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Concerns About Animal Welfare, Food Safety Spur Industry Changes

The 42 Good Husbandry Grants recently awarded by Animal Welfare Approved to farms and slaughter plants across the country are yet another sign of changes occurring in the livestock industry.

“It’s really a testament to how agriculture is transitioning from industrialized to pasture-based,” said AWA program director Andrew Gunther, referring to the many applications the organization received for the grants.

The grants this time around were in excess of $120,000 and went to an array of projects involving beef cattle, goats, sheep, dairy sheep, chickens, and pigs. Funding priorities included genetic improvement of animals in pasture-based systems, outdoor access and mobile housing, and non-lethal predator control. This is the fifth year of the grant program.

Open to current Animal Welfare Approved farmers as well as those who have applied to join the program, the grants are especially useful to farmers seeking a low-risk transition to sustainable, outdoor farming practices, according to the an AWA press release.

Animal Welfare Approved is based on the philosophy that animals should be provided with what they need so they can follow their natural behaviors. This, in turn, promotes their physiological and psychological health and well-being, according to the program’s website. One of the requirements is that animals be raised on the pasture or range.

“For those who can’t visit the farm themselves, Animal Welfare Approved serves as the eyes and ears of the conscientious consumer,” says the organization’s website.

What do consumers want?

Out in the marketplace, consumer preferences have been changing. Whereas in the past, consumers bought meat, dairy products and eggs according to price and perceived quality, some consumers now want to know how the animals those products come from were raised. They make their choices based on a range of labels that indicate farming practices such as “Certified Organic” and “Animal Welfare Approved.”

In a recent stakeholders’ conference hosted by the Animal Agriculture Alliance in Arlington, Virginia, Kathy Keiffer, a broadcaster who produces a food issues program on the Heritage Radio Network, told participants that consumer awareness is the biggest change occurring in the food business.

“We’re in the midst of a food revolution,” she said, pointing out that influential celebrity chefs are embracing new changes in raising livestock and progressive food companies are shifting toward more “natural” production systems.

Not only celebrity chefs, but also large fast food chains and retailers are reacting to consumer concerns about humane animal practices. Burger King, for example, decided last year that it would switch to using eggs from cage-free hens and use pork products only from pigs that aren’t kept and bred in small cages. McDonald’s, Wendy’s and other food-service companies have also adopted policies or reached agreements with the Humane Society of the United States on the humane treatment of pigs.

Food policy director for the Humane Society Matt Prescott told a CNN reporter that Burger King’s decision in favor of cage-free eggs sends the message that customers and the public don’t want animals confined for their whole lives in cages and that the food industry will have to make changes.

Out in the retail marketplace, North American pork producers Smithfield, Hormel, Olymel and Maple Leaf Foods have decided to stop the use of gestation crates for pigs at their company-owned facilities.

And grocery retailer Supervalu has expressed its commitment to animal welfare in a two-page public policy statement, in which it said, “Animal welfare and food-safety inspection audits are integral to our customer and vendor relationships.”

The retailer has also established a Consumer Interest Council “to provide guidance and counsel to Supervalu…on issues pertaining to animal welfare, food safety, consumer advocacy and corporate citizenship.”

Speaking of food safety…

A large part of consumers’ growing interest in humane animal practices was actually fueled by food safety concerns, which opened the door to a new awareness of how meat animals were being raised and slaughtered.

It wasn’t that long ago that most consumers thought that farming was still very much like the pictures of red barns and cows grazing knee-deep in lush grass or chickens wandering about in front of a farmhouse that they saw on calendars and county fair promos. Very few people even knew what an “animal feeding operation” or feedlot was. Photos of these certainly were not used to promote agriculture.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, animal feeding operations (AFOs) are those “where animals are kept and raised in confined situations. AFOs congregate animals, feed, manure and urine, dead animals, and production operations on a small land area. Feed is brought to the animals rather than the animals grazing or otherwise seeking feed in pastures, fields, or on rangeland.”

These AFOs are an essential part of the drive to produce protein as cheaply as possible for consumers. In the case of cattle, once they’re fattened up to their finished weight with grain, usually in about 3 months, they are transported to a slaughterhouse. Before going to the feedlot, they’re almost always raised on pasture or out on the range.

For a long time this system was pretty much the status quo, with no questions asked. But in 1993, E. coli O157:H7, a potentially fatal foodborne pathogen, grabbed headlines when more than 600 people fell ill and four people died of E. coli infections attributed to undercooked hamburgers served at Jack-in-the-Box restaurants. (Some of the people became infected with the pathogen after being exposed to infected people who had eaten the undercooked burgers.) From there, consumers began hearing about recalls of hundreds of thousands of pounds of meat contaminated with the pathogen.

