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Confused about how our food is produced? Here’s where you can find the facts

If you care about how your food is produced, but find it hard to sort between facts and rhetoric in the media, you’re not alone. 

Here are some trusted resources which will help you bypass the misleading, contradictory and sometimes even incorrect information out there about food production:

Meet the farmers who grow your food

The Real Dirt on Farming is a booklet produced by Canadian farmers to help connect you with the food you eat. In it you’ll meet some of Canada’s farm families and learn about the realities of their work. You learn things like the difference between growing crops conventionally and organically, why and how farmers use pesticides, animal housing and animal welfare, environmental sustainability and technology.

Each Real Dirt on Farming blog story explores a specific issue, such as eggs, health and safety and the environment. Stop by The Real Dirt on Farming and hear from some of the people who are on the ground producing our food. 

Helping food producers do it right

The Canadian Centre for Food Integrity is a research organization that provides food producers with resources, training and dialogue. That work helps them understand what consumers want, and helps consumers find answers to their questions.

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada

Their We grow a lot more than you may think online brochure explores the variety of crops our farmers produce, and how they stay ahead of the world in terms of quality, sustainability and competitiveness.

Know your beef

When it comes to beef, several highly respectable organizations provide information about how beef is produced, nutritional information, facts about environmental impacts and more:

Canada Beef has a series of highly informative fact sheets about beef, recipes and articles. Wondering about antibiotic use, how to make the perfect roast, water conservation or food safety? You’ll be sure to find the answer here.

Alberta Beef Producers also have information on such hot topics as hormones, antibiotics and raising cattle ethically, as well as a section for educators.

For information on codes of practice for the care and handling of beef cattle, environmental regulations, innovation and sustainability, check out the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association website.

Our own blog also has plenty of helpful information for consumers. Look under topics such as environment, animal care or food safety to find facts about Alberta beef.

Test your cattle feeders knowledge

Throughout 2018, we have provided you with insights and facts on Alberta’s cattle feeding industry. This holiday, take a few minutes to test how much you have learned from those posts.

The cattle feeders quiz has questions drawn from this year’s blogs. Some of the questions are easy, some a little trickier, and all the answers can be found in blog posts from 2018.

Answers:

1, B; 2, A; 3, B; 4, A; 5, A; 6, B; 7, C; 8, B

How did you do?

If you got all eight questions right, you’re a cattle feeder guru! If you got five to seven questions right, you’ve obviously been paying attention all year. If you got four or fewer, don’t worry — we’ll provide more great cattle feeder information throughout 2019.

Next week, we’ll be reviewing what our industry and our organization has been up to in the past year.

In the meantime, we wish you, and your friends and family a safe and happy holiday.

Canada’s chief vet works to minimize animal health risks

As a follow up to last week’s report on the recent trade delegation to the 86th general assembly of the the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), we talked to the person who led the Canadian delegation.

Dr. Jaspinder Komal is the OIE delegate for Canada, and interim Chief Veterinary Officer (CVO) at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA).

Canada’s Chief Veterinary Officer

The CVO leads the CFIA’s efforts to ensure the Canadian animal health community and veterinary infrastructure are prepared to respond to foreign, emerging and future animal health risks.

Most notably, the CFIA’s animal health programs are designed to achieve the following:

  • Prevent and manage food safety risks
  • Prevent and manage animal and zoonotic diseases (those that can be transmitted between animals and people)
  • Contribute to consumer protection
  • Facilitate market access for Canada’s animals, and food of animal origin

“In collaboration with industry, consumers, and federal, provincial and municipal organizations, the CFIA continues to work towards protecting Canadians from preventable health risks related to food and zoonotic diseases,” said Dr. Komal. “Animal diseases can have widespread impacts on everything from the economy to public health,” said Dr. Komal. “So, we’re simultaneously managing the health of the animals and food safety for people.”

Chief delegate to the OIE

Canada’s minister of Agriculture nominates a delegate to support the OIE’s work in developing international standards for managing diseases and helping promote the safe trade of animals and animal products. As head of the animal health program in Canada, the CVO is typically selected to be the delegate.

“Because I am familiar with the animal health programs in Canada, I am well placed to consult in the development of standards, and their incorporation into Canadian animal health regulations and programs,” said Dr. Komal.

