Features

From pasture to plate

The final leg in the quest to find out where your burger comes from

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Last week we discussed the past and present of cattle ranching. With the consolidation of the meat packing industry, the prairie way of life has changed. The shifting cultural landscape in Alberta brings with it new and unforeseen social dilemmas. This week concerns hormone regulation and the future of cattle farming. Conventional and free range farmers discuss the controversy of growth hormones in cattle. Let's mooove on and take a look at the "udder" side of the story. To read last week's article, mosey on over here!

The ArgumentNumerous American and international scientific studies insist that growth-promoting hormones are safe. Hormones stimulate growth by increasing the efficiency with which feed is converted into muscle. These scientists state the drugs are extensively tested and reviewed by the American Food and Drug Administration and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, who agree that the hormone level found in beef is minuscule and not harmful to humans. They also point out that the hormones injected are naturally occurring in plants and animals.

"The growth hormone is a small pill-like pellet that is implanted just behind an animal's ear," explained Clarence Knutson, a farmer from central Alberta who believes the hormones are safe. "There are meat inspectors who check to ensure our meat is good. The hormones don't affect the quality or safety of the meat."

Most beef sold in Canadian supermarkets is from cattle that have been implanted with growth-promoting hormones.

A partnership between the Government of Canada and the cattle industry promotes and educates producers about on-farm beef safety. All meat that goes to market is federally inspected by Hazards Analysis Critical Control Points through the Verified Beef Production initiative. According to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, HACCP ensures risks associated with the food supply and transmission of animal disease to humans are minimized when producing Alberta beef.

The other side of the argument states hormone residues in meat disrupts human hormone balance. These hormones are believed to cause development problems and interfere with the reproductive system.

"The European Union won't allow hormonally injected beef, but since our main customer is the States it doesn't really matter," said Max Foran, a University of Calgary professor.

Alberta Cattle Feeders board member Doug Price said the EU does not accept hormone injected beef as "a way of protecting their borders." In the last few months, the EU has lowered tariffs and opened the border for hormone-free North American cattle export.

The international scientific community is still concerned about the impact of hormone residue not only on human health, but also on the environment. The hormones pass through cattle and leave a residue in manure, which contaminates the soil and water. One study conducted in Pennsylvania on an aquatic ecosystem subjected to manure with hormone residue noticed changes in the gender and reproductive capacity of fish in the area.

To Beef Or Not To Beef

"There is a tremendous amount of ignorance about how beef is raised," said Foran. "The beef industry is battling attitudes."

A Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy scare in 2004, better known as mad cow disease, left the cattle industry in dire straits. After the discovery of a single case of BSE on a Canadian farm, the United States closed its border to Canadian beef.

"You went from getting $1,400 a cow to $300 a cow," said Knutson. "It is a little better now, but there [are] still misconceptions and fear about how you contract the disease. You have a better chance of jumping over a house than getting BSE."

For the past decade beef producers have been contesting the myths and misconceptions surrounding the industry. With BSE and media concern about red meat causing cancers and high cholesterol, more and more people are turning to vegetarian and vegan options.

Consumers have to be proactive in finding a good food source said Tanya Cole Lightfoot, a raw food enthusiast.

"People say organic food is so expensive, but where are your priorities? There are people who drive a Mercedes and say 'I can't afford organic.' But where are your values? You are voting with your dollar."

Price differences between organic meat and conventionally raised meat are a concern for many. One kilogram of organic beef tenderloin steak is about $63.93, compared to the $39.90 for a kilogram of the conventional Co-Op version.

Recent research shows no nutritional difference between organic and regular food. Lean beef raised in either a feedlot setting or on a pasture both provide high quality protein packed with zinc, B12 and other essential nutrients.

"The local produce manager at Safeway says the organic section has grown by 100 per cent in the last year," said Lightfoot.

But organic production is not necessarily environmentally sustainable food production. Beef produced in feedlots can be branded organic while small-scale farmers often have a difficult time obtaining organic certification despite their commitment to sustainable agriculture practices.

The Future

Change has to take place if the cattle industry is going to survive and be profitable, said Biggs.

"Change is difficult in agriculture for a lot of guys. The cattle industry still supports the factory-farming model. The biggest thing in agriculture today is money. Lots of guys can't afford to keep calves throughout the fall and are forced to sell them."

"We need to think outside the box. Change takes time and the average producer does not have enough money in their pocket to do something different."

The National Farmers Union suggests that to build a sustainable beef industry and preserve Albertan heritage, we have to reduce our export dependence on the United States and open up European and Asian markets by eliminating hormone use. They also suggest reducing herd sizes to match Canadian demand and focus on local food. This will give less power to the large feedlot and slaughterhouse operators in Canada and put the power back into the hands of small family farms.

The cowboy image is often romanticized in movies and books, but the reality is much harsher. Throughout history, the cowboy has learned to live off the land and adapt to difficult living conditions, fostering a deep-rooted respect and connection to the land. Abstaining from eating meat and supporting the cattle industry is pretty much a slap in the face with a celery stick to the cowboy culture and ethos. When looking in from the other side of the fence, however, it is hard to ignore the environmental deterioration and ethical issues in raising beef when cattle are kept in pens tighter than peas in a pod.

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