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During the 2011 Lenten season as Argentines say good-bye to their traditional diet of beef in preparation for Easter, little do they know that they may be making a long farewell, far beyond the strictures imposed upon them by religious beliefs. Never have been domestic prices been so high, and never has consumption of beef been so fraught with risks, both as a result of economic interests and political mishandling.
Where’s the Beef?
The proud gaucho stands in his stirrups gazing into the horizon as dozens of cows swarm around him against a backdrop of deep green pasture and immense blue sky. The cows look fat, sleek, and happy. Quintessential Argentina, you think.
The days of the gaucho have long been a romantic anachronism, but it would seem that cattle ranching is heading in the same direction. Gone are the days when cattle ranged freely in the pampas, arguably some of the finest pastureland in the world, and just reason for the renown and quality of Argentine beef and dairy products. In 1991, the feedlot made its debut in Argentine territory, and despite the fact that the relation between E. coli infection and beef deriving from cattle enclosed in feedlot operations has been widely established, the feedlot continues to prosper in Argentina even today, largely as a result of nearsightedness on behalf of policy makers, and greed reflected in the beneficiaries of the feedlot system, primarily abattoirs and meat distribution plants. Not unexpectedly, Argentina has the world’s highest mortality rate of Uremic-Hemolytic Syndrome, a disease related to E. coli (strain 0157:H7) contamination.
During the early 1990s, the prices of soy and corn (maize) futures soared, and many cattle ranchers opted to make the transition from cattle ranching to grain cultivation. Acres and acres of high quality pastureland were tilled and planted, and remain so to this day. An obvious consequence of this situation was that fewer and fewer acres remained for cattle ranching; a not so obvious one was the actions taken by the government to limit the profits gained by soy and corn farmers, in order to protect domestic food supplies. Even in today’s market, livestock production simply is not as profitable as grain cultivation.
A 1993 report by the National Institute of Agricultural Technology (INTA) could still affirm that cattle in Argentina “are almost exclusively grass fed”, yet the feedlot was already making headway in the nation’s rural areas. Originally, the feedlot model was adopted as a stopgap measure, a way to mitigate loss of capital, as well as a way to feed the cattle in a limited space. Nevertheless due to the limitations of available pastureland, beef production was lowered and domestic prices for beef went up. In an attempt to keep beef prices down, legislation was developed which provided for subsidies for the corn fed to the cattle in the feedlots. These subsidies were understood as ‘compensation’ for the producers, who in turn did not raise beef prices to the consumer.
In contrast to the Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO) adopted in the United States, Argentine feedlots operate on a smaller scale, but also with fewer regulatory demands, sometimes consisting of a makeshift corral on private property with no proper design or functionality. The National Service for Agro Food Health and Quality (SENASA) is the government organism responsible for registering and testing for common cattle borne diseases such as Hoof and Mouth or Spongiform Encephalopathy (Mad Cow), but the municipal structures by which domestic feedlot operations should be managed and controlled are largely inexistent. Now, more than 20 years into the model, feedlots have become part of the scenery. By subsidizing the grain with which cattle are fed in feedlots, the government guaranteed beef production at a low price to the consumer, and feedlot and abattoir operators were caught up in the business of producing beef at a loss, yet still making money thanks to the ‘compensation’ given to them from the government. It remains to be said that this compensation was never received by grass farmers, giving an unfair advantage to grain finishing operations and driving more and more producers to feedlots or bankruptcy.
Since the money perceived in feedlots came from a government subsidy, and maintaining calves and females in the herd no longer was significant, many producers led them to slaughter thus provoking an overall loss in stock numbers. This practice, in addition to aggravation by an extended drought has resulted in a scarcity of beef, and the government has indefinitely cut off the subsidizing of the grain fed to cattle. Now a recovery in stock numbers due to the lack of calves and females will take years and prices reflect this scarcity, the result of years of poor practices and speculation regarding a true Argentine institution. This state of affairs, and the co-responsibility implied therein, however has not impeded the Chamber of the Beef Industry and Trade, a group of nationwide feedlot/abattoir operators, from blaming the current federal administration for the increase in prices to local consumers: “(the government) couldn’t even avoid the diminishing of the meat supply to the local market by prohibiting its exportation.” (03/03/11). However meat prices can no longer be a question of political convenience, since the government cannot control or subsidize what no longer exists. Hence feedlots today are operating at a loss while the government maintains a ceiling on beef prices and exports. In the current state of affairs, it will be difficult for the common man in Argentina to eat his yearly quota of beef, an estimated 55 kg per year. (NOTE: As this article goes to press, the government organism responsible for managing agricultural subsidies, the ONCAA, has been disbanded while its officials are accused of graft and corruption (26/02/2011).
Hidden Costs of Feedlot Operations
There are other, hidden, costs implicit to feedlot operations, and these are perhaps of even greater importance than the explicit costs. According to the Guide for Environmental Management of Feedlots, published by the INTA in 2009, in Argentina “provincial legislation is either non-existent or incipient for feedlot facilities. Most projects have not taken into account social or environmental aspects beyond those associated with product quality or production efficiency. In some cases, social reactions have led to some changes or adjustments in the management of effluents and smell derived from production establishments. However, there is a marked lack of permanent adjustments and adaptations in order to redress or prevent after-effects. Within the Argentine context but with international experience, the imposition of requirements and restrictions should be directed towards alerting and preventing these effects in order to avoid the cumbersome and expensive task of environmental remediation and the relocation and redesigning of feedlots.”
In general, the idea persists