Tuesday, October 28, 2014

“Big Ag”

Whoever thought that agriculture of all things, would be referred to as “Big Ag”, spoken in a scathing tone of voice? And the farmers….cruel, money hungry scoundrels that are surely the ones responsible for E.coli outbreaks and people becoming ill. I mean, if they didn’t feed their cattle such a horrible diet, then undoubtedly the problem would resolve itself. Consider this quote regarding E.coli in beef:

 "It's not found in the intestinal tracts of cattle raised on their natural diet of grass, hay, and other fibrous forage. No, O157 thrives in a new—that is, recent in the history of animal diets—biological niche: the unnaturally acidic stomachs of beef and dairy cattle fed on grain, the typical ration on most industrial farms." –Nina Planck, New York Times

Well there you have it. If it’s in the New York Times, it must be true. Unfortunately this is just one example of a widespread problem of information that is, partially or entirely, incorrect being communicated to the public. Let’s consider 5 common misunderstandings regarding E.coli that were discussed at a 2009 luncheon by Washington State University’s Veterinary Medicine Extension:

1.       "Cattle farmers are responsible for the E coli O157:H7 problem"
2.       "Feeding cattle grass or grass hay reduces E coli O57:H7 shedding in cattle"
3.       "Meatpacking plants are responsible for the E coli O157:H7 problem"
4.       "Consumers are responsible for the E coli O157:H7 problem"
5.       "Public health agencies are responsible for the E coli O157:H7 problem"

Each of these misunderstandings can be explained and/or debunked. The first thing that needs to be understood about this bacteria is the difference between generic E.coli and the 0157:H7 strain. Generic E.coli is found naturally in the G.I. tract of many living creatures, including humans and animals. It lives and grows there harmlessly and is shed in feces. There are hundreds of strains of E.coli and many of them have no effect on humans but may be a risk to certain animals. E.coli 0157:H7 is one particular strain that is causes toxicity in humans and was responsible for the Jack in the Box outbreak in the early 90’s, thus the reason it is so well known. Of course, the average consumer is completely unaware of the distinction between 0157:H7 and other strains or even that multiple strains exist. But let’s return to our myths.

1.       This probably began and picked up momentum from a tiny, incomplete study (3 cows) done by Cornell University, which was then extrapolated to the entire industry. Unfortunately, it was done a by a credible university and without looking into the details, it provides fuel to the fire for reporters looking for culprits to blame in the event of an E.coli outbreak.

2.       After 15 years of studies, there is no consistent evidence supporting the statement that grain-fed cattle shed higher amounts of E.coli 0157:H7 than grass or hay fed cattle. Most of the studies indicate they are about the same. 

3.       No they are not but there is some criticism of the meat processing system that is legitimate. Ground beef is the most likely culprit here. The whole basis of ground beef is that it’s an inexpensive meat. It’s made in very large batches, with the scraps and cheap cuts of meat from many, many animals. This increases risk of contamination due to the sheer number of animals being used and the increased surface area that could be exposed to bacteria. Additionally, testing for E.coli 0157:H7 is complicated by the massive amount of product. Random samples collected from these super batches of ground beef may test negative but that does not guarantee the entire batch is negative.

4.       Consumers are cooking the meat they purchase in their kitchens or on the grill, not in a sterile lab using aseptic technique. So if E.coli 0157:H7 is present, there is a high likelihood of contamination. Meat packaging does not necessarily lend itself to aseptic removal from the package and on to the cooking surface. That being said, one way in which consumers share some responsibility is in the absolute public rejection of gamma radiation of meat to eliminate bacterial organisms. This is an FDA approved method, analogous to pasteurization of milk, but the perception of it has been soundly rejected.

5.       Public health agencies are simply responsible for detection and reporting. If they fail in these responsibilities, then they’ll be accused of being remiss in their duty or worse, trying to conduct a “cover-up”. To try and hold them responsible for the presence of E.coli 0157:H7 is ludicrous.

