Articles in Livestock

Miles Smith Farm owners Carole Soule and Bruce Dawson, with Missy, a Scottish Highland breed cow. Credit: Carole Murko

Heritage has many meanings, encompassing not only our cultural and ancestral connections, but also the breeds of livestock our forefathers raised. Carole Soule is that rare individual whose life intersects both. Carole is a 13th-generation Mayflower descendent whose family heritage is deeply tied to its origins and she is a farmer who raises heritage breed cattle as well.

Carole’s lineage began with George Soule, an indentured servant who survived the journey to Plymouth and became one of the signers of the Mayflower Compact. Carole notes the Soule genetics must be strong because there are about 30,000 Soules who trace their roots back to George. That is one prolific progeny.

Thanksgiving memories

Carole’s grandparents’ dining room table was the center of all the family holidays, especially Thanksgiving. The table took up the entire room, and one needed to skirt around the edge to get to the other side. To have a personal connection to the very first Thanksgiving was not lost on Carole or the Soule family. It was worn like a badge of honor. They are proud to share that they are connected to the origins of our country.

As a child, Carole recalls piling into her family’s tiny Renault , all three siblings squished in the back seat for the three-hour drive from Bedford, Mass., to Hillsdale, N.Y., where her grandparents, Ida and Charles Soule, lived. At Thanksgiving, the table was always piled high with food, but the dishes Carole remembers most are her grandmother’s homemade cranberry sauce and creamed onions. The cranberry sauce is simply equal amounts of cranberries and sugar with a little cornstarch. It is cooked until the cranberries are soft, then the dish is cooled.

The creamed onions, though, are Carole’s favorite. They are rich and thick, and all kinds of yummy.

Creamed Onions

Prep time: 15 to 20 minutes

Cook time: About 1 hour, 10 minutes

Total time: About 1 hour, 30 minutes

Yield: 8 to 10 servings

Ingredients

3 pounds fresh pearl onions

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup beef broth

2 tablespoons butter

1/4 cup all purpose flour

3 cups milk

1 bay leaf

1 teaspoon thyme

1/4 teaspoon pepper

2 teaspoons apple cider

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 375 F.

2. Peel onions and trim both ends.

3. Add 1 tablespoon of the olive oil and 1/4 teaspoon of the salt to the onions.

4. Layer onions in pan large enough to fit in one layer.

5. Place in oven; roast for about an hour, stirring occasionally, until onions are soft and brown in spots.

6. Remove the pan from the oven, add broth.

7. Roast for 10 minutes more.

For the cream sauce:

1. Melt butter and 2 tablespoons olive oil in large saucepan.

2. Add flour and whisk until the mixture bubbles and is free of lumps.

3. Add milk, bay leaf, thyme, pepper and salt.

4. Boil, whisking often. Thicken to consistency of thick gravy. Remove from heat. Discard the bay leaf.

5. Add the roasted onions and any broth from the pan to the cream sauce. Stir in apple cider.

6. Serve warm

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The Miles Smith Farm store is solar powered and heated. Credit: Miles Smith Farm

Old-fashioned farm, cattle

It was those same car trips across the state of Massachusetts that began Carole’s love affair with cows. Across from her grandparents’ house was a pasture full of beautiful doe-eyed cows. Carole would visit with the “girls” whenever she could.

Fast-forward a few decades and Carole and her husband bought an 1850s farm called the Miles Smith Farm in New Hampshire. Her dream and vision was to go back to the old-fashioned way of raising animals She knew it would begin with an easy-to-raise heritage breed — the Scottish Highland. There would be no antibiotics, no corn. Just grass.

The Scottish Highland breed is hearty. The breed’s shaggy coat helps protect them from the elements, which means they don’t need a layer of fat to keep warm and, instead, produce lean beef that is low in cholesterol.

Carole’s herd is grass-fed, even in winter. She leaves many of her grass fields uncut for winter grazing. The cows paw through the snow to find their food. The breed is adaptable to a wide range of conditions and are equipped to forage and to live without shelter. Feeding on grass rather than hay also saves money, from the cost of fossil fuels to plant and harvest the hay to the cost of the seed. It is a perfect “circle of life,” too — while the cows are grazing, they are also fertilizing the field. Most hayfields are generally commercially fertilized, which costs more money.

Carole has found a win-win solution in this method. Plus, this heritage breed is well-suited to her state. The mountainous parts of New England are perfect places for these cattle because they can easily maneuver around the rocky outcroppings and graze on the hillsides, which are difficult to mow and cultivate.

Each year, the Miles Smith Farm slaughters 120 cows. They sell the meat through several channels: meat community supported agriculture (CSA) programs; wholesale customers including schools, regional hospitals and restaurants; and direct to consumers through their on-site, solar-powered store.

Carole has just received a USDA grant to work with a heritage pork farmer to create and sell a beef-pork mix. Carole shares that her new venture’s tagline is: “A burger that squeals with flavor.” She is again tapping into an old-fashioned tradition: Many people used to blend pork into their lean beef to create juiciness and flavor.

The Soule heritage is alive and well in Carole, in both namesake and familial traditions. Just as George Soule was drawn to a life in the New World, Carole has been drawn to a life on the land, an old-fashioned breed and traditional farming methods. Perhaps there is more to the Soule heritage than we will ever know. One thing is for sure, Carole is grateful for her heritage and her heritage cattle.