“That burst the illusion that everything was just fine with the way meat was being produced,” Patricia Whisnant, a veterinarian, rancher and grass-fed beef producer, told Food Safety News. “People were getting sick, and we began to look more carefully at how our animals were being raised.”

Whisnant is co-owner of Rain Crow Ranch in southern Missouri, a family farm that raises grass-fed beef, heritage pork, pasture poultry and operates a processing plant, all of which are Animal Welfare Approved. The organic farm follows humane animal practices from birth through slaughter.

When asked if there’s a connection between animal welfare and food safety, Whisnant said there definitely is.

“Animals that are allowed to live within their biologic and behavioral instincts are healthier,” she said. “Many pathogens and parasite issues are taken care of in the production system making them safer.”

An example of that, she said, is rotating cows from pasture to pasture. Once the cows are gone from one pasture, the sun will kill all or most of the pathogens or parasites that might be left behind. When they return to that pasture, they’re coming back to a clean environment, in contrast to animals that are confined in filthy and overcrowded conditions.

When talking about her family’s success in being able to stay in farming while also providing jobs for her six children and four staff members, in addition to the 50 people employed at the processing plant, Whisnant said she credits people’s concerns about food safety and humane animal treatment for “being where we are today.”

She said that the ranch and its processing facility put food safety at the top of the list of priorities, going above and beyond what the USDA requires.

“If we don’t make it a priority, a recall would close our doors,” Whisnant said.

As part of their food safety strategy, the Whisnants don’t release any meat for sale until pathogen test results have come back.

Animal Welfare Approved’s Andrew Gunther said that after World War II, the drive was to feed a growing nation with cheap protein. The common goal behind animal feeding operations was to bring a lot of animals together in one place, as is the case in confinement dairies, feedlots, and caged poultry. But that, he said, meant that low levels of E. coli, Salmonella, and other harmful foodborne pathogens could multiply.

“The unintended consequence was that we created the breeding grounds for dangerous pathogens,” Gunther said. “The system is designed to make animals carry pathogens.”

Gunther said that the livestock industry reacted to the reality that people were getting sick, and in some cases dying, from foodborne pathogens. It adopted interventions such as washing carcasses with acid to remove bacteria that could sicken people and designed plans that would pinpoint critical places in the slaughtering and butchering processes where pathogens would likely be lurking. As a result, beef-related foodborne illnesses have dramatically declined over the past several decades, said Chase Adams, spokesman for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

The industry also put the consumer into the food safety equation, emphasizing, for example, that raw meat needs to be cooked to certain temperatures to kill the dangerous pathogens and handled in ways to ensure that it doesn’t cross-contaminate other foods.

“So now, you, the consumer have to take the responsibility off the backs of industry,” Gunther said, who compares the interventions and calls for consumer responsibility to applying a bandage to the problem instead of dealing with what he sees as the root of the problem — raising and confining animals in ways that run contrary to their natural behaviors.

Not everyone agrees with this view. A recently released discussion paper, “The Direct Relationship between Animal Health and Food Safety Outcomes,” by the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (a research group that includes the Farm Bureau and the American Veterinary Medical Association) cited research on the difference between keeping animals indoors vs. outdoors: “Housing livestock indoors can also provide advantages in managing many foodborne organisms,” says the paper. “Because outdoor environments cannot be cleaned or disinfected easily, pathogens can persist in the soil, standing water, outdoor structures, and other micro-environments, infecting successive generations of livestock.

Also, according to the research cited in the paper: “Other studies have shown that Campylobacter and Salmonella (foodborne pathogens) are more common in chickens with outdoor exposure than in birds raised in conventional indoor housing (cages). Dairy cows were shown to be at greater risk of subclinical mastitis when kept in outdoor environments compared with cows kept in barns.”

In an e-mail to Food Safety News, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association spokesman Adams said that the association supports providing choices to meet consumer preferences for beef, whether grain-fed, grass-fed, natural or organic.

“Our expectation is the that everyone who handles cattle, regardless of the production method, follows established Beef Quality Assurance best practices to ensure animals are handled properly,” he said. “Raising healthy animals is the first step in producing wholesome beef.”

He also said that no studies have shown a significant difference between grass-fed or grain-fed cattle when it comes to safety or nutritional content.

“The bottom line,” he said, “is that consumers can be assured that regardless of whether they choose to purchase grass-fed or grain-feed beef, the cattle were raised humanely and that the product is safe for their families.”

What about antibiotics?

The subtherapeutic use of antibiotics to boost growth and to help animals raised in stressful, overcrowded and unsanitary conditions resist disease has also grabbed headlines. (Subtherapeutic use differs from using antibiotics to treat animals that are sick.)