The United States has some of the best food safety in the world. But there are a huge number of people and variables involved in producing and processing enough food to meet demands. So the next time there is the temptation to jump on the bandwagon of accusations against conventional farmers, please take the time to do some research first. 


Friday, October 24, 2014

The Natural GMO

I grew up in rural western Iowa. In the past two decades, the landscape has become dominated by the Midwestern cash crop, corn. Row after row, acre after acre, mile after mile is filled with perfectly straight columns of neatly arranged specialized green grass. While most see these fields as vast emptiness, or perhaps the perfect scene out of the horror movie series “Children of the Corn,” I see peace, solitude and home. Most of these plants thrive and produce bushels upon bushels of corn at a higher rate than any other area in the world. The secret isn’t simply the rich black soil, abundant rain and high humidity. Part of the success story lies in the fact that most of these plants are GMOs. Recent media survey after recent media survey suggest that there is an growing concern among the general American public about GMOs. While Jimmy Kimmel does an excellent job broadcasting how little the American public actually knows about GMOs, a more reputable source has pointed out that most American’s don’t actually know a whole lot about GMOs and their role in today’s food sources.

GMOs are Genetically Modified Organisms. Their use in American culture dates back approximately 30 years. While mainstream ideas of GMOs are centered around food products genetically modified with particular genes for drought resistance, parasite resistance or increased yield, the first GMO routinely used in America is much different. GMOs took the spotlight when E. coli was given a gene to produce insulin, creating the product Humulin. In all animals, insulin is produced naturally by the pancreas in special Pancreatic Beta Cells. Insulin is secreted in response to an increase in blood sugar causing cells throughout the body to absorb the excess sugar for energy use and storage. Without insulin, the body eliminates sugar through the kidneys in a condition most American’s know: Diabetes Mellitus. Prior to Humulin, insulin products were derived from beef and pig pancreatic tissue... post-slaughter.

So, it’s a proven fact: GMOs have been saving lives and taking names for over 30 years. So why is the science behind genetic modification so dirty and controversial? Some claim that genetically modifying natural foods is simply unnatural. There is potential to disrupt natural processes in the body, and to that, I say I agree. Genetic modification of organisms does disrupt natural processes, sometimes. It’s called evolution. Think I’m being sarcastic? Well, just a little bit, but here are some awesome examples of how natural GMOs have shaped our human existence.

The year was 1832. London is a bustling cultural center, an over-populated metropolis, and the opening stage of a deadly epidemic. A naïve population of northern Europeans are massively exposed to a highly contagious bacterium, Vibrio cholera. The result the exposure is massive diarrhea. The bacterium releases a toxin which attaches to gut mucosal cells causing massive release of chloride ion into the intestine. Water and sodium are pulled out of the cell and follows the chloride into the gut creating a diarrhea. The end result without the advances of modern medicine is death in over 80% of the cases.  All naïve individuals are effected, except for a subpopulation of individuals that are genetically modified. So what genetic modification saves you from cholera? The same gene that causes cystic fibrosis. The same mutation to these chloride pumps that causes lack of fluid production in the upper respiratory tract, build up of thick viscous mucous and eventual complications in humans also protects intestinal cells from over-secreting chloride when activated by cholera toxin? The key to success? Only have one copy of the gene. Those individual that are carriers for the disease and only have one copy of the gene do not have symptoms of cystic fibrosis yet have enough protection mutation in their intestinal cells to protect them cholera toxin diarrhea.

But Cystic Fibrosis isn’t the only genetic modification that’s changed humanity. While gin & tonic is the natural exogenous preventative for the devastating disease of malaria in those hot and humid environments, African’s have been beating malaria naturally for thousands of years. How’d they do it? As it turns out, the continent is covered with genetically modified people. Africans that live in malaria endemic regions are also more likely to have sickle cell anemia, a condition that leads to extremely fragile and misshapen red blood cells. Untreated, the condition is fatal. How has this deadly genetic disease survived so long in this population of people? The key is, once again, to have a single copy of the modified gene. Some red blood cells remain normal while others are mutated and misshapen. The malarial parasite (Plasmodium) is not inhibited from infected people with the mutated gene, but these individuals do not succumb to the severe disease state that their unmutated counterparts do. 

