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Farm-to-plate study to investigate SARS-CoV-2 in beef production

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From live cattle entering a packing plant to the consumer’s kitchen table, a research project led by Texas A&M AgriLife aims to develop an accurate way to predict potential contamination with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, throughout the food supply chain.

Dr. Sapna Chitlapilly Dass, a meat science research assistant professor in the Texas A&M College of Agricultural & Life Sciences department of animal science, will lead the two-year, $1 million grant project of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food & Agriculture.

The project is a collaboration among Texas A&M AgriLife Research, Texas A&M Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Laboratory (TVMDL), Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, the USDA-Agricultural Research Service’s U.S. Meat Animal Research Center in Nebraska and the University of Pennsylvania.

Dr. Patrick J. Stover, vice chancellor of Texas A&M AgriLife, dean of the College of Agriculture & Life Sciences and director of AgriLife Research, said, “Upon completion of this research, each segment of the supply chain will know where the virus hot spots might lie and how best to mitigate them. By bringing together our agencies and the College of Agriculture & Life Sciences, AgriLife can address these issues as comprehensively as possible.”

To date, most studies on deciphering the cause and transmission of SARS-CoV-2 in meat production have based their understanding on just one aspect of the meat processing chain, Dass said.

“We want to look at the whole picture, not just beginning at the processor level but start with animals coming in and then tracing it all the way to the consumer level. We’ll analyze what happens to the meat from the processor to distributor to retailer to the consumer, determining where the exposure occurs and whether the virus is surviving,” Dass explained.

Now, the team of researchers will investigate the susceptibility to and transmission of SARS-CoV-2 in beef cattle, identify the impact of the virus on different phases of meat processing and packaging and follow up to determine the virus’s survival rate on meat and packaging material during transportation and in retail conditions, the announcement said.

Beef cattle investigation

“Ultimately, it is the safety of all the people along the food chain that matters,” said Texas A&M department of animal science head Dr. Cliff Lamb, who will provide guidance on the live animal experiments. “We need to know if these animals can contract the virus, whether they show symptoms or not, whether they can shed it and spread to other animals and whether they can spread it to humans.”

Texas AgriLife noted that according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, SARS-CoV-2 appears to be transmissible from people to animals in some situations, and the reverse may also be a possibility.

Because other mammals have tested positive for COVID-19, and because cattle have been known to contract a different coronavirus strain, testing is crucial, Lamb said.

“We need to determine if cattle would actually contract it and if they would be able to spread it from animal to animal,” he said. “We don’t think they will contract the disease or spread it, but at the same time, we want to rule that out.”

Lamb said once the research is completed, a farm-to-plate educational program through AgriLife Extension will be led by Dr. Jason Smith, a beef cattle specialist in Amarillo, Texas.

Smith and his team will work on ensuring that instructional videos, fact sheets and other educational materials are distributed to all stakeholders along the farm-to-plate food chain.

“We want to educate everyone — from the cow/calf owner to the stocker operator to the packing plant to the retail store — and make them aware of where the hot spots are and how the virus can be spread,” he said. “Our ultimate goal with this research is to educate people on how to reduce their risk of contracting the virus.”

Breaking bottlenecks

Early in the pandemic, meat industry production suffered bottlenecks as health and industry officials tried to grasp where and how workers were contracting the virus and whether that might affect the facility’s products, Texas AgriLife said.

“COVID hit meat processing plants hard, with many workers affected and plants closed,” said Dr. Amanda Brown, an associate professor for research who holds a joint position with TVMDL and the department of animal science. “This resulted in concerns regarding the supply of meat, with some stores implementing sales limits. There have also been stories in the national and international press concerning the potential of the virus surviving on food and food packaging, especially meat. Our hope is this project will lead to practical methods of ensuring our nation’s meat supply is stable and sustainable.”

Dass said the concern is that microorganisms are keeping the virus alive in hot spots and circulating as super spreaders. Different microbial communities within the processing plant can either encourage or inhibit the virus particle to be part of a sanitizer-tolerant biofilm and contribute to recurrent contamination.

Further research is needed to understand SARS-CoV-2 survival and transmission in the beef supply chain, she said. This will help develop effective intervention strategies as well as educate livestock producers, food handlers and consumers on safe food handling practices.

Diagnostics facilities

The project will rely on TVMDL’s Biological Safety Level-3 (BSL-3) virus propagation expertise and high-containment facilities, in addition to projects currently underway in TVMDL’s research and development section, the announcement said.

