Hormone Havoc

A few months ago, I met a woman on an airplane who was on her way to a yoga retreat.  After visiting for a while, I told her I was studying meat science.  She proceeded to ask lots of questions (as many people do, and I very warmly welcome).  We got on the topic of hormone usage in livestock.  She told me that she was worried that excess hormones in meat were causing her grandson to develop womanly features.

Hormone usage in livestock production is a common source of curiosity and insecurity of consumers that are not tied to the industry.  It is totally understandable.  If I didn’t grow up involved in the industry, I would question it as well.

Hormone implants are used in growing livestock (specifically, cattle) to help them be more efficient in converting feed to muscle.  Hormones are also known as repartitioning agents.  Meaning, they take the energy from the feed and rather than the animal accumulating excess fat, they use that energy to build muscle.  That muscle is what turns to meat after the animal has been harvested.

Implants are very small and administered in the form of a small pellet under the skin in the back of the calves’ ear.  This allows for slow release of the hormone, and since the ears are discarded, ensures that the pellet does not end up in human food production.  The FDA (Food and Drug Administration), is active in ensuring that meat from animals implanted with hormones is safe to eat.  If it was a concern for human health, the practice would not be used and the meat would not be allowed on the market.

Now, some people ask, “do hormones used end up in the meat.”  It is important to note that every food has naturally occurring hormones.  Including beef.  My favorite example to compare this is beef vs. cabbage.

One, 3 oz. serving of implanted beef has approximately 1.9 nanograms of estrogen, (compared to 1.3 ng of non-implanted beef).

One serving of cabbage contains 2,000 nanograms of estrogen.

It would take 1,052 servings of beef to get the same amount of estrogen as 1 serving of cabbage.  That is 197 pounds.  The average American consumes approximately 57 pounds of beef per year.  Following those numbers, it would take 3.5 years to get the same amount of estrogen from beef as one serving of cabbage.

Image from a previous post written for South Dakota Farm Families, Farmer’s Daughter Segment.

Now, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t eat cabbage.  One nanogram is equal to one billionth of a gram.  One billionth.  That is trace amounts. I am a huge supporter of having a well-balanced diet, including beef and cabbage.  Yes, there are other hormones besides just estrogen used in beef production; however, similar examples as this can be found to demonstrate the trace amounts passed to food for human consumption.

There is so much regulation done to ensure safe, high quality food is making it into the hands of the consumer.  Whether that be beef, cabbage, or any other item you choose to purchase at the store. If hormone implants caused a food safety risk, let me assure you, it would not be a practice utilized by any producer.

Sources:

https://www.drovers.com/article/facts-about-hormones-and-beef

https://newsroom.unl.edu/announce/beef/2846/15997

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One Bad Apple

I recently took a day-trip to Couer d’Alene, ID (an absolutely beautiful area, I highly recommend a visit). Anyway, while I was there, I came across a big street fair with vendors from all over the area.  Clothing, jewelry, food galore, and mixed in the crowd was a PETA demonstration. 

Participants were dressed in black clothing and white masks, and were holding screens that played videos showing animal abuse.  The ag community continually struggles sharing our story with consumers, while this group can confidently degrade everything we are working towards.  Now, I know many people don’t fully trust PETA’s representation of the industry, but often think, “they had to get the video from somewhere.”   

The easiest way for me to think about and describe the work PETA is doing, is with the following scenario:

Imagine that you were at a farmer’s market.  A beautiful day with booths full of fresh flowers, fruits and vegetables all grown locally.  You stop at a stand, Annie’s Apples, to buy fruit for the week.  While looking at the big, shiny, red apples, you come across one that is small, disformed, bruised and just mushy.  Rotten. 

Seeing this rotten apple, you decide that if she had one bad apple, the rest of them at her stand must not be worth buying.  Annie doesn’t raise her apples properly.  If this one is bad, how can the rest be good?  She can’t be trusted. 

You then tell your friend’s not to buy apples from Annie.  This develops as you and your friends share on social media a picture of the gross little apple.  Now, all your connections not only think that Annie’s apples are bad, but every farmer must produce those bad apples.  They’re not only skeptical of buying apples from Annie, but from any apple producer.  No apples from farmer Annie, Adam, Alex, etc., etc.  Since their apples can’t be trusted, that means they can’t be trusted.  They’re abusing the apples just to make a quick buck.  They don’t actually care about the apples or the people eating the apples.

