McDonalds and Costco Make Headlines ; Farmers and Processors Make Safe Food

McDonalds and Costco made headlines last week when they announced a campaign to eliminate the sale of food products treated with antibiotics.  While many consumers rejoiced, others questioned the need for such a proclamation. Are farmers needlessly injecting their animals with antibiotics?  Is there antibiotic residue in the meat we eat?  How can consumers be assured their food is truly safe?  As a small meat processor, I have seen firsthand the USDA’s commitment to this issue.  Countless hours have been spent discussing preventative measures and receiving training to ensure that the food produced within my facility is safe for human consumption.

In order to be eligible for slaughter, animals must be able to walk off the trailer and pass an ante-mortem inspection…things that are not always easy when sick livestock are involved.  While the media would have consumers believe that antibiotics are unnecessarily pumped into healthy animals, the truth is that sometimes – despite a farmer’s best efforts – livestock get sick.  Random infections, traumatic births, and muscle aches are all reasons why good farmers make the choice to medicate their animals.  Unfortunately, sometimes the medicines do not work and the producer is forced to decide the greater good…humanely slaughtering the animal in a facility such as mine with the hope of preserving the meat, or allowing the animal to finish its life on the farm where prolonged suffering may occur.  This choice is not an easy one.

To aid my customers in this process, all producers are asked to complete a livestock verification form when bringing their animals for slaughter.  This internal documentation ensures the topics of age, origin, and health are discussed with every animal.  Through these conversations, I have denied service to several producers over the years whose livestock did not meet the recommended antibiotic withdrawl period.  In every case, these farmers were more concerned about the safety of their animals and their consumers than about their profit.

Unfortunately, larger slaughterhouses do not always have the ability to talk directly with farmers and learn the health-history of every animal…making the USDA’s role even more important.  As part of their commitment to food safety, the USDA randomly samples meat from every facility to ensure that it is clear of all pathogens and residue.  These carcasses are held at the processor until the results are analyzed and the USDA is satisfied the meat is completely safe. While admittedly not a full-proof method, this random sampling has proven to be very effective in preventing tainted meat from entering the market.

Lab Result Report

As we have seen this past week, retailers like McDonalds and Costco are good at making headlines.  However, consumers can feel confident knowing that farmers, processors, and USDA staff are committed to making safe meat products…not just for your family but also for our own!

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Science: A Gift of the Heart

A young Caden at the Marbles Museum in Raleigh

A young Caden at the Marbles Museum in Raleigh

Yesterday I watched an ultrasound of my son’s heart.  Recent unexplained chest pains, rapid heart rates, and low oxygen levels had brought us to the pediatric cardiologist office that afternoon. I was scared and very anxious as I watched the sound I first heard over 11 years ago suddenly visible on the ultrasound screen.  I stood guard as the technician carefully examined each chamber of his heart, taking numerous digital images from varying angles. I saw the bright red and blue colors circulate his heart, indicating the blood flow that was occurring throughout his body.  With each rhythmic pump, that powerful muscle was allowing my little boy to live – to breath – and I was truly overwhelmed by the science and technology that allowed us to capture every heartbeat on the screen.

Science in medicine is a beautiful thing. I have confidence in knowing whatever issues my precious boy is facing, medical professionals will use their knowledge and resources to help keep him safe and healthy. However, I am often perplexed why consumers do not have that same trust and confidence in the farmers and the processors who oversee their food. Debates about GMOs, antibiotics, and pesticides are frequent on social media. Strong opinions exist on both sides, and there is very little common ground in these conversations.  However, what most consumers fail to understand is the science utilized in crop selection and management is just a small part of the technology used to ensure the food in our grocery stores and farmers markets is safe for human consumption.

