A MIDWESTERN newspaper just published a multi-part series that calls into question the healthfulness and safety of beef and claims that the beef industry is dominated by large, profit-motivated, corporate interests.
The series, according to beef industry sources, was a disappointment -- an agenda-driven package of stories that misreported or under-reported facts, science and history.
It was disappointing because the newspaper was given unprecedented access to feedlots and packing plants. Its reporters were allowed to observe and photograph normally proprietary operations, were given data that aren't readily available and were granted extensive interviews.
"We believed that by cooperating, (the reporter) would see what we saw: a beef industry that provides the safest and most abundant and affordable beef supply in the world," said J. Patrick Boyle, president of the American Meat Institute.
He said it is not possible "to reconcile" what the newspaper reported with data and positions reported by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), Food Safety & Inspection Service and other government agencies.
"The series was a huge disappointment," Boyle said.
The Cattlemen's Beef Board, which is charged with, among other responsibilities, providing consumer information, updated its "Facts About Beef" website to clarify a number of points.
First, the board noted that "the beef community" is comprised of almost 1 million cattle farmers and ranchers, 97% of the farms and ranches are family owned and run, 54% are in the family's third generation and most will be passed on to the fourth generation.
The board said these cattle producers "help define the future of the rural communities in which they live" by giving back with money and time, providing leadership and spurring economic growth.
For instance, 35% of producers volunteer to participate in community organizations, 47% volunteer to participate in youth organizations and 84% contribute to and participate in their churches.
On average, a cattle farm or ranch employs more than two family members and two local people, buys crops from farms within 100 miles for cattle feed and buys goods and services from businesses in their communities.
Second, the Beef Board said beef consumption -- and meat consumption generally -- is not too high.
In fact, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that individuals consume 5.5 oz. of protein per day -- a category that includes meat, poultry, fish, nuts, seeds and soy products -- but Americans actually consume just 5.1 oz. of protein per day, with beef accounting for just 1.7 oz. and 5% of total daily calories.
The board added that beef is heart healthy.
Studies have demonstrated that beef can reduce low-density lipoproteins (the "bad cholesterol") and that about half of the fatty acids in beef are heart-healthy monounsaturated fatty acids like those in olive oil. Both the amount of saturated fat and total fat in beef have decreased over time (Figure).
Studies also have shown that beef contains protein, iron, B vitamins and other minerals and vitamins that can keep a person full (satiety effect), build muscle and contribute to an active and healthy lifestyle. Specifically, a 3 oz. serving of beef provides 48% of the daily recommendation for protein, and beef and other meat provide all of the essential amino acids needed for optimal health.
Third, the Beef Board said antibiotics and growth hormones are not overused in cattle production. It explained that antibiotics are used to prevent and treat diseases and noted that experts agree that antibiotic use has actually improved beef and food safety over time.
Cattle producers avoid using antibiotics that are important in human medicine, and they use antibiotics judiciously and only on the advice of veterinarians.
Producers use growth hormones, or growth promotants, to improve the animal's conversion of feed nutrients to lean meat and production efficiency and have been doing so in the U.S. -- plus in Canada and many other countries -- since the 1950s, during which growth hormones have been heavily studied and have shown absolutely no risk to human health. These hormones are implanted in the animal's ear and are released slowly.
Producers also use beta-agonists such as ractopamine to improve feed conversion and efficiency. These products are neither antibiotics nor growth hormones, are approved by the Food & Drug Administration and are water soluble, meaning that they cannot be stored in the meat and are eliminated quickly.
Finally, the Beef Board said farmers, ranchers, packers and others involved in beef production continuously work with health specialists and meat scientists to ensure beef safety.
The board added that mechanical tenderization, a process that improves beef tenderness, is safe.
Indeed, butchers and homemakers have tenderized meat for generations, and meat packers today do so in a similar way but on a broader, mechanical scale that uses a blade, or needle, system to pierce the meat and break down its muscle fibers. There are other techniques to tenderize meat, including aging it for several days.
No matter the method used, by the time beef reaches the table, it has gone through a large number of safety steps, or interventions, to reduce the possibility of contamination from bacteria or pathogens.
In packing and processing plants, steam pasteurization, vacuums, hot water and other rinses remove contamination, and additional interventions are available for mechanically tenderized beef. Specialists test these interventions to evaluate their effectiveness and identify opportunities for improvement.
The Beef Board noted that consumers can continue these safety steps in their kitchens by keeping raw meat separate from other foods, by washing cutting boards, knives and other utensils after they come in contact with meat and by following label directions for cooking meat.
The board said CDC reported that all illnesses from Escherichia coli have decreased significantly in recent years because packers, processors, chefs and home cooks have followed these safety steps. In fact, CDC reported that there was only one illness per 100,000 people from E. coli in 2010.
Additional and specific information about beef safety is available on the Beef Board's website at www.factsaboutbeef.com by clicking on "The Fallacy of Big Beef" ("Big Beef" being the way the newspaper described the beef industry).
The site offers several links to even more information and a number of videos, including of cattle producers discussing their work and in kitchens to emphasize beef safety.
The site also answers questions about what cattle eat, the differences between grain-finished and grass-fed beef, "Meatless Mondays" and vegetarian diets and beef's role in school breakfast and lunch programs.
Information on these topics also can be found at www.FeedstuffsFoodLink.com.