Main photo: Miles Smith Farm owners Carole Soule and Bruce Dawson, with Missy, a Scottish Highland breed cow. Credit: Miles Smith Farm

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Turkeys at Ham Sweet Farm in Williamston, Mich. Credit: Kate Spinillo

On a long trip across America’s heartland, I spotted a pair of button eyes peering out at me from a passing semi truck full of livestock. The pig that I had locked eyes with was probably being taken to slaughter. I lost count of how many large-scale animal-transport trucks I saw while traveling Interstate 80 through farm country, each carrying animals, including turkeys for Thanksgiving, shoulder to shoulder, listless as wet carpet.

Those images made for a stunning contrast when I arrived at Ham Sweet Farm in Williamston, Mich., owned and operated by Kate Spinillo and her husband, Christian.

It looked so peacefully perfect that it might well be an artist-created movie set, from the goats sitting on a kiddie playhouse in a pen nearest the road, to the sweet yellow house with the wrap-around porch, to the pigs eagerly grunting and munching on leftover jack-o’-lanterns and enjoying scratches behind the ears, to the acres of oak and hickory that stretch out at the furthest reaches of the property.

Theirs is the idyllic farm that concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) want you to picture when they advertise industrially-raised meat, the same type of  animals that were being transported in those interstate semis. But that sort of advertising is an illusion that attempts to mask the reality of how mass-market animals live and die.

The Spinillos say that putting the finest product out to market begins and ends with happy animals. Selling direct-to-customer and as part of a meat CSA, Ham Sweet Farm provides heritage breeds of pork, beef, chicken, turkey and eggs to their community, including restaurants and a food truck. Amazed by the fact that they are able to maintain their operation while they both work full-time jobs outside the farm, I asked Kate how Ham Sweet Farm came to be.

“It started simply enough, with both of us working on farms, more as an outlet and interest than anything else. But once you start, it gets into your blood. You want the work, the challenge, the tangible reward at the end of a day of work and problem-solving.

“It’s as much about the relationship you have with the land you’re working on or with, as it is about the animals you’re raising or the produce you’re growing. It all falls together into one panoramic picture of the way you want to live your life, and also the way you want the food you eat to live its life.”

While we were enjoying a drink on the front porch and taking in the cornfield across the street, the gang of turkeys strolled in front of us, seemingly with a group goal or destination. With an arresting blend of humor and salt in her voice, Spinillo pointed out the difference between pastured and CAFO turkeys.

“Our turkeys are pretty friendly, and like to climb out of their mobile fencing to parade around the house, the driveway, the shop, various barns, our neighbor’s house, the mailbox and occasionally our front porch.

“The toms also like to get out and torment our big Blue Slate tom, ‘Phil Collins,’ but the joke is on them, because he is a permanent resident of the farm. Being heritage breeds, they retain their abilities to fly, so some of them roost in the trees or on top of our garden fence posts at night. Industrially-raised turkeys grow so fast and have such large breasts that they can hardly walk, let alone fly, toward the end of their lives.”

She explained the turkeys consumers find in most stores are broad-breasted white turkeys, which take about 5 months to raise before they go to the butcher. The Spinillos’ birds, by contrast, hatch in the spring and grow for about nine months before slaughter. They’re smaller than typical turkeys you find in the grocery store. Butterball would consider them “average,” Kate said.

 

Turkeys roaming free at Ham Sweet Farm in Williamston, Mich. Credit: Kate Spinillo

Turkeys roaming free at Ham Sweet Farm in Williamston, Mich. Credit: Kate Spinillo

“The flavor of our turkey last year, though, was phenomenal. One family worried about the smaller size of our birds, and so purchased an extra breast to serve on Thanksgiving … no one ate it, because our pasture-raised turkey was just that good.”

In an age where some stores put turkeys on sale for as little as 50 cents a pound, the cost of a pasture-raised bird — $9 a pound for a whole turkey — might seem shockingly high to some, but it takes into account the value of what it takes to bring the animal to market.

“Other than pigs, which we are raising to three times the age of the average CAFO pig, turkeys are our greatest investment. Seventy percent of the cost of a Thanksgiving turkey is to cover hard feed costs; the other 30% should theoretically cover the cost of the bird itself, processing, equipment, and your time.”

The percentage is theoretic, she said, because of the amount of human labor it takes to care for them daily for nine months is quite great.

Deeply committed to being a part of the local economy, the Spinillos understand well that not everyone can afford their meat, and go to great lengths to meet the needs of their customers, even arranging payment plans and deliveries for families who need those options. Still, it causes them to flinch when someone tries to imply their product isn’t worth the price.

“People see your heritage bird pricing and balk, but they forget that a turkey is good for multiple meals,” Kate said. “Thanksgiving dinner, leftovers, and then you make soup and stock from the bones. Turkeys should not be a disposable dinner, and we don’t price them like they are.”

Spinillo suggests that one of the easiest and most budget-friendly ways to support a small farm like theirs is to learn to make use of less-popular cuts.

“What’s frustrating is that people love the idea of the farm, they love coming to visit, and I think they love the romantic idea of purchasing directly from the farm raising the meat (or eggs or produce). But everyone wants the cuts that they know — steaks, belly, eight-piece chicken.

