oz who are against the use of antibiotics and added hormones, these companies and farmers are on the defensive every day, and are feeling the mounting pressure to explain and justify their practices. From the pink slime outrage to the use of M&M’s to explain the impact of growth hormones, those in the industry are making a concerted effort to increase transparency and stop the hysteria.  But is it too little too late?  And do these efforts seem more like defensive tactics rather than a genuine interest in transparency?

As a consumer, it’s hard to not grow a bit concerned though when you read articles revealing that ractopamine is being used in 80% of pig and cattle operations, a controversial drug used to promote growth and leannness in meat production.  While the effects on animals has been documented, the effects on humans is still somewhat unclear, leading the FDA to continue allowing its use in food production.  Ractopamine’s cousin drugs, clenbuterol and zilpaterol, have been banned by the Olympics because of such elevated adrenaline effects, and clenbuterol has been banned or restricted in meat after human toxicities.

While trying to remain objective on the issue, I do my research on both sides and try to understand the difference between science-based practices for the good of the animal and consumer, and practices used to obtain the highest profit, while keeping prices low. Many times, what it appears to come down to in the end is practices for the sake of profit, and to meet the growing demand for affordable meat.  From the Journal Of Animal Science: “In feedlot operations, ADG, feed intake, and gain efficiency are essential cost-effective traits that affect the time that steers spend on feed and, therefore, profitability.”

The subject those in industrial farming are going to have to address is how some farms are able to produce a meat product without hormones, antibiotics, etc., and do it successfully. I visited one such farm on Wednesday, and we got to see how pastured animals are raised, free of antibiotics, and farmers fielded questions from attendees on protecting their flock from predators, and how their animals are processed. While many of the farms going the unconventional route are on a much smaller scale than these very large operations, there is proof that keeping steer healthy without antibiotics, for instance, is possible on a larger scale.

While those of us who aren’t in farming have a lot to learn about how a farmer’s job is done, we do have a vested interest in their practices, being on the receiving end of their product. While there’s a fair amount of fear-mongering going on all over the web and media, there’s a growing feeling that we do have a reason to be concerned, and at the very least, interested, in learning where our food comes from before it hits our dinner table. After all, when a trusted company like Consumer Reports puts out a warning cry, it causes folks to stop and listen. It would probably be wise for industrial farmers and corporations to stop and listen too.

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