Food For Thought
November 23, 2012
Walk down the aisles of a grocery store and there's plenty of options to choose from. The choices can leave consumers feeling confused and guilty about which ones are best to feed their families. This is particularly true in the beef industry, where so many labels claim to be superior to others.
John Scanga, Elanco Animal Health, realizes and advocates for the importance of production technology as an integral part of today's food production system. His diverse agricultural background affords him the chance to work with producers to efficiently and affordability produce beef for diverse American beef consumers. He explains the many beef choices available and how the use of modern beef technologies is a positive thing, not something to fear.
"By 2050, we are going to need double the food, and 70 percent of that has to come from advanced technologies," explained Scanga. "In the beef industry, we've got sexed semen. We can watch the markets on our phones. You can turn on the TV and buy cattle over RFD cattle auctions. We've got boxed beef, beta agonists, distillers grains, electronic identification tags and artificial insemination."
These technologies, if misunderstood, can cause fear and confusion. But these new technologies are good for the planet.
"Compared to 1977, in 2007, we used 14 percent less water, 34 percent less land, 20 percent less manure, with a 18 percent smaller carbon footprint, thanks to advancements in agriculture technology," added Scanga.
So, what do consumers want anyway? How can ranchers better understand their beef customers?
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"You can put consumers into three buckets," he sad. "The majority or 95 percent are price shoppers. They want something that's safe, nutritious and affordable. They really don't think about how it's produced. They just want to make sure it's affordable because they want to spend their money on other things. Another 4 percent are lifestyle shoppers. They want something special like fat free, all-natural, organic, etc. The remaining 1 percent are the activists. You will never convince them that what we do in agriculture is right. Let's talk about the 99 percent. We should deliver what they want, including the specialty things the 4 percent wants. We also need to make sure that the 1 percent doesn't prevent the 99 percent from having access to safe, affordable beef."
Luckily, the beef industry has many options to fit the needs of all consumers.
"Our consumers are diverse, just like the beef industry, so we can match the beef to the consumer depending on what they want – organic, grass-fed, natural, free-range, no antibiotics, no growth promotants, vegetarian-fed, non-GMO, hormone free, conventional, etc." he said. "But, what do some of these mean? All beef, if it's fresh at the meat counter, is natural. Some of these phrases really don't have concrete definitions, except for organic. But, they are still ways to meet consumer demands."
Despite the beef industry striving to meet consumer demands, there are some technologies have gotten a bad rep in the media. For example, growth promotants in the beef industry are blamed for early puberty in girls. Skanga debunked this myth.
"It is believed that because we use growth hormones in the beef industry, we change the hormone profile of people, as well," he said.
Skanga shared a table that showed that 3 ounces of potatoes have 225 nanograms (ng) of estrogen; 3 ounces of peas has 340 ng; 3 ounces of cabbage has 2,016 ng; 3 ounces of soybean oil has 1,680,000 ng; and 3 ounces of beef from a non-implanted steer has 1.3 ng, while an implanted steer has 1.9 ng. The difference in beef is negligible, especially when compared to plant-based foods that have a lot of estrogen in them.
"When we look at these numbers, then folks will say those are phytoestrogens, but an estrogen, is an estrogen is an estrogen," said Skanga. "The difference in the beef types is miniscule. If you look at the hormonal profile of beef that is labeled "natural, no growth promotants," does it change your hormone exposure? No. Does that mean you shouldn't buy it? No, but beef raised that way does increase your production. One implant is about $2.50 and will return $100 on the investment. That's why the industry uses them. They are an economic tool for the beef industry."
This is just one example of consumer misconceptions about beef industry technologies. Scanga said by explaining these practices, consumers can feel more confident when making their choice at the meat case.