Since its establishment last year, TVMDL’s research and development section has focused on creating new methods of rapid molecular diagnostics. Once fully established, these methods will be used chute-side and in meat processing plants on environmental samples for COVID-19.

“The research and development section is excited to further the practicality of our current research interests,” Brown said. “By incorporating our current interests with those this new project aims to address, we are hopeful our work can assist a broader scope of individuals and allow for a better understanding of COVID-19.”

Comprehensive examination

Dass said her research will include the use of live virus in the new Texas A&M University Global Health Research Complex on the Texas A&M campus. This $86 million, 102,000 sq. ft. complex was created to combat emerging disease threats and is a state-of-the-art, nationally distinct facility and core laboratory.

In partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT) STOPCovid initiative, the team will utilize CRISPR-based diagnostics for COVID-19 with the initiative’s newly established SHERLOCK research protocol. SHERLOCK-Covid is a research use-only assay that has been made available to researchers via MIT's STOPCovid. With SHERLOCK, a strip of paper can now indicate the presence of pathogens or any genetic signature of interest.

Dass said the team also includes biophysicist Dr. Arnold Mathijssen, assistant professor in the department of physics and astronomy at the University of Pennsylvania, who will help develop the mathematical modeling and study the transmission dynamics of SARS-CoV-2.

Following the data-gathering steps, the researchers plan to develop a mathematical model to predict the potential for food contamination with SARS-CoV-2, Dass said.

“Using this mathematical model, we aim to predict the probability of SARS-CoV-2 spread among livestock if one is infected,” she said. “Based on our observations about the transmission potential among individual cattle, we will forecast the viral percolation across a large group of animals.”

This will also put benchmarks on the risk of SARS-CoV-2 infection to farm personnel, Dass said.

“We have so many stakeholders who want to get these answers as soon as possible to ensure the workforce -- as well as the food supply -- remains safe,” Dass said. “When complete, we will be able to provide key information about the risk of SARS-CoV-2 infection, its impact on beef consumers and the effect on personnel across the meat industry, including farmers, processors, packers and retailers.”

Alfalfa genetic markers promise better forage quality

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Stacked in bales in Washington’s Columbia Basin, alfalfa hay is an important crop. Alfalfa’s large and complex genome has hampered efforts to breed the plant for desirable qualities, but a WSU-led team of scientists have now revealed genetic markers and promising parent varieties for improvement.

Alfalfa is a major crop in the Pacific Northwest and an important food source for dairy cattle and other livestock worldwide. Scientists at Washington State University (WSU), the U.S. Department of Agriculture and partner institutions have identified 10 genetic markers and promising parent varieties that could boost the quality of alfalfa hay, making it more digestible and nourishing, the university said in an announcement.

“People don’t eat alfalfa, but millions of animals do,” WSU Extension forage specialist and team leader Steve Norberg said. “Alfalfa is one of the most important crops in the U.S. and an agricultural mainstay here in the Pacific Northwest.”

Alfalfa is worth more than $9 billion annually, making it the nation’s third-most valuable field crop. Grown on more than 400,000 acres across Washington state, most intensively in the irrigated Columbia River Basin, the hay is exported around the world, notably to China, Japan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, where demand has risen steadily, WSU said.

The crop’s large and complex genome has long hampered efforts to breed alfalfa for desirable qualities like higher protein, lower fiber and easier digestion by dairy cows.

“Our goal was to find the genes behind those traits and then pass that data on to commercial breeders who can introduce better varieties of alfalfa,” Norberg said.

In the two-year study funded by USDA’s National Institute of Food & Agriculture, scientists from WSU, USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, the University of Wisconsin, the University of Idaho, Oregon State University and the University of Florida examined 200 domestic and international alfalfa strains in field tests in Washington, Idaho and Oregon, the announcement said.

Examining the resulting crops for 30 traits that affect forage quality while also noting yields and fall dormancy scores, they genotyped promising plants and identified 10 genetic markers associated with important traits — such as fiber content, fiber digestibility and protein — screened from nearly 47,000 DNA markers, WSU said.

Some of the markers that the researchers found were linked to more than one trait, showing that common genetic factors control multiple traits. The plants’ yield and quality also varied by location, suggesting that the environment interacts with genetics to affect these results, the university said.

Comparing fiber quality, digestibility

Fiber is a major component of alfalfa and an important source of energy. Typically, however, cows can digest and use less than half of that fiber, WSU said.

The research team wanted to learn if they could improve alfalfa quality by selecting genetics based on the digestibility of fiber. The researchers measured different fiber qualities and digestibility of different varieties, identifying strains of alfalfa that could pass on valuable fiber traits.

