Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Let them eat organic!

I’ve no idea whether the French Revolution is covered anymore in public education. To the extent that it may be, I suspect it’s taught as Zinnian revisionist history. Nevertheless, when I attended school the French Revolution was covered several times; in elementary, junior high, and high school. The French, as well as a number of other contemporary and near-contemporary revolutions, were used as a foil against which to compare and contrast the American Revolution.

At any rate, the topic was thoroughly discussed including the famous but apocryphal utterance of Marie Antoinette, “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche.” In common attribution the phrase is translated “let them eat cake.” A more accurate translation is “[then] they [may] eat brioche.” Brioche, of course, is a bread made with eggs and butter, and not the confectionary cake we Americans usually think of.

The point of talking about the quote is to illustrate the misunderstanding of a an issue by a person disconnected from the issue. The issue in France during the revolution was hunger and the French public were demanding bread to fill their empty bellies. Marie neither lacked for bread nor brioche. She was disconnected from the issue. Her misunderstanding was simple -- if the problem is a lack of bread, then eat brioche instead. Problem solved.

Today in America there is a similar but vastly more widespread misunderstanding. A great many Americans have come to believe, for various reasons, that brioche, in the form of “organic” or “natural” food, is an equal and viable alternative to dowdy old bread, or food produced by modern agricultural techniques. This misunderstanding of the situation is every bit as silly and feather-headed as the French Queen’s apocryphal utterance.

For years now U.S. farmers and ranchers have come under attack by a number of self-proclaimed “experts” who argue that modern production agriculture is destroying the environment, putting the food supply at risk, sickening consumers, making American children obese, putting a wall between humans and nature, and a long list of other wrongs.

Michael Pollan, for instance, a University of California-Berkeley journalism professor, has written books attacking production agriculture (The Omnivore’s Dilemma; In Defense of Food) and appeared in the PBS documentary Food, Inc. Pollan argues that modern agriculture is destructive, and that humans must return to the farming practices of the eighteenth century, consuming only locally grown, organic food, produced by subsistence farming and secured through a barter economy.

A number of other “expert” commentators, with neither background nor education in agriculture, have jumped on the bandwagon, and the major media has widely and uncritically reported on all of it.

“Consumers should apologize for eating meat,” said James E. McWilliams, associate professor of history at Texas State University at San Marcos and a fellow at the agrarian studies program at Yale University. McWilliams, a longtime vegetarian and author of the book “Just Food,” claims that livestock consumes 70 percent of the water in the American west, produce 21 percent of all greenhouse gasses, and are treated with three-quarters of all antibiotics produced.

Patrick O. Brown, a Stanford University biochemist and vegan, claims that livestock production is not only contributing to out of control, man-made global warming, but is deforesting the Amazon. Both of these claims are coming under increasing fire as the planet continues a cooling trend and recent studies show expansion of Amazonian rain forest. Brown’s proposed solution? “Eliminate animal farming on planet Earth.”

Based on the claims and theories espoused by these so-called experts, organic and “locavore” movements have become a passionate fad for many Americans. And while there’s nothing wrong with choosing to eat only locally grown, organic food – so long as the supply of these foods can meet demand – mandating these production practices for the entire U.S. ag sector, as many of these experts demand, is a prescription for widespread starvation.

Leaving all other considerations aside, small-plot organic food production simply cannot feed America’s 310 million souls. In 1790, when the U.S. population was 3.9 million and 80 percent of Americans were full-time farmers, ag production often failed to meet the nutritional requirements of the nation. Hunger was a constant threat, and where crops failed, starvation was a grim reality. Today, fewer than one percent of 317 million Americans feed the country. Those 3 million American farmers and ranchers provide consumers with the most abundant, highest quality and most inexpensive food supply the world has ever known.

Fortunately, many of the real-world truths about production agriculture are coming to the fore, and genuine ag researchers are countering with fact the simplistic fiction of the Pollans’ of the world. A case in point is a paper written by dairy science professor Jude Capper. In “Demystifying The Environmental Sustainability Of Food Production,” Capper writes:

“All food production has an environmental impact and livestock production has been singled out as a major contributor to climate change. However, consumer and governmental perceptions of strategies and production systems used to reduce environmental impact are often simplistic and appear to be based on misconceptions that do not consider potential negative trade-offs.”

Capper, an assistant professor of dairy sciences at Washington State University, notes that while many commentators claim, and many consumers believe, that eating grass-fed meat or locally grown food are environmentally friendly decisions, they are often far off the mark when drawing such intuitive conclusions.

While there is widespread perception that grass-fed meat is  environmentally friendly than conventionally produced, grain-finished beef, writes Capper, “...the time needed to grow an animal to slaughter weight is nearly double that of animals fed corn, which means that energy use and greenhouse gas emissions per pound of beef are increased three-fold in grass-fed beef cattle.” In addition, she said, finishing the U.S. population of fed-cattle on pasture would require an extra 60 million acres of land.

On the trend among many consumers who want to purchase food grown locally, Capper said, “Often 'locally grown' food is thought to have a lower environmental impact than food transported over long distances due to carbon emissions from fuel. This simplistic approach fails to consider the productivity of the transportation system, which has tremendous impact on the energy expended per unit of food.”

While the desire to protect the environment by altering personal behavior is admirable, she said, “Those decisions must be based on logic rather than intuition.”

“Consumers might think they are making the responsible, virtuous food choices, when, in truth, they are supporting production practices that consume more natural resources, cause greater pollution and create a larger carbon footprint than more efficient, technology-driven, conventional methods,” she said.

The many millions of Americans presently clamoring for organic over modern food production would do themselves well to introduce a little rigor in their decision making. Ironically, today even the poorest of the poor in America have instant access to the entire world wide web, yet they cannot find a way to actually check the facts of such a critical issue.

