In my effort to educate you dingbats about all-things-beef, I figured this would be a nice little primer on what’s going on in the industry around the Beef Checkoff Program.
In 1985, the Food Security Act, aka the “Farm Bill,” established something called the Beef Checkoff Program. The program, which later became mandatory in 1988, takes $1 per head on the sale of live domestic and imported cattle, in addition to a comparable grab on imported beef and beef products.
The dough is collected by state beef councils, which retain up to half the amount collected. The state councils give the other half to the Cattlemen’s Beef Promotion and Research Board, which oversees the national checkoff program, subject to USDA review.
There are 100 members of the Cattlemen’s Beef Board. They’re nominated by fellow beef producers and appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture, and they represent all segments of the beef industry.
Beef Checkoff was designed to get people to sell more beef and motivate consumers to buy more beef. This is accomplished through advertising, marketing partnerships, public relations, education, research and new-product development. The Beef Act defines six program categories: (1) promotion, (2) research, (3) consumer information, (4) industry information, (5) foreign marketing, and (6) producer communications.
You may have heard the slogan “Beef: It’s what’s for dinner” somewhere in your travels. That’s just one example of their success.
But fear not! By law, checkoff funds can’t be used to promote breeds or brands without USDA and Beef Board Executive Committee approval. Furthermore, checkoff funds can’t be used to influence government policy or action (including lobbying). The law also disallows checkoff money to be invested in production research that isn’t aimed at improving beef products.
The main goal of the program is to increase commodity demand, and thus increase economic growth in the industry. Most beef and dairy producers believe that their beef checkoff dollars bring value back to them. Many of my posts are a result of beef checkoff funding, actually. The MBA and Top of the Class programs in which I participated were funded by the checkoff. Do you think that money went to good use? I do!
Should the funding ever increase (to more than $1 per head, for example) the checkoff may consider putting the “Beef: It’s What’s For Dinner” message back on TV, stepping up consumer education, or increasing foreign market development.
But after getting that MBA, a friend at the New York Beef Council contacted me and encouraged me to apply for the Top of the Class program, which is essentially like the PhD level of beef advocacy training.
I submitted my application and was accepted! It was wild. Two days of intense training, beef information workshops, on-camera cooking demos, on-camera interviews facing tough questions, engaging lectures and helpful blogging tips.
The first half of day one involved group sessions with topics on nutrition, beef research, food photography, blogging, beef advocacy, animal care, sustainability and beef quality assurance. We also received tips on how to give effective presentations and how to conduct media interviews (on topics we are passionate about, and then some harder questioning about the beef industry).
In the afternoon and on day two we had individual break-out sessions. Two fun break-outs involved me getting in front of a camera, rather than working behind it like I normally do.
The first was a simulated TV interview with a PR and media training specialist, in which he asked me a bunch of questions about aged beef, and then threw in a few zingers about beef safety and the myth we know as “factory farming.” I was prepared to answer given my previous training! I’m trying to get my hands on those videos for you to see how I performed.
The second fun break-out was a cooking demo, where I prepared “planned-overs:” A crispy Cuban shredded beef stir-fry dish made from the leftovers of a “Sunday roast.” This was filmed as a simulation as well: I was the cooking guest on a morning news TV show, with a host who asked me questions and helped me prepare the food. During the shoot, the goal was to work in some messaging about beef nutrition, and about re-purposing leftovers to help reduce food waste. I’m trying to get my hands on these videos as well. They were pretty cool.
Other break-out sessions were about finding a message, a niche and a goal for both my blogging endeavors and my social media accounts. I think it’s safe to say I’ve found my niche! There were also some sessions regarding how to engage and advocate about beef on social media and elsewhere.
Each Top of the Class program has five students, and I think they’ve only done a handful of programs to date. The other students in the program were highly diversified, and I thought it would be cool to introduce them to you.
Dr. Lindsay Chichester
Lindsay has a blog called “Agricultural With Dr. Lindsay.” Her aim is to bring her readers stories about agriculture and introduce them to the people who grow and produce our food.
She shares agricultural practices, meat selection, cooking and storage tips, and will answer any questions you may have. With a Master of Science in Animal Science, a Master of Art in Speech Communications, and a PhD in Systems Agriculture from West Texas A&M University, you can be confident that Dr. Lindsay will have highly knowledgeable answers for you.
She’s truly a force to be reckoned with. Lindsay grew up on a cattle and sheep ranch in northern CA. She was a 10 year 4-H member, received a formal education in agricultural systems, and worked a variety of jobs in the agricultural industry (meat packing, feed yards, managing cattle herds, collecting research, etc.).