The list goes on and on. Without mutations to the basic genome that makes us all more alike than different, we never would have survived the Yersinia pestis plagues killing off countless Europeans over the centuries as well as those pesky outbreaks in Eastern Asia. Influenza would have ended humanity with the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918. Being genetically modified has its perks. As with everything in this world, the key to success is control and moderation.
Genetic modifications shape our existence, there’s no doubt about that. Media tends to highlight how rapidly scientists are producing new GMO foods that stock our shelves. Organic and all natural proponents suggest that these products are ultimately detrimental to the body and the environment. To this, I’d like to point out a few flaws in the idealogy. First, humans aren’t that intelligent. I mean, sure, there are more than a few brainiacs dotting the landscape, but we aren’t super-humans (well, not yet). The genes for these GMOs are all natural. Scientist get the idea tocreate a GMO by taking a naturally existing organism, figuring out how itthrives, isolating the gene that does the job, and harnessing this gene’s power. Well, that kinda makes the lines of the term “all natural” kind of fuzzy, doesn’t it? Secondly, thanks to the recent world food talks, and the yearly World Food Prize announced last week in Iowa highlighting the increased need for food in the world, aren’t there other alternative arguments to consider? Such as, how can we produce enough food to save the world? To quote my good friend Mandy, “What the people in the world need is food, not pretentious strawberries!” 


Sunday, October 19, 2014

"You Have to Suck the Venom Out!"

It’s a beautiful day: the sun is out, the trees are green, there’s a nice breeze, and the only sounds are the singing birds in the trees and the crunching of leaves under your boots. Hiking in the woods of the Great Basin with a friend in the late afternoon provides a sense of peace and happiness that only comes when the beauty of the world surrounds you. You look up at your friend as you walk, conversing about anything, when all of the sudden, you feel a sharp pain on your calf that convinces you to look down. Rattlesnake. Amidst the conversation and the distractions of the forest, you didn’t hear the warning of its rattle, you didn’t see the venomous snake, and you didn’t have a clue what to do next.
“You have to suck the venom out!”
A common misconception surrounding venomous snake bites is that it’s a good idea to suck the venom out of the wound. For our purposes, the properties of rattlesnake venom will be discussed in specificity (there are multiple effects of venom depending on the snake). Rattlesnakes belong to the family Viperidae and the subfamily crotalinae. Crotalinae produce hemotoxic venom, which create hemorrhaging by blocking the paths of the red blood cells through blood vessels and damage tissue. With these effects, sucking the venom out would be extremely dangerous. In order to suck out venom, one would have to cut the punctures open wider, though it is virtually impossible to suck it out hard enough to get all the venom out. Even so, if venom were to be sucked out of the wound, there would be a chance of spreading the venom throughout the body of the person sucking the venom through his or her saliva as well as irritate the wound site on the bite victim. There are many misconceptions surrounding what one should do in the event of a venomous snake bite, namely using tourniquets, opening the wound, and applying ice or electrically shocking the wound, but the only safe way to treat a snake bite is through antivenom.
For a rattlesnake, the antivenom would be a crotalinae polyvalent substance, which would counteract the hemotoxin. This is created by extracting venom from a member of the crotalinae subfamily, injecting small dosages of it into an animal for several weeks (usually a horse, sheep, or goat) in order to create antibodies, then extracting the animal’s blood and centrifuging it to separate the antibodies in the serum from the blood. This serum is what is used as antivenom, and though it can be very expensive, it is completely and absolutely necessary to successfully treat a venomous snake bite.

So next time you’re bitten by a venomous snake, PLEASE do not try to suck the venom out or have your buddy suck the venom out, but remain calm, call an ambulance, pay attention to the way the snake looked (if you don’t know what kind of snake it is), and be treated with antivenom. 