What people choose to believe, and the evidence they choose to credit, is, of course, up to the individual. Many individuals, though, tend to believe that they can and should take it upon themselves to demand brioche over bread, based on both a faulty understanding of the issue and on a complete absence of even the most basic attempt to understand the issue. Such thinking (or lack of thinking) actually serves to make Marie Antoinette seem a paragon of reason and intellect.

A complicating factor is today’s entertainment media, which still clings to the clearly false notion that it is providing “news.”

Friday, January 10, 2014

What does it mean to support the troops?

If you randomly polled a hundred folks across the Panhandle, asking whether they support the troops, I’d be surprised if you didn’t find that all 100 answered yes. If you did the same poll across the nation, I think you’d get pretty darn close to 100 percent affirmative answers. A tiny minority would say no, probably, but I’m thinking 99 percent would unhesitatingly reply that yes, they support the troops.

What if you changed the question? What if you asked, “what does it mean to support the troops?”

That’s a different kettle of fish.

I’m not going to rah-rah you and tell you the answer. It’s something everyone has to figure out for themselves. I do suspect, though, that not many of my friends and neighbors have spent much time thinking about the question. I think it’s an important question for all Americans to consider, which is why I’m writing this piece. Why now? Why here? Let me share a couple of anecdotes and a story.

I have a cartoon stuck on the bulletin board in my office (I serve as Kimball County’s part-time Veterans Service Officer; my office is in the courthouse). It’s from a cartoon series called “Broadsides” which runs in the Military Times family of newspapers. The cartoon panel depicts a civilian human resources director sitting at a desk, examining a sheaf of paper. In front of the desk is a man in civilian attire with a military haircut and a USMC tattoo on his arm. The HRD is apparently interviewing the tattooed man. “Killed bad guys from 1982-2012,” he says. “Just a wild guess, but is this your first resume Mr. Clark?”

That cartoon has a lot of depth, a lot of layers. It’s clearly amusing. A civilian can see himself in the HRD’s position, trying to figure the veteran out. But The civilian can’t see himself in the shoes of the former marine. There are levels of that cartoon that can’t be grasped by anyone who hasn’t shared the experience of military service. I could describe them, but my description would have little meaning to anyone lacking the veteran’s perspective. It’s interesting to think about. The veteran has been a civilian, but the civilian has never been a soldier. There’s a disconnect there.

Another anecdote, from a slightly different perspective: You’ve probably all seen the trailers for the forthcoming movie “Lone Survivor.” The movie is based on the book written by Navy Seal Marcus Luttrell. I watched a book signing event featuring Luttrell when his book first came out several years ago. During the question and answer session after his talk, someone in the audience asked, “what can we civilians do to support the troops?”

“Pick up a rifle, man,” said Luttrell, Pick up a rifle.”

I’m not suggesting, and neither, I think, was Luttrell, that to support the troops you need to join the military and come to blows with the enemy on the battlefield. What I’m saying is simply this. If you think it’s important to support the troops, and if you have a desire to find a way to support the troops, you need to do a lot of thinking about what it all means.

Unless you’ve served, you’ll never be able to understand the question from the soldier’s perspective. If you’re serious about supporting the troops, you need to understand that that perspective exists. You need to think about the fact that you don’t – and can’t – understand the soldier’s perspective, and integrate that knowledge into your reasoning when you try to figure out what supporting the troops means. If you get to that point, you’ll be able to figure out a sensible and reasoned approach to deciding whether it makes sense for you to provide that support.

In other words, there may be a difference between what you know and what you think you know. Hmm. Where have I heard that before?

Now here’s a short story.

On Saturday afternoon I got a call about a veteran who was hitchhiking and had run out of money. The temperature was already tumbling and was forecast to hit 10 below overnight. Not a good night to be spending along the interstate.

I was irritated when I got the call. Saturday was the first day of wildcard weekend and I’d worked hard to arrange my schedule so I could watch the games.

But duty is duty. Irritated is emotion. Two different things. I drove out and contacted the veteran, got him in my pickup, and started calling around to see how we could help him. As I called he told me a little bit about himself. He’s 23 and got out of the Army six months ago. He spent most of the last three years in Afghanistan. He’s seen serious combat. He planned to reenlist but manpower cuts made that impossible. He worked at a job in New Jersey for a while but got into some kind of trouble and wound up in jail. He was hitching to Boise where a sister lives and he has a line on a job. It took a lot of questioning to get those details out of him. He was very reserved, very closed off.

I finally broke through the layers of answering machines and VA bureaucracy and made arrangements for the veteran to spend the night in a shelter in Cheyenne. Getting him there was the trick. I decided to break a local guideline and drive him myself (and got politely chewed out for breaking the guideline). I got him to the shelter and made sure he got checked in. I left him with my card and told him to call if he needed anything and to let me know he got to Boise okay. I don’t expect to hear from him.

The world isn’t as clear-cut and easy to understand as we’d like it to be. Supporting the troops sounds like a great idea, and one most of us are instinctively “for.” But how do you support a kid like my hitchhiking vet?

I don’t have the answer. There isn’t one. Not an easy, one-size-fits-all solution. In this country, where we’re all sovereign citizens, we have to figure those things out for ourselves.

There's no easy button for the important stuff.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Drought and wildflowers

In January, when Arctic air grips the world in an icy fist; when chores are done in swaddled layers of clothing and still the stinging cold bites at fingertips and ears and noses; when gravid cows trade fat for survival…
A wild textile onion blooms in delicate pink and white. Click image for larger view.

In January, wildflowers are part of the future. Or perhaps, part of the past. They exist only in memory or in anticipation. Oh, the seeds and dormant plants are present, hunkered down against the winter, husbanding a tiny spark of life.