Many scientists are pointing to the likelihood that the subtherapeutic use of antibiotics in agriculture is contributing to the dramatic rise in life-threatening antibiotic-resistant bacteria, often referred to as “super bugs.” They also say that it provides the perfect conditions for some very dangerous bacteria to mutate and become resistant to the antibiotics. That’s especially important if the same antibiotics used on animals are also used to treat human illnesses.

An example of this in the food safety arena is the 2011 outbreak of antibiotic-resistant Salmonella linked to ground turkey, which killed one person and sickened at least 136 people across 31 states.

United Kingdom Government’s Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies recently warned that the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria poses a global health catastrophe that ranks alongside the threat of climate change or terrorism.

Veterinarian and rancher Whisnant would agree. She told Food Safety News that when she started her practice she could use penicillin on animals suffering from an array of health problems.

“It made veterinary a profession,” she said. “It truly was a miracle drug. But today, penicillin is useless. By administering antibiotics at subtherapeutic levels, the industry has been breeding superbugs.”

She considers this to be the biggest food safety issue today — and one of the most serious health crises the world is facing.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, meanwhile, has said that “injudicious” antibiotic uses in agriculture are a public health risk. In a guidance paper on this topic, it proposed two “non-binding” recommendations:

1. The use of medically important antimicrobial drugs in food-producing animals should be limited to those uses that are considered necessary for assuring animal health.

2. The use of medically important antimicrobial drugs in food-producing animals should be limited to those uses that include veterinary oversight or consultation.

At the same time, there are those who think differently about this issue. Again, according to CAST’s discussion paper, antibiotics have a major, positive effect on improving animal and human health.

And while the discussion paper concedes that the use of antibiotics in food-animal production raises concerns about antibiotic resistance in bacteria and how that could affect the effectiveness of antibiotics in treating human infections, the paper points out that “concern about antibiotic resistance is not equivalent to actual risk.”

The paper also says that resistant bacteria were present long before antibiotics were discovered and found in many places without livestock exposure.

The elephant in the room

For the most part, meat, milk and eggs produced in ways that follow an animal’s natural behavior (outdoors, cage-free and on grass, for example) is more expensive than meat, milk and eggs produced in conditions where many animals are raised together in confinement situations. For that reason, supporters of confinement operations say that this industrial type of agriculture allows for efficiency of scale, which, in turn, benefits consumers by providing affordable food.

Most farmers and ranchers who raise their animals based on their natural behaviors will quickly agree that they get higher prices for their products, thanks to strong demand from health-minded consumers. But they also point out that those higher prices allow them to stay in farming.

“It provides a way to survive in the world of integrated behemoth farming enterprises,” says Rain Crow Ranch’s website.

Rob Noel, spokesman for the Washington State Beef Commission, told Food Safety News that according to a retailer he had just spoken with, wholesale prices of three different cuts of beef showed that grass-finished beef cuts were, on the average, just shy of $2 more per pound than grain-finished cuts. But because prices vary according to season and sales, no hard-and-fast figures can be supplied.

Which is healthier?

Farmers who follow Animal Welfare Approved, or similar principals, say that meat, milk and eggs produced in ways that follow an animal’s natural behavior are healthier because they contain certain substances such as beneficial fatty acids and are, therefore, less expensive in the long run because they promote human health.

However, some health experts discount this view, saying that there’s no significant difference in the nutritional value of the meat, milk and eggs from animals raised industrially or according to their natural behaviors.

Washington State Beef Commission’s Noel said that while grass-fed beef does have more Omega 3s, which are said to promote heart health, than grain-fed beef, beef is not a significant contributor to Omega 3s in a person’s diet, as is salmon, for example.

But in speaking about consumer preferences, Noel said consumers are often guided by what they hear and read from a variety of sources.

“Out in the marketplace, consumers’ perceptions are reality,” he said.

The future

Although it’s estimated that only about 3 percent of the beef in the U.S. is grass-fed, veterinarian and grass-fed beef producer Whisnant told reporters in 2010 that there’s been a dramatic rise in demand for cattle reared on a pasture diet instead of an industrial feedlot. And she went so far as to predict that grass-fed beef should account for 10 percent of America’s beef consumption overall by 2016.

In a recent interview with Food Safety News, she said it’s been amazing to her how many traditional beef producers are looking for alternatives, in large part because of the high price of corn. She said that feedlots are also getting squeezed economically and looking for alternatives.

“I think we’ll see grass-fed beef make up more than 10 percent of America’s beef consumption by 2016,” she said.

© Food Safety News
  • riverdivine

    I pray that the trend to take action to exponentially and immediately improve animal welfare standards continues, and fast- recognized as an ethical and legal necessity by the USDA, and implemented universally by AgriBiz corps.