Pork producers: Be ready for public and regulatory scrutiny

On Thursday morning (March 3, 2016) CBS news aired a story on fast food restaurants’ move to provide meats from production systems that implement antibiotic-free practices. Before the echo of the sound bites had faded, the communications team of the National Pork Board went to work to help correct some of the inaccuracies in the CBS presentation.

pigs.pork.producersKevin Waetke, NPB vice president of Strategic Communications, submitted a response on behalf of the NPB, stating “The National Pork Board supports a consumer’s desire for greater food transparency, but it is critical that information shared with them is accurate and not sensational in its approach. The 60,000 pig farmers we represent have been preparing the past 18 months for the very real and substantive changes that are occurring on pig farms across the country in regard to responsible antibiotic use. … Preserving the effectiveness of medically important antibiotics is critical in our commitment to ensure a safe food supply and to build consumer trust. Consumers must understand three key concepts:

Safe Food Comes from Healthy Animals — Decisions to use antibiotics are unique to each farm, regardless of farm size, and require the oversight of both farmers and veterinarians working together. Antibiotics are used when needed to address disease challenges, to keep animals healthy and to produce safe food. It is not possible to raise all pigs without antibiotics. Some pigs will get sick and need treatment. To not treat them would be inhumane, resulting in reduced animal welfare and increased concerns about food safety.

Antibiotics and Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria in Meat — The USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service tests meat for antibiotic residues to ensure consumers with a safe product in the meat case and in restaurants. Additionally, antibiotic-resistant bacteria is tracked by the federal government. Through a collaborative effort among the CDC, FDA and USDA, the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System tracks specific resistant bacteria in humans, animals and retail meat. To date, there are not any patterns from the NARMS research that show resistant bacteria are routinely transferred from animals to humans.

Cost of Antibiotic-Free Meat — It is inaccurate for the Consumers Union to state that the ‘price of meals probably will not go up much, if at all,’ as they do not have a current grasp on the state of the industry. Although some suppliers have begun to test the market demand for pork from pigs raised without antibiotics, others have chosen to not pursue this option. Based on current market dynamics, consumers do have to pay more for pork from pigs raised without antibiotics.”

As the CBS story proves, the education mission of the NPB goes beyond that of only pork producers. The NPB and the producers themselves need to take the lead on engaging, educating and informing their neighbors, as well as their urban friends on the responsible pork production practices.

Responsible production practices involve the responsible use of antibiotics, and the issue was heavily included in formal and informal discussions during Pork Forum. These discussions need to continue long after Forum, as well as long after the new rules take effect with the flip of the calendar. These discussions are also being taken to those fast-food companies who have pledged to provide meat produced in antibiotic-free production systems. That pledge in itself may go against the very nature of responsible production practices.

Though no industry likes to be told how to do their business, especially by misinformed or under-informed organizations or consumers, it is the reality of the world. However, it never does hurt for the industry or individual producers to reevaluate or reassess what has become business-as-usual.

A solid producer-veterinarian relationship should have already been developed, but the Jan. 1 regulations will require a Veterinary-Client-Patient Relationship. Producers need to use this veterinary relationship to their benefit. If you haven’t already, have discussions with your herd veterinarian of how your operation fits into these new rules.

Sol Erdozain: Stick it in, Mr. Food

The Topeka (Kansas) news on CBS at 5am always seems to have some sort of problem with sound, weather maps, and performing lively. It has become my little morning ritual to have it on in the background while I work and see what else they can get wrong.

I can’t help myself. I have to watch, no matter how bad it gets.

With summer starting today, I can add bad food safety information to the list.

CBS had Mr. Food reciting a chili burger recipe that apparently included barfing.

He instructed viewers to cook the patty until “juices run clear” and then slap it on the bun, which is not the correct way to check if it’s safe to eat.

It exemplified why I was skeptical of experts cited in a Washington Post article, in which they agreed it was possible to learn how to cook from watching TV, yet didn’t even mention food safety. Putting together a recipe is not all there is to cooking, and with advice like that of Mr. Food’s you are learning how to make people sick.

Safe food is food that doesn’t make you barf; don’t like it, make your own definition

“Just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in.”

That’s from the truly terrible movie, The Godfather III (see below), but I prefer Sil’s impersonation on the truly terrific television series, The Soprano’s (right).

Safe food is food that doesn’t make you barf.

At least that’s my definition. Food safety has come to mean all things to all people, but to me, food safety is about minimizing the chemical, physical and especially microbial risks that can be found in food. The risks that make up to 30 per cent of all people in all countries barf every year (or at least that’s the number the World Health Organization says; when are those updated U.S. numbers coming out?)

Animal welfare, genetic engineering, local/organic/natural, trans fat and fat kids, these are all bandied about under the rubric of food safety, but have little or nothing to do with safety. These issues are valid on their own but are primarily about lifestyle choices and food porn. Americans love choice.

And to talk.

Reminds me of that scene from Monty Python’s, The Meaning of Life, when death visits the dinner party:

“Shut up. Shut up you Americans. You always talk, you Americans. You always talk and you talk and you say, ‘Let me tell you something,’ and ‘I just wanna say this.’ Well you’re dead now, so shut up.”

(Python food safety note: The dinner guests all died at the same time from presumably botulism in the salmon mousse. “Darling, you didn’t use canned salmon, did you?”)

Every time I focus on core food safety issues, someone tries to pull me back in to lifestyle debates. Sure I dabbled in genetic engineering and food production systems – doesn’t everyone in college – but I got enough to do focusing on the things that make people barf.

For the past week, the Intertubes have been pneumonically spewing out messages about the risks of antimicrobials in animal husbandry since a CBS News so-called special report aired on the issue.

Antimicrobial resistance is one of those persistent ag issues where — like me crossing the border into the U.S. – every journalist or customs officer thinks she’s discovered something no one else has yet.

They’re always wrong.

Antimicrobial resistance has been on the public agenda since the Swann report of 1969. It’s a risk, it needs to be managed, just like any other risk, to maximize benefits and minimize risk.

But leave it to Whole Foods to go over-the-top, in a blog post entitled, Our meat: No antibiotics, EVER!

(The capitalization and exclamation marks are from the Whole Foods original blog post, the authors and editors who apparently think their readers have disorders and need to be bashed with punctuation and capitalization)

Theo Weening, the national meat buyer for Whole Foods Market, says he “can assure our customers that our standard is: No antibiotics, EVER! We work very hard to make sure that the people who produce our meat have raised their animals without the use of antibiotics, growth hormones* or animal byproducts in the feed.”

Meat-buyer Weening fails to distinguish between the routine use of antibiotics as growth promotants and the use of antibiotics to treat animals that are sick. Should sick animals be deprived antibiotics? Wouldn’t that go against animal welfare standards?

And note the asterick beside the no growth hormone BS. At the end of the blog post, there is an asterick with the comment, “*Federal regulations prohibit the use of growth hormones in raising pigs, veal calves, bison and poultry.”

Tyson already tried this line of labeling. Didn’t work. Whole Foods is hopeless.

What I really want to know is if the Whole Foods or any other steak has been needle tenderized or not so I can adjust my cooking temperature (as verified by a tip-sensitive digital thermometer). Those are the kinds of things that make people barf.