American insight: Agri-food trends in the US and the EU market

Donald Trump used his recent visit to the UK to espouse the benefits of a United States trade deal with the United Kingdom. Early indications are that food and farming will be on the table. Richard Halleron visited the US to see first hand how the US livestock sectors operate and the likely impact on Ireland’s agri-food sector.

The immediate response from the National Farmers Union (NFU) President Minette Batters on Trump’s proposal of a trade deal is to highlight what she regards as the questionable management practises allowed within the various US livestock sectors.

However, these concerns are not shared by the management team at the largest beef feed lot in Texas, where they believe that President Trump is bang on the money. They totally buy in to the benefits which the likes of hormonal implants and in-feed antimicrobials bring to the table, when it comes to finishing cattle. All these products are widely used to help finish cattle across the US, despite the fact that these very same products have been banned in the European Union (EU) for the past two decades.

“All the research clearly shows that there are no additional hormonal residues in beef from cattle treated with hormonal growth regulators when compared with animals that do not receive these treatments,” says Ben Holland, who heads up the research division of Cactus Feeders.

Currently finishing 1.2 million cattle per year, the company is operating from 10 locations in the southern US. Holland works at the Wrangler feed yard, near Tulia in the Texas Panhandle.

The site can accommodate 50,000 cattle at any particular time. Animals arrive there at the yearling stage, weighing around 750lbs. They are brought through to finishing live weights of between 1,250 and 1,500lbs in 180 days.

“Europe’s stance on hormonal growth promoters does not stand up to scrutiny, particularly as the finishing of bulls is allowed in the EU,” Holland further explains. “These growth promoters allow us to finish cattle faster from the same daily feed inputs, as will be achieved by steers and heifers that are not implanted.

“The issue of meat residues does not come into it.”   

Holland also confirms that feed grade anti-microbials are routinely specified in the rations fed to all the cattle in the Cactus Feeders’ system. These include monensin and tylosin.

“We use tylosin to reduce the levels of liver abscesses in finished cattle,” he explains. “The general public in the United States are becoming more aware of the threat posed by antibiotic resistance.

“However, the US cattle industry makes the point that antibiotics should be divided into two categories: those used in animal production systems and those required for as human medicines.”

Holland was speaking to a group of Irish farmers and industry representatives. They recently travelled through the Texas Panhandle and into the eastern part of New Mexico, finding out at first-hand about the challenges facing the livestock industry in the south west of the US.

Jenny Jennings is a member of the scientific team, working at the Texas A&M University’s Beef Cattle Research Lot on the outskirts of Amarillo.

She also confirms the growing awareness of the challenge posed by antibiotic-related management procedures within the US livestock production sector.

Finishing cattle at Wrangler Feed Yard, Tulia, Texas.

“The completion of the Veterinary Feed Directive by the United States’ Department of Agriculture has done a lot to improve management practises in this regard,” she says. “For example, tylosin can now only be administered to beef animal on the back of a veterinary prescription. This must identify the use to which the product is being put and the feed rate that must be used.

“But even with these steps having been taken there is growing pressure from consumers to have the use of tylosin banned as a feed additive within the beef industry.”

Both Holland and Jennings confirm the intention of the US beef industry to secure new export markets for its output. However, Jennings admits that the lack of a comprehensive birth to slaughter animal traceability system was a major drawback in this regard.

She states: “We buy in feeder cattle for our commercial trial work. In most cases, I can work out which state they came from. But to go back beyond that is impossible at the present time. We just don’t have the records.”

Laboratory culture 

Meanwhile, the US beef industry has embarked on a campaign aimed at getting the manufacturers of ‘laboratory-cultured meats’ to come clean on all their production practises. Many of these products are due to become commercially available in the US over the coming months.

South Dakota-based, Amanda Radke, a blogger for BEEF magazine, addressed these issues courtesy of her presentation to the recent Alltech ‘One 19’ conference, held in Lexington, Kentucky.

She says that the public must be made fully aware of the processes that are followed in producing these new meat alternatives.

“We already know of at least five points in the manufacturing process which require direct human intervention,” she says. “This, in turn, raises the potential for contamination of the product and the possible use of antibiotics to address these challenges.

“People are also querying the cancer creating potential of these meats. We are talking about cell cultures that have been specifically grown in laboratories. So, the question is: do these cells stop growing, once they enter the human body?”

Radke continues: “We need effective regulation of these new petri dish proteins. Effective labelling requirements must also be put in place. Beef farmers have committed large sums of their own money over generations in promoting and communicating the benefits of the meat they produce.

“The new laboratory meat companies must not be allowed to piggy-back on this investment.” 

Radke foresees the subject of alternative meats playing out as a major political issue in the US over the coming months with a number of 2020 presidential election candidates already involved in the debate.

She also takes issue with the claims made by the manufacturers of the latest generation of plant-based meat alternatives.

“Some of these are being portrayed as being direct alternatives for beef,” she stresses. “This is absolutely wrong. Again, new labelling regulations must be introduced to put these matters right.”

Radke was brought up on a South Dakota ranch and continues to play a role in the family business. She adds: “The beef cow is an amazingly flexible animal. At a fundamental level she is converting forage, which humans cannot derive nutrition from, into an extremely valuable food.

“She is also helping to maintain ecosystems, which would be totally lost under any other form of land use management policy. The cow is also a source of numerous byproducts, including insulin, which are widely used by humans.”

Radke also stresses that laboratory meats cannot regenerate soils, adding: “The manufacturing process entails the use of a wide range of natural resources. The sector has also a significant waste challenge to cope with.”

She concludes: “Production agriculture must engage with the public at large in communicating the tremendous benefits which beef cattle offer the food industry and the environment.

“The beef cow is a truly regenerative animal.”       

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