Livestock and Society

Gordon King, Animal Science, University of Guelph


Consumer; user of an article; purchaser of goods or services. (Oxford Dictionary) Farming is a push-through system serving a pull-through market. Producers should never forget that it is consumers who keep them in business.

Changing Consumers.

Consumer, attitudes, affluence and expectations altered substantially in the past two decades:

In regions where food is abundant, people no longer need to worry about where their next meal is coming from so can focus attention on food quality and how it is produced. Some individuals or special interest groups in the more affluent countries now question modern farming systems with respect to their environmental and social effects. Practices relating to confinement, noise, odors, monoculture, use of agrochemicals, reliance on pharmaceuticals and animal welfare are all coming under more discriminating examination and criticism. Some concern is certainly justified since products containing residues or other potential health hazards might be marketed occasionally and situations where animals are kept under inhumane conditions do exist. Unfortunately, vegans, antivivisectionists and some environmentalists sensationalize these potential dangers by magnifying them out of context. The livestock industry must insure that abuses of animals and environments do not occur. The must also become proactive to educate society on where food comes from and how it is produced.

What is the truth? It is certainly true that hundreds of synthetic chemicals are now used in all types of farming. However, each new addition is tested at least as thoroughly or even more rigorously than it would be if it were a pharmaceutical drug intended for use in human medicine. Without pesticides, or appropriate alternate technology, initial yields would decline and post-harvest losses would increase substantially. If agrochemicals were as damaging and carcinogenic as some critics suggest, one might expect that contamination in the food-chain would cause an increase in stomach cancer and reduced life-expectancy in relation to their use. On the contrary, the incidence of this malignancy declined and human life-span increased in the years since their introduction. Also, a study of 70,000 farmers in Saskatchewan showed no increase in the incidence of cancer since pesticide spraying became established. One possible explanation is that pesticides control many fungal and other plant diseases that can themselves, if unchecked, produce potent toxins and carcinogens.

Most of the evidence suggests that exposure to agrochemicals poses a relatively small risk in comparison to other agents.

Ames and colleagues (1990, Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, 87:7777-7781) examined exposure to synthetic and natural chemicals that could have toxicological significance and found:
i) 99.9% of all pesticides in American diets are chemicals that plants produce in self-defense;
ii) at the low intake of most humans, the comparative hazards of synthetic pesticide residues are insignificant.

In another study Gold and coworkers (1992, Science, 258: 261-265) reviewed much of the scientific information relating to food carcinogens. Their conclusions were:
i) the vast proportion of chemicals that humans are exposed to occur naturally;
ii) toxicological studies focus on synthetic chemicals, with rodent carcinogen testing results available for 379 synthetic but only 57 natural chemical compounds;
iii) daily exposure to potential carcinogens for Americans are: Burnt materials > 2000 mg; Natural chemicals >1500 mg; Synthetic chemicals > 0.09 mg;
iv) Based on the Human Exposure/Rat Potency Index as an evaluation of potential carcinogenicity, wine, beer, coffee, mushrooms and several pharmaceutical drugs, plus a number of vegetables, fruits and spices, are much more hazardous than fried bacon, the first animal product on the list.

Certainly egg, dairy and meat products contaminated with bacteria can produce food poisoning, particularly if subsequent storage or processing is inadequate. However, micro-organism infestation of carcasses or secondary products occurs usually during butchering, processing or storage, rather than on the farm. Proper cooking will destroy most causative organisms but toxins previously produced by Staphylococcus aureus or Clostridium botulinum will persist through exposure to extreme heat. Although concern about meat safety is certainly justified, there is at least equal and probably greater opportunity for ingesting harmful residues from plant foods. Consumers should insure that food is obtained through reputable sources and is properly handled during all stages of transport, storage and preparation.

Responsibilities for Product Quality. This is shared by various levels of government. The federal government is responsible for animal health on a national basis and focuses on the most important diseases that might endanger health of people and animals across the entire country. Notable successes through government programs are the complete eradication of tuberculosis and almost total elimination of brucellosis from Canadian cattle. Several multinational control programs now focus on these and other serious diseases in several regions of the developing world.

The Disease Diagnostic section within the Health of Animals Branch of Agriculture Canada routinely monitors animal product specimens for presence of contagious disease organisms and undesirable chemical residues. Their staff also inspects and certifies acceptable carcasses in all abattoirs shipping meat or other animal products (hatcheries, etc.) to other provinces or countries. Agriculture Canada also establishes regulations for importation of live animals or products and insures that these are followed. They also must perform necessary health tests and issue permits covering animals destined for exported to other countries.

The federal and provincial governments cooperate in supporting veterinary facilities and research programs which benefit the entire livestock industry. Provincial governments also provide disease control programs (mastitis control, swine herd health, poultry flock health) and diagnostic services to satisfy local needs. Their inspectors supervise dairies, hatcheries, grading stations and abattoirs that sell their products only within the province.