She was also an Extension Educator with University of Nebraska-Lincoln for six years focusing on livestock, agriculture, food systems, and 4-H, working with both adults and youth. In January 2016 she began a new career with Nevada Cooperative Extension.
If you’re wondering what some of that stuff means, I will explain it to you as best as I can. And yes, I was clueless about it too.
The Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s (NIFA) Cooperative Extension provides non-formal education and learning activities to farmers, residents of rural communities, and people in urban areas throughout the country.
The country’s more than 100 land-grant colleges and universities have a critical mission: extension. Through extension, they bring vital, practical information to agricultural producers, small business owners, consumers, families and kids.
That’s where 4-H comes into play. 4‑H is a youth development program delivered by Cooperative Extension. You probably remember the commercials that used to air in the 80’s, like this one:
Kids complete hands-on projects in areas like health, science, agriculture and citizenship. They receive guidance from adult mentors and are encouraged to take on proactive leadership roles. 4‑H touches every area of the country via in-school and after-school programs, community clubs and camps.
Cassidy has a blog called Cow Country Blog. With it, she shows readers the very human and family-oriented aspects of ranching, as well as the hard work and joy behind what it means to produce cattle for the US beef market. You can see exactly the kind of love and attention that it takes to raise both cattle and a growing family.
Cassidy worked on a ranch as part of her research for her collegiate honors thesis about ranching and environmentalism. After graduating from the University of Colorado at Boulder with a degree in Environmental Studies, she went to work on that same ranch.
While researching, she met her cowboy husband, Robert, and they’ve been together ever since. Cowgirl meets cowboy; it doesn’t get any more classic Americana than that! Together they have worked on three cattle ranches in two different states. They currently live in Colorado and work for one of the largest ranches in the country.
Kita “Girl Carnivore” Roberts
Like me, Kita is a photographer as well as a food blogger. In fact she has two blogs: one is meat-centric, called Girl Carnivore, and the other is called Pass the Sushi (recipes, travel, photo tips, blogging tips). Her primary location of operation is out of Delaware, but she gets to travel around pretty often due to her photography and blogging endeavors.
With her blogs, she shares tons of really awesome recipes that she developed on her own. I mean, I know how hard it is to develop a recipe and come up with something unique, and then photograph it in such a way as to get readers to run out and buy the ingredients. Kita makes it look easy.
As you might expect, food photographers tend to share a wealth of really great foodporn via Instagram and social media. Kita is no exception:
As her moniker and the above photo suggests, the “Girl Carnivore” is not limited to beef. Her site has recipes broken down by protein right on the front page for easy navigation: beef, lamb, poultry and pork. You can find amazing stuff there for entrees, side dishes, what to do with leftovers… everything.
Michaela writes a blog called Cowgirl Boots & Running Shoes. On her blog, she shares healthy recipes, meal planning pointers, nutrition and dieting tips, fitness motivation, and an inside look at what family farming life is like. One of my favorite posts from her blog is about why she incorporates beef into her diet. Finally! More people talking about how great beef is for nutritional purposes.
After nearly burning out from working crazy shift hours as an ultrasound tech, Michaela and her husband Matt moved themselves and their two kids back to Matt’s family farm.
She does ultrasound part time now, but she also became a health and fitness coach and a certified PiYo Live fitness class instructor. She’s also an accredited La Leche League Leader and runs a support group for pregnant and breastfeeding moms.
To be honest, I felt a little intimidated. I just really love steak and writing about meat! Some of these other folks had way more hands-on experience in the beef industry than me, especially when it came to knowing about farms and how beef is produced. I guess the folks in charge of the program’s admissions thought there was some value in what I was doing here, at the consumer level.
But all of us are bloggers of some sort, if you hadn’t noticed. And all of us were somehow touching the beef industry, if not purely focused on it. It was a great group, and we all learned a lot from one another.
The instructors were impressive, too. There were registered dietitians, food scientists, public relations specialists, sustainability gurus, feed lot operators, and media and communications experts. I actually already did a spotlight post on one of the instructors, Ann Burkholder.
I hope to spotlight a few more, in time.
The NCBA offices are quite impressive. The walls are lined with nice framed photos of past leaders of the industry, and really cool cattle brands from various producers around the country, old and new.
They have a state of the art test kitchen with both gas and electric piped in to play around with various ways of cooking beef. In fact this is where they create various recipes, and even study, discover, or market cuts of beef (like they did with the flatiron steak). They even innovate new products, like when they helped come up with Schmacon (beef bacon). I was impressed big time!