This scenario seems a little crazy, right?  Who would purposely abuse an apple?  And if one person thought that was a good idea, does it make sense that every apple farmer would purposely sell rotten fruit?  No. If an apple is bruised it isn’t going to taste good, and will cost the farmer money by trying to sell a poor-quality product.

Well, the same thing is true of animal agriculture.  Most farmers care deeply about their livestock.  Stress causes the animals to lose weight, makes it more difficult to care for their young, lowers their milk producing ability, causes meat quality problems.  Basically, stressed animals go against every goal that a farmer has for his livestock.  Those videos come from bad apples; often in the form of undercover, ‘animal rights activists’ working on farms.

Yes, there are a few bad apples out there.  There always has been, and there always will be.  But next time you see something posted, or maybe an in-person PETA protest, I hope that you don’t let one bad apple destroy your opinion on the whole bunch.

The Science Behind a Steak

Did you know that every food and drink item that you can buy in a grocery store has been through various forms of scientific testing?  Whether it be for pathogens, allergens, microbial growth, flavor development, ingredient use, sensory appeal, the list goes on and on, there is a lot of science that goes into the food we eat!

The same goes for the products that you can purchase at the meat counter.  Now, when I say that there is science in your steak, I don’t mean that it has been chemically altered.  I mean that there has been significant testing put into place to help improve that piece of meat to provide a great eating experience and safe product for you and your family.  One of those tests is Warner-Bratzler Shear Force (WBSF).

Although a long name, WBSF is a simple concept.  Imagine biting into a big, juicy steak and having one of these two thoughts:

 “This is so tender, it just melts in my mouth,” or “This is so tough, I feel like I’m chewing on rubber!”

Sound familiar?  These two thoughts are describing the tenderness of the steak.  WBSF is a measurement of tenderness.  To complete this test, steaks are cooked and cores (basically bite sized pieces) are removed.  The cores are then cut with a machine that measures how many kilograms of pressure it takes to cut through the piece (the force it takes to shear the core, hence the name).  This represents how much pressure you would have to use to chew through the product.  The lower the WBSF value, the more tender the steak.  Using this information, we can find different things that can improve tenderness, whether that be a production method (think the animal’s environment it is raised in or what it is fed), a processing method (how long the product was aged, how the meat was cut, etc.) or cooking method (rare vs. well-done). 

WBSF is often used alongside taste panels. It is helpful to use WBSF as it gives a definite number without being influenced by personal preference.  However, taste panels are necessary because even if a machine tells us it should taste good, it’s people who need to enjoy it.

For those of you who are new to The Meating Room and haven’t read my bio, I am currently pursuing my master’s degree in meat science.  Last week, our lab group spent three days running WBSF analysis.  Three days, 230 steaks, 1,400+ cores to cut, all to try to find a method to improve steak tenderness and consistency for the end consumer. 

This is just a tiny fragment of the science that goes into producing great tasting steak.  As I continue with my project, I hope to share more of the work we are doing in the lab and to give you an insight into what a “meat scientist” really does!

I am an Animal Scientist.

It still amazes me sometimes that I am going to be an animal scientist.  When I started college, I wanted to be a banker.  I started off my education by pursuing a degree in agricultural business, and later added the animal science major because although I grew up on a farm, I wanted to have a better understanding of the whole industry.  The dual degree allowed me to take courses as vast as economics and agricultural marketing, to swine production and livestock nutrition.  It provided a broad view of the industry.

Now, as I pursue a master’s degree in meat science (formally a master’s in Animal Science), I can use that broad view to focus on specifics.  For example, understanding the combination of livestock genetics, nutrition and environment animals are raised in can help us make predictions as to what the characteristics of the meat will be.  Will this combination provide a lean product?  Will it be high quality (ex.  choice vs. prime)?  Will this animal produce a good eating experience for our consumers?

The past couple weeks, I have been able to attend two conferences that showcased research being done by animal scientists all over the country.  From meat science, to nutrition, to genetics, to reproduction, there is an incredible amount of research going on to help improve livestock production.  No matter what discipline the researchers are focused, we all have the same goal:  to discover ways to make livestock production more efficient and sustainable, to offer resources to producers to help produce the best product possible, and to improve production methods to best care for the livestock we raise. 