In January, wildflowers are only potential wildflowers. New roots, stems, leaves, buds, petals, staman and pistil, aroma glands, tiny seed-factory ovaries – all of these are safely locked away in molecules of DNA.

But they’re there.
Wildflowers can thrive in the most uncommon places. Click image for larger view.

Though it’s hard to remember what spring feels like when you’re chopping ice or feeding hay in sub-zero weather, the annual season of rebirth is on it’s way. Already the days are getting longer, the sun is standing higher in the southern sky each day, tickling our High Plains landscape with ever more warmth. There’s still plenty of winter left, though. As the old saying goes, “as the days lengthen, the cold will strengthen!” It takes time for even the sun to reverse a cooling trend that began late last summer.

But spring is on the way and will arrive, according to the calendar, in only 62 days. On March 20 at 5:02 a.m. to be precise.

This will be a tough spring. The drought that officially began last summer, and which really began at our place the preceding autumn (2011), has sharply depleted soil moisture. The precipitation forecast through March is up in the air. To return to “normal” soil moisture conditions, we would have to receive just over 12 inches of liquid-equivalent snow/rain by the end of March. That’s probably not going to happen.
Wild parsley and several stemless hymenoxis and several species of milkvetch grow out of tiny fissures in a siltstone berm.  Click image for larger view.

So not only the wildflowers, but the entire ecosystem will be challenged when winter passes and the spring brings warmer temperatures.
Spring is the time for rebirth. This antelope twin held remarkably still for his portrait last year. Click image for larger view.

Livestock producers will have to carefully monitor spring green-up and make herd management decisions. If an adequate green-up fails to appear, as it did in 2002, providing non-sustainable livestock forage, many producers will be faced with the choice of continuing to feed hay or to sharply reduce herd numbers.

Regardless of whether the grass greens up There will be wildflowers. If conditions remain exceptionally dry, they will be few and far between, but they will be there. It’ll be interesting to see how the shortgrass prairie ecosystem develops this spring. The EJE Ranch will be again  hosting wildlife/wildflower viewing and hikes during Nebraska Wildflower week June 1- June 8. Keep an eye out for more information as we get closer to spring.

Insects and arachnids are part of the shortgrass prairie ecosystem too. This grass spider sits in the middle of a spectacular silken web. Click image for larger view.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Animal rights groups, federal agencies under attack in court

Just on the heels of a $9.3 million settlement paid by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) and the defendant’s vow to pursue continuing legal action against several other so-called animal rights groups, a Roswell, N.M. meat company brought charges against the USDA.

Last August we talked about HSUS (Humane Society of the U.S.) and their lawsuit against Feld Entertainment, Inc., the producer of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey® Circus. The suit claimed mistreatment of circus elephants. The American Society for Prevention of Cruelty of Animals (ASPCA) was a co-litigant in the action, along with four other animal rights groups: the Fund for Animals, Animal Welfare Institute, Animal Protection Institute United with Born Free USA; and an individual, Tom Rider.

Feld Entertainment vigorously riposted. Turning the table on the animal rights groups by counter-suing, they alleged “…a litany of charges ranging from bribery to money laundering to racketeering.” Feld’s attorneys had done their homework and easily put the groups both on the defensive and in a very bad light.

Though the bumbling but well-paid HSUS/ASPCA attorneys moved to have the second case dismissed, District of Columbia Federal judge Emmet G. Sullivan ruled that the case must proceed under the RICO Statutes – statutes designed to combat Mafia gangsters, among others.

On December 28, 2012, Feld announced that “…the company has reached a legal settlement with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) in connection with two federal court cases. Under the settlement, ASPCA has paid Feld Entertainment $9.3 million to settle all claims related to its part in more than a decade of manufactured litigation that attempted to outlaw elephants in the company’s Ringling Bros. ® Circus. This settlement applies only to the ASPCA.  Feld Entertainment’s legal proceedings, including its claims for litigation abuse and racketeering, will continue against the remaining defendants and the attorneys involved.”

Meanwhile, as we await details of the litigation to come, another privately owned company has filed suit against the USDA for not acting on a request for inspections that would allow the company to resume slaughter of domestic horses and resume horse meat food service to foreign customers.

Valley Meat Company of Roswell alleges that USDA inaction on the company’s application has cost “hundreds of thousands of dollars in recent months.” In addition to the USDA, the suit names Humane Society of the United States, Front Range Equine Rescue, and Animal Protection of New Mexico as plaintiffs.

At the heart of the issue is whether horses are legally pets or livestock. Lacking a legal determination, congress caved in to emotion-based pressure and withdrew funding for federal inspection of facilities slaughtering horses in 2006, effectively ending U.S. horse slaughter, a practice which had been in place throughout or nation’s history.

Horse prices bottomed out, leaving may hobby farmers in a bad situation. They couldn’t sell their horses. Feed costs continued to rise. The economy went into meltdown. No longer able to afford an expensive hobby, many had to choose between putting the animal down or opening the gate to let the animal fend for itself.

Horse rescue organizations came into being, and with the backing of activist animal rights groups, began pressuring local law enforcement to remove horses from their owners and congregate them in shelters. Few shelters were able to adequately care for their horses, leading to malnourishment and starvation.

In 2011 congress removed the bar preventing USDA inspectors in facilities where horses were slaughtered. Valley Meat Company, losing money as drought reduced cattle numbers to the smallest U.S. cow-herd in more than 60 years, decided to apply for permits to resume horse slaughter. There is both an abundance of horses (adequate supply) and a large foreign market for horse meat (adequate demand).

Company owner Rick del los Santos says the USDA encouraged the application but told him he would have to stop slaughtering cattle to qualify for horse slaughter permits. del los Santos complied, ceasing all operations and shuttering the plant. The USDA then failed to move forward with the permits, effectively stonewalling the process.

del los Santos said that in addition to animal rights groups, even the Governor of New Mexico, Susana Martinez, has vowed to oppose it.