Outside of the OIE General Assembly, Canada also works extensively with the OIE to develop and update OIE standards, fund capacity-building initiatives, and provide scientific experts for OIE ad hoc and permanent working groups and other advisory groups.

During this year’s general assembly, Dr. Komal, was elected to the OIE Regional Commission for the Americas as secretary general and, in this capacity, is actively engaged in the governance of the activities of the region, such as planning their next conference.

Early career in eastern Canada

Dr. Komal graduated from the Faculté de médecine vétérinaire at the Université de Montréal in Saint-Hyacinthe, Quebec, with a degree in Veterinary Medicine and a post-graduate degree in Veterinary Microbiology. He began his veterinary career specializing in small animals in a practice in the Eastern townships of the province of Quebec.

In 1994, Dr. Komal joined the CFIA as a Veterinary Inspector as well as a Laboratory Supervisor in the provinces of New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. In 2000, Dr. Komal and his family moved to Ottawa where he held various positions of increasing responsibility within the CFIA and other departments such as Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) and Health Canada.

He lives in Ottawa with his wife and two grown children. He loves to exercise and describes himself as a health junkie. “I go to the gym, I play volleyball once a week and in the summertime I play golf,” he said. “I also spend a lot of time in community service, volunteering on the weekends.”

Why ‘hormone-free’ beef is no better for people or the environment

Last week on this blog we busted some common myths around beef production, including the ‘hormone-free’ myth. This week, we offer more facts about hormones and beef.

Foods and hormones

Dr. Roy Lewis, a veterinarian at Westlock Veterinary Center in Westlock, AB, told us that roughly 98 per cent of cattle in Canada are implanted with hormones, but in quantities significantly lower than would be naturally present in an intact (uncastrated) bull.

“In fact,” he continued, “many healthy, nutritious foods contain more hormones, serving for serving, than beef – foods such as cabbage, eggs, alfalfa sprouts and soy”.

Hormone levels in foodsNo one would suggest eliminating these healthy food options because of their naturally occurring hormones, and yet beef contains considerably less.

Research has also shown that hormones consumed in food are broken down in the stomach during digestion. They do not result in hormone spikes, even when consumed in high levels.

The environment and hormones

Cattle are implanted with hormones to promote growth. “This allows beef producers to produce more beef using less grain, less water and less time,” said Dr. Lewis. “The environmental benefits of producing more with less are significant.”

How marketing creates misconceptions

“There is no such thing as ‘hormone-free’ beef,” said Dr. Lewis. “All animals and plants produce hormones as part of their natural life-cycle.

The ‘hormone-free’ movement is a marketing scheme that attempts to create a differentiation that doesn’t exist. It seems to me that we’re taking a step backwards to promote this as something special, because there are no food safety benefits, and they’re suggesting that a less sustainable production method is somehow superior.

You can learn more about beef hormones, and read about food safety research on Alberta Beef’s Worried about Hormones? web page.

Check out the other myths we addressed in ‘Busted! 5 beef myths that don’t stand up to the facts’.

Busted! 5 beef myths that don’t stand up to the facts

When it comes to the food you eat, you want to know the facts. Is it sustainably and ethically produced? Is it good for you? Unfortunately, the many misconceptions surrounding beef production make it hard to get accurate, reliable information. Here are five of the most common myths:

Myth #1 Pastureland is a waste of good agricultural land

Most cattle are pastured on land that is unsuitable for crop production, for instance, because it is too hilly, stony, boggy or dry. Those grasslands also help maintain watersheds, sequester carbon, prevent erosion and support biodiversity.

In the feedlot, the animals are typically fed grains that do not meet specifications for human consumption and would otherwise be wasted.

Myth #2 Beef is bad for your health

Red meats are the best source of high-quality dietary protein relative to caloric intake, as well as being rich in nutrients, such as zinc, iron and Vitamin B12.

Recent research has shown that the advice to eat less red meat could result in an increased incidence of iron-deficiency anemia – and it has been documented that Canadians, on average, are not consuming the recommended serving of red meat within the current Canadian Food Guide recommendations for meat and alternatives.

Myth #3 Antibiotic-free beef is better for you

The use of antibiotics in food animals is strictly regulated, and feedlots work closely with veterinarians to ensure they are used appropriately. There are mandatory withdrawal times between the use of an antibiotic and the harvesting of an animal, to ensure the meat is antibiotic-free.