In the wide-ranging project, members of the team calculated the potential increase in nutrient value of hay from better genetics.

The study also identified existing varieties that have both improved qualities and good yields. Cultivars typically favor either high yields or good forage quality, but some strains delivered both, WSU said.

The scientists have shared their discovered markers and promising strains with growers and breeders and plan to share results with the research community through publications and discussion.

“These genes could really change things and speed up improvement in seed programs,” Norberg said. “Breeders will be able to use these strains to bring out new varieties that are more digestible and nutritious for dairy cattle, giving our alfalfa and dairy producers more value.”

The National Alfalfa & Forage Alliance (NAFA), a group of hay growers, seed producers and researchers, successfully encouraged NIFA to fund alfalfa research.

“This project would not have happened without NAFA’s efforts,” Norberg said. “Producers have known for a long time what a better understanding of the genes behind forage quality could bring to this industry.”

In addition to Norberg, contributors include WSU Extension livestock specialist Don Llewellyn, WSU Extension forage specialist Steven Fransen, WSU post-doctoral geneticist Sen Lin, USDA-Agricultural Research Service geneticist Long-Xi Yu, University of Idaho forage specialist Glenn Shewmaker, Oregon State University forage specialist Guojie Wang, University of Wisconsin rumen nutritionist Dave Combs and University of Florida statistical scientist Edzard van Santen.

Milk production rises in August

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DOLLARS FOR DAIRY COMING: USDA announced $350 million as part of a broader $2 billion package under the Pandemic Market Volatility Assistance Program.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture showed in its latest “Milk Production” report that production in the 24 major milk-producing states during August totaled 17.8 billion lb., up 1.9% from August 2019, while production per cow averaged 2,009 lb., up 25 lb. from August 2019. The number of milk cows on farms in the 24 major states was 8.84 million head, 51,000 head more than August 2019 but unchanged from July 2020.

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USDA also revised its July production data to 17.9 billion lb., a 2.0% increase from July 2019. The July revision represented an increase of 91 million lb., or 0.5%, from last month's preliminary production estimate, the agency said.

Total August milk production in the U.S. rose 1.8% year over year to 18.6 billion lb. Production per cow in the U.S. averaged 1,987 lb. for August -- 27 lb. above August 2019. The number of milk cows on farms in the U.S. was 9.36 million head, 42,000 head more than August 2019 but unchanged from July 2020.

Bob Cropp, emeritus dairy market specialist at the University of Wisconsin-Extension Agriculture & Natural Resources, said it appears that dairy farmers have responded a bit to the strong milk prices that were seen in June and July.

The latest numbers are a reversal from the milk production declines in May and the reduction in cow numbers seen since April.

Mark Stephenson said he was surprised that farms are turning things around as quickly as they are but noted that exports have been moving a lot of dairy product.

Still, challenges associated with the COVID-19 pandemic remain, as some of the reopening phases had to be retracted, and many schools remain in limbo.

Looking ahead, Cropp expects September production to decline slightly. His forecast for the Class III price in the fourth quarter of 2020 is $16.00/cwt.

UC-Davis establishes cultivated meat research program

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Professor David Block, an expert in fermentation technology at UC-Davis, will lead a new NSF-funded project for research on cultivated meat.

Is cultivated meat — essentially, animal protein grown under lab conditions — a nourishing prospect to help feed the world, or is it more sizzle than steak? A consortium of researchers at the University of California-Davis (UC-Davis) aims to explore the long-term sustainability of cultivated meat, according to a university announcement.

The consortium is supported by a new grant of up to $3.55 million from the National Science Foundation (NSF) Growing Convergence program, in addition to previous support from the Good Food Institute and New Harvest.

“The societal need is to feed 9 billion people,” said principal investigator David Block, professor and chair of the UC-Davis department of viticulture and enology and professor in the department of chemical engineering. “What we want to know is, will cultivated meat be a viable supplement to traditional agriculture?”

Block said he does not see cultivated meat as replacing conventional agriculture, but rather as adding more production and flexibility. Potentially, if the conditions are right, farmers might find it advantageous to operate cultivated meat production alongside conventional agriculture, he said.

The NSF-funded project, which will run over five years, has a number of goals, including: developing stable stem cell lines from which cultivated meat can be grown; developing inexpensive, plant-based media in which to grow the cells, and assessing the nutritional value, stability and sensory qualities of cultivated meat products.

UC-Davis said the project aims to look at both “unstructured” products such as for sausage or burger patties and “structured” products that look and cook more like natural cuts of meat or fish.