“The parts that we cannot GIVE AWAY are things like poultry feet and necks (duck, chicken, turkey), gizzards of all kinds, pork and beef offal (liver, kidney, heart, tongue). These all represent some of the best and most nutritious eating on the animal, as well as the cheapest cuts, but much of it we end up eating ourselves because we cannot give it away, let alone sell it.”

Slow Cooker Turkey Neck Bone Broth

Prep time: 5 minutes

Total time: 24 hours

Yield: 8 cups

Ingredients

1 turkey neck

Any other bony pieces, including feet or tail

1 onion, halved

1 large parsnip, peeled and cut into 2-inch chunks

10 whole peppercorns

2 bay leaves

1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

10 cups water, or enough to generously cover the ingredients

Directions

1. Place all of the ingredients in a large slow cooker and heat them on low for 4 to 6 hours.

2. Pull out the turkey neck and any other bones that may have meat attached. Pick off the pieces of meat and save them for another meal. Return the bones to the slow cooker and let the bone broth cook on low for an additional 20 hours.

3. Strain out the bones, vegetables and spices. Let the bone broth cool to room temperature before storing it in the refrigerator. It should be quite gelatinous by the time it is chilled. Bone broth also takes well to being frozen and can be a go-to for holiday meals.

Main photo: Turkeys at Ham Sweet Farm in Williamston, Mich. Credit: Kate Spinillo

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Cattle at a factory farm. Credit: tepic/iStock

The meat case at your local supermarket could contain something far scarier than the most bloodthirsty Halloween zombie.

That’s because current methods of meat production are leading to the creation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, or “superbugs.” According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 2 million people become infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria each year, and at least 23,000 people die as a direct result of these infections.

AUTHOR


ChangeFood, Pam Weisz

Pam Weisz is deputy director of Change Food, a nonprofit that works to raise public awareness and educate consumers about problems with the U.S. food system. Learn more at www.changefood.org.

“The most diabolical villain could not design a better system for creating superbugs than the modern concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO),” or factory farm, said Lance Price, professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health.

In CAFO’s, large numbers of animals are crowded into a confined space, meaning that trillions of bacteria can easily be transmitted from one animal to another. “When I see these operations, I don’t see factories making meat. I see factories making trillions and trillions and trillions of drug-resistant bacteria,” said Price, who holds a doctorate in environmental health sciences.

Antibiotic use in livestock

Price spoke at TEDxManhattan, a one-day conference in March featuring leading innovators in the food movement.

In his talk, Price pointed out that the vast majority of antibiotic use in this country is in animal food production. While human medicine accounts for 7.7 million pounds of antibiotic — which, he noted, is “way too much” — 30 million pounds of antibiotics are used in industrial farming.

Further, he said, “the best estimates suggest that only 20% of that is being used to treat sick animals. The other 80% is being used as production tools, to make animals grow faster, to prevent diseases, or treat diseases occurring just because of the way we’re raising animals.”

This leads to the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. “You have tens of thousands of animals crammed together in filthy, stressful conditions. You have loads of bacteria living in those animals. And you have the magic ingredient — a steady stream of low-dose antibiotics,” Price said. From there, he said, “it’s just a matter of evolution.”

“Every now and then, one bacterium will pick up a mutation that makes them resistant to antibiotics,” Price explained. “If that’s happening in an environment where you have a lot of antibiotics, then the susceptible bacteria are going to die off and the resistant ones are going to multiply. And the thing about bacteria is they multiply very quickly. You can go from a single drug-resistant E. coli to a billion in 24 hours.”

Dangers of ‘superbugs’

Drug-resistant bacteria end up on meat when the animals harboring them are slaughtered. “Those bacteria go on to cause drug-resistant infections in people,” Price said.

Major health organizations have been raising the alarm about superbugs. The World Health Organization, for example, states that “antibiotic resistance is no longer a prediction for the future; it is happening right now, across the world, and is putting at risk the ability to treat common infections in the community and hospitals.”

Yet despite this bleak picture, Price says there is room for hope — if we make some fundamental changes.

First, he said, “We have to embrace this idea that antibiotics are different, and value them for what they are. They’re just short of a miracle — they save people’s lives. We should only be using them to treat sick people and sick animals.”

The key to making this happen is changing the way we raise animals for food. “If you remove the antibiotics from food animal production, many of those bacteria will revert to being susceptible to those antibiotics again,” Price said.

Other changes are also needed, he said. “We need to increase hygiene in our hospitals, homes and food production systems,” Price said. Development of new antibiotics is also needed, although, he noted, bacteria have been developing resistance to antibiotics ever since Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin.

Decoding meat labels

Consumers can play a role by only buying meat from animals raised without antibiotics. Organizations such as Consumer Reports offer guidance on how to decode labels to ensure your meat comes from such animals. The National Resources Defense Council and the Pew Charitable Trusts are among other groups working on this issue.

The meat industry has taken some steps in response to the increased concern. Earlier this fall, for example, Perdue Farms announced it would stop using antibiotics in its hatcheries.

“The good news is the models exist,” Price said. “My dream is that we stop propping up this broken system with antibiotics, that we let farmers be farmers again, that we have animals live like healthy animals again, and that we save antibiotics for future generations. We can do this. But we have to act now.”