They also have a media monitoring control room. It was like something from a science fiction movie or a spy movie. Basically, any time beef is mentioned on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, or anywhere else for that matter, someone at NCBA will know about it and be able to respond, engage, or just simply watch.
As I mentioned above, I was on camera a few times. That’s because the NCBA has a fully functioning TV studio on site, and they even have a show that airs regularly called Cattlemen to Cattlemen. They can also broadcast live and link up with various TV news agencies who may want their media spokespeople for interviews.
I was blown away by the facilities. They’re truly amazing, and cattle farmers and ranchers can rest assured that their Beef Checkoff dollars are being put to very good use. But the experience as a whole really acted to sling-shot my motivation here. I’ll be doing some interesting things in the future, and posting some new and interesting content. Keep an eye out!
A whole crapload of unnecessary freaking out has happened over ranchers’ use of antibiotics in the raising of animals for human consumption. While some of the alarmist stuff out there might sound scary, in reality it isn’t. So I feel the need to ease some tensions here with this beef advocacy post.
The judicious use of antibiotics is the humane thing to do for animals that are in need of care. Just like humans, animals need help every so often to fight off a bug. When sick, their ears droop, they cough and have runny noses. They separate from the herd and go off by themselves. Some diseases can be avoided through the use of vaccines, and illnesses can be prevented and combated with the use of vitamins and antibiotics.
By law, producers must wait a certain amount of time after administering an antibiotic before an animal can be slaughtered for consumption, to ensure that no traces of the antibiotic remain within the animal. These “withdrawal times” are strictly monitored and vary from 0-60 days based on the substance being administered. That means you can be confident that there are no antibiotics in the meat you buy at stores or order in restaurants. Once the withdrawal time is tolled, that basically means the antibiotic has been completely metabolized and has worked its way out of the animal’s system.
Ranchers must carefully follow directions for administering the proper amounts of antibiotics to their animals, and the FDA tests for traces of antibiotics in meat products as well. There is a mess of paperwork, regular federal inspections and tedious record keeping involved in this entire process. It really is a tightly run ship.
Let me unpack those generalizations a bit here: Under new FDA guidelines, there are very specific, detailed measurements that are set for antibiotics in feed – authorized by veterinarians – that are called “veterinary feed directives.” These directives outline exactly how long an antibiotic can be used and which illnesses can be treated. They also specify the number of animals that can be treated.
Again, these drugs will only be used to treat, prevent and control disease with the oversight of a veterinarian. Farmers and ranchers will be required to form even stronger relationships with licensed veterinarians in order to receive authorization for the appropriate antibiotic for a specified illness, and for a specific time period. I’d say that creates a pretty well regulated and closely monitored situation.
Additionally, new laws require that little to no antibiotics given to the herd can be in the same class as human medicines. This is done to prevent any potential reduction in the effectiveness of antibiotics that are needed to treat human diseases.
Even something as simple as a vaccination carries with it a host of guidelines. For example, no shots are allowed in the hip or thigh, as this can damage the sirloin or round cuts of beef.
This is a good time for me to talk about ionophores, actually. Ionophores are a class of antibiotics that are not involved in human health because they work specifically in the rumen (a digestive organ which we do not have).
Coccidiosis is a parasitic disease in the intestinal tract of animals caused by coccidian protozoa. Ionophores combat these organisms, so they’re technically “antibiotics” from the US standpoint.
In Europe, these ionophores have a different term (anticoccidials), and are not classified as antibiotics like they are here. You may have heard that Europe has much lower antibiotic use in their beef industry. That’s misleading, mainly because Europe does not consider the ionophore to be an antibiotic.
Hormones and steroids are often used for growth promotion, digestive aids, and to prevent illness and the later need for antibiotics in a herd. Small pellets are implanted behind the animals ear, under the skin, to release these aids into the animal’s body. Many don’t realize that these are completely metabolized and no traces are found in the beef products at the point of consumption.
The FDA and USDA enforce rules on these things, and scientists have tested them for safety. Additionally, once the use of a hormone has been reviewed and approved, it’s continually re-tested, annually, and reevaluated. It will only stay on the market if it continues to pass all FDA and USDA testing. So this stuff may sound scary, but in reality it’s completely safe according to all scientific testing.