An arm of the project led by Karen McDonald, professor of chemical engineering, will look at the technical and economic hurdles on the way to sustainable cultivated meat, including lifecycle analysis of the entire process.

Hub for information exchange

The grant grew out of the UC-Davis Cultivated Meat Consortium, established in fall 2019 in conjunction with the Biotechnology Program, after conversations with the Good Food Institute and several cultivated meat companies throughout California, UC-Davis said. The consortium acts as a hub for exchanging knowledge on related research on campus, and also to train graduate students interested in this new industry.

Cell culture-based biopharmaceutical manufacturing typically involves growing cells in relatively small volumes — less than 25,000 liters — of expensive media to make high-value products such as therapeutic antibodies, some of the most successful pharmaceuticals on the market today. On the other hand, the food and beverage industries ferment products at scales of 5-10 times larger or more, using relatively inexpensive ingredients to make cheaper items, UC-Davis said.

If cultivated meat is to be a commercial success, it will have to be grown like a biotech product but at a price closer to a food product.

“The question is, how can we make a pharmaceutical cell culture process look more like food-grade fermentation?” Block said. “We need the right mix for high-quality ingredients at a reasonable price.”

The researchers also plan to share the results of their work with the cultivated industry through extension programs.

Additional investigators on the grant include: professor Pablo Ross and assistant professor Payam Vahmani in the department of animal science; assistant professor Lucas Smith and professor Keith Baar in the department of neurobiology, physiology and behavior; extension specialist Anita Oberholster in the department of viticulture and enology; assistant professors Ameer Taha and Ned Spang in the department of food science and technology; associate professor Jiandi Wan and adjunct professor Somen Nandi in the department of chemical engineering; professor Kent Leach in the department of biomedical engineering, and distinguished professor Daniel Sumner in the department of agricultural and resource economics.

JBS announces Amazon sustainability program

JBS Purchases Canadas XL Foods

For more than a decade, JBS, the second-largest food company in the world, has used satellite imagery to monitor an area in the Amazon greater than the size of Germany to ensure that 100% of its direct beef suppliers comply with its responsible sourcing policies, including the company’s long-standing commitment to zero deforestation.

Today, the company is taking its commitment one step further, announcing the Together for the Amazon program, a series of innovative, long-term initiatives that build on the company’s legacy of conservation and sustainable development in the Amazon biome. The program will engage industry leaders, civil society, government authorities and environmental stakeholders to propose meaningful actions that will strengthen its value chain and help preserve this critical biome.

The program is consistent with JBS’s long-term sustainability priorities, including the commitment to combat climate change -- one of the global sustainability targets it presented in 2019. The fundamental pillars of the Together for the Amazon program are: (1) development of the value chain, (2) forest conservation and restoration, (3) support for local communities in the Amazon and (4) scientific research and technology development.

The first pillar consists of three key initiatives. The first of these is the JBS Green Platform, a blockchain platform that will enable the company to track the suppliers of its cattle suppliers by 2025.

The second is sharing the company’s supplier monitoring technology and its responsible sourcing policy with the value chain, including the entire food industry, livestock producers, family farmers, financial institutions and the agribusiness sector. The third initiative will provide suppliers with environmental, animal husbandry education and legal support.

JBS also announced the creation of the JBS Fund For The Amazon, a fund that will finance important projects and actions to stimulate sustainable development in the Amazon biome. JBS will contribute 250 million reals over the first five years and up to 500 million reals by 2030.

“Today, we publicly reiterate our commitment to the sustainability of the Amazon. We hope our actions today will help accelerate the urgent fight against deforestation while fostering the bio-economy, sustainable agricultural practices and opportunities for social development,” JBS global chief executive officer Gilberto Tomazoni stated.

Development of the value chain

Currently, JBS, in accordance with its Responsible Raw Material Sourcing Policy, monitors 100% of its cattle suppliers using strict sustainability criteria, including zero tolerance for deforestation, encroachment on indigenous lands or environmental conservation units, forced labor or the use of areas embargoed by Ibama. The company’s monitoring program includes a daily, online analysis covering more than 50,000 cattle-supplying farms.

“Over the last decade, we have made significant investments to establish one of the world’s largest private supplier monitoring systems. We have also engaged in industry initiatives, along with non-governmental organizations and the Federal Prosecution Office in states of the Legal Amazon region, and sponsored educational programs for our suppliers to help them improve their land stewardship,” said Wesley Batista Filho, CEO of JBS South America and Seara.