Local governments are also active in the protection of public health through inspection of food processors and restaurants within their jurisdiction.

Even though these safeguards are in place, the animal food industry cannot tolerate drug residues in any products. Thus, the onus is on producers to prevent this. They have a major responsibility to provide sound management that will minimize the need for pharmaceuticals and to follow all directions on dosage and withdrawal times whenever drugs or other chemicals must be used.

Diet and Disease

Concern has been expressed because eggs contain considerable cholesterol and high blood cholesterol might predispose to coronary or circulatory diseases. The simplistic conclusion is that egg consumption is directly correlated with human heart problems. If one traces the sources behind this contention, most turn out to be based on a research experiment conducted on rabbits. Experimental animals received high cholesterol diets for extended time periods and subsequently developed atherosclerosis, a condition where cholesterol containing plaques form on the inner surfaces of circulatory vessels, restricting blood flow. What is never brought out in mass media articles or by proponents of vegan life-styles, is that rabbits and humans have substantially different diets and metabolisms. Under natural conditions, rabbits are herbivores, consuming an all plant diet that contains virtually no free cholesterol. Thus, they have not developed any physiological mechanism to regulate plasma concentrations. In contrast, humans derive about 20% of their cholesterol from diet with the remainder produced within the body. People posses a metabolic regulatory mechanism to control cholesterol concentration and consumption of very substantial quantities increase plasma concentrations only slightly in most humans. The "maligned" egg is, in reality, a relatively inexpensive source of quality protein, vitamins and minerals for humans. Rabbits, however, should certainly restrict their intake. Some years ago, Sausalito, a trendy community just north of San Francisco, declared itself a Cholesterol Free Zone". Since this molecule is an essential component of all cell membranes, if Sausalito could really become cholesterol free, everyone living in the zone would be reduced to protoplasmic puddles.

Animal product critics urge reduced or no consumption of meat and dairy products because they contain cholesterol. Many physicians also feel justified in advocating reduced consumption since even though people may not benefit, it certainly can't hurt.
Or can it?
Some scientific evidence suggests that "high risk" individuals who successfully lower their blood cholesterol have less chance of dying from cardiovascular disease. However, subsequent evaluation and follow-up of patients in the major clinical studies indicated that while lowering cholesterol reduced mortality from coronary disease slightly, this was evenly balanced by a corresponding increase in deaths by murder or suicide among the successful reducers (Muldoon et al. 1990, British Medical Journal).

There is evidence that even moderate reduction in dietary salt would decrease mortality from stroke and coronary disease substantially. The resulting improvement in human health would be larger indeed than could be achieved by fully implementing recommended policy for treating high blood pressure with drugs. It has been proposed that just a modest decrease in the amount of salt added to processed foods would lower blood pressure more than could be achieved by drugs therapy, preventing some 70,000 deaths a year in Britain (Law et al. 1991, British Medical Journal, 302:819-824).

The above quote appears conclusive with even references to a prestigious scientific journal and to the World Health Organization. However, if one bothers to check the report or the statistics cited, they actually state nothing like Robbins infers. The material from the Journal of the American Medical Association is not a peer reviewed paper giving results of a scientific investigation but rather a report of discussions which took place at a meeting held in England some months earlier. The entire content of the report on "Rapid Growth - Short Life," as printed in the Journal of the American Medical Association, was only a the following few lines:

"Rapid Growth, Short Life. At the same meeting, Prof. P.L. Krohn, of the University of Birmingham, said that people age fastest when they are youngest and begin to age more slowly as they get older. A diet giving the maximum rate of growth is not the best for a long life span. Rapid growth and short life go together."

This is the entire text! Animal protein is not even mentioned!

Also, as illustrated in the following figure, statistics indicate that people in regions deriving more of their protein from animal sources live longer than those with greater vegetable protein intake. This is completely opposite to Robbins' contention.

This is just one example of how the more vocal critics of livestock production interpret material incorrectly or use it inappropriately. Statements are often taken completely out of context or attributed to non-verifiable sources or personal communication. Unfortunately, most readers have neither the resources nor the inclination to check the validity of claims.

The Situation In Affluent Countries. Many perceive that the North American diet is deteriorating as a result of too much meat, generally poor nutrient intake, over processing, problems with food safety and junk foods. However, a steady reduction in nutrition related diseases, increased height of succeeding generations and an ever increasing life span indicate that this is not the most serious threat to people living in affluent countries. Currently, the greatest nutritional problem in the affluent world may be obesity from overindulgence in all foods rather than the consumption of any specific food.

Tofu is sometimes promoted as the wonder food of the modern age. Anyone who has already adopted or is contemplating a diet based on this protein source should consult the Soy Online Service to view some disturbing information about soy.

Click here to view a somewhat facetious but perhaps appropriate view of the current nutritional hysteria.

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