Despite these numerous safety assurances, U.S. consumer concern about using antibiotics in animal feed has led producers to create niche markets for products with specialty labels. “Never ever” means that the animal was never given an antibiotic, for example, throughout its entire lifetime. Other labels tout the fact that the animal was not given any antibiotics in the last 60 days of it’s life, or from various points of its life cycle onward (for example, no antibiotics administered once the animal is sent to the feedlot).
The USDA makes no claim about these products being safer. They are, however, more expensive to produce, and, therefore, more expensive to buy at the consumer level. Here are a few more:
Natural: minimally processed with limited additives.
Naturally Raised: No antibiotics and no hormones except for ionophores.
Certified Organic: No hormones, and raised on 100% organic feed, which means no synthetic pesticides or fertilizers were used to grow the feed.
While our beef producers are wonderful for creating new markets and catering to the odd and unique demands of a diverse population, I felt obligated to set the record straight on the issue of antibiotics with this post.
In general, the use of antibiotics is more an issue of animal health than human health, but it’s still an important topic to know about.
Remember, beef producers have a vested interest in raising healthy, safe and nutritious food, because they feed themselves and their families with the same beef that you and I eat. They understand that antibiotics are vital for the health of the herd, and administering them is a humane act to safeguard their animals.
Farmers and ranchers are dedicated to providing safe products to the market. It’s their livelihood, after all. Implementing new antibiotics guidelines and working closer with veterinarians are just a few examples of how farmers and ranchers are continuously improving the cattle industry.
There’s really nothing to worry about. US beef products are safe, nutritious and delicious. There are safeguards put into place at every step of the beef life cycle, and even afterward at the slaughterhouse and packing plant, to ensure our safety.
A little over a year ago, the World Health Organization published a finding through their International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) that the consumption of red meats represented a “hazard” and classified red meat as “probably carcinogenic.” While the craziness over that fake scare has already passed like a cow fart in the wind, I think it’s useful to talk about it here, even if just to reiterate how wrong it was.
First, I think it’s important to discuss a few things right off the bat.
Okay but seriously…
Difference Between Hazard and Risk: The IARC does not evaluate cancer risks. They only identify hazards. A risk is a statement about the probability, possibility or likelihood to cause harm, while a hazard is merely representative of a possibility to cause harm under any circumstances. It is always important to look at hazard and risk together when talking about things like cancer.
Perhaps the best way to illustrate the difference between the two is by way of analogy. Think about driving, for example. If it’s raining, we know that wet roads represent a hazard to drivers for getting into an accident (cancer). Now let’s say you’re speeding, driving with bald tires, and not using your windshield wipers after drinking a six pack of Bud. You’ve significantly elevated your risk of getting into an accident during hazardous driving conditions like wet roads.
If we apply this to beef, the IARC merely told you that the roads are wet. They identified a hazard, and nearly anything can be hazardous. Water is hazardous. It only becomes a risk when you try to breathe it, or drink it while hanging upside down or something ridiculous. So, wet roads? Maybe you walk to work, or maybe you have new tires, drive very slowly in the rain and never drive while intoxicated. As a result, your risk of getting into an accident due to a wet road hazard is very low.
See the difference, and the need to always consider both together? Of course you do, because you’re not an idiot. So when we extrapolate this to something complex, like diet or personal health, the need to assess both becomes absolutely vital. If you’re an alcoholic smoker who works around asbestos all day, never exercises, and consumes nothing but bacon grease, then chances are you’re going to die of cancer pretty quickly, because your personal risk levels are through the roof and you’re dancing around several big hazards.
Scope of Study: First, the IARC does not seem to specialize in the evaluation of food. They’ve looked into more than 1000 chemicals, mixtures, biological agents, personal habits and occupational exposures, but diet and food represent large complexities that are simply out of their realm of specialization.
Second, the IARC only categorizes things into five wishy-washy designations: Probably Not Carcinogenic to Humans (Category 4); Not Classifiable as to its Carcinogenicity to Humans (Category 3); Possibly Carcinogenic to Humans (Category 2B); Probably Carcinogenic to Humans (Category 2A); and Carcinogenic to Humans (Category 1). Aside from the fact that language like “probably” and “possibly” is arbitrary at best, only one substance has ever received the Category 4 designation of “Probably Not Carcinogenic,” and that was caprolactam (whatever the fuck that is).
They claimed that red meat was “probably carcinogenic” (Category 2A) and that processed meats were “carcinogenic” (Category 1). So what do “red meats” and “processed meats” even mean?