The JBS Green Platform will cross-reference data on the company’s suppliers with livestock transportation data. The technology will enable JBS to extend to the other links in the production chain the same socio-environmental criteria it currently applies to its suppliers in the Amazon. The initiative will employ blockchain technology precisely to provide confidential and secure access to the information regarding its suppliers. The information will be audited and the results reported in the company’s annual and sustainability report.

JBS will launch campaigns for engaging with suppliers and other interested parties to ensure that all of its suppliers’ suppliers are included in the JBS Green Platform by 2025.

“We are confident that our industry, and all other important stakeholders, will join us in this important endeavor. We believe that through collaboration, partnership and engagement, we can manage to bring about transformational change in the biome that will result increasingly sustainable production,” said Renato Costa, CEO of Friboi, the company’s beef business unit.

In addition, JBS will provide legal, environmental and livestock husbandry advisory services to help producers improve the stewardship of their land. JBS will expand its sustainability educational activities for livestock suppliers and increase investments to develop digital platforms that help ensure that properties can gain compliance with the company’s policies, as it already does in the states of Mato Grosso and Pará, Brazil.

As part of the Together for the Amazon Program, JBS will share its supplier monitoring technology with livestock farmers, financial institutions and other companies seeking to adopt socio-environmental criteria.

JBS Fund for the Amazon

The JBS Fund for the Amazon will be dedicated to financing initiatives and projects that expand conservation of the forest and the sustainable development of the communities that live there, with an initial contribution of 250 million reals in the first five years.

JBS will invite its stakeholders to contribute to the fund and has agreed to match third-party contributions. The total funding target is 1 billion reals by 2030.

The fund will be headed by Joanita Maestri Karoleski, former CEO of Seara, with the support of a board of directors, a fiscal council, a consultative council and a technical committee. The technical committee and the consultative council will assist in choosing the projects that will receive funding. The fund will be audited by KPMG. The funding, actions and results of the fund will be reported and published for transparent public consumption.

“Curbing illegal deforestation is a key challenge to defending the Amazon. This challenge can only be effectively met by focusing on the quality of life and economic opportunities for the population of the region, especially the indigenous and riverine peoples and the quilombola communities who live there,” fund president Joanita Maestri Karoleski said. “We believe in the possibility of a sustaining Amazon, because we know that environmental preservation and socioeconomic development are intimately linked.”

New traits suggested to improve feed efficiency of dairy cows

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New breeding methods can improve the feed efficiency of dairy cattle, which would bring savings to dairy producers in feed costs while reducing emissions from milk production, according to the doctoral dissertation of Terhi Mehtiö, a research scientist at the Natural Resources Institute Finland (LUKE).

LUKE pointed out that in recent years, the improved feed efficiency of cows has been a hot topic in the research of animal genetics and breeding. However, many factors have decelerated breeding: defining the traits that affect the feed efficiency has been difficult, measuring technologies and protocols have been insufficient and information regarding a sufficiently large number of animals has not been available for genetic analyses.

In her doctoral dissertation, Mehtiö developed new methods that help improve the feed efficiency of dairy cows. She studied the ability of individual cows to digest feed from fecal samples using near-infrared spectroscopy.

Genetic variation in the ability to digest feed was low, and the advantages of breeding must still be considered relative to sampling costs, she reported.

“Improvements in digestibility would, however, reduce the need for feed and produce savings in feed costs. As a result, it could be a significant area of interest in the future,” Mehtiö said.

Cows that better digest feed obtain more energy from their feed than cows that consume the same amount of feed but do not digest it as well. According to the results of the doctoral dissertation, some genetic variation was found in how effectively cows use energy for milk production, maintenance and growth, LUKE noted in its announcement. These models can be used in the future when developing the breeding values for feed efficiency.

Information from milk samples

On the other hand, breeding for feed efficiency may have a negative effect on fertility and health of animals if it leads to significant weight losses during early lactation, Mehtiö suggested.

When milk production intensifies after calving, dairy cows start to mobilize their adipose tissue in order to satisfy their need for energy. This is called a negative energy status. “When cows are in a negative energy status, they may seem to be highly effective. The aim is not to strengthen this trait, as recovering from negative energy status consumes resources, and a long and deep negative energy status may have an unfavorable effect on fertility and health,” Mehtiö said.

In her dissertation, Mehtiö developed an indicator for evaluating the negative energy status, which is difficult to measure. When a cow loses weight and mobilizes adipose tissue, the concentration of non-esterified fatty acids (NEFA) in blood increases, which means the NEFA content in blood can be regarded as a biomarker of the energy status, she said.