Main photo: Cattle at a factory farm. Credit: tepic/iStockphoto

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Mulefoot pigs. Credit: Kirsten Boyer Photography

“The worst thing to ever happen to the pork industry was the Other White Meat campaign,” Chipotle culinary manager Nate Appleman proclaimed at the sixth Chefs Collaborative Sustainable Food Summit, held this year in Boulder, Colo.

To that audience, he didn’t have to explain his point: Not only were the ads misleading, they heralded an industry trend toward lean, muscle-bound hogs you can likely thank (along with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s old cooking-temperature guidelines) for every bland, dry piece of pork you’ve ever eaten.

But Chefs Collaborative conference-goers who attended a breakout session titled “Eating Invasives” received a demonstration nonetheless, as Eric Skokan of Black Cat Farm-Table-Bistro and conservation biologist Joe Roman organized a comparative tasting of roasted loins from three hogs: one factory farmed, one a heritage breed called Mulefoot and one wild boar.

It may go without saying that the supermarket product paled in every sense of the word, but the starkness of its inferiority surprised even the hosts. As Roman observed later, “Since our tasting, I’ve noticed the consistency of industrial pork: lean, white, almost tasteless. There was a certain complexity of taste and color in the Mulefoot and the boar.”

Skokan agreed, viewing the meat samples along a spectrum: “At one end you have cardboard, at the other end, noticeable gaminess.”

But when it comes to both the heritage breeds and wild animals, consumer education and market availability are major sticking points. To learn more, I talked to the two gentlemen about their pet (so to speak) causes.

The Mulefoot

Once common throughout the Midwest as a prized lard pig, this black breed was “as close to extinction as you could get” less than a decade ago, Skokan said. Today, numbers are on the gradual rise through the efforts of advocates like Arie McFarlen of South Dakota’s Maveric Heritage Ranch. (Skokan calls her “one of the most important people in food you’ve never heard of in your life.”)

Sausage made using Mulefoot pork. Credit: Ashley Davis Tilly

Sausage made using Mulefoot pork. Credit: Ashley Davis Tilly

Chef-farmer Skokan decided to raise Mulefoots in 2007 after a lesson-filled first year on his Longmont, Colo., property. “I’d grown this huge number of turnips that were inedible — no amount of kitchen creativity could save them. I realized I could use pigs as a way of turning lemons into lemonade; they would eat up the failed experiments. But if I was going to do it, they had to be great,” he said.

That was when he learned about Mulefoots. “I literally Googled ‘what’s the best-tasting breed of pork?’ And the oracle told me that The Livestock Conservancy had done a tasting with a panel of judges, and Mulefoot won.”

Skokan wasn’t concerned only with its culinary advantages. Given Colorado’s high-desert climate, the pigs had to be able to tolerate intense sun as well as cold winters, and because he’s a father to young children, they had to have “a great disposition. Mulefoots are cuddly if anything.”

Still, as the owner of two restaurants — Black Cat and adjacent gastropub Bramble & Hare — he’s above all a fan of its “superb flavor. I like to joke that even terrible cooks can cook it well; it’s very forgiving.

“We haven’t bought pork in five or six years,” he added. “We use Mulefoots for everything but the squeak.” In his just-released cookbook, “Farm, Fork, Food” (Kyle Books, $29.95), you’ll find gorgeous examples from country pâté with turnip mostarda to plum wood-smoked shoulder.

Their upbringing has something to do with their deliciousness, of course. “They’re free range all the time. We have really big fields, and we actually require them to move, putting where they eat, sleep, drink and graze in opposite corners.” His animals also live at least twice as long as their factory-raised brethren (11 to 13 months versus about six), fattening up over time as the bone structure of their breed dictates.

Scrumptious, user-friendly, consciously raised — sign me up, right? Well, not so fast. Skokan explained that although Mulefoot breeders are beginning to sell their meat commercially, “it’s still very localized and very niche.” If you’re determined to get your hands on some, look for a farm in your area; otherwise, try different types of heritage pork from online retailers.

Feral pigs and wild boars

Given their anything-goes diet, there’s no question these omnivores pack a stronger, more savory punch than their domesticated counterparts; Roman called the meat “almost nutty.” At the same time, they’re even leaner than today’s factory-bred pigs, developing muscle naturally on the prowl. Generally, the younger the carcass is, the more tender and flavorful it is, rather than downright pungent.

Chef-farmer Eric Skokan during a demonstration with a wild boar. Credit: Ruth Tobias

Chef-farmer Eric Skokan during a demonstration with a wild boar. Credit: Ruth Tobias

Although you’ll find a swell profile on Roman’s website, Eat the Invaders, here’s his nutshell version: “Wild boar and feral hogs are both the same species, Sus scrofa, but they have different histories in the United States. Wild boar were released to provide huntable game, and feral swine were either released to forage on the open range by farmers and settlers or escaped from captivity.” Because they interbreed, however, “it is not easy to tell the three groups — wild, feral, hybrid — apart, even for experts,” he said.

It’s not easy to get ahold of them, either. “At present, there are just two practical ways,” Roman said. “If you live within their range, the best is to hunt it yourself, or get it from a neighbor who does.” If you’re OK with that, you’re probably in luck, because “many states encourage the hunting of wild boar, to reduce numbers. Florida, for example, has no size or bag limits, and hogs can be hunted during almost any season.”

If your state’s laws are more restrictive, however, or if you’re not a hunter, Roman recommends ordering the meat online through Texas outfit Broken Arrow Ranch.

