KENNETT SQUARE, Pa. — The beef industry is changing, and it is full of tough questions for producers. How should I handle antibiotics? What do I tell someone who asks me why I use genetically modified, or GMO, crops?
A herd manager, a packer, a veterinarian and a nutritionist tried to answer those and other questions Feb. 20 during a panel discussion at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center.
Mark Miller, the regulatory food safety superintendent at Cargill’s Wyalusing, Pa., plant, demystified the procedures surrounding drug residue violations in animals.
Any time he suspects an animal is contaminated, he has to alert the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service, or FSIS, which in turn notifies the Food and Drug Administration.
Signs of potential drug residues include lameness, evidence of surgery, eye problems, mastitis, metritis, a pathogen in the carcass or offal, and injection sites, Miller said.
The suspect animal’s kidney, liver and meat tissue are tested, Miller said.
If the drugs are found only in the kidney or liver, the offal is condemned, but the meat is accepted. The carcass is condemned only if there are drugs in the meat tissue, or the drug is not allowed to be used in animals, he said.
“A suspect animal costs me $60” in labor and testing, Miller said. “Basically, that animal becomes a loss.”
When Miller receives positive test results, he sends a letter to the producer detailing what drug was found.
The main question is “How are you going to prevent that from happening again?” Miller said.
Repeat offenders go on an FSIS list. Cargill will not buy from farmers on that list, and packers who do must present each animal from that farmer to FSIS for testing.
“They’re screening to see if your corrective actions are working,” Miller said.
Cargill asks for its money back if a carcass is condemned.
“Believe it or not, we collect 99 percent” of requested repayments, he said.
Farmers generally admit the error and say they do not want to send antibiotic-contaminated beef to consumers, he said.
Finding the farmer can take some work.
Miller uses the back tag to trace the animal back to the point of sale. Often the tag leads to the sale barn where Cargill bought the animal.
Sometimes the sale barn can provide the farmer’s name, but sometimes they have only the hauler or dealer’s name.
If the dealer or hauler cannot supply the farmer’s name, Miller considers the middleman the owner and sends him a bill for the animal.
Intermediaries are responsible for keeping records. “Once you put that animal into commerce, it needs to be ID’d,” he said
That identification can come in more than a dozen forms, from back tags to metal ear tags to chalk stick markings, Miller said.
Miller has two people who collect the identification for all the animals the plant processes. These workers can usually take down three or four forms of ID, but they have less time for record-keeping if they have a large number of animals to catalog, he said.
Radio frequency identification, or RFID, is Miller’s preferred form of ID. “I think sooner or later we’re going to have to decide what we’re going to do” as an industry, he said.
Culled dairy cows cause most of the drug residue issues because they are more likely to be treated with antibiotics for illnesses that occur close to killing, said Dave Wolfgang, a Penn State Extension veterinarian.
“Most of the residues (in beef herds) come from therapeutic use,” Wolfgang said.
Beef cattle sicknesses usually happen early in the feedlot stage. Antibiotics used then will work out of the animal’s system before slaughter, Wolfgang said.
Antibiotic use has been dropping across U.S. animal agriculture for 15 years, Wolfgang said. Input cost management and regulations are two main reasons.
Several attendees asked about Zilmax, the growth-stimulating drug Merck voluntarily recalled last year.
At a low dose and for a short time, Zilmax safely promotes the growth of lean muscle mass during an animal’s stress period, Wolfgang said.
When farmers continued to use the drug after they should have stopped, it caused laminitis, sloughing hooves and other animal welfare problems, he said.
Only one beta agonist, the class of drugs to which Zilmax belongs, is still on the market, Wolfgang said.
Another perceived health concern the panel tackled was GMOs.
“We don’t know of any animal that has died — or human — from GMOs,” said Linda Baker, a nutritionist who works as a staff veterinarian at the New Bolton Center. “I think GMOs in general are very safe to feed.”
In fact, many farmers consider GMOs to enhance the environment because they reduce pesticide use, she said.
“I think a lot of these issues are emotional, and they’re not always science-based,” she said.
Farmers emphasize science in their decision-making, but now they have to answer to public perceptions instead, panel moderator Paul Slayton said.
Slayton, a producer from Bedford, Pa., served as executive director of the Pennsylvania Beef Council from 1999 to 2011.
“I think our best argument (for GMOs) is always going to be, It’s based on science,’ ” Slayton said.
Dennis Byrne, manager of Herr Angus Farm in Nottingham, Pa., concurred.
“In this world, everything we do is science-based,” Byrne said, mentioning medical advances and smartphones.
Glyphosate is available to consumers because it is one of the safest pesticides. Glyphosate-resistant crops allow farmers to use a safer pesticide instead of ones labeled “Warning” or “Danger,” he said.
In the 1970s, professors said farmers would have to plant fencerow to fencerow to feed the world’s growing population, Byrne said.
“There’s a lot of starving people out there, and that really upsets me,” Byrne said. “Without GMOs, not everybody’s going to eat.”
Of course, organic farmers are free to raise beef their way, too, Byrne said.
“It’s expensive to raise an animal organically, but the returns are also great if you can find someone to buy your product,” he said.
Jordan Sockrider, a Chester County 4-H’er who attended the meeting, said the GMO discussion was particularly helpful to her. She said she has encountered resistance to GMOs and will likely have to answer more questions about them now that she is working on starting her own beef herd, she said.