City girl Cassie Payne aims to correct food myths
June 12, 2011
Cassie Payne didn’t grow up on a farm – far from it, in fact. As a kid, she played in the paved streets of Dallas, TX, where she watched family members suffer from health problems like cancer, high cholesterol, heart attacks and Alzheimer’s disease. Wanting to understand her own family health history, she pursued health and stewardship at Vanderbilt University, with an emphasis in pre-medicine. After a study abroad trip to Spain, she switched gears to Spanish and childhood development. Yet, her interest in health didn’t fade.
After graduation, the Texan-native moved to an even bigger concrete jungle, New York City, to work as a public high school teacher. However a few career-changing catalysts moved her in a new direction.
“In college, my peers in the publishing, journalism, dining and finance worlds always had comments about food nutrition and health,” said Payne. “I shared many of their concerns, especially when considering my own family medical history. Living in the big city of New York, I soon began having more conversations about food, and I began exploring new ideas through popular literature and films, written by people like Michael Pollan. I started seeking out the story of my food, my health and my life.”
This led her to want to study animal science at Texas A&M, where she hoped to unveil the real truths about her food.
“People want a face, and they want a relationship with farmers,” explained Payne. “Today’s consumers think that if food can make us live, grow, stay healthy, or get sick, they need to hear their food’s story. Ninety-eight percent of Americans are three generations removed from the farm.”
Unfortunately, consumers are paying and trusting the popular literature and filming industries to explain their food stories to them. Hollywood and the media have quickly grown a multi-billion dollar industry trying to debunk food myths and expose hidden evils in food production.
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“The least understood suspect is the easiest target, and ranchers are easy to blame,” said Payne. “There are two types of storytellers. First, those who put aside their personal agendas for the truth; second, those who put aside the truth for personal agendas. There are far too many who sensationalize instead of telling the truth to sell papers.”
When living and working in New York City, Payne was a firm believer in Pollan’s book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and Eric Schlausser’s documentary, Food, Inc. However, Texas A&M University quickly changed her outlook on life.
“One of the first things I learned at Texas A&M was that efficiency in farming was eco-friendly,” said Payne. “Today’s modern beef production uses less land and economically justifies 75 percent of wildlife. Grass-finishing beef would require 60 million additional acres under cultivation. Yet the entire beef industry is more sustainable than ever before. We now use 30 percent less land; 13 percent less cattle, and 20 percent less feed than in 1977.”
Looking at the health side of beef, Payne quickly discovered that the nutrients in beef pack a power-punch like nothing else. Looking at calories per 25 grams of protein, one 3-ounce serving of lean beef has 180 calories; one cup of raw tofu has 236 calories; three cups of black beans has 374 calories; and seven tablespoons of peanut butter has 670 calories.
More than sustainability and nutrition, Payne said a big question many consumers have is about hormones and antibiotics.
“Why are hormones and antibiotics used in my food?” asked Payne, in her animal science classes. “I discovered that synthetic hormones improve efficiency by 20 percent and is instantly metabolized into lean muscle. Subtherapeutic antibiotics such as ionophores and tylosin increase efficiency by 10-17 percent while reducing methane emissions. Neither hormones or antibiotics have any effect on human health.”
Payne testified that her time at Texas A&M changed her thinking on food. Although she promised her New York friends she would go there to expose the food industry, she left with a different view.
“The science behind modern methods of food production justified much of today’s agricultural practices for its economic, environmental, and social sustainability,” said Payne. “I credit the beef industry for its environmental stewardship in the production of healthful foods. Food production is inherently personal and ethical, and therefore controversial. The exaggerations of Eric Schlausser and Michael Pollan may be exposed by their own followers if they entice people like me to find out the truth for themselves.”
Payne encourages consumers and producers alike to get equipped with the facts. She is an alumni of the beef checkoff’s Masters of Beef Advocacy program, an online course that shares the real food production story. For more information, visit http://www.beef.org/mba.