Cooking the beasts may be the easiest part: You do it just as you would a domestic pig, with the important caveat that safe cooking temperatures are paramount. Yes, hitting that blasted 160 F mark is probably necessary to avoid potential illness — we’ll give the USDA this one.

Main photo: Mulefoot pigs. Credit: Kirsten Boyer Photography

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The cause and cure for much of what plagues our society — obesity, ill health, social injustice — have roots in what we eat. Fix our food system and we are on track to resolve those larger issues.

Belief in this food-first approach is inspiring food entrepreneurs across America to find healthier, more sustainable ways to produce and process food. On Sept. 7, PBS premieres a series championing these food heroes. “Food Forward TV,” a 13-part series underwritten by Chipotle Mexican Grill, is uplifting and educational, packed with stories of people creating food solutions that point toward lasting change.

A sour note? I’ll get to the episode on genetic engineering later.

Many of the food producers and experts featured in the series are familiar, trusted names to anyone who tracks the food movement. Journalist Paul Greenberg shares new optimism that aquaculture has improved to the point that farmed fish can be a healthy substitute for their wild brethren. The folks at Belcampo Meat Co. — a livestock operation in the shadow of California’s Mount Shasta — explain how they raise animals on a grass-only diet on their ranch, slaughter and butcher them on site, and then sell the meat through their own stores; their system is so old-fashioned it’s positively revolutionary.

There are many reasons to watch the series. An innovative effort to revitalize worn-out farmland using compost containing livestock and human waste has a nice star turn. Effective new methods for teaching inner-city kids to love healthy food in Detroit gives us hope. And far-sighted plans show how urban farms are redefining “local” agriculture. There is so much new information about milk, particularly raw milk, that it gets its own episode.

Among the backdrop of the Brooklyn Bridge, urban beekeeper Andrew Coté points out the queen bee on one of his many rooftop hives. Credit: Greg Roden, © 2012 Food Forward Productions LLC

Among the backdrop of New York City’s Brooklyn Bridge, urban beekeeper Andrew Coté points out the queen bee on one of his many rooftop hives. Credit: Greg Roden, © 2012 Food Forward Productions LLC

A cast of young musicians performing food-centric ballads — interstitial segments that by all rights should have been too precious by twice — buoy the series and keep things moving. The Detroit rappers are eloquent.

“Food Forward TV” offers concrete, meaningful ways to use your food dollars to hurry along the happy day when our misbegotten food system exerts a positive impact on both our health and environment.

Slip-sliding away from the GMO issue

The misbegotten-ness of things, however, is important. And the series grapples only reluctantly with how we ended up in this food pickle. This is particularly true in the episode on genetically engineered seeds, ironically the one issue many Americans are being asked to consider in the voting booth.

In this episode, a young Midwest farmer growing GMO crops explains how she switched to non-GMO strains of corn and soy only to switch back because non-GMO crops required more pesticides and herbicides. A round of applause for GMOs might have caused me to raise an eyebrow, but I would have respected the producers for taking a stand on a difficult subject. I would have appreciated hearing the reasons for their endorsement.

Never mind. They punted. The farmer flips the issue by saying she would never feed her family the corn she grows. The GMO debate is far too polarizing to address head on, says series producer Greg Roden. “We wanted to show the two sides of the debate through a farmer who is caught in the system.”

Why wouldn’t the farmer feed her children the GMO crops she grows? Turns out she grows corn for ethanol. It isn’t fit to eat. I wondered what other obfuscations I might have missed.

PBS and Chipotle should be applauded for their support of this series. The profiles of extraordinary folks undaunted by the challenge of bucking conventional agriculture left me more hopeful than not. I learned things that empower me to support food producers who reflect my values.

The show’s underwriters and producers are far from alone when it comes to giving GMOs short shrift, but I expected more from this group.

Check your local PBS listings for show times.

Main photo: One “Food Forward” episode focuses on school lunch programs, including some where kids are not only served healthy food but are growing it. Credit: “Food Forward” TV

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The wide use of antibiotics for food animal production is increasing resistance of dangerous bacteria such as Staphylococcus aureus. Credit: iStock / Youst

I seldom feel sorry for the leaders of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies, where multimillion dollar compensation packages, corporate jets and unending expense accounts are the norm. But I’m starting to pity these poor souls. Why? Because their job — indeed their whole purpose — directly conflicts with the effectiveness of antibiotic medicines essential for all humanity. To be frank, I sometimes wonder how they can sleep at night.

Surely they must wake every day knowing their actions are basically destroying antibiotics for future generations, leading to the rise of untreatable diseases that will affect millions of lives. After all, this is the consensus among government agencies, public health organizations and scientists across the globe. It’s been the focus of major medical reports that have generated headlines.

The boards of the world’s pharmaceutical giants must also recognize that the only solution is to collaborate with their competitors, public health organizations and governments across the world to end the inappropriate use of antibiotics in human health care and also food animal production, which is the biggest area of abuse by far. Yet this presents them with a huge ethical dilemma: As officers of publicly traded pharmaceutical companies, how can they reconcile protecting the efficacy of these vital drugs with their corporate responsibility to boost market share and profitability?