When people think of animal science, I am certain there are a lot of mixed reactions.  I certainly get an array of responses from people I talk to on airplanes!  Animal science is an incredible field and offers a vast array of opportunities.  I am so thankful that I made the decision to add animal science courses to my undergraduate degree.  I never could have predicted the opportunities it would bring or the direction it would lead, but I am certainly excited to see where it goes!

Branding and Green Grass

This time of year is busy for farmers.  Most have finished up calving and are ready to get the cows to pasture.  For the past few months, many producers have had their cows kept close to home to make things easier for calving time.  Now, it is time to take the ladies to greener pastures for the summer.

Before cows go to pasture, a few tasks must be completed.  Calves are typically vaccinated to help keep them healthy and many are branded.  Some producers brand their calves the first year they go to the pasture with their mothers, while others wait until they are a little older. 

There are different types of branding that serve different purposes.  My family uses both hot branding and freeze branding on our operation.  

We use freeze branding to number our animals.  It is done using a branding iron that is frozen using dry ice and liquid nitrogen or alcohol.  Once the irons are cold, they are pressed onto the desired location for 30-60 seconds.  This type of branding kills the color follicle of the hair.  Although the hair will grow back, it will not have any pigment and will be white in appearance.  This method of identification is ideal because it allows for easy ID of the animal during any season and from a distance.  Our cattle also have ear tags that match their brand number; however, tags can be difficult to read.  If an animal is sick or has any reason to be noted, a freeze brand makes identification much easier!

This is a picture that my brother took of one of our bulls. The number brand that you see on his side was done using freeze branding. This practice helps us easily identify the animal.

Hot branding on the other hand, is used to put the farm’s brand on the animal.  Brands are unique to the producer and can help distinguish one farmer’s cattle from another’s.  This is ideal for cattle that will be moved to pasture for a season with little oversight by the farmer.  If a fence is broken and the cows get out, they can easily be identified to who they belong to.  Brands must be registered to the state and approved to be used.

Branding is a quick method to help easily identify and place ownership of an animal.  It is an effective tool for producers to use and can be very beneficial in running their operation.   Once this job is complete, the cows are ready to enjoy their summer on green grass!

Meatless Monday

Recently, a private University in my home state of South Dakota  announced that they will be implementing a “Meatless Monday” program.  This is supported by their claims that plant based proteins offer more nutritive value than meat and that meat is generally more expensive than plant-based proteins.  I’d like to take a little time today to talk about these two points and see how they really add up.

Plant based proteins offer more nutritive value than meat.

The South Dakota Beef Industry Council shares this graphic and I think it is really eye opening.  I’ll admit that it is easy to assume that plant -based proteins will offer more protein per calorie than meat.  But in all reality, when looking at the quantity of these products that need to be consumed to reach the protein level provided by one serving of beef, we quickly see that it is not the case. 

Per 25 g protein:

Quinoa: 666 calories

Peanut butter: 613 calories

Beef: 173 calories

In addition to being low calorie, that one serving of beef provides 10 essential nutrients- Protein, Iron, Choline, Selenium, Vitamin B, Zinc, Phosphorus, Niacin, Riboflavin.  It offers an incredible amount of nutritive value!  

Meat is generally more expensive than plant-based proteins.

In addition to an animal science degree, I also received a bachelor’s degree in agricultural business.  The business side of me always perks up when I hear claims of ‘more expensive’.  It is time to crunch some numbers.

I have heard a lot of talk recently about the Beyond Burger, so I thought that would be a great example to look at.  When initially comparing the Beyond Burger pricing vs. the ground beef patties, it appears to be less expensive.  However, looking further we see that on a per pound basis, the Beyond Beef patties are almost twice the price of both ground beef patties (the difference in the patties is the fat content.  80% lean vs. 93% lean.  The 93% lean is more expensive on a per pound basis because it has a lower fat content).   Don’t let the face value of a product lead you astray.  It is important to judge actual economic value of a product not on the simple  dollar value it receives, but price per pound basis.  It is amazing how much of a difference that can make!

