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Who do you trust to tell you the truth about food safety?Posted Tuesday, February 16, 2010, at 2:00 PM
Is our food safe or not?
Are today's farmers feeding and taking care of their animals properly?
It seems to come down to who you trust.
Do you believe the family farmers who have spent their whole lives producing food? The farmers who have built modern farming techniques, step by step, generation by generation -- building on the lessons, failures and successes of those who farmed before them?
Do you believe the scientists or researchers who have spent their entire careers studying animals, nutrition and food safety? Do you believe the USDA or the FDA who are tasked with making our food supply safe?
I have as much suspicion as anyone when it comes to the government, but in the case of food safety, I can't argue with the results.
While the rest of the world's agriculture has been ravaged by outbreaks of Mad Cow Disease and Bird Flu, we in the United States have not. Somebody is looking out for us and doing a good job.
Then there is the other truth. Here in the United States we pay only 7 percent of our take home income for food, while other countries pay a lot more. And despite that fact, we still have 36 million living here who can't afford enough food for themselves and their families.
Of course, if you don't believe those people -- or me -- you can believe the reports like the one recently by Katie Couric of CBS News. It blamed antibiotic use in animals for the rise of antibiotic resistance in humans.
If she would have contacted farmers and veterinarians, as I did, she might have found out there are two sides to every story.
H. Scott Hurd, a veterinarian and former deputy undersecretary of food safety for the USDA has written a statement-by-statement rebuttal of Couric's piece (see www.tinyurl.com/yhuyy2h).
As far as antibiotics are concerned, they test and make sure there are no traces of antibiotics in animals headed for the food supply. Every load of milk is tested for traces of antibiotics. The FDA has a zero tolerance policy -- as in none!
A hog producer here in Saline County told me that he uses fewer antibiotics now than ever, and that was true long before Katie took over the CBS news desk. I know for a fact that hog producers are meticulous when it comes to letting germs or disease in, calling it bio-security. They use antibiotics for sick animals, of course, and put a low level of antibiotics in feed or water during times of high stress, such as weaning or moving to a new building.
According to the hog producer I talked to, if they didn't do that, they would actually use more antibiotics taking care of sick animals, and the animals might suffer needlessly. According to Hurd's article, that has been the unfortunate consequences of an antibiotics ban for Danish hog farmers, who were held up as a good example in Couric's piece.
The local farmer doesn't use antibiotics to promote growth in his hogs and doesn't know anyone who does.
He points out there are several reasons they strictly limit antibiotic use already: one is cost, antibiotics are expensive and hogs don't have health insurance. They also want to provide a safe, acceptable product for consumers. The third reason is simple. The drugs are strictly regulated by the FDA to guard against antibiotic resistance.
Again, if you don't believe me, you might believe Michael Pollan, the journalism professor from the University of California-Berkeley, who has become a self-appointed "food expert" but has never spent time actually raising food or feeding an animal day after day.
Recently Pollan was on Oprah, spouting his oft-repeated line that corn is not a natural food source for cows (and ruminants) and that we are force-feeding the foodstuff causing them to become sick.
According to Pollan, in order to feed cattle corn, we have to also feed them antibiotics.
For most farmers, that statement is so laughable they can't believe someone would actually believe it. In fact, most don't think it is worth a response.
The problem is the journalism professor has made millions of dollars on several books and is getting paid $100,000 a speech to spread his message that cheap food equals bad food or that we should only eat locally grown food in season. (Lucky for him, he lives in southern California, where winter means 60-degree weather. Unlucky for us in mid-Missouri, it means we would eat no vegetables from November to March!)
I recently tried to explain Pollan's assertions to a cattle producer who has personally fed and sent thousands of cattle directly to packers. He raises the kind of cattle that people in New York City and California want when they pay $50 to $100 for a 6-ounce filet mignon.
No doubt, aided by the fact that he had been up since 3 a.m. helping cows during calving season, he thought I was joking.
This is an intelligent, college educated beef producer who is too busy raising safe, affordable and good-tasting food for you and me to watch Oprah or read fiction.
I didn't need to talk to him to know that it's untrue that corn is not a "natural" food for cattle and other ruminants.
The first reason I know its untrue is that corn IS a grass and the corn kernel is a seed of that grass. Pollan and his followers might argue that it has been "changed" or genetically modified, so it is therefore not a grass.