As a small meat processor, science plays a huge role in the safety of the food produced at my facility.  Multiple e-coli and salmonella tests are required on all carcasses (grain-fed, grass-fed, and even organic) at varying steps in production.  Random tests are also done to check for antibiotic residue in the meat.  When testing for listeria, everything from the product, to the floor drains, to door handles are sampled to ensure there is absolutely no contamination.   As a plant owner, I am responsible for conducting my own microbiological tests, but the FSIS (Food Safety Inspection Service) officials of the USDA are also on-site, overseeing my operations and performing their own tests throughout the process.  Regardless of the production methods utilized in the field, science is vital in bringing safe food products to our grocery store shelves.

Caden loves helping pack the boxes at the plant

Caden loves helping pack the boxes at the plant

As a mom, it is my job to ensure the health and the safety of my children.  As a farmer and as a processor, it is also my job to ensure the food that I produce is safe…not only for my family but also for the consumers that we supply.  Science plays an important role in both of these endeavors. While most people will never have a cardiologist discuss their little boy’s heart on a monitor or a meat processor examine the results of Shiga toxins in their hamburger,  I pray that one day we can all learn to appreciate the science and technology that aids both of these valued professions in doing their job.

Rebel Against the Labels

 

As a mom, I have always rebelled against labels.  My husband and I made a commitment early in our parenting career that we would empower our children to explore the world and to seek out God’s purpose for their lives…whatever that may be.  We refused to let society’s preconceived ideas about what was feminine and masculine influence the way we raised our children.  As a result, when asked to describe my kids, words like “unique” and “individual” are more likely to be used rather than the typical gender stereotypes. 

 

As adults, my husband and I realize that every person has a unique story that no single label can define.  We seek out people who are different from us, and we enjoy learning from those willing to share their experiences.  Because of this mindset, my children have attended a plethora of churches and been in extreme social settings…ranging from ministering to a homeless man to dining with legislators. 

 

We have taught our children that true identity only comes in knowing the Creator.  For my family, that means the only labels we embrace are “child of the King” and “sons and daughters of God”.  Categorizing words like “smart”, “athletic”, “popular”, and even “beautiful” have no meaning in our house unless they used in the context of the God who created them.

 

Given my aversion to labels, it is ironic that my family works in an industry that has become consumed by labeling.  “GMO”, “organic”, “grassfed”, “pasture-raised”, “handcrafted”…the list goes on and on.  There is an entire division of the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) dedicated to overseeing and enforcing food product labels.  As consumers demand transparency from their food and as companies seek out new ways to meet this demand, the number of regulated labeling terms has sky-rocketed…resulting in overwhelmed FSIS staff and confusion among the industry. 

 

As a processing agent, it is my responsibility to ensure that every product that leaves my facility has a properly approved label.  Both my plant and my front line USDA inspectors oversee this process weekly to ensure that all products meet FSIS regulation.   In the unlikely event that a product does enter the food chain with an improper label, regulatory agents are also on the ground and monitoring store shelves…helping to ensure the integrity of this labeling process.  However, despite our best attempts, human error can (and does) exist. 

 

Two weeks ago a concerned (I prefer to believe this rather than the nosey and jealous alternative) consumer contacted my district inspector to report a mislabeled product from my facility.  Immediately, my inspectors asked to review my records and thoroughly re-examined every label issued from my meat processing plant. Fearing the possibility that I had misinterpreted the regulation and desperately wanting to remove all doubt of incompliance, I resubmitted the label in question for online FSIS approval.   However, instead of receiving a definitive answer, the confusion of this labeling process and the fallacies of these production terms were further manifested.  I have spent the last week exchanging emails with various FSIS personnel (also known as labeling authorities) only to be given incorrect and outdated information…and eventually an apology by the Deputy Director of this division.  Yesterday I received confirmation that my original label was indeed in compliance and all USDA guidelines had been followed when categorizing this product. 

 

While it is comforting to know that I was correct, I also realize this joy will be short lived.  As consumers continue to ask questions and as the government attempts to validate production claims, there is no doubt our label approval system will have to be amended.  Some producers are seeking additional validation through outside agencies, such as the American Grassfed Association and Global Animal Partnership.  However, organizations such as these charge producers a fee for their services, diminishing the farm’s financial sustainability.  I do not believe they are the answer. 