All this got me thinking: Antibiotics are now “societal” drugs. Let me explain. If I misuse or abuse a medication prescribed by my doctor for blood pressure, that only hurts me. However, if I don’t take my full course of antibiotics as instructed, or if Big Ag’s boardrooms insist that all their contracted farmers use antibiotics in ways that lead to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, that affects everyone.

If antibiotics are societal drugs, and, so, critical to the future of humanity, shouldn’t they be managed for the benefit of society as a whole? Sadly, the production, distribution and sale of these drugs has been left almost entirely to corporations and a free market based on volume, dominance and last quarter’s sales.

Antibiotics for people are almost always prescribed to treat actual illness. Preventative use is generally limited to things such as post-surgical care. We wouldn’t expect to fortify our food or water with antibiotics to prevent illnesses caused by unsanitary living conditions or eating an unhealthy diet. Instead, our first thought would be to improve sanitation or help people to eat better.

So I have two questions: Does the current corporate business model really protect antibiotics for the benefit of all? And is the free market really the right place for these life-saving medicinal tools?

Reconciling corporate needs with public health

To succeed as a chief executive of a major corporation, free market logic dictates that you must grow your company and your market. After all, a successful company is one that achieves market dominance and, where appropriate, continues to increase product sales.

So how do we reconcile the innate corporate need to increase antibiotic sales and market share with the widely acknowledged public health need to dramatically decrease the amount of antibiotics used in all sectors — but particularly in farming systems that are abusing antibiotics?

Some believe that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s recent introduction of voluntary guidelines on the use of antimicrobials in food animals shows that appropriate action is being taken. However, many commentators — myself included — strongly disagree. New York Rep. Louise Slaughter, who has campaigned to stop antibiotic misuse in industrial farming, says the voluntary initiative “falls woefully short of what is needed to address a public health crisis.”

Let’s also put the FDA’s voluntary guidelines into historical perspective: The FDA first acknowledged evidence of a link between antibiotic abuse in farming and the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in 1977. Yet more 30 years later it’s clear that little —  if anything — has been done to control how antibiotic use in farming. In fact, the U.S. leads the world in the overuse of antibiotics in farming.

Despite mounting scientific evidence of the urgent need to act, the FDA and the USDA have been cowed by industry pressure on antibiotic control. Anyone who believes that Big Ag and Big Pharma — or any big industry for that matter — do not have a direct influence on the development and implementation of U.S. government policy is sadly mistaken. Corporations spend billions of dollars lobbying government to ensure favorable policy outcomes.

Bear in mind, too, the wider market realities here. In 2009 alone, 80% of all antibiotics produced in the U.S. were used for food animals — an incredible 28.8 million pounds out of the 36 million pounds produced. As the New York Times said in a recent editorial: “No new class of antibiotics has been discovered since 1987, largely because the financial returns for finding new classes of antibiotics are too low. Unlike lucrative drugs to treat chronic diseases like cancer and cardiovascular ailments, antibiotics are typically taken for a relatively short period, and any new drug is apt to be used sparingly and held in reserve to treat patients resistant to existing drugs.”

Andrew Gunter of Animal Welfare Approved says federal-industry pact won't stop ongoing abuse of antibiotics in farming. Credit: Courtesy Animal Welfare Approved

Andrew Gunther of Animal Welfare Approved: “We must focus … on doing everything we can to protect the limited range of antibiotics we have.” Credit: Courtesy of Animal Welfare Approved

One could argue that the demand for antibiotics from intensive livestock systems represents a near perfect market for Big Pharma. Unlike humans, who normally get better after a single course of antibiotics, millions of livestock usually receive low-level daily doses to prevent disease or increase their lifetime growth. Unless farming changes in a big way, our insatiable demand for ever-cheaper animal protein means demand for these drugs isn’t likely to cease any time soon — even under the FDA’s voluntary guidelines to phase out antibiotics as animal growth promoters. Perhaps that’s why Juan Ramon Alaix, CEO of Zoetis — the world’s largest animal pharmaceutical company — recently told the Wall Street Journal that the FDA’s voluntary agreement “will not have a significant impact on our revenues.”

We have spent too many years hearing industry lobby groups and paid-up scientists and politicians deny any link between the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and the routine abuse of low-level antibiotics for growth promotion and disease prevention in industrial farming. Time and again, we have watched the meat and pharmaceutical industry-funded lobbyists and front groups fight tooth and nail against any attempt to regulate antibiotic use in farming. The industry-funded U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, for example, insists “there has been no proven link to antibiotic treatment failure in humans due to antibiotic use in animals for consumption . . . ” If they still won’t accept any responsibility for antibiotic-resistant bacteria — despite massive scientific evidence to the contrary — what makes anyone believe these corporations are now suddenly willing to put public health ahead of corporate profit?

With no new antibiotics in the development pipeline, we must focus our combined energies on doing everything we can to protect the limited range of antibiotics we have. We need to accept that industrial livestock farming systems are unsustainable. Instead, we need to support the expansion of alternative livestock farming systems where antibiotics are used only as a last resort.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 23,000 people die each year as a direct result of antibiotic-resistant infections. We keep hearing about the need for better antibiotic stewardship in farming. But what exactly will it take to trigger regulatory intervention and enforcement: Tens of thousands more deaths each year? Maybe hundreds of thousands? How bad do things have to get before we realize that cheap meat is killing us, and that the time for the self-regulation of antibiotic production and use in farming has long since expired?