Friday, October 3, 2014

    We’ve all heard it. The dairy industry is corrupt. The milk that we buy is full of antibiotics and growth hormones. I mean that’s what the media says, so it must be true, right? Adolescent girls are hitting puberty earlier, cows are living in squalid conditions and forced to produce massive amounts of milk and let’s not forget cancer! Obviously milk is not a safe bet and dairy farmers are devious manipulators, cloaked in plaid shirts and overalls, with a scheme to fill the public with toxins and make money doing it.
     Forgive me while I get on my soap box. As a dairy industry professional, my skin crawls when I hear statements like this. The media has slandered the dairy industry for the use of growth hormones in cows to increase milk production and antibiotics to treat mastitis based on lots of speculation and very little fact. The public has then taken this and amplified it ten-fold. The result is a widespread fear and shunning of milk consumption, which hurts both the livelihood of dairy farmers and the diet of consumers as milk is replaced by less nutritionally valuable foods. But let’s review some of the common myths surrounding what’s in our milk and separate fiction from fact.

1.      BST. Otherwise known as Bovine Somatotropin or rBST, which is recombinant Bovine Somatotropin. BST is a protein hormone that is produced by the pituitary gland of every cow and helps regulate metabolic processes. rBST is a synthetic version of this hormone, manufactured by Monsanto Company, which was FDA approved in the early 90’s for use in dairy cattle to increase milk production. So yes, there was a period of time where the use of rBST in cows really took off. Although BST is a hormone already naturally produced by the cow, it could be said that farmers were giving their cows’ growth hormone. However, this period has passed. Due to the unfavorable response from consumers, the popularity of rBST has decreased dramatically and most milk processing plants have banned its use, even though it is still FDA legal. Seven of the ten largest milk plants in the U.S. do not allow the use of rBST in their milk. So the question still remains….is there BST in the milk? Yes. Cows are still naturally producing it, just as they always have, which means some ends up in the milk. No testing has ever shown that the use of rBST caused residues to appear in the milk or that it has any effect on humans.

2.      Antibiotics. You may have heard the word “mastitis”. What is mastitis? It simply means an infection in the mammary gland. Cows get mastitis. Guess what? Humans do too!! A lactating gland is very susceptible to being infiltrated with bacteria, especially if any type of milking device is being used, whether it’s a milking machine or a breast pump. Humans get infections all the time (respiratory, sinus, wounds, etc.) and we take antibiotics for them. We give antibiotics to our pets when they have an infection. So why is it suddenly malicious to give them to cows when they have an infection? The FDA has very strict regulations on the use of antibiotics in food animals. Any dairy cow that is receiving antibiotic therapy for mastitis is removed from the milking herd and placed in the “hospital” pen, which is essentially a quarantine pen for sick animals. The milk from those cows does not go in the bulk tank, does not get picked up for processing and is usually discarded. EVERY single time the milk truck picks up a tank of milk, a sample is pulled and tested for antibiotic residue. The test is rapid and the result is known usually before the truck is even unloaded. So the take-home message of all this is…no, there are not any antibiotics in your milk.

3.      Organic dairies. People that buy organic milk are envisioning pastoral green fields, with spotless pet-like Holsteins grazing serenely and not so much as a tube of medicine in sight. Well, part of being a certified organic dairy IS that the cows must be allowed some access to pasture, but that may also be a desert field of sage brush. Also, it is true that organic farmers are not allowed to use ANY type of antibiotic on their cows, even if it will be life-saving. The untold story is what gets used instead. Mastitis is just as common on an organic dairy, as on a conventional dairy and in the absence of options, some farmers resort to infusing strange combinations of vinegar, oil, alcohol, detergents or other household compounds into the udder, in hopes that it will “cure” the mastitis. It doesn’t and in some cases can result in extreme pain and toxicity to the animal and even be fatal.

So my take-home message is this: don’t believe everything you see on TV or read on the internet! Food animal production is hard work and like every type of business, it has its good apples and bad eggs. But instead of simply taking things at face value, do your homework. Look closer into statements being spread before perpetuating the cycle. And know that the quality and safety of milk and dairy products in the U.S. is some of the best on the planet. Every farmer I have ever worked with truly does enjoy their lifestyle and does their best to take care of their “girls”.