Despite the emotional outcry, other organizations, including many horse rescue agencies, livestock associations and the American Quarter Horse Association, support a return to domestic horse slaughter. Increasing horse abandonment, artificially elevated horse prices, and the high cost of veterinary care – including euthanasia – are all concerns.

del los Santos said “the number of U.S. horses sent to other countries for slaughter has nearly tripled since domestic horse slaughter ceased, and a return to horse slaughter for food will be more humane than the existing policies in the rest of North America, especially in Mexico.”
Valley Meat Company is still waiting for the USDA to move forward. According to federal court official, the agency has until the end of January to respond. In the mean time, the lawsuit will proceed.

Animal rights activist groups and federal regulators seem to be under increasing attack by a public quickly tiring of scams, excuses, legal parsing, and an increasing tax and regulation burden. This backlash seems to be prompted by new and non-traditional media, which has taken up the burden of providing objective news to consumers, a product the major media can no longer deliver.

Such incremental gains bode well for the nation. As Mark Twain said, “It’s easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled.”

But it’s not impossible.

Our customers, faces and ideas

More than 90 percent of Americans live within 100 miles of the east and west coasts, in sprawling, urban/suburban swaths of densely populated humanity. Most of you who read this blog live out here in the middle of "flyover country," where the livestock outnumber the people.

Wherever we live, we're all human beings, and we all have the same needs and wants. For example, we all need to eat, and we all want to know that our food supply is safe and nutritious.

Those of us in production agriculture have a better sense of the quality of our product than those who are not farmers or ranchers. Unfortunately, as Mark Twain put it, "A lie can travel halfway 'round the world while the truth is putting on it's shoes." There's a lot of misinformation and disinformation out there, peddled to an agriculturally naive public. Our customers, those who consume our products, are naturally concerned when they hear misguided and often disingenuous horror stories about their food supply.

It's tough to get the truth out, particularly when food producers make up only one percent (or less) of the population. The good news is that, thanks largely to social and alternative media, we're getting better at presenting our side of the story.

Even better news is that American consumers, by and large, are no more likely to completely believe sensationalistic reporting on food safety.

I saw a great video the other day, posted on a colleagues web site. A tip of the hat to Amanda Radke at

The video was a production of  America’s Farmers, an advocacy campaign that showcases American farmers. Partly funded by Monsanto, the campaign is part of  a wide ranging effort to begin a conversation with our non-ag citizens. The idea is to show off the faces of real American farmers – what we do, how we do it, why we do it – in essence, to tell our story. This idea seems to be just one of many grass roots outreach efforts springing up in the ag community.

The America’s Farmers campaign does more than put up a web site with stories and videos. They do some impressive outreach and education and are even sponsoring the development of non-profit rural community groups through their America’s Farmers Grow Communities challenge.

The video was a sample of the outreach and education done by America’s Farmers. Using the famous ‘roving camera and mike’ technique, they roved the urban environment, asking people, “How much do you really know about Agriculture?” In several cities – New York, Chicago and Los Angeles – included, they asked questions about the number of jobs U.S. agriculture supports, the number of people a single farmer can feed, and other good questions. The answers were enlightening.

And not because few – if any – of them could come close to answering correctly. They’re city folks, removed in both distance and in genealogical time from farming. How could they possibly have detailed agricultural knowledge at the tips of their fingers?

The thing that struck me about their answers was that they were all – or nearly all – quite thoughtful. And you could tell that all of them – or again, nearly all of them – were thinking hard about the questions. I could see the struggle play out across their expressions as they began to think about a subject they don’t often think about.

A New Yorker, when told how many people each American farmer feeds, was astonished. “One farmer feeds – feeds – 155 people? That’s amazing! You know, here in New York we’re so disconnected from stuff like this that, well, it’s hard to believe.”

When told how much food a growing world  population will need in the next 50 years, the same fellow said “…the United States, perhaps we should be exporting some of our technology and farming practices to other countries, to help them be more productive.”

The fact that he didn’t know that the U.S. has been exporting agricultural  technologies and techniques for more than a century, isn’t so important, in my mind. The fact that he was willing to think about the question and share an idea was, to me, exciting.

That’s another think I noticed. With the exception of one or two folks who already knew everything, the interviewees in this video seemed to be captivated by the ag facts and the story of modern farming, and several said they were going to start “looking things up.” I got the sense that they were excited about agriculture.

The same fellow quoted above said, “You know what, since you’ve told me all this, I think I’m going to have to spend a little more time and educate myself about this.”

Another fellow said, “I can’t imagine how hard they (farmers) must work.” A woman said, regarding the number of people each farmer feeds, “A hundred and fifty-five? I couldn’t make one dinner for that many.”

For me, as an ag producer, it was fun to see the faces and hear the ideas of a few of my city “customers.” It was exciting to see how open minded and willing to think about the questions these folks were. And it was good to see that despite the consistent anti-ag narrative embraced by much of the major media, some – perhaps even most – people are too smart to fall for the over-hyped and sensationalized reporting they are exposed to.

To see the video go to youtube and search “How much do people really know about agriculture?”

Check out America’s Farmers at

As I hauled cattle this morning I thought about the video and about how different my life is than that of an urbanite. I chucked a bit about the fellow who “can’t imagine” how hard I work.

I don’t think my work is so much hard as it is different. The vast majority of the population has never been exposed to farm work, but that doesn’t mean that they work less hard than I.

We farmers and ranchers have become widely dispersed experts in growing food. In that sense, though, we’re more generalists than specialists. My day started just before dawn with checking cows and breaking stock tank ice. Then I loaded cattle on the trailer and hauled them to Colorado and returned. Along the way a wheel bearing seized on the trailer. I pulled the wheel off, “triked” the trailer home, and dropped it off to be repaired. Then I finished this story so I could get it sent off by deadline. In a few hours I’ll check cows again.
A bad wheel bearing interrupted a cattle hauling trip Tuesday. Click image for a larger view.

