America’s Food System: My Three Perspectives.
Sometimes it seems you can’t read a paper or magazine, check out your television or radio or go online without hearing more concerns about the health and safety of our food supply.
As a mom, I completely understand why shoppers want to buy the best, safest food they can.
As a member of a third-generation Illinois farm family, I wish everyone had the same understanding I do of what it takes to bring those items to your local store.
And, as a practicing veterinarian, it’s frustrating when our practices are misperceived, misunderstood or misreported.
I agree with anyone who says we deserve to know all there is to know about what goes on our plates. I’d like everyone to get clear information, direct from the source. When it comes to the antibiotics and hormones that are administered to farm animals, I feel like I can be that source.
SOME FACTS ABOUT ANTIBIOTICS FOR FARM ANIMALS
To begin, the simple fact is that we do use antibiotics in treating livestock. And in almost every case, it’s for the same reason your doctor would prescribe them: to treat an illness. When a farmer or a veterinarian notices an animal acting lethargic, when it eats less or when it shows symptoms like coughing (yes, coughing), we may administer antibiotics to get the animal healthy. There are two good reasons: First, it’s the right thing to do. Raising an animal means taking responsibility for its health and well-being. And second, a healthy animal is a better producer. So doing the right thing carries an economic benefit. From both perspectives, there’s every reason to keep farm animals healthy and comfortable.
It’s very important that there be no antibiotic residues in finished animal products, such as milk, meat or eggs. To see that doesn’t happen, farmers follow strict Food & Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines that specify withdrawal times between when the animal is medicated and when its products can be used. Here’s one example: When a dairy cow receives antibiotics, she still gets milked; but, until her milk is free of any trace of medication and the withdrawal period is past, the milk does not go to market. Each medication comes with a required withdrawal time, typically from a few days to a few weeks. Farmers keep accurate logs and are scrupulous in following appropriate withdrawal times. They have to be – FDA regulations provide for some pretty stern penalties for getting it wrong.
Another important issue around antibiotics is their role in the development of drug-resistant pathogens. Healthcare providers around the world are increasingly aware of the need to limit antibiotic use in hospitals and clinics in order to preserve the effectiveness of these valuable medical tools. And livestock producers and the veterinarians who support them have our part to do as well. When we decide that we need to use an antibiotic that is also used in human medicine, even more rules apply – that reduces any effect on the usefulness of human antibiotics. In addition, there are new FDA Veterinary Feed Directive (VFD) regulations coming into effect in late 2016 that will require farmers to work much closer with their veterinarians to use antibiotics in the feed, a huge step forward in reducing antibiotic resistance.
To me, one of the best things a veterinarian can do is just what a parent should, and that’s make sure all vaccinations are up to date. Protecting animals from infections saves them stress and discomfort, keeps them more productive and it reduces the need for antibiotic treatment. Preventing disease is always better than treating it.
DEMYSTIFYING HORMONE USE IN LIVESTOCK
Here’s a topic with a lot of complex biology and a long history of controversy. My family’s farm raises pigs, and hormone use isn’t an issue; regular use of hormones to increase growth is simply not a part of the swine industry. The same is true for poultry. Some farmers of both beef and dairy herds do employ hormones, but the amounts that get transferred to the related food shouldn’t cause concern.
Some beef farmers treat their steers with hormones. It helps to promote lean growth for a higher protein, lower fat product. And hormone treatment does affect the meat, just not much. A three ounce steak from a treated steer contains 1.9 nanograms (billionths of a gram) of estrogen, while the same steak from an untreated animal has about 1.3 nanograms. Compare that to the baked potato on the same plate. It has 225 nanograms of naturally occurring estrogen. To get that much from beef, you’d have to sit down to a meal of at least 20 pounds of steak.
I have a baby daughter, so the stories about a trend toward earlier puberty in young girls are something that catches my attention. Here’s what I’ve learned: Recent research has found that the most consistent link factor in precocious puberty is child obesity. Kids with more body fat tend to have high levels of a protein called leptin, which can trigger the body’s release of hormones that start puberty. Since the early 1990s, researchers have looked for a link with hormones in dairy milk, and so far they haven’t found one. It’s interesting to know that the most common hormone administered to dairy cattle, rBGH, is what’s called a protein hormone. That means that unlike steroid hormones like estrogen, it is broken down by the digestive process and never enters the system. And even more interesting, it is impossible to test the difference between rBGH, which is given as a shot, and endogenous BGH, which is made naturally by the cow.
There is some evidence that rBGH can increase IGF (insulin-like growth factor) in your system, and that has been associated with some health risks. But your body creates this growth factor naturally, too. As a matter of fact, it’s essential. And, the amount you might get from dairy products is tiny compared to your body’s natural levels. Here’s what Terry Etherton, Ph.D., a professor of dairy and animal science at Pennsylvania State University says: “Just to get the amount of IGF secreted in your saliva and digestive tract in a day, you’d have to drink about 95 quarts of milk.”
MY PLACE AT THE TABLE
I have to say that of all the perspectives I bring to the questions of food health and safety, my point of view as a mom is the most important to me. And everything I’ve learned from my family farm background and my veterinary practice makes me believe that our American food supply is safer and healthier today than it’s ever been. Does that mean we’re perfect? Probably not. I know that farm practices have changed since my grandpa started Gould Farms in the 1960s, and I know they’ll keep improving as we gain more knowledge.
But right now, when I go to the store, I have to say that I have 100 percent confidence that the items in my cart are safe and healthy for my daughter and for our whole family. And I’d like other parents to know what I know and to share my confidence when it comes to feeding their own families.