Image and Price from Walmart.com

One other thing that I think is interesting to point out about the Beyond Burger is the ingredient list.  Consumers continually demand a high quality product with a clean label. Looking at the Beyond Burger ingredient list we see that it contains over 15 ingredients! 

“Water, pea protein isolate*, expeller-pressed canola oil, refined coconut oil, rice protein, natural flavors, mung bean protein, methylcellulose, potato starch, contains 1% or less: apple extract, salt, potassium chloride, vinegar, lemon juice concentrate, sunflower lecithin, beet juice extract, pomegranate fruit powder, lycopene color (from tomato).”

Now let’s compare that ingredient list to that of the ground beef patties:

“Ground Beef and Natural Flavorings.”

Two ingredients!  That’s it!  The Food Safety Inspection Service allows spices and seasonings such as black pepper, onion powder, and garlic to be defined as natural flavorings.  It is a simple product that offers so much to the consumer. 

Simply put, animal based proteins are a relatively low calorie, low cost option that are supported by a clean label. Protein takes up a large portion of the grocery budget.  We all want to feed our families a high quality product.  When thinking about it in that sense, meat offers the most bang for your buck. For that reason,  I plan to keep meat in my diet on Mondays, and every other day of the week!

Head Above Water

Do you ever have days where you feel like there is so much going on that you are struggling just to keep your head above water?  Maybe it’s more than just a day, maybe it seems more like a week or a month!  The past few weeks have been that way for me.  I have been so busy with travel and research that it seems like I’ve just been fighting to stay on top of all my responsibilities.  Now that I am back in Moscow for a few weeks it is a good time to reflect back on all that has been happening.

Following the judging contest we took in a few sights of Chicago.

Chicago, IL:  This was quite the trip.  I chaperoned five undergraduate students to the Meat Animal Evaluation Contest at the University of Illinois in Champaign, Illinois.  The students participated in live animal evaluation, where they looked at breeding animals (those that will be used to produce offspring.  It is ideal for animals to have good genetics, bone structure, and size to be able to carry offspring.), market animals (hogs, cattle and sheep that are going to be harvested.  Ideally, these animals have a lot of muscle and adequate fat), and meats (carcasses were evaluated for yield and quality, and retail cuts, ie. steaks/porkchops, were ranked).  It was a great opportunity for our students to be able to compete in this contest and for me to be able to lead them!  Following the contest, we spent a little time in Chicago living the tourist lifestyle.   

Anacortes, WA:  The last weekend in March, I went to the Northwest Meat Processors Association convention.  This conference hosted local meat processors from across Washington, Idaho, Oregon and Montana, who were able to bring their best products to be entered into a contest.  That’s right, a contest of bacon, ham, jerky, sausage, salami and more!  I was lucky enough to get to help judge the fresh sausages (I tried over 40 different kinds!).  It was such a fun experience to be able to see all the hard work and pride that the processors put into their products. 

The meat science grad students from the University of Idaho after an awesome tour of Del Fox Meats at the Meat Processors Association Convention.

Boise, ID:  My final trip took me to Boise for a food safety training.   Hazard Analysis, Critical Control Points (HACCP) training taught me how to look for potential problems in a meat processing facility and how to mitigate those issues.  We are specifically concerned with physical (bone chips), chemical (cleaning products) and biological (Salmonella) hazards.  Every meat processing plant has to have a HACCP plan in place where they go through every step of the production process, identify any hazards that could potentially occur, and establish a plan on how to monitor those hazards and ensure that safe food is making it to the consumer. 

On top of travelling, we have been busy with research.  The PhD student that I work with is wrapping up her project.  For her work we had to measure pH and temperature on carcasses and often had to do checks throughout the night.  Waking up at 3 am to go into a cooler isn’t always fun, but I have made some great memories working on this project!

Busy, busy, busy.  It is so easy when we are in a busy season to wish time away.  “If I just get through this trip, then I can get to the next one and then I can get a break.”  It’s easy to get worn out and forget how great of an opportunity some of these experiences are.  Looking back at the past few weeks it amazes me the experiences that I have gotten to take in and the people I have met.  I’m very thankful to have all these opportunities, but I’m also thankful to be back in Moscow and have some time to catch up on things before the next busy season approaches!