Some parts of my job are physically demanding, some require a lot of discipline, some take a lot of intellectual reasoning. Rare indeed would be the city-dweller who could seamlessly step into my boots tomorrow. But the reverse is also true. I’d struggle mightily learning a new skill set and adapting to a different environment.

We’re all just people, and seeing a video affirmation of that fact was delightful.

Monday, December 31, 2012

Having the beef conversation part two

Myth and Fact

Last time I wrote about having the beef conversation with consumers. I recommended that potential beef advocates be sure of their facts, for an uninformed answer can do more harm than good. I used LFTB (Lean Finely Textured Beef), or pink slime as an example. LFTB is sometimes called Boneless Lean Beef Trimmings (BLBT). So this time let’s talk about some myths and facts.

The LTFB/pink slime story is extremely important to beef producers and the beef industry specifically, and to the entire food sector in general. The story is just as important to consumers. You would be hard pressed to find a single consumer who hasn’t heard about pink slime.

The term pink slime was coined by microbiologist Dr. Gerald Zirnsteinmay in a 2002 e-mail. It began to gain world-wide traction when British celebrity chef and food activist Jamie Oliver campaigned against the product in early 2011.

In March, 2012 Time magazine reported, “It’s unhealthy enough to earn a ban from fast-food giants McDonald’s and Taco Bell, and it’s banned for human consumption in the U.K. But is the notorious “pink slime” beef good enough for your children, to be served up in their school lunches?” Such slanted and opinion-loaded phrasing is representative of the way the rest of the major media reported on the subject.

Even the Nebraska Farmers Union (NFU), characteristically long on propaganda and short on fact, weighed in. Their message? Seventy percent of ground beef is pink slime. Pink slime consists of waste beef trimmings formerly used mainly for pet food and cooking oil. Pink slime is treated with poisonous ammonia. Pink slime is not fresh ground beef but a cheap waste product. The USDA official who signed off on the process in the 1980’s was an unethical scientist.

The major media clearly misrepresented the facts. In many, perhaps most, cases, outright fabrications were presented as objective news. The story resonated with today’s so-called “foodies,” – consumers who are extremely interested in where and how their food is produced. Many foodies wrote newspaper, magazine, internet articles and blog posts on the subject, and a few television personalities devoted entire shows to pink slime.

The story went viral. Only a very few of  those internet postings were objectively factual or acknowledged the existence of other viewpoints. The major media/internet consensus was that pink slime is poisoned food and that it directly threatens the health of consumers. “Innocent schoolchildren” were said to be particularly at risk, with the USDA “force-feeding” pink slime in school lunches.

Jamie Oliver, a British chef and star of several popular food shows, presented a particularly disturbing pink slime segment on his show “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution.” Oliver, a natural and consummate showman, demonstrated how pink slime is “really” made. He threw beef trimmings into a front loading washing machine to demonstrate the centrifuging process, creating an ugly smeared mess on the glass door of the machine. After removing the trimmings to a plastic container, he added household ammonia cleanser and water, then drained and ground the soapy mess. During the demonstration he suggested that the USDA had secretly approved LFTB, and just as secretly forced the product into schools, retail markets, and restaurants.

These beef trimmings are the precursor to Lean, Finely Textured Beef or LFTB. Such trimmings are spun in a heated centrifuge to separate the lean meat from the fat. Click on the picture for a larger image.

To be fair, Oliver carefully chose his words, leaving plenty of room to argue that he hadn’t actually lied, had only implied. At one point he did admit that he didn’t know the exact process, but “imagined” that his demonstration was accurate.

Implications, cherry-picked details, and out-of-context remarks are common tactics used in the ongoing pink slime saga. Many, including passionate activists, are simply trying as hard as they can make a convincing argument. Few of these people are intentionally lying.

But others, particularly in the major media, consciously and intentionally load their headlines, stories and segments with misleading and manipulated information. As an example, Alex Johnson of MSNBC said that ammonium hydroxide is “…an ingredient in fertilizers, household cleaners and some roll-your-own explosives.”

You can use this very tactic to turn the table in your own beef advocacy efforts, but you must include all the facts and provide useful context.

For instance, you might mention that a bacon cheeseburger contains dihydrogen mono-oxide, a molecular compound made up of explosive and fire-accelerating elements. That if accidentally inhaled, only a few ounces of the compound will be immediately fatal. Dihydrogen mono-oxide is H2O, or water. Molecular water contains two hydrogen (an explosive gas) atoms and an oxygen (part of the fire triangle) atom.

In addition to dihydrogen mono-oxide, a bacon cheeseburger contains NaCl, another molecular compound. NaCl combines sodium, a reactive metal that explodes on contact with water, and chlorine, the poisonous gas used to such terrible effect in World War One. As a molecular compound though, NaCl is simply table salt.

This prepackaged ground beef contains sodium chloride. Click on the picture for a larger image.

Water and salt are essential to every form of life on the planet. If for some reason you can’t get water, you will die. The same is true for salt.

Back on the internet front, a Texas mom, Bettina Siegel, was prompted to complain directly to Tom Vilsack, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. She started an on-line petition drive to remove LFTB from school lunch programs, and the petition quickly garnered hundreds of thousands of signatures. In writing to Vilsack, Siegel wrote, “We care deeply about our children’s health and ask that you and the USDA immediately put a stop to the use of pink slime in the National School Lunch Program.”

The wave of misrepresentations and misreporting about LTFB has prompted a bit of a backlash. Beef Products International, or BPI, has sued ABC and others for slanderous reporting. In a separate action in Nebraska, Bettina Siegel, along with ABC News, Jim Avila, Diane Sawyer and Jamie Oliver have been sued by former BPI employee Bruce Smith. Smith, who was an environmental health and safety officer at BPI lost his job when the company shut down LFTB production.