In her dissertation, the NEFA content was determined from milk samples by using mid-infrared spectroscopy, LUKE said. The results showed that the NEFA content in blood, determined from milk samples during the early lactation, was heritable and that it had a moderate genetic correlation with fertility.

“This means that weight losses in cows can be determined from milk samples, and this information can be used in breeding. As a result, it can be ensured that cows recover well from the early lactation and remain healthy and fertile, even if feed efficiency traits are included in dairy cattle breeding programs,” Mehtiö said.

LUKE noted that Mehtiö will defend her doctoral dissertation, “Genetics of Novel Feed Efficiency & Related Traits in Nordic Dairy Cattle,” Sept. 30 at the University of Helsinki.

Cattle Market Transparency Act introduced in Senate

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The past few years have been very difficult for cattle producers due to tough conditions and big market disruptions like the Tyson Foods beef plant fire in Holcomb, Kan., and the outbreak of COVID-19. In response, Sen. Debbie Fischer (R., Neb.) introduced the Cattle Market Transparency Act of 2020 that attempts to restore transparency and accountability in the cattle market by establishing regional negotiated cash minimums and equipping producers with more market information. 

Fischer said her bill will ensure that there are a sufficient number of cash transactions to facilitate price discovery and equip producers with more price information to assist them with their marketing decisions.

This summer, the U.S. Department of Agriculture concluded its investigation into potential market manipulation in the cattle industry following a fire at the Tyson plant in Holcomb and the COVID-19 pandemic. Following that investigation, Fischer committed to introducing legislation to resolve ongoing challenges in the cattle market. The Cattle Market Transparency Act of 2020 will:

  • Establish regional mandatory minimum thresholds of negotiated cash trades to enable price discovery in cattle marketing regions, which requires the secretary of agriculture to establish regionally sufficient levels of negotiated cash trade, seek public comment on those levels and then implement;
  • Require USDA to create and maintain a library of marketing contracts between packers and producers and require packers to supply this information to USDA;
  • Mandate that a packer report the number of cattle scheduled to be delivered for slaughter each day for the next 14 days -- a requirement that already exists for the swine industry, and
  • Make clear that all information should be reported in a manner that ensures confidentiality, and note, “Nothing in this section permits the secretary, or any officer or employee of the secretary, to withhold from the public the information [required to be reported under Livestock Mandatory Reporting].”

Nebraska Cattlemen president Ken Herz said the cattle contract library and clarification of USDA's Livestock Mandatory Reporting (LMR) confidentiality guidelines to avoid non-reporting of LMR-collected data on a regional and national basis will aid in increasing cattle market transparency for all producers. Additionally, directing USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service to establish regionally negotiated cash plus negotiated grid marketing volume minimum thresholds will enhance price discovery goals and commitments for the betterment of all cattle producers.

“On behalf of our farm and ranch members, I want to thank Sen. Fischer for her dedication and commitment to Nebraska beef producers,” Nebraska Farm Bureau president Steve Nelson said. “Sen. Fischer’s Cattle Market Transparency Act of 2020 is a positive step forward in identifying actions to address concerns and challenges surrounding cattle markets. Many of the areas identified in Sen. Fischer’s legislation match up with recommendations offered by the Nebraska Farm Bureau’s Cattle Markets Task Force.”

However, the nation’s largest cattle group – the National Cattlemen’s Beef Assn. (NCBA) – stopped short of endorsing Fischer’s bill.

“Price discovery is an issue of critical importance to cow/calf producers, stockers, backgrounders and feeders across the United States, and more negotiated trade is needed throughout the cattle feeding regions to ensure sufficient price discovery,” NCBA said in a statement. “That is why all of NCBA’s 46 state affiliate organizations unanimously adopted a fed cattle price discovery policy at our 2020 Summer Business Meeting. This policy directs NCBA to pursue a voluntary approach to price discovery that includes triggers established by a working group of producer members, which, if tripped due to a lack of regionally sufficient negotiated trade, would prompt NCBA to seek legislative or regulatory solutions — such as those outlined in Sen. Fischer’s bill — to achieve robust price discovery.”

NCBA said it has been working diligently to establish these triggers and identify a path to increase negotiated trade across all cattle feeding regions. NCBA anticipates that the subgroup will meet the Oct. 1 deadline set by the policy to establish regional triggers.