 

Just like no one can truly know my children without knowing the God who created them, true food transparency only comes when we understand those contributing to its creation.  While all food originates on farms and ranches, we also have to include processors, distributors, and end-users (chefs, restaurants, and retailers) in this conversation.  For example, a consumer valuing organic produce may not understand the conditions and distance that food traveled in order to achieve the low Aldi’s price for an organic apple in contrast to the farmer’s market higher price down the street.  While both items are safe and acceptable, the stories of their creation are vastly different than their “organic” labels would have you believe. 

 

As a society, we are fighting back against those who try to define us with external terms.  We don’t allow a label to define a person, so why are we so eager to accept a label attached to food?  Consumers express distrust for convenient and fast food, so why are they so eager to accept convenient and fast labels? Instead, I challenge you to get to know your food.  Ask questions about every step of the process…how it was raised, where it was processed, and how far it traveled.  When you do, I think you will join in my rebellion that, just like people, there is more to your food than a label can define. 

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Defining Sustainability

There are buzz words in every industry, and agriculture is certainly no different.  In the past, terms such as “local”, “organic”, and “grass-fed” caused such a diverse response among agricultural producers and consumers the USDA was forced to intervene with an official (and regulated) definition.  However, as we progress into 2014, there is nothing generating more agricultural buzz than the word “sustainable”.

Food giant McDonald’s brought this term to the forefront earlier this year when McDonald’s announced their aim to purchase verified sustainable beef starting in 2016.  Immediately, the agricultural community began questioning what this means and examining how the process will unfold.  However, prior to this announcement, McDonald’s had already begun defining this term through a partnership with other beef industry leaders with the creation of The Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB).  My husband and I currently represent Harris-Robinette Beef as producer members of this organization.

As we work within this committee to define sustainable beef, it was important that Patrick and I examine the word and its meaning…not only for the world, but also for North Carolina.

  • Merriam-Webster defines sustainable as “able to be used without being completely used up or destroyed” and “able to last or continue for a long time”.
  • Industry publication Beef Magazine expounds on this and refers to sustainable as “not only the preservation of the environment but also the continuation of U.S. beef production as a profitable and enduring entity. That means not only working to sustain environmental and animal resources but using concepts and practices that will allow U.S. beef production to grow in size and scope, thus offering a future for new generations in production agriculture.”
  • The GRSB’s recently released Draft Principles and Criteria defines sustainable beef as a socially responsible, environmentally sound and economically viable product that prioritizes Planet (relevant principles: Natural Resources, Efficiency & Innovation, People and the Community); People (relevant principles: People and the Community and Food); Animals (relevant principle: Animal health and welfare); and Progress (relevant principles: Natural Resources, People and the Community, Animal health and welfare, Food, Efficiency and Innovation).

In all of our research and conversations, it became obvious that any definition applied to beef sustainability must encompass a lasting approach and return for the producer, the animal, and the environment.  While this may sound over-simplistic, even industry leaders like Tyson and JBS can admit that in many ways “sustainable beef” directly contrasts previously-held beef production standards and practices.  In order for McDonald’s to meet their purchasing goals by 2016, producers, processors, and distributors will have to examine and amend the way they conduct business.

As the world struggles to respond to these changes, my family has been working to achieve farm sustainability since our inception.  In 2002, my husband Patrick and my father Larry Harris were awarded a $10,000 RAFI cost-share grant to start a grass-fed beef operation.  This money served as the catalyst for our current herd and to this day remains the only grant funding my family has received, supporting our belief that any business that defines itself as sustainable must do so without the continuous use of grant or government dollars (We will talk more about this in a later blog!).  In addition to being financially sustainable, my family also realizes that beef sustainability must incorporate value to the entire carcass.  Slaughtering for steaks and ground alone is simply not cost-effective without a market for the brisket, short ribs, and other primal cuts.  Early in our business, my family established partnerships with several food service companies and restaurants who shared our commitment for whole-carcass usage.  Through honest dialogues and joint collaboration, Harris-Robinette Beef has grown to include other producer families, investment into a slaughter and processing facility (Micro Summit Processors), and distribution through US Foods.

