This weekend I attended a conference sponsored by the Food and Culinary Professionals practice group of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) in Napa Valley. The tour was sponsored by the National Beef Council. Recently AND has come under intense scrutiny for the sponsorship of education events. I want to share my experience so you can judge for yourself: Are dietetic professionals unduly influenced by industry?
Last Friday afternoon I signed up for a tour and panel discussion at Oak Ridge Angus Ranch outside Calistoga, California. With rolling hills and cows grazing in the distance, it absolutely trumps any conference room I’ve ever sat in.
TALKING TO PEOPLE WHO KNOW COWS
Five representatives from the beef industry spoke on a panel. We first met Cheryl LaFranchi, and her husband, Frank Mongini, DVM, who is the owner of Oak Ridge Angus. Frank is a large animal veterinarian and helps with the animals as well as tends to his own practice. Scott Stone of Yolo County Land & Cattle Company raises grass fed cattle. They sell grass fed/grass finished beef directly to consumers, and as there is more demand, fewer cattle will be grain finished on feedlots. Mike Smith represented Harris Ranch which also operates a slaughterhouse; he spoke to the packing issues. Steve Hanson traveled from Nebraska to speak to the challenges of feeding cattle in the corn belt.
Each member of the panel spoke to issues in their business. I heard the passion and dedication of each presenter, and I heard the distinct edge of muted dissonance. It was evident that not every panelist was on the same page. I especially appreciated Frank’s perspective. As a veterinarian, he directly addressed the issue of animal welfare. Cows have adapted to eating corn, but are not meant to be only eating corn. Grain fed animals bloat and they have more metabolic disease.
HOW THE FOOD AND CULINARY PROFESSIONALS RESPOND
When it came time for questions, most of them were of the softball variety. Eventually, I decided to test the water with a bit more pointed question about the fatty acid mix of grass fed versus grain fed beef. The answers from the panel were a bit muddled until a dietitian from the Beef Council stepped in. I heard a carefully crafted answer about lean beef, portion size and the minimal impact the omega six fatty acids in that single portion.
At that point I decided to stop asking questions. I wasn’t prepared to take all the difficult issues on by myself. Tough questions need to be asked about the use of hormones, feed, endocrine disruptor bio-accumulation, water pollution, and antibiotic use with antibiotic resistance microbes. I knew there was little likelihood of any candid discussion regarding the farm bill and crop subsidies, soil ecology, pesticide usage, bee colony collapse disorder and the like.
Next the panel was asked how they address issues regarding diversity of the herds. The answer given was fascinating. The ranchers were focused on the current vitality of the animals, mixing up the gene pool in successive generations by introducing other breeds. The current practice tweaks the genetic properties of the most productive animals. I understand the benefit of that practice, but I can’t help wondering if focusing on the vitality of the best breed is one of the dynamics that leads to less diversity overall.
WHAT ABOUT THOSE OMEGA 3’S
My question addressed a scientific issue I continue to wrestle with: The contribution of conventional beef and all grain fed animal products to inflammation–a condition that is linked to diabetes, heart disease, cancer and more. Currently the Standard American Diet (SAD) tallies a 20:1 ratio of omega 6 to omega 3. Omega six fatty acid drives inflammation and the ratio is what counts. Ideally we are thought to thrive with a ratio between 1:1 and 4:1. Basically the SAD contains too many foods rich in Omega 6.
Corn fed beef–and all animal products from animals raised on grain (ie: milk, yogurt, cheese, ice cream, etc), contain a much higher ratio of omega 6 to omega 3. Fats from these food contribute to overall inflammation and because of the feed–not the animal product itself. When animals are allowed their natural diet of grass, pasture, and forage, the ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 looks very different. (See Figure 1) The issue is bigger than the singular contribution of a 3 ounce serving of lean beef.
Granted, omega three from salmon trumps all of these sources, but that doesn’t solve the problem. We are overfishing and polluting our oceans. Most people can’t afford wild caught salmon all that often, if at all. People drink milk, eat cheese, use butter and eat beef far more frequently. Shouldn’t there be some attempt quiet inflammation using all of our food? I’m wondering what that ω6:ω3 ratio looks like when the diet includes meat, milk, cheese, and butter from grass fed cows. (Look for part II of this blog sometime in the distant future–it will take a bit of doing to gather the data and do the calculations!)
WILL THE BEEF INDUSTRY BE PART OF THE SOLUTION?
At the moment, this tour revealed important truths. Ranchers already know about the harm in feeding animals grain, but only three percent of all beef sold in America is from grass fed/grass finished cattle. Still, consumers are catching on. Sales of grass fed beef is growing at 20% per year. Costs continue to influence food choices, since grass fed and finished beef is more expensive. It takes longer to get animals to market. At the same time treating all the diseases linked to inflammation is even more expensive. Maybe it’s time to compare more than the basic cost of food.
I can’t help but wonder if overall beef sales are down because people are getting wise to the impact of corn fed beef products on our health, in our environment, and to the health of the animals. Too many either don’t have access or don’t understand that grass fed beef and beef products are very different. The beef industry is facing big challenges. This public relations effort skirted the toughest issues. Still, talking with Frank Mongini, DVM and Scott Stone gives me hope. I appreciate that these are really good people in the cattle industry who get it. Now I can only wonder, how long it will take for consumer demand for grass fed beef to show that consumers are getting it, too.