The Food We Eat: Is it safe?
On Monday, April 16, ranchers in Albany County, Wyo., held a banquet to thank the business people of the county for supporting agriculture. The featured speaker at the event was Dr. Gary Sides, Cattle Nutritionist, Pfizer Animal Health Veterinary Operations. Sides spoke on the topic of food safety, and the changes that have been made over the years to make the food supply safer.
“Food has never been safe to eat. There is a risk involved when you eat food. But what’s the alternative? There’s a risk in driving a car or taking a plane too. When I look at shelter and clothing, what is the next most important thing in life?” said Sides.
He continued, “In today’s world, we have a culture that has probably never been more connected to information, and yet be more information deprived than any other generation in history.”
Sides talked about how many people get their information on food and food safety from celebrities and activists, and how the real story of what is happening with food production can get lost or distorted. He then talked about the strides that have been made in terms of production.
“In 1776, it took 19 farmers to feed themselves and one other person. In 1945, farmers and ranchers could feed themselves plus 18 other people. Now, each farmer and rancher feeds 155 people, and if you don’t count hobby farms it’s more like 400 people,” he said.
He explained to the audience that this increase in production could not have happened without technology. “Without modern agriculture, non of that is possible. Look at the opportunities provided to our children with modern agriculture; the sky is the limit,” Sides said.
He then talked about life expectancy, and how that number is now near 80. “Up until about 1930 or 1940, the life expectancy was about 35 or 40 years old. What technology did we have at that time? Nothing. Everything was produced organically,” he said.
One of the biggest credits to the increase in life expectancy he credits to penicillin, which was developed in 1942 and has helped save millions of people. “Now we have a generation that is terrified of antibiotics,” Sides said.
He then talked about what life was like for people in the past, and how much time it took to produce food. “With non-modern agriculture, life was brutal. If nothing else, modern agriculture frees women and children from this life. Women are a beast of burden,” he said.
Dr. Sides then showed photos of when he was in Peru, and talked about the struggles the people in that country face in terms of food production. “We don’t have to go very far to see what this [non-modern agriculture] looks like. There are a billion people on this planet who don’t have clean, running water and no refrigeration,” he explained.
He then gave several examples of different food borne illnesses that have occurred over the years, and some of the causes for those outbreaks.
“In 1913, there was a transfer of typhoid that killed thousands of people in New York City. Shortly after that, milk would be required to be pasteurized. Raw milk, which represents less than one percent of all the milk produced in the United States, accounts for more than 90 percent of the food borne illnesses that result from milk. It’s not safe. There are many bacteria that are killed by pasteurization, and this has saved millions of lives,” he said.
He added, “The very foods that our bodies find nutritious, provide nutrients are also nutritious to bacteria. Many of these are harmful to humans and can be toxic. However, your chance of dying from a food borne illness is .00001 percent,” Sides said.
The next part of the lecture was focused on how to prevent these outbreaks from occurring. “How do I prevent these diseases? Practically all of them are preventable. If I cook the food, don’t eat raw meat, drink pasteurized milk, wash and cook vegetables, keep meat and vegetables separate, and wash my hands this can all help prevent illnesses. Even if there’s e-coli on hamburger, if you cook it right there shouldn’t be an issue,” he said.
He then talked a little about organic foods, and some of the challenges organic farmers face when it comes to food production. “By definition organic cannot use commercial nitrogen fertilizers. If I need to add a source of nitrogen to the field, where do I get it? From manure. If I dump manure on a field it’s no big deal. But if we pick the food by hand, manure can get on the food and manure carries E-coli. It’s just something to think about,” Sides said.
The next part of the lecture focused on different issues in agriculture, with the first being what has been referred to as “pink slime.” He showed a popular photo of this of what looks like pink foam, and reminded people that this is not what fined textured lean beef really is.
“If you look at this photo, this is not beef. No one puts meat products in an unlined card board box. It just doesn’t happen, and never in the United States. So this photograph is bogus,” he said.
He continued, “How many people have ever gotten sick from eating finely textured lean beef? Zero. How many people have died? Zero. So what is it? It’s not connective tissue. What has happened to the price of hamburger in the grocery store now? It’s gone up at least $.50 per pound. Using finely textured lean beef saves the protein equivalent of 1.5 million cattle, or an average of 15 pounds per head,” he said.
He then moved to another issue in agriculture, and that is the use of antibiotics in livestock. He said, “Let me mention one product we use in livestock, and that is tetracycline. It was developed in 1949, and was taken when a scientist was taking soil samples and was able to isolate the bacteria that created tetracycline. It’s a naturally occurring antibiotic. Penicillin comes from mold. We’ve used tetracycline for about 60 years and guess what, it still works? So if there was a huge resistance why is it still working?”
He added, “There have always been resistant organisms. We have some we have developed and when they were tested there were already some bacterial there were resistant to it and it’s never been introduced to the public.”
The issue of antibiotic use in livestock is sometimes misconstrued by the media as well. “Do you want to eat sick cattle or chicken or pigs? We use antibiotics very judicially. We follow withdrawals and labels. All these things are prescribed by a veterinarian,” Dr. Sides said.
He then moved on to the issue of hormone use. “This is the skinny behind hormone use in cattle. If I take a pound of meat from a non-implanted steer, there are eight nanograms of estrogen. If I take an implanted steer, there are only three more nanograms of estrogen. One tablespoon of soybean oil has 1 million nanograms. Milk has 65 nanograms, and dairy cattle are never, ever implanted. It’s a naturally occurring hormone in everything, including people. There is no such thing as hormone free beef. If just doesn’t exist,” he explained.
He then told the audience that a person would have to eat 125,000 pounds of beef from an implanted steer to intake the same number of nanograms of estrogen as there is in one birth control pill.
After this, he talked about rBST (recombinant bovine somatotropin) and the use in dairy cattle in increase milk production. “There is no difference in milk that comes from cattle treated with rBST and those who are not. The only difference is the price. If you look at the label, it says no significant different has been shown between milk derived from rBST-treated cows and non-rBST treated cows. Now it costs farmers more to produce the milk,” he said.
Dr. Sides then spoke sustainability, and how different things are today than they were even 60 years ago. “Compared to 1950, if we farmed the same way we did back then today, we would only be able to feed half of the people in the U.S. We provide 25 percent of the world’s beef with just 10 percent of the cattle. Of the land they graze, 85 percent is not usable for crop production. We also provide habitat for wildlife,” he said.
He talked about the challenge of feeding the world, and what will need to happen in order to do that. “We can’t feed the world, but our technology can feed the world. We have to double our food supply in 40 years on the same acreage. So our options are to take more land from nature, or produce more per acre and per animal. Because we are so efficient, we can have nature spaces and forests, and aren’t killing as many wild animals,” he said.
He added, “We can only do these things with technology.”