While the verdict is still undecided as to how the beef industry will define sustainability, Harris-Robinette Beef has embraced the hashtag “#SustainbleBeef” knowing that our family is doing our part to provide consumers with an affordable, environmentally sound, high quality, nutritious beef to best serve the interest of our farmers and to preserve agriculture in a sustainable fashion for the good of our land, our families, and our society.

#SustainableBeef

“What exactly is it that you do, Amy?”

I recently ran into an old friend whom I had not seen in a while.  After a few moments of catching up on our husbands and our kids, my friend cautiously approached the topic that we both had been avoiding.  As a “friend” on Facebook, she has seen the pictures of my family and read my status updates; however, my friend could not make the connection between the Amy she knows in life and sees on social media with the “processor” title included in my profile.  I could not help but panic and sputter when this dear friend asked me the very simple question…”What exactly is it that you do, Amy?”

What exactly do I do?  How do I explain my job to this friend in a way that is simple, yet also accurate?  Do I tell her that I slaughter and process animals for meat?  Even to me, these words invoke images of old-school horror movies or those Sara McLachlan commercials with the sappy music….no, that isn’t the correct response!  Do I tell her that I partner with local farmers and ranchers (including my husband) in the final stage of meat production?  While certainly accurate, this response still does little to dispel the myths plaguing our modern meat industry.  The silence was awkward as I struggled to respond.

While I am still not sure exactly what response I finally uttered, in the past few weeks I have spent a great deal of time reflecting on this exchange.  It wasn’t some stranger asking…this was my friend!  She prayed with me during my dad’s previous battle with prostate cancer; she congratulated my daughter’s FFA accomplishments…this person knows me!  Therefore, why was it so difficult to tell her the truth of my profession?

It is time that the veil of secrecy surrounding our nation’s meat industry is removed.  Consumers are demanding more transparency from their food sources, and it is up to people like me – the farmers, the ranchers, the processors, the packers, the distributors, and, yes, even the government – to come clean about what is happening in our fields and facilities.  While we all have different roles and use various methods of production, each of us has a responsibility to tell the truth of our operations.

I have never met anyone involved in the food industry with a desire to harm consumers, animals, or the environment.  However, I have also never met anyone involved in the food industry – or any industry, for that matter – who has not made mistakes.  We teach our children to be kind to others (even if they are different from ourselves) and to always tell the truth (even when there may be negative consequences).   Therefore, it’s time that we take this same approach with conversations surrounding our food.

Sadly, there is not one blog post or single conversation that can explain the history of our food supply, the challenges of our current industry, and best way to feed our world’s growing population.  However, hopefully by telling my story about the struggles and the successes my family has encountered in our attempts to bring safe, local, and affordable meat to North Carolina, this veil of secrecy can start to be removed.

And, maybe…just maybe…I will find a way not to panic the next time someone asks me, “What exactly is it that you do, Amy?”

A Journey of a Thousand Miles

It’s true that a journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step, and, therefore, it seems only fitting that  a successful blogger must begin with an initial blog.  As an avid reader, I have always loved the written word…yet, I have never felt led to produce my own. However, after a series of conversations with my already-blogging teenage daughter, I was forced to admit that my role as a teacher did not end simply because I left the classroom.  God continues to stretch my thinking and challenge my stereotypes on so many areas of life, and, while I certainly do not not claim to have all of the answers, I pray that someone else can glean a little wisdom of their own through my experiences.

The theme of this blog is actually very simple…this will consist of my thoughts on my life and my experiences.   While meat processing and cattle producing are my business, my family and my children are my heart.  These areas come together in my family’s support of NC FFA and 4-H.  Through this blog, we will discuss HACCP, the definition of a sustainable farm, why I don’t allow my daughter to SnapChat, the importance of agricultural education, and what it’s like to be married to someone completely opposite from you….all while honoring God in the process!

While I don’t know where this journey will take us, I thank you for partnering with me as we take these initial steps together!