Without the use of antibiotics, animals can get sick, suffer and die, even though there are no known food safety benefits.

Myth #4 Cattle in feedlots are kept in cramped, unsanitary conditions

Cattle in feedlots are provided with spacious pens that allow each animal ample room to move and interact naturally. To ensure the cattle are comfortable during their stay, bedding is added regularly for resting as well as warmth in the winter. Timely removal of animal waste helps keep animals healthy and ensure their well-being. Cattle are also given ample amounts of clean, fresh water and a nutritious, easily digestible, high-energy diet consisting of 80% grains and 20% forages.

Myth #5 Hormone-free beef is better for you

Research has shown that any hormones in the meat we consume are broken down by digestive enzymes and stomach acid. Very little reaches the bloodstream. For those concerned about hormones, there are two important points to note:

    • No meat is hormone-free! All animals have hormones naturally occurring in their systems.
    • When you eat a burger, there are more hormones in the bun than in the meat.

Next week on this blog, Roy Lewis, of Westlock Veterinary Center, north of Edmonton, will explain why the use of hormones in food animals is not just safe, but also an environmentally responsible way to raise food.

How respect for the animals that feed us aligns with beef cattle production

Last week on this blog, we learned about the food safety innovations at Harmony Beef’s new processing plant. This week we’re exploring the new standards of animal care being practised at the plant.

We visited the plant and spoke with Harmony’s director of marketing, Cam Daniels to learn more. “One of the most important things in our business – and this came right from the owners – is that we must respect the animals that feed us,” said Cam. “They are treated with respect and dignity for the entire time they are with us.”

Warm dry barns keep the animals relaxed and calm

The high standards of animal care at Harmony Beef start with a covered, temperature controlled barn. Some of the barn’s features include:

    • A water vapour management system that keeps the barn comfortably dry at all times, and helps eliminate odours
    • Heated, slip-resistant floors that are well-drained so they remain dry and clean
    • Access to clean, fresh drinking water at all times, in every pen

“Animals that come in together are always kept together, to minimize the stress of new surroundings”, said Cam. “And we don’t keep any animals overnight – we only take in as many as we can process that day. It’s all part of keeping them as relaxed and calm as possible while they’re here.”

How a cow’s natural movement helps minimize stress

At Harmony Beef, the corral that brings the animals up to the harvest box follows a serpentine shape. “It’s influenced by the work of Dr Temple Grandin,” said Cam. “Cattle naturally tend to walk in an ’s’ and by allowing them to follow a natural pattern, it helps keep them moving, while also keeping them calm.

As the cattle move along the corral, they are gently nudged with paddles, rather than electric prods. A doorway allows only one animal at a time into the harvest box, ensuring the other animals stay relaxed until the end.

Better animal care leads to higher quality

Aside from the fact that treating animals well is the right thing to do, there is also a very practical reason why animal welfare matters. Glycogen in the muscles of relaxed animals is converted into lactic acid, which is necessary to produce tasty, tender meat. Stress causes the glycogen to be depleted, and the meat tends to be darker, dryer and less tender. So meat from a relaxed, calm animal is of a higher quality.

Check out last week’s post to find out how Harmony Beef is setting new standards in food safety. And stay tuned for an upcoming post in which we will learn about the lengths to which they have gone to minimize their impact on the environment.

How a beef plant is setting a new standard in food safety

A beef processing plant which opened this year just north of Calgary is setting new industry standards for food safety, animal care and environmental stewardship.

This week, we’re exploring the food safety innovations introduced at Harmony Beef, which opened in Balzac, AB., in February 2017.

Hazard analysis and critical control points

The management team at Harmony Beef is committed to meeting or exceeding the stringent requirements of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s Food Safety Enhancement Program.

One of the cornerstones of the program is HACCP System (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points), a systematic approach to food safety that helps prevent, find and correct hazards throughout the production process.

At Harmony:

    • The plant and production protocols have been designed to meet European standards, which exceed those in North America.
    • Temperature control and air flow systems in the building were designed to control any potential microbial growth and prevent contamination.
    • Critical control points, where inspections and interventions take place, include everything from slaughter to packaging.
    • Supervisory and food safety personnel have the authority to enforce compliance with food safety systems on anyone entering and/or working in the facility.
    • All water used in the plant is treated, and the outflow exceeds Canadian drinking water standards.