According to IARC, red meat refers to “unprocessed mammalian muscle meat.” This means beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse or goat meat. Yeah, you read that right: Pork is not “the other white meat.” Based on the amount of myoglobin or “stuff that looks like blood, but really isn’t blood” in the muscle tissue, pork is categorized as a red meat.
Processed meat refers to “meat that has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking or other processes to enhance flavor or improve preservation.” In the U.S., processed meats like bacon, sausages, hot dogs and deli meats primarily contain pork and poultry, but sometimes contain beef as well.
Note that all production and processing methods fall into these definitions, and that even includes organic, grass-fed, nitrite- and nitrate-free meats, as well as conventional meats. NO ONE IS SAFE FROM THE IARC!!!
Findings: The findings are based on pre-existing research. What is that research? How can they control for external factors that may increase or decrease risk when studying human diet? Well, according to their Q&A, “In the case of red meat, the classification is based on limited evidence from epidemiological studies showing positive associations between eating red meat and developing colorectal cancer as well as strong mechanistic evidence. Limited evidence means that a positive association has been observed between exposure to the agent and cancer but that other explanations for the observations (technically termed chance, bias, or confounding) could not be ruled out.”
In layman’s terms, that means other factors could have influenced the weak positive associations between red meat and cancer, like poor diet, sedentary lifestyle, obesity, bad habits like smoking or excessive alcohol consumption, or even genetic health conditions or pre-existing diseases (think speeding, driving on bald tires, driving while intoxicated, etc). So there’s that difference between hazard and risk being played out again.
In short, don’t believe the hype!
Research has always shown that beef should be part of a healthy and balanced diet. But don’t just take my word for it; check out what some dietitians think. To me, it’s clear that the scientific evidence doesn’t show that red or processed meat causes cancer. Studies in humans are limited and inconsistent, and evidence has weakened over time. Take a look HERE for research that the Beef Checkoff submitted to the IARC. The Beef Checkoff is an organization that’s funded by farmers giving $1 for every animal produced in order to pay for research and marketing campaigns within the industry. If you think those submissions are biased for some reason (which is silly, because beef farmers and ranchers feed their families with the same beef and have a vested interest in the industry’s safety), then go HERE for independent submissions that were sent to the IARC.
Okay so what about hot dogs and bacon, the “processed meats” that were categorized as being “Carcinogenic?” If you poked around their website you may have noticed that smoking and asbestos are in IARC Category 1 as well. But on their Q&A they’ve explained that eating processed meats is not equally as dangerous as smoking – not even close, as a matter of fact. As I mentioned above, rather than assessing the level of risk, the IARC classifications merely describe hazards and potential causes.
Just one last note here on the findings: every one of us has about a 1.8%-4% chance of getting colon cancer, which is the form of cancer that many of the studies focused upon for red meat. Colon cancer is the third most common cause of cancer and cancer-related deaths. Even if the risk of colon cancer goes up 17-18% due to eating red meat, as some of the more fear-mongering studies said (and recall that some studies said there was no increased risk), it’s only about 17-18% of that 4%, or an increased risk of 0.72%. That’s only 4.72% total, if we use the worst figures we can find. The bottom end all-in figure is more like 2.1%, and again that’s only if we ignore all of the other studies that found no risk in eating red meat.
I don’t know about you guys, but even if these false-positive studies were somehow believable, I’d be perfectly willing to take on a 0.3% to 0.7% risk in exchange for a lifetime of enjoying nutritious and delicious red meat in my diet. The air I breathe here in NYC is probably way more hazardous or risky to me than red meat.
Charred Crusts: Another concern that was floating around the web was the idea that the charred outer crisp on meats that develops when the meat comes in contact with fire (like the crust of a broiled steak or the smoky crisp on a flame-kissed burger) is also cancerous.
The chemicals that form during this charring process are present on any meat that gets hit with flame (not just beef). They’re called heterocyclic aromatic amines (HAA) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH).
They are, indeed, known or suspected carcinogens. However, they aren’t present in high enough concentrations to be a real concern when grilling or cooking. I’ve known of people who charred meat to a crisp and tested the meat afterward, and the amounts of harmful chemical present were so small that they were insignificant. Concentrations matter here. There are probably harmful chemicals in the water you drink too, but unless they’re highly concentrated there’s no cause for concern.
Conclusion: Given the totality of the studies, it’s clear to me that no single food, including red or processed meats, causes cancer. So, my meat minions, beef on with confidence and pride. And go forth and continue to develop that delicious, nicely-textured crust on your steaks and burgers as well. Just don’t overcook anything, for fuck’s sake!