Can we trust what we're eating? (commentary)

DISCUSSIONS about any technology in the food system can sometimes be prickly.

It's hard to navigate through various contrasting ideas and opinions on both sides of the matter; they're often strongly entrenched.

Given the recent sequence of events surrounding Merck Animal Health's Zilmax and the mainstream media coverage that ensued after Tyson banned cattle fed the zilpaterol product, it's important to tackle the issue of beta-agonists.

Given that several weeks have passed since Tyson's announcement, the issue has cooled off somewhat, seemingly making it a good time to visit the topic from a broader perspective.

The events of late aren't completely surprising but certainly reached a tipping point with Tyson's announcement to cease the purchase of cattle fed zilpaterol due to animal welfare concerns.

Several food industry issues have garnered public attention over the years. This one, however, was especially interesting to watch unfold.

Following Tyson's announcement, the initial response from Merck was fairly predictable, with the company firing back that Tyson had wrongly assigned blame on beta-agonists and inappropriately singled out Zilmax. That brewed back and forth for about a week until Merck's sudden (and unexpected) self-imposed suspension of sales.

That's when this all became mainstream. What great fodder for the media: two large, publicly traded companies on the opposite side of an issue. Better yet, it's about food — something everyone is always interested in.

The ramifications are important.

All indications are that some very real animal welfare issues exist — namely, lameness and heat stress — albeit sporadically and seemingly triggered by some unforeseen interactions in the production system. Nonetheless, those left Tyson feeling vulnerable on several fronts.

For one, logistical challenges at the slaughter plant must be considered. If cattle are hesitant to walk, it slows down operations throughout and creates headaches for plant managers.

Two, it creates the possibility for a public relations nightmare because anyone can take a video of such problems at the plant and openly post it on social media.

Both factors are unacceptable. More important, though, is the fallout from different perspectives:

* First, industry politics. The manner in which this played out should dispel any preconceived notion anyone might have when speaking collectively about the "industry."

Ironically (or not), Tyson's initial pronouncement occurred during the same time the National Cattlemen's Beef Assn. was hosting a special beta-agonist meeting at its Cattle Industry Summer Conference. Therefore, let's never assume any broad allegiance to "industry." These companies operate based on the best interests of their customers and shareholders.

With that in mind, the decision represents an appropriate response to those concerns; Tyson is attempting to protect its brand equity.

* Second, and more significant, consumers. Consumers are now asking questions about zilpaterol. Specifically, they're wondering why they didn't know about this product before now, and they want to know why this type of product is being fed to hogs and cattle in the first place.

That perspective reminds me of some thoughts I previously shared in this column discussing the horse meat scandal in Europe suggesting that we revisit the lessons learned from the lean, finely textured beef (a.k.a. "pink slime") situation because they are somewhat parallel scenarios: Both are potential game changers and speak to the broader consequences of consumers finding out some aspect about their food after the fact.

That sentiment was echoed in comments following a Wall Street Journal article about Merck's decision to suspend Zilmax sales titled, "What's Ailing America's Cattle?"

One comment caught my attention in particular: "This is foolish. ... We are pumping cattle full of drugs to fatten them up without understanding the unintended consequences. Can we trust what we are really eating anymore?"

Therein lays the real issue. Never mind the science. Never mind the economics. If there's an issue of trust associated with any practice, consumers are going to push back.

All of this underscores the reality that transparency within the food system has never been more important.

*Dr. Nevil C. Speer is with Western Kentucky University and serves on the board of the National Institute for Animal Agriculture, a national organization devoted to engaging livestock producers and livestock health professionals in developing solutions for issues in the livestock industry.

Volume:85 Issue:35

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