The concern that activists and many consumers have about LFTB are twofold. Firstly, they claim that the product is made from “inedible” beef trimmings which are loaded with deadly bacteria, including salmonella and E. coli. The trimmings, so the story goes, are fit only for pet food.

Secondly, the activists allege that ammonia is mixed with the beef to kill the bacteria. The activists agree that ammonia is an effective bacteriostat, but allege that it poisons consumers who consume the product, particularly innocent schoolchildren.

Not all consumers are convicted activists. Many are simply concerned about the validity of the anti-LFTB argument. This is where a well informed beef advocate can make a real difference; allaying consumer fears and restoring or reaffirming their confidence in our safe, nutritious, abundant and inexpensive product.

So here are some facts.

  • LFTB in NOT an inedible waste product. No food processing technique can make inedible food edible.

  • LFTB is made from the trimmings that remain after excess fat has been removed from steaks and roasts. The trimmings contain both fat and lean beef, but not even the most skillful meat cutter can separate the two with knife work.

  • To remove the fat, trimmings are spun in a heated centrifuge. The liquid and semi-liquid fat is siphoned off and used to make other food- and non-food products. Once the fat has been separated, the remaining lean beef is treated with aqueous (liquid) or gaseous food grade ammonium hydroxide. This slightly lowers the pH of the product, making it a very tough environment for bacterial survival. The entire process of making LFTB is strictly controlled and constantly monitored by USDA inspectors.

  • Treatment with ammonium hydroxide changes the color of the beef from deep red to a pinkish hue. The color change is a simple chemical process and is no different from the color changes caused by other meat curing processes. Think of corned beef, ham, sausages, etc.

  • The process of curing meat has been going on for longer than our recorded history. Other curing agents include smoke, sugar, sodium nitrite, potassium chloride, and sodium chloride (table salt).

  • Since LFTB recaptures lean beef and adds to the overall beef supply, it also helps to lower beef prices for the consumer.

  • It is true that many food animal byproducts, such as organ tissue, connective tissue, bone meal, beyond-shelf-life retail meat, and prior to the advent of the LFTB process, fatty meat trimmings, went into pet food. There was simply no economical way to recover the lean meat. But meat trimmings were never inedible or a waste product.

  • LFTB has been approved and widely consumed since the mid-1980’s and is an FDA/USDA approved safe and nutritious meat product. The dreaded pink slime has been consumed by countless millions with no record of ill effect.

  • Far from being an unnatural chemical, ammonia is a nitrogen compound which occurs in all foods. A bacon cheeseburger made with LFTB contains a total of  232 milligrams of ammonia. The bun contains 50 mg, the bacon 16 mg, the condiments 50 mg, and the cheese 76 mg. The LFTB adds only 40 mg to the burger, about 17 percent of the total.

Those are some facts you can arm yourself with if you choose to accept the challenge of beef advocacy. The Beef Checkoff folks recommend, in their guide to having the beef conversation, that advocates be polite and courteous and non-defensive. Most consumers are looking for facts and reassurance. Few are looking for an argument.

Last week I e-mailed Bettina Siegel and she promptly responded. I didn’t ask her permission to share our correspondence, so I’ll only say that our exchange was cordial and respectful. She and I may disagree on the subject, but I admire her determination and commitment.

I’m also a great fan of Jamie Oliver’s early television shows. He’s clearly a skilled and competent chef and has a great television personality. He’s passionate about food. And even though he’s introduced misinformed and biased activism into his more recent efforts, he does present a lot of very good information about food.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Having the beef conversation

In case you missed it, the Beef Checkoff recently released a handy pocket guide to having the beef conversation with non-beef producing and or non/agricultural producing consumers. You can download a copy here or the .pdf version directly.

If you don’t have access to a computer contact the Beef Board at 303-220-9890.

Kimball, Nebraska residents line up for the annual Farmers’ Day hamburger feed last September. The hamburgers came from locally sourced beef. Celebrations such as Farmers’ Day provide producers an opportunity to share a “beef conversation” with consumers. Click the picture for a larger image.

 The guide is a tool to help beef producers have a positive and informational food animal conversation with consumers. Producers should first study the guide and become familiar with the suggestions for having a positive conversation. These are skills that few farmers and ranchers practice routinely. The guide can be printed in a pocket-sized format, allowing producers to keep one close at hand in most situations, should they choose to do so. You never know when the beef conversation opportunity might pop up.

I had the opportunity the other day when I picked up my niece and her fiancé at the Denver airport. The couple are from California and just beginning their post-college careers in teaching and law.

They’re both bright kids. Within 10 minutes of the two-and-a-half hour car ride home, each was probing my knowledge of food in general and beef in particular. They began the conversation, which wasn’t covered in the guide, but which might be rather less than unusual these days when so much food information is so easily available.

It was a good conversation and I was able to address a few of their  slightly skewed misconceptions about beef in general and food animal production specifically. As I explained taurine and other nutritionally essential free amino acids (see last week’s column), I realized that my niece was checking my facts via her smart phone. That’s something to keep in mind. Technology-savvy consumers can fact check you nearly instantly these days! The flow of the conversation didn’t allow me to use the checkoff guide as a checklist, but having studied the guide helped me keep up my end of an effective conversation. Like any tool, the guide only works if you use it and use it correctly. The guide makes excellent points and covers topics that are important to consumers.

The first point the guide makes is to simply have a conversation. Don’t give a lecture. Few of us enjoy being lectured to, whether we’re producers or consumers. Listen to the questions, acknowledging that you understand the consumer’s question or concern. Repeating the question back is often a good way to demonstrate your understanding.