I don't agree. The main changes made since early times affect the bushels we can grow per acre, not the actual plant or seed.
The second reason I know it is untrue is because unlike Pollan, I've actually fed cattle. I've slogged through mud and trounced through pastures, carrying buckets to cattle who can hardly wait until I pour the corn into to the trough. I've fed cattle for our own consumption and I've helped my sons feed steers for the Saline County Fair.
Pollan is right when he says corn needs to be fed at gradual increments or cattle will get bloated. It's true. Cows have sensitive stomachs (four, to be exact), and they don't limit
their intake of food as hogs or chickens will.
What Pollan fails to say is that too much of many foods cause bloat in cattle, including the "grass" many grass-fed cattle are finished on -- clover and alfalfa. They will eat and eat until they get sick, especially something they love as much as corn, alfalfa or clover.
That's why God invented farmers.
Our job is to make sure that doesn't happen. We've fed many steers here on the farm in a short period of time and gradually adding corn to their diet is the key. It's really not any different from humans, if we normally eat one amount and then one day overeat, we get bloated. No difference. We too, are unable to limit ourselves at times.
And here is the most important point: We've never aided the feeding process with an antibiotic and neither has the feedlot operator I spoke to. It is certainly not a necessary part of corn-fed beef.
Pollan likes to say that feeding cattle corn is a new phenomenon. He asserts that 50 years ago cattle were fed grass and then slaughtered after two or three years of grazing. His theory is that the farm policy of the 1970s and subsidization of corn are the reason that cattle are now corn-fed.
However, of all the Century Farm farmers and old-timers I've interviewed or talked to, I've yet to find one that didn't remember feeding anything but corn to finish cattle.
Corn-fed beef tastes better than grass-fed cattle. Study after study has shown consumers agree overwhelmingly.
Maybe that wasn't the case in western states, where corn was less available, I don't know, but here in Missouri, feeding corn to cattle is a practice that is at least a century old. Of course, as farmers always do, they are building on new technologies.
In recent years, the "corn" cattle eat includes a growing amount of the byproduct from ethanol production called DDGs or Dried Distillers Grain. Most people don't know that. Apparently, recycling an already "green" product doesn't sell books or television advertisements.
There is a fourth reason I know Pollan is wrong. I didn't realize it until this fall (I am not smart like my farmers), but deer are ruminants, just like cattle. They have two stomachs. In fact, even Pollan mentions them in one of his articles. Deer grow wild on my farm. They choose their own
That includes a smorgasbord during the summer -- grass, alfalfa, trees, soybeans, wheat and a variety of garden goodies -- there is plenty of everything. However, judging by the big holes left in our fields, the crop they eat the most is corn.
Yes, the same corn Pollan says isn't a "natural" feedstuff for ruminants.
Ever look in a deer's two stomachs? I got that "joy" this fall as my sons dressed the deer they shot during hunting season. Guess what? Full of corn, lots and lots of MY corn.
Obviously our resident deer haven't read Pollan either.
I was trying to explain all this to someone recently, and she asked a very legitimate question.
"If it's not true that today's food animals are pumped full of antibiotics or that corn shouldn't be fed to cattle, why is that story not on the news?"
I wonder that too.
But the truth is with just one million people involved in production agriculture today, there are few people who know the "real story" about raising food.
Most Americans have never been to a farm, let alone ever talked to an actual farmer. And like my farmer friend, most farmers are too busy raising food to explain all the details to what sometimes seems like an ungrateful public.
And not to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but it's awful hard to get the "other side" out there. My own cousins thought that only 3 percent of farmers were family farmers. They knew we were family farmers -- they had been to my house, but they had no idea the ratio was 97 percent family farms and just 3 percent corporate farms.
Here is the other problem: Oprah didn't have anyone on her show to refute what Pollan said and neither did the documentary "Food, Inc." Or Katie Couric, for that matter. Hard to get the "other side" out there when you are not given a chance to state it.
The real truth is just because it says so on the news -- yes, even Oprah-- doesn't mean it's true. Remember, there was a time when majorities thought the world was flat, women in Salem were witches, Hollywood producers were communists, Iraq was full of weapons of mass destruction, that "popular" girl in your high school was really cool and the Colts would easily win the 2010 Super Bowl.
But now we know the "rest of the story."
To my friend and all of you who never hear the "other side."
You just did.
Like I said, it all comes down to who you trust.
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