Main photo: The wide use of antibiotics for food animal production is increasing resistance of dangerous bacteria such as Staphylococcus aureus. Credit: iStock / Youst

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A report by Consumer Reports is calling on the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to kill off one of the most misleading — and downright contemptible  — claims you will find on food packaging today.

The natural label claim epitomizes everything that’s wrong with our food labeling laws — or should I say lack of them. The natural wording is found on the packaging of millions of food products sold every day, including meat, dairy and eggs. Consumers consider it an important claim: According to new research from Consumer Reports, nearly 60% of people surveyed look for the natural label term when food shopping. When it comes to meat, dairy and eggs, almost 50% of consumers assume that natural  means the animals were raised outdoors and not in confinement. Many consumers also think natural means that no growth hormones were used (68%), or the animals’ feed contained no genetically modified organisms (64%) or that no antibiotics or other drugs were used (60%).

In truth, any of these practices would be acceptable under the natural label. In fact, the term is pretty much a blank check for food manufacturers to mislead and deceive consumers into thinking they are buying something better — when they are not.

Despite what you might think,  a natural label claim  has nothing to do with how an animal might have been raised or treated. According to the USDA, “A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed (a process which does not fundamentally alter the raw product) may be labeled natural.”

In other words, the term applies only to how the meat or poultry product is processed. So the farming system may have involved feedlot or confinement systems, or the routine use of antibiotic growth promoters or artificial hormones (for beef cattle), or the feeding of GMOs, or the mutilation of beaks and tails, and other questionable practices associated with intensive, industrial-scale livestock production.

The reality of  ‘natural’ meat

The sad reality is that millions of conscientious consumers are potentially being duped and exploited on a daily basis by unscrupulous meat processors that use the natural label claim — many of which are household names and brands. That natural beef you specifically chose, which also happened to display happy cattle in a green pasture, doesn’t mean the animals were raised in a pasture, or fed a healthy diet, or treated according to higher welfare standards.

AWA's Andrew Gunther: Would you or your family call these industrial confinement production systems natural? Credit: AWA

AWA’s Andrew Gunther: Would you or your family call these industrial confinement production systems natural? Credit: AWA

It simply means the beef contains no artificial ingredients or added colors, and that it was minimally processed after slaughter. In reality most of the cattle slaughtered for natural beef brands are finished on dirt feedlots, where thousands of cattle have little space for their last few months and eat mainly corn and grain to quickly gain weight. Such feedlot cattle are routinely given antibiotics and hormones in a losing battle to prevent disease and maximize growth rates. It’s hardly a natural existence.

Similarly, most natural-labeled eggs will come from industrial indoor poultry operations, where thousands of hens are confined in battery cages. Each bird lives in a cage with several others with each allotted less space than a sheet of letter paper. Beaks are routinely cut back using a hot knife to prevent hens from pecking each other to death out of boredom and frustration. The birds also are fed various pharmaceuticals — such as arsenic  — to control pests and diseases. They never see grass or sunlight, let alone roam and forage.

It’s the same story for the 60-plus million intensively raised pigs in the U.S., confined to indoor concrete runs, fed growth promoters such as ractopamine, with their tails cut to prevent tail biting. This pork also is labeled natural. Again, would you or your family call these industrial confinement production systems natural?

Yet the major meat processors that dominate the food industry are making billions of dollars by knowingly misleading well-meaning consumers each and every day. And the USDA — the government agency responsible for “ensuring the truthfulness and accuracy in labeling of meat and poultry products” — is doing nothing about it.

Scientists argue that these marketing claims — in addition to fooling consumers — may also be leading to obesity and diet-related ill health. According to the latest research from the University of Houston, health-related buzzwords — including natural — are lulling consumers into thinking food products labeled with those words are healthier than they are.

We at Animal Welfare Approved are calling on farmers and consumers to unite behind Consumer Reports in its effort to “Kill the Natural Label.” Please sign the online petition. If you have bought natural-labeled foods, why not write to the food manufacturer and voice your displeasure? Tell them with these petitions that you won’t buy their products again until they are honestly labeled.

Misleading labels confuse consumers and threaten the livelihoods of farmers striving to feed the nation honestly and sustainably. Seek out and buy honestly labeled food. The AWA logo is a pledge that our animals were raised outdoors for their entire lives on an independent family farm using sustainable agriculture methods. No other food label offers these distinctions. You can find your nearest supplier of AWA-certified foods at animalwelfareapproved.org.

Main photo:  The “natural”  label does not cover how animals are raised. Credit: Courtesy HUHA

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A plan for phasing out antibiotics in animal feed could hurt sustainable farms. Credit: istockphoto.com

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s recent deal with the farm antibiotic industry to voluntarily phase out the use of antibiotics as animal growth promoters sounds like a real step forward — until you look at the details. That’s because this action does nothing to stop the ongoing abuse of antibiotics in farming nor does it prevent the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. It may also harm many sustainable farmers.

Protecting public health is one of the FDA’s key responsibilities. Sadly the agency has remained largely impotent in addressing rampant antibiotic use on industrial farms, largely due to the powerful meat and pharmaceutical industry lobby. Despite mounting public pressure to take real action, the FDA has focused on persuading the meat industry to voluntarily phase out using some antibiotics considered medically important for humans.