Some of the questions asked and concerns raised may be based on a faulty understanding of what we do an how we do it. To your mind, those questions may sound accusatory. Occasionally they will be bluntly accusatory. Don’t let this put you on the defensive. Once you shift from having a conversation to defending a position, you have entered the ugly and unprofitable realm of argument. You both lose, and you’ve let down the side.

The guide advises producers to use the mnemonic E.A.S.E. Engage. Acknowledge. Share. Earn Trust.

ENGAGE consumers in everyday situations. At the market, at a town barbeque, at a farmers’ market, and on the internet through social media and the comments section of ag-related on-line news stories and opinion pieces.

ACKNOWLEDGE consumer questions and concerns. Remember that for many – perhaps even most – consumers, beef production is a great unknown. Their lack of knowledge usually comes from lack of experience. You are quite probably as ignorant of  the details and nuances of their job as they are of yours.

Consumers questions and comments are just that – questions and comments. Most are not meant to criticize you personally. But behind every question and critique lie real concerns about food quality, safety, and humane treatment of livestock. Such concerns are completely appropriate. We all have to eat to survive, and we all eat the same food. Consumers have seen and read some awful things about food and food production. Unfortunately, some of the bad things have been true. Be willing to forthrightly admit that some of those bad things have happened. Be prepared to explain how the industry is addressing those things and constantly striving to improve.

Not all of the information consumers have seen and read is true, however. Be prepared to point out the misconceptions and to explain why they are wrong. Lean Finely Textured Beef (LFTB or more popularly “pink slime”) is a good example. If you understand what LFTB is and how it’s processed, you can speak with confidence on the subject. But be careful. If you don’t know, or are only “pretty sure” you know, the real story on LFTB your best answer might be, “I don’t know. Can I check up on that and get back to you?” Don’t forget that today’s consumer can quickly check your facts.

“I don’t know, but I’ll find out and get back to you” is probably the best answer to use when you don’t completely understand any question. When it comes to processing beef, most of us are nearly as much in the dark as the consumer. How many of us have visited slaughterhouses and watched the process?

The guide says to remember the three C’s: We CARE about the same issues you do (we all eat the same food); We’re CAPABLE of humanely raising food animals while caring for the environment; we’re CONTINUOUSLY improving our operations to produce better beef and meet consumer expectations and demands.

Once you’ve answered questions and concerns, ask the consumer if you can SHARE your point of view. Here’s where, without being pushy and without lecturing, you can share your experience regarding the questions and concerns you’ve discussed. This is simply telling your story. Don’t be too long-winded, and try to leave out as much jargon as possible. Be ready to answer politely and in appropriate detail questions about topics that seem self-evident to you. Those things may not be common knowledge to the consumer. “What’s a heifer, I thought only steers became beef.” Why do you give sick animals antibiotics, everybody knows that’s dangerous for consumers.” etc. Don’t take a condescending tone with the consumer, and don’t assume the person you’re talking with has a completely flawed understanding of production agriculture.

EARN TRUST. If you can’t earn the consumer’s trust, you’ve wasted the time of both parties, and you’ve probably damaged the food animal cause. You may have caused an open mind to permanently snap shut against food animal production.

So turn your defense mechanism off. Don’t take questions or concerns personally. If you can’t do this, leave the job for someone who can. But remember, there are very few beef producers and more than 312 million U.S. consumers. It’s in your best interest to train yourself to be non-defensive, affable, friendly, and approachable. The food animal industry as a whole is vital, and more important than any single producer.

Respect the consumer. This should go without saying. Every human being deserves to be treated with basic respect. Remember that the consumer you are talking to is considering whether to buy your product.

Americans are at liberty to choose the foods they eat and the lifestyles they live. Even a strict vegan or an anti-meat activist, each of whom have likely made up their minds on the subject and aren’t about to change, will remember that you were polite and respectful. And that attitude might be just enough to open some closed minds.

When sharing your story, if you’re so inclined, consider offering the consumer a tour of your operation. There’s a lot involved in such a venture, so think it through before you make the offer.

There’s more information and more tips in the guide. I suggest you download or otherwise obtain a copy, study it, carry it with you, and when the opportunity comes up, take up the challenge of being a beef advocate. Helping consumers understand our expertise, commitment to quality, and our shared concern about the quality of food we provide to everyone – both consumers and ourselves – may be one of the most critical things we can do to survive in the coming years.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Context and perspective

Last week’s events in Connecticut are well known; there’s no need for me to recite them.

Only a few weeks ago, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, a former governor of Iowa, chastised middle Americans, telling us that we’re becoming irrelevant.

In this case, middle Americans who practice agriculture have something very relevant to offer. Context. Farmers and ranchers live in constant contact with nature’s reality. Ironically, they have far more experience with the workings of the real world – with life and death and perspective – than the more than 95 percent of Americans who live in the artificial constructs of urban and suburban settings.

Tragic as the deaths in Connecticut were, something perhaps more tragic has been happening since the advent of the 24/7 news cycle.

Hundreds of millions of Americans spent all or most of the day last week glued to their televisions and/or computers, drawn to the awfulness of the situation like a moth to a flame. This is simply human nature. It is also human nature to, at some point, put the thinking part of the brain back in charge, to let reason cast a net of reality over jumbled emotion. Reason seems to come easily to those who live close to nature. For those living in artificial environments, perhaps finding reason – or allowing reason to take charge – is more difficult.

In the wake of every tragedy, all people ask the “why” question. Asking why is human nature. Ironically, it’s an unanswerable question.

Neither the television, nor the internet, nor the thousands of talking heads and experts covering the tragedy were able to tell you why. No one can tell you why. Not even the perpetrators. Because the question isn’t “why did it happen?”, it’s “why didn’t it not happen?”

