There’s nothing like invoking Joseph Stalin to stoke a political debate, and it certainly has ignited a new round of partisan warfare, with battle lines that are drawn at your dinner table.
It all started with the Green New Deal, legislation by freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) that, among other things, calls for “working collaboratively with farmers and ranchers in the United States to remove pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector as much as is technologically feasible.” It also seeks “a more sustainable food system that ensures universal access to healthy food.”
President Trump fanned the flames, tweeting that the plan would “permanently eliminate all Planes, Cars, Cows, Oil, Gas & the Military.” Ocasio-Cortez then further muddied the waters by saying, “Listen, we gotta address factory farming. Maybe we shouldn’t be eating a hamburger for breakfast, lunch and dinner.” The debate reached a new boiling point on March 1 when former White House aide Sebastian Gorka compared the burger warriors to one of history’s bloodiest dictators: “This is what Stalin dreamt about but never achieved,” he said.
While all the cheeky references to bovine flatus might emit giggles, some important facts about the role of meat in climate change and our diets are being obscured in that cloud of gas.
Animal Agriculture Is Only a Bit Player in US Greenhouse Gas Emissions
US Environmental Protection Agency makes clear where the vast majority of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the US come from. Transportation and electricity generation comprise nearly 60 percent, while broader industry contributes 22 percent of GHG emissions. The agricultural sector accounts for just 9 percent of our nation’s GHG emissions, and less than half of that is due to livestock production.
More importantly, the animal agriculture has been steadily reducing its overall environmental impact through new technologies and efficiencies. A prescriptive approach could be rife with unintended consequences, such as the impacts and waste derived from requiring vast, new swaths of land for crop production, especially when most of the land currently used to raise animals is not suitable for crop production.
So it’s misguided to finger hamburgers (along with other meat and poultry) as especially insidious contributors to climate change in the US. Indeed, an official with the EAT-Lancet Commission, which in January rolled out with great fanfare a plan to “save the planet” by cutting virtually all meat consumption, later admitted that their dietary recommendations would not have any climate change benefit and were designed only with human health in mind.
But even that noble goal flies in the face of the facts.
Meat: It’s What’s for a Healthy Diet
The burger warriors are peddling a fundamental myth too many people have accepted at face value: that Americans are eating too much meat, as exemplified by Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s hopefully facetious three-burger-a-day fantasy.
According to USDA data, the vast majority of Americans are consuming meat, poultry well within the recommended ranges in the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. In fact, protein is the only food group that is currently being consumed at recommended levels. Only 17 percent of calories consumed by Americans come from meat, poultry and fish—and what’s more, those calories are exceptionally nutrient-dense to an extent few other foods can claim.
The Green New Deal is light on details, but something it fails to mention entirely is the nutritional value of meat and the potential health impacts of a meatless diet. Meats are a “complete protein,” in that they contain all the essential amino acids we need to survive. There is also extensive research showing meat’s benefits for brain, bone and muscle health; wound healing; satiety and weight control. Yes, even hamburgers.
We can all agree that protecting our planet is a worthy goal. So is a healthy and strong population. But as long as the debate about how to get there focuses on the facts, you shouldn’t need to worry about pernicious politicos prying that delicious burger from your cold, dead hands anytime soon.
Today, the North American Meat Institute partnered with Memphis Meats, the leader in the cell-based meat industry, on a letter to President Trump pushing for the most appropriate regulatory system for new cell-based products being developed for the marketplace.
For the Meat Institute the letter sends the same message previously delivered to President Trump in conjunction with industry partners. Both letters highlight the basis of the policy adopted by our Board of Directors in April and consistent with our on previous occasions on this issue: That cell-based meat and poultry products be regulated by USDA to ensure a level playing field for all products.
We agree with Memphis Meats that FDA should take the steps necessary regarding premarket approval of new cell- based technology and that USDA’s inspectors should oversee the production of any products destined for the marketplace, just as traditional meat products have been since the Federal Meat Inspection Act was passed in 1906.
There is extensive precedent of FDA-USDA regulatory partnerships. Irradiation is a good example of this. As a technology, irradiation of meat products was reviewed and approved by FDA as a safe pathogen reduction process. Once approved, USDA oversees its use on meat products and ensures that irradiated meat products are labeled appropriately.