“Sen. Fischer’s bill explores many avenues to improve transparency in the cattle markets. The creation of a cattle contracts library and clarification of confidentiality rules will provide crucial data to cattle producers as they seek to make informed marketing decisions. However, our policy dictates that the voluntary framework we are developing be allowed the opportunity to succeed or fail before we can lend our support to regional mandatory minimums for negotiated trade,” NCBA said. "We welcome a continued dialogue with Sen. Fischer and her colleagues on ways to achieve robust price discovery for all cattle producers."

Pilgrim’s Pride names interim leader as CEO

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Pilgrim’s Pride Corp. announced Sept. 23 that the board of directors has appointed Fabio Sandri as president and chief executive officer of Pilgrim’s, effective immediately. Sandri had been serving as interim president and CEO since Jayson Penn, the former company leader, took a leave of absence after being indicted by the U.S. Department of Justice for his alleged role in a conspiracy to “fix prices and rig bids" for broiler chickens.

In the latest announcement, the company said Penn is no longer with the company.

“I am humbled and excited to be selected by the board to lead Pilgrim’s in our next stage of growth and opportunity for our team members,” Sandri said. “I look forward to working alongside our strong team of professionals around the globe who are committed to realizing Pilgrim’s vision to be the best and most respected company in our industry.”

Sandri joined Pilgrim’s as chief financial officer in June 2011 and was appointed interim president and CEO on June 15, one day after Penn began a paid leave of absence. The company has initiated a search process to identify a new CFO to replace Sandri.

Sandri is the former CFO of Estacio Participações, a private post-secondary educational institution in Brazil, and former corporate controller of Braskem S.A., a New York Stock Exchange-listed petrochemical company headquartered in Camaçari, Brazil. He earned his master of business administration degree in 2001 from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

In June, Pilgrim’s announced that Penn had begun a paid leave of absence after a federal judge prohibited Penn from contacting employees of eight companies involved in the case. At the time, the company said Penn intended to use his time to focus on his defense of the recently disclosed indictment against him, to which he had pleaded not guilty.

“Pilgrim’s operates with the highest standards of integrity and is committed to free and open competition that benefits both customers and consumers,” Gilberto Tomazoni, chairman of the Pilgrim’s board of directors, said at that time. “The board takes the recent allegations very seriously and believes it is in the best interests of both Jayson and the company that he is given the opportunity to focus on his legal defense during this time.”

Tomazoni added, “Jayson has built a strong leadership team at Pilgrim’s. The board has complete confidence in the ability of Fabio and the team to continue to implement Pilgrim’s strategy and successfully run day-to-day operations.”

According to the indictment, from at least as early as 2012 until at least early 2017, Penn, Roger Austin, Mikell Fries and Scott Brady, together with co-conspirators “known and unknown to the grand jury,” allegedly conspired to fix prices and rig bids for broiler chickens across the U.S. During that time frame, Penn was an employee at a supplier but was hired as president and CEO of Pilgrim’s in March 2019. Austin is a former vice president of Pilgrim’s. Fries is the president and a member of the board at Claxton Poultry Farms, headquartered in Georgia, and Brady is vice president of Claxton.

Penn, Austin, Fries and Brady are the first to be charged in an ongoing criminal investigation into price fixing and bid rigging involving broiler chickens, DOJ said.

The offense charged carries a statutory maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $1 million fine. The maximum fine may be increased to twice the gain derived from the crime or twice the loss suffered by victims if either amount is greater than $1 million.

Panhandle Milling acquiring some Arrowhead Mills assets

Panhandle Milling announced this week that it is acquiring the Arrowhead Mills facility in Hereford, Texas. These new assets will serve to further-grow Panhandle Milling’s business via the expansion of capabilities, products and custom packaging solutions.

Panhandle Milling’s new and current capabilities include extrusion, flaking, drying, enrobing, grinding and roasting. The expanded product portfolio boasts exciting new innovations like cereals, beans, whole grains, legumes, cereals and flakes, organic flours, stone-ground whole wheat, mixes and blends and gluten-free specialty flours and grains.

Panhandle Milling offers custom packaging as well as stand-up pouches, pillow pouches for cereals and beans and bag-in-a-box for mixes. A variety of certifications are also available, including BRC, GFSI, non-GMO, gluten free and kosher.

Another development and expansion currently in the works is PHM Safe’s ready-to-eat technology that will be an optional addition for all Panhandle Milling products offerings across all facilities.

“In the past six months, we’ve seen an enormous demand spike in the retail flour and mix spaces. We are excited that with the Arrowhead Assets, Panhandle Milling will allow us to accommodate the rapidly growing needs of both new and existing retail customers and serve to strengthen our partnerships in the flour space,” Panhandle Milling president Peter Bisaccia said.