In late December 2013, the FDA proposed that major “farmaceutical” manufacturers voluntarily withdraw certain antibiotics used to speed animal growth, and relabel those antibiotics to require veterinary approval before farmers could use them. The FDA gave the antibiotic manufacturers three months to notify the agency whether they intended to comply with the proposal. At the end of March, the FDA announced that 25 of the 26 manufacturers had agreed to adopt the voluntary measures.

Despite these manufacturers previously denying any possible link between widespread antibiotic use on industrial farms and the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria over the last four decades, we now have a situation in which almost every major manufacturer has signed on to the FDA’s voluntary approach. Why? Because they know the agreement won’t change a thing on industrial farms.

What’s more, the meat industry is quite aware that this agreement — if left unchanged — could harm independent farm businesses already using antibiotics responsibly. After all, these farms — not exactly their best customers — present a small but growing threat to the entire antibiotic-reliant industrial farming model.

Antibiotic agreement penalizes smaller farms

Many farm antibiotics now are available “over the counter” at any feed store in the U.S. Clearly, some form of control is necessary to prevent misuse or abuse. Under the FDA’s new agreement, the reclassification of antibiotics as “prescription only” would require every farm business to get a vet’s OK each time it buys an antibiotic. On the face of it, this seems like a sensible way to rein in the abuse of antibiotics on farms. But in practice, it could put tens of thousands of independent family farms out of business.

Smaller farms often work on tight margins and vets can be very expensive — particularly when all you need them to do is tell you something you might already know: This animal needs a course of antibiotics to get better. What’s more, in some parts of the U.S. there are few — if any — vets available. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, only 15% of qualified vets work with farm animals. Under the FDA’s voluntary agreement, we could see a situation in which the very farmers who use antibiotics only as a last resort could face the appalling choice of letting animals suffer for lack of sufficient veterinary oversight or breaking the law and treating their animals without a vet’s input.

Real danger lies with industrial operations

It’s important to remind ourselves that the risk of antibiotic abuse — and antibiotic-resistant bacteria — does not come from pasture-based, high-welfare farming systems. No, the real hazards come from large-scale industrial confinement operations in which low-dose antibiotics are routinely used to speed growth or to prevent inevitable outbreaks of disease. It is this ongoing abuse of antibiotics on an industrial scale that the FDA needs to address.

The FDA’s voluntary agreement leaves the door wide open for such continued antibiotic abuse on industrial farms. As agricultural commentator Tom Philpott says, “There is little distinction between giving animals small daily doses of antibiotics to prevent disease and giving them small daily doses to make them put on weight. The industry can simply claim it’s using antibiotics ‘preventively,’ continuing to reap the benefits of growth promotion and continuing to generate resistant bacteria. That’s the loophole.”

Andrew Gunter of Animal Welfare Approved says federal-industry pact won't stop ongoing abuse of antibiotics in farming. Credit: Courtesy Animal Welfare Approved

Andrew Gunther of Animal Welfare Approved says the federal-industry pact won’t stop ongoing abuse of antibiotics in farming. Credit: Courtesy of Animal Welfare Approved

These concerns are echoed by Dr. Raymond Tarpley of the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Science at Texas A&M University. He recently wrote that “if low-dose concentrations of antibiotics continue to be allowed for preventative use (even by prescription), they provide a ‘back door’ through which growth promotion effects can still be exploited under another name.” Perhaps that’s why Juan Ramon Alaix, CEO of Zoetis — the world’s largest animal pharmaceutical company — recently said that the new FDA agreement would not substantially affect the company’s revenue.

The real win for the industrial livestock lobby is that we’re not even talking about enforceable regulations, with the threat of legal action against any noncompliance. No, this is simply a gentlemen’s agreement among the major farmaceutical corporations to abide by the FDA’s voluntary guidelines. While the FDA contends that this “collaborative approach is the fastest way to implement the changes” it seeks, others are less supportive.

New York Rep. Louise Slaughter, who has long campaigned to end the misuse of antibiotics in industrial farming, says the agreement “falls woefully short of what is needed to address a public health crisis.” As Slaughter points out, without the necessary resources to police antibiotic use on farms — or even gather data on antibiotic use on individual farms — we are effectively relying on the intensive meat industry to put public health ahead of its profits.

The intensive livestock industry has manipulated this whole situation to protect its own interests.

When you consider that the FDA first accepted the evidence of a link between antibiotic use in farming and the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria back in 1977 — and has not done anything substantial about the issue since — you begin to wonder if protecting public health is an FDA priority at all.

Animal Welfare Approved, where I am program director, has long argued for strict regulations to control antibiotic use on farms. We have supported Slaughter’s efforts to end the inappropriate and indiscriminate use of antibiotics in intensive farming systems. From the outset we have raised concerns that the FDA’s voluntary proposals would be ineffective at reducing antibiotic abuse on industrial farms and would devastate thousands of high-welfare, sustainable family farms across the U.S.

Animal Welfare Approved intends to keep pressing the FDA and others to ensure that high-animal-welfare, sustainable farmers have access to antibiotics to treat individual sick animals — without going out of business in the process. And we will continue to support and promote the independent family farms striving to feed this nation sustainably while protecting human health, animal welfare and the planet.

Main photo: A plan for phasing out antibiotics in animal feed could hurt sustainable farms. Credit: istockphoto.com

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