Calving Season

The story of a steak begins long before it finds your plate.  In fact, for this story to begin, we must rewind over two years from when you purchased that steak, to baby making season…

Farmers make careful genetic decisions to improve their herd and the quality of meat that the animals produce.  There are numbers called Expected Progeny Differences (EPDs), that help producers predict how specific traits will be passed down to future generations of livestock.  Think of these numbers like batting averages.  That number helps you predict how your favorite player will hit and gets more accurate every time he is up to the plate.  EPDs work the same way; helping producers make decisions with their accuracy improving with the more offspring an animal has. EPDs are often used if a farmer is buying a bull or choosing one to use for artificial insemination.   These predictions can be specific for birthweight, ribeye area, marbling ability, and much more.

Natural breeding is common to the beef industry, but many operations incorporate artificial insemination into their program. Artificial insemination (AI) is an incredible technology that producers can use to help improve their herd genetics.  To use AI, semen is collected from the male, frozen and can then be shipped all over the world (In fact, when I visited a farm in China, they were using semen from a bull owned by a farmer I know in South Dakota!).  AI can be a relatively low-cost option to farmers to purchase limited quantities of semen, rather than making a large investment in a bull.  AI can be very successful for many operations and allow for specific breeding choices to be made, improving livestock quality.  

So now that the cows are bred, they need to be taken care of in terms of nutrition, health and environment to ensure a healthy calf is born.  Working with nutritionists and veterinarians help ensure that the cows are getting the nutrients that they need and are cared for. 

Then, about 283 days later…. it’s baby time!  Calves are born and a whole new round of excitement begins.  It’s calving season right now, and many farmers and ranchers are keeping busy. This winter has been hard on a lot of producers and livestock.  Farmers check on the livestock day and night to ensure new calves can be dried off and warmed up.

When a calf is born, it is important for them to be able to stand up and eat.  The first milk that they receive from their mama’s is colostrum.  Colostrum contains antibodies and nutrients that are passed on to the offspring.  This first meal is vital for future health of the animal. 

It is important to care for the calves during this time, but it is also necessary to keep a close eye on the cows.  The cows need to be fed a good diet that provides them enough energy to maintain themselves, as well as helping their calf grow strong and healthy.

This is just the beginning of the story of how meat makes it to your kitchen table.  Simply having a calf turns into a big process and requires so much time and hard work; from selecting a bull, to breeding, to keeping the cow healthy, to calving.  But all that hard work pays off knowing that it is the first step in providing a high quality product for consumers.  

The Journey to Your Table

Do you ever look down at the food that you’re having for supper and think about all the people that had to go to work to provide that meal for you?  I do, and it absolutely amazes me. Just think:

Your plate.

The grocery store.

The meat counter.

Truckers to get it from the packing plant to the store.

Packing plant workers.

Farmers.

USDA Inspectors, veterinarians, livestock nutritionists, meat scientists, extension agents, feed salesmen…the list goes on and on.  The meat industry in the United States directly employs over 525,000 people and indirectly employs 6.2 million people (those who are not working directly with meat but still play a role in producing the product).  All of those people are devoted to producing a safe, nutritious, high quality product for you to serve to your family.

When I was younger I used to go to church camp in the summer.  Before meals, we would pray and then do a short, group song.  One of them that always stuck with me was as follows:

                “Back of the bread is the flour,

                And back of the flour is the mill,

                And back of the mill is the sun, and the rain, and the maker’s will.”

This rhyme has always stuck with me and makes me appreciate all that goes into the food we eat. 

Growing up on a farm I just thought of it as my family raised the livestock, a local butcher harvested the animals, we picked up the meat and our freezer was full.  I never really realized how great of a blessing that was.  Now that I am living 1200+ miles away from our farm it isn’t quite so simple.  During my studies I have been able to tour multiple packing plants and visit with people employed in the meat department at various grocery stores.  It is so cool to see the care and passion that goes into producing a high-quality product all the way from the farm, to the packing house, to the grocery store and to your kitchen table.  In the following weeks I will break this down into the different phases of meat production and talk about specific practices that are done at each step to ensure a safe product ends up on your kitchen table.

So next time you celebrate a birthday with a steak, or eat a hotdog at your child’s baseball game, take a minute and think about all the hands that had to play a role to provide that meal for you.  I think you’ll appreciate every bite just a little bit more.