In addition to continuing to support the growth of its customers, PHM Brands said it is also proud to play a role in maintaining and supporting the local Hereford workforce.

“Supporting west Texas and the people of west Texas through both jobs and wholesome, nourishing food has always been central to the values and the mission of our Panhandle Milling business,” Bisaccia said. “During these uncertain times, we’re in a unique position of growth, and it’s important that we actively work to pay it forward.”

The addition of the Hereford facility is the first of a series of expansions to come in the near future that will continue to focus on serving retailers and customers in key areas of the country.

Feed, stress may influence salmon flesh pigmentation

Photo: Tom Haga/Nofima. NOFIMA ksefilet-klar-til-tilberedning-tom-haga-nofima-scaled.jpg
Scientists will investigate how feed composition affects fillet color and the salmon’s ability to manage stress.

Salmon flesh gets its reddish color from a pigment called astaxanthin, an antioxidant that is added to the feed in farmed salmon, Norway's Nofima applied research institute explained.

According to the Norwegian Seafood Research Fund (FHF), pigment levels in salmon fillets have decreased in recent years, and some fish farms have reported that 2020 saw some of the lowest pigment levels ever measured in Norwegian farmed salmon, Nofima said in its announcement.

In recent years, both the feed and the stress levels of salmon have changed. Farmed salmon eat feed that contains a lower percentage of marine-based raw materials, and frequent delousing stresses the fish, which may increase their need for astaxanthin, Nofima said.

Therefore, researchers are investigating how feed composition affects fillet color and the salmon’s ability to manage stress.

“This project will provide the knowledge necessary for the future salmon industry to safely produce salmon using modern feed ingredients without compromising fillet pigmentation and fish health,” said Kristian Prytz, head of aquaculture industry/processing at FHF.

Pigmentation affected by feed composition

The research underway now builds on an FHF project that teamed up Nofima scientists with researchers at the Norwegian University of Science & Technology (NTNU) to investigate the connection between the content of marine-based raw materials in feed and salmon fillet color.

When there are fewer marine-based raw materials in the feed, there are also lower amounts of different types of fats, such as phospholipids, Nofima explained. Phospholipid is important for the transport of nutrients through the intestine and can affect how salmon utilize pigments.

“The FHF project was very interesting, but we were also left with new questions that needed answering,” Nofima senior scientist Trine Ytrestøyl said.

In summary, Nofima said the research shows that pigmentation can be affected when changing feed composition in the following ways:

  • The amount of phospholipid in the feed affected salmon’s digestibility of astaxanthin and fat. The salmon grew more slowly if the levels of phospholipid in the feed were too low.
  • Not having enough fish meal in the feed reduced salmon appetite, and fat accumulation was found in the intestine.
  • When phospholipid was added to feed low in fish meal, it normalized salmon digestibility and growth.
  • Salmon that received feed supplemented with marine-based phospholipid deposited less intestinal fat than salmon that received feed supplemented with phospholipid made from soybeans.
  • Although pigment digestibility was similar in the two groups, the salmon that received soy lecithin had the reddest fillets.

“The results of this trial show that although intestinal uptake is a bottleneck regarding the utilization of astaxanthin, what happens after intestinal uptake is also very important in relation to how much of the pigment ends up in salmon muscle,” Ytrestøyl said.

New project

In the new project, which is in collaboration with NTNU and Skretting, investigations will take place to find out whether there is a link between the vitamin A content in the feed and the color of salmon muscle and whether salmon stress has an impact on pigmentation, Nofima said.

“The project will also include work focusing on the importance of feed phospholipids in relation to the color of salmon flesh. We will compare plant-based phospholipids with marine-based phospholipids to see how this can affect the salmon’s utilization of astaxanthin,” Ytrestøyl added.

Ytrestøyl, who has a doctorate in pigmentation, said she is looking forward to delving even deeper into basic biology. In addition to feeding trials, the researchers will use cell models and new advanced methods — such as gene editing with CRISPR/Cas9 — to investigate biological mechanisms involved in in the salmon’s use of astaxanthin, the announcement said.

“Based on experiments using mammals, we have selected some candidate genes whose function we want to investigate through the use of gene editing (CRISPR). These are genes involved in the uptake, conversion and deposition of astaxanthin in various tissues and organs,” Ytrestøyl said.

Despite the fact that the color of salmon fillets is an important characteristic when it comes to quality, very little still is known about how external factors and biological mechanisms interact and lead to reduced pigmentation in salmon fillets, Nofima concluded.