Similarly, there is considerable confusion regarding the appropriate terminology for these products. The term “clean meat” used by some in the industry is inappropriate, and we agree with Memphis Meats that “cell-based meat” is the most accurate term.
As the letter states, cell-based and traditional meat products are an “and,” not an “or,” solution. As an industry, we support a fair and competitive marketplace that lets consumers decide what food products make sense for them. However, a level regulatory playing field is necessary and the process outlined in the letter is necessary to achieve that goal.
Last week the North American Meat Institute joined together with the American Farm Bureau Federation, American Sheep Industry Association, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, National Chicken Council, National Pork Producers Council and National Turkey Federation to request that President Trump take action to ensure that USDA have regulatory authority over new cultured meat products.
The debate over regulation has elicited many interesting responses including several from cell cultured industry advocates asking why inspection is needed if animals aren’t slaughtered. They ignore a key fact: in the meat and poultry industry, USDA inspection is required for all federal meat plants, whether harvesting occurs or not. Even in plants where meat is simply processed into ground beef, hot dogs or deli meats, USDA inspectors are there daily. There may be fewer USDA inspectors, but these plants are still subject to daily inspection.
Another comment from Matt Ball at the Good Food Institute and even a lawyer once again showed a shocking level of ignorance (or purposeful deceit) about producing safe food and complying with regulatory requirements. Ball says, “My favorite question…What would a USDA inspector do? Stand there and stare at a clean meat cultivator?”
Cultured meat bioreactor or meat processing equipment?
We’re here to answer, and the response is quite simple. An inspector would do the same things they currently do every day at thousands of high tech meat processing facilities around the country. These tasks include:
Verify sanitary conditions prior to operations beginning and during operations, including employee hygiene, handling practices, environmental conditions, pest control, etc.
Review processing records
Verify the initial and ongoing verification and validation of the comprehensive food safety system (HACCP) by the company.
Obtain microbiological samples to ensure product safety
Conduct residue sampling
Document all findings of regulatory noncompliance
Require the company responds to noncompliance identified with actions that restore compliance and prevent future failure
Verify the accuracy of labeling, including nutritional information, formulations, use and declaration of ingredients
Ensure proper allergen control, and other consumer protections such as net weight, declaration of added water, extenders, binders, etc.
Daily inspection is one of many reasons why today’s meat and poultry products are so safe. Despite some of the claims of the cell cultured industry about the potential safety of their products, we’re confident their process will keep inspectors busy and are always happy to provide inspection tutorials to companies, spokespeople or lawyers in need of guidance.
Last week, William Cohan published an opinion piece in the New York Times expressing his concerns about antibiotic use in livestock. The article headlined, “Antibiotics in Meat Could be Damaging Our Guts” (which was changed from its original headline) was full of inaccuracies and misleading rhetoric about antibiotic use in animals and the risk to humans. The Meat Institute responded with the letter below which the Times has not published, but we thought it was important to share online.
William Cohan’s “A Burger, Please: Hold the Tetracyline” (May 25 2018) does immense disservice to veterinarians, farmers and ranchers and meat and poultry companies. Relying on claims he describes three times in his article as “difficult to document” or possible “hyperbole,” he falsely suggests that veterinarians administer antibiotics on demand.
Meat and poultry companies must meet consumer demand for safe and nutritious products, and that involves caring for livestock in a safe, humane manner and complying with the law. Antibiotics are to treat illnesses or to prevent or control illnesses in herds and flocks so we can use fewer antibiotics than if the disease spreads. Withdrawal periods are followed and federal data show that with very few exceptions, antibiotic residues are not an issue.
Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) agrees that antibiotic resistant bacteria are a significant public health issue, CDC says human overuse is the number one factor.
We recognize our responsibility to use antibiotics judiciously according to the law. Doing otherwise risks regulatory sanctions and recalls and veterinarians risk their licenses. Unfortunately, Mr. Cohan seems to prefer “hyperbole” because it makes a more interesting, though inaccurate, story.
Tiffany Lee, Ph.D., DVM
Director, Scientific & Regulatory Affairs
North American Meat Institute