Asking the question led the major media to behave less than professionally, according to their own code of ethics. The code first published in 1926, is available on-line at

The trap that the major media placed itself in was that they didn’t simply report the news. They propagandized this tragedy and leveraged it into an attack on an inanimate object. The gun. And by extension, into an attack on gun owners. The major media have been united on the topic of strict gun control for more than a half-century. The simple form of their argument that such tragedies wouldn’t happen if there were no guns.

The major media also advanced the notion that certain segments of society are more prone than other segments of society to perpetuate violence. This is simple bigotry. The fact is that mass murderers come from every segment of society; from every race, gender, job category, education level.

To be fair, major media is entertainment. Entertainment is funded by advertising. Advertisers spend ad dollars where they will give the highest return on investment. A nation locked in 24/7 to the designated tragedy of the week sees a lot of commercials.

Mankind wears only the thinnest skin of civilization. Most Americans, having never lived anywhere else or traveled to non-modern overseas destinations, don’t understand this. Civilization is by definition a group of people who voluntarily agree to work and live together under the aegis of a set of rules. Rules which generally prohibit murder, rape, assault, theft, etc.

It doesn’t take individuals or groups very long to strip themselves of the trapping of civilization.

Throughout history, men and women have knowingly and intentionally violated the rules of civilization. Every American who has ever “sped up to beat the yellow” has done so. So has every murderer, rapist, and thief.

Quite often entire nations have violated the rules of civilization. Think of the Balkans, the Horn of Africa, Cambodia. Think of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.

Only last year, in July, 2011, a Norwegian killed 77 people, 60 of them children. He did this in a country with perhaps the most stringent gun laws in Europe.

An incomplete Wikipedia5 list of world wide mass killings (defined as six or more killed by a single individual) since 1909 includes the following:

Number killed
Africa/Middle East
Oceania/Maritime Southeast Asia
Educational Settings4
Hate Crimes1
Home Intruders2
U.S. Famlicides
European Famlicides
Famlicides – Other

1 Hate Crimes are not defined.
2 Home Intruders also include cases of homeowners defending themselves.
3 Americas includes ALL of the Americas; South, Central, and North.
4 Educational Settings include schools and learning institutions in 10 countries.
5 Wikipedia is not a very reliable source. The World Health Organization, an arm of the United Nations, which keeps more voluminous records but whose reports are never released less than four years after the data were collected, is somewhat more reliable but not entirely reliable. The Wikipedia source was selected based  ease of use, though the data are admidedly incomplete and less than completely reliable.

The composition of the list seems to imply that all killings on their list, with the exception of those by vehicle, grenade and other, were committed with firearms. I’m sure that the majority were, yet there have been other forms of mass murder committed since 1909, including the practice of stoning, the machete murders in Rwanda, etc.

Now for some perspective.

As I noted, the list is incomplete. If we assume that all the listed mass killings occurred in a single year, and if we multiply the total by 10, and divide into the global population, we get a mass murder rate of about 1.8 millionths of one percent (0.0000018). Most mortality rate figures are expressed as a fraction of a uniform 100,000 person cohort. Expressed in this fashion, the mass murder rate listed by Wikipedia, occurring in a single year and multiplied by 10 gives a rate of 0.018 deaths per 100,000, about one fifty-fifth of a death.

As we noted above, each untimely death is a tragedy. One fifty-fifth of a single death per 100,000, spread across the entire population of the seven billion humans who inhabit the Earth, lends valuable perspective. Though the 24/7 information cycle provides widespread and pervasive coverage of such events, they are, in fact, vanishingly rare. Nor are they a new phenomenon. The list only goes back to 1909. Humans have been committing mass murder – including the murder of children – throughout recorded history.

As a comparison to the above, the U.S. age-adjusted death rate from all causes is 758.3:100,000. Seven Hundred fifty-eight Americans of every 100,000 can be expected to die in the course of a calendar year (Deaths: Final Data for 2008 (most recent available); National Vital Statistics Reports; Vol. 59, No. 10; published Dec. 7, 2011).

Here is the ranking of the top 15 causes of death in the U.S. from the above report:

Number of deaths/percentage of all deaths
Heart Disease
616,828/25 percent
565,469/22.9 percent
141,090/5.7 percent
134,148/5.4 percent
121,902/4.9 percent
Alzheimer’s Disease
82.435/3.3 percent
70,553/2.9 percent
56,284/2.3 percent
Kidney Disease
48,237/2.0 percent
36,035/1.5 percent
35,927/1.5 percent
Chronic Liver Disease
29,963/1.2 percent
25,742/1.0 percent
Parkinson’s Disease
20,438/0.8 percent
17,826/0.7 percent
All other causes
469,062/19 percent

We all know that humans are mortal. None of us will live forever.

But since we’re discussing a particularly tragic circumstance, let’s provide some rather more specific context.

Another form of untimely death, one in which the perpetrator also intentionally violates the rules of civilization, is drunk or impaired driving.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 37,261 people were killed in traffic accidents in 2008. This number falls in between Kidney Disease and Suicide on the chart above and represents just over 1.5 percent of all deaths.

Of the total number of driving fatalities, 11,773 were caused by alcohol. Thirty-two (and a quarter) people die in America each day as a result of drunk driving. Many of the dead were not intoxicated, and were, in that sense at least, innocent. Many were children. Many were pedestrians. Many intoxicated drivers survived crashes in which others died.

The point of this piece is not to pick a side and convince others of the rightness of that side.

The point is to remind people that they’ve got both a thinking brain and an emotional brain. People are only rational and civilized when their thinking brain is in charge. Only the thinking brain can decide to turn off the television when enough information becomes too much information.

People are also extremely vulnerable to being taken advantage of when their emotional brain is running the show. It doesn’t take much digging through history to see the horrible consequences which have always followed.

You alone decide which brain is in charge.