Opening up a world of opportunity

Because the new plant demonstrably complies with European food safety standards, it provides the opportunity to increase our trade with EU countries.

International trade is crucial to the growth and sustainability of the beef industry, and to the contribution it makes to the Canadian economy. But, as you can learn in the blog post, Canadian beef in demand: feeding the European market and why it matters, Canada does not meet its tariff-free quota for beef exports to Europe. In the post, feedlot operator Jason Hagel says processing plants in Alberta tend to focus on the U.S. market, leaving the European market under-served.

You can read about another international trade issue concerning Canada’s beef producers in Canadian beef trade with China takes a serious blow.

In upcoming weeks, we will explore the high standards of animal care, including low-stress handling, and the environmental innovations introduced at the Harmony plant.

Antimicrobials on the feedlot: Why animal care should matter to consumers

There’s a great deal of confusion and misinformation out there about the use of antimicrobials – of which antibiotics are just one type — in food animals.

In a recent blog series we explored why antimicrobials are used, what the concerns are, and what safeguards are in place. This week we met with John Schooten of Schooten and Sons Custom Feedyards to get the perspective from someone on the ground. We asked John to tell us how, when and why cattle feeders use antimicrobials in their operations.

John explained that their top priority is maintaining the best health and welfare for their cattle. “We use a combination of appropriate disease prevention and control measures, and prompt treatment of illness, injury and disease,” he said.

John Schooten and Sons Custom Feedlots

Herd Health Management

Every feedlot has a strategy for disease prevention, rapid diagnosis and effective treatment of illness in their cattle. This would typically include daily monitoring, and maintenance of accurate animal management and health records.

Because cattle are kept together in pens in feedlots, they can be at an increased risk for the transmission of disease. When you add in stressors, such as weaning and transportation, co-mingling at auction markets and weather issues, that adds to the risk.

“Antimicrobials are then sometimes necessary for medical or preventative purposes,” said John. “For example, Bovine Respiratory Disease (BRD) is a leading cause of sickness and mortality in the beef feedlot industry. Early treatment decreases the likelihood of cattle dying or suffering long-term symptoms, and using antibiotics, when appropriate, is the humane thing to do.

Veterinary Supervision

All feedlots work closely with their veterinarian when it comes to disease prevention and herd health. “A licensed, practicing veterinarian will have the responsibility for making clinical judgments regarding the health of the cattle and the need for medical treatment,” explained John.

Food Safety

Feedlot operators must adhere to strict standards of quality assurance, and their compliance is monitored. Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) regulations specify withdrawal times that must have elapsed from the last dose of antibiotics (and other drug products such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatories or vaccines) before the animal can be sent for processing. This ensures that all beef is antibiotic free.

“Feedlots use antimicrobials prudently to ensure the animals’ health and welfare,” continued John. “Feedlots’ concerns about antimicrobial resistance are actively addressed through very limited use of Category One drugs, ongoing research, regulatory requirements, veterinary oversight and antimicrobial stewardship practices.”

Should we be raising cattle without the use of antimicrobials?

“Without the use of antimicrobials, the outcome for animal welfare is very negative,” said John. “Animals get sick, suffer and die.”

Our producers are committed to providing safe, wholesome beef to consumers around the world, and raising healthy cattle is an important part of that process.

There is more information about the use of antimicrobials in food animals in the earlier posts in this series:

Food safety, antibiotics and Canadian beef – can the 3 go together?

This is the final part of our three-part series on the use of antibiotics (or more accurately, antimicrobials), in food animals.

To conclude this series, we’re looking at the measures in place to ensure food safety when antibiotics are given to food animals. We continue our conversation with Dr. Sherry Hannon, research team lead and veterinary epidemiologist at Feedlot Health Management Services Ltd.

Animal protein is important in maintaining human health and combatting global food shortages,” said Sherry. “But at the same time, animal welfare needs to be supported and we don’t want animals to suffer because we are afraid to use antimicrobials to treat them, or because regulation will not allow the use of antimicrobials in animals.”

Food safety practices

Farmers play an important role in producing safe, healthy food, while protecting public health. But the care and welfare of their animals is an equally important priority for them. That requires a balance of sound science and responsible practices.

“Stringent food safety practices can help us ensure that the use of antimicrobials is safe for humans while allowing the best in animal care. The food safety practices for controlling bacteria during slaughter and processing are excellent, regulated and effective,” Sherry stated.

She stressed that, for the consumer, proper cooking of all food is the best way to protect against bacteria that has become resistant to antimicrobials.

Regulation of antimicrobials in Canada

Antimicrobials are subjected to a series of rigorous tests, clinical trials and field studies before they can be approved for use in animals or people. And even after a product is approved, testing and monitoring continues.

“Government, public health, veterinary, and livestock agricultural industry sectors have all been working to improve antimicrobial use protocols, monitoring, and transparency,” said Sherry.

“Soon, loopholes will be closed which allow antimicrobials to enter Canada without monitoring (‘own-use importation’ and the import of active pharmaceutical ingredients). The practice of buying antimicrobials at a farm store for use in animals will also no longer be allowed.”

The use of antimicrobials in animals strictly for growth promotion is another practice that’s on its way out. Regulations are soon to be introduced ensuring that the treatment must be required for health reasons.

To treat or not to treat?

In the balance, the benefits to animal welfare and food safety far outweigh the concerns surrounding the use of antimicrobials (including antibiotics) in beef cattle. There are valid concerns though, and they are being taken seriously. Changing regulations and practices will continue to address the issues around their use.

To learn about another food safety issue, check out  ‘Beef and hormones: what the science says’.

Should Canadians be concerned about antibiotics in food animals?

Last week in part one of this three-part series, we explained why and how antimicrobials (of which antibiotics are one type) are used in beef cattle. This week we’re exploring the causes for concern over that use.

We continue our conversation with Dr. Sherry Hannon, research team lead and veterinary epidemiologist at Feedlot Health Management Services Ltd.

How long do antimicrobials stay in an animal’s system?

There are many different antimicrobials labelled for veterinary use in cattle in Canada. Each is classified according to its uses, its effect on bacteria and the way it works.

“As part of the label, a ‘withdrawal period’ – a period of time before which the animals are not allowed to enter the food chain – is specified. Some antimicrobials have a zero day withdrawal period (they are eliminated from the body within a very short period of time), while others are known to stay in the body for much longer periods,” Sherry explained.

Causes for concern in the use of antimicrobials

Sherry explained that there are two main concerns related to the use of antimicrobials:

1. Antimicrobial residues

A residue is a remnant of the antimicrobial molecule itself or a degradation product of that molecule, left in the animal after harvest.

“For each antimicrobial, a level of residues (usually extremely low) has been deemed to be acceptable for human health through rigorous safety trials,” said Sherry.

“Therefore, meat that goes for sale to people must be at or below that level. The withdrawal period for each antimicrobial defines the amount of time that must have elapsed from the last dose before an animal can be harvested for meat, thus ensuring any possible residues are below the acceptable level and safe for human consumption.

As an added step of food safety oversight, meat at processing plants is regularly tested for residues on an ongoing basis as part of quality assurance and compliance monitoring.”

2. Antimicrobial resistance

According to Sherry, of greater concern than residues is the issue of antimicrobial resistance, which for many reasons, has become a global health issue. As the use of antimicrobials continues, for people and animals, there is increasing development of bacteria that are resistant to them.

“There is a potential for the presence of bacteria on meat or in the environment which carry resistance genes for particular antimicrobials, and this relates to the possibility that these bacteria could multiply or infect people,” she said.

The role of continued research and monitoring

“The above concerns are actively addressed through continued research, regulatory requirements, veterinary oversight, antimicrobial stewardship practices, and producers’ commitment to provide safe and nutritious beef,” noted Sherry. “In addition, appropriate cooking of beef further protects against these concerns by inactivating any residues present, or by killing any viable microorganisms,” she stressed.

The Canadian Integrated Program for Antimicrobial Resistance Surveillance (CIPARS) monitors and describes antimicrobial resistance (and some use) in retail meat, on farm and in animal and human populations.

Stay tuned for part three of this series, in which we’ll discuss how food safety is ensured when antibiotics are used in cattle – and ongoing changes to regulation.

In the meantime, check out part one, ‘Antimicrobials and food production: 4 reasons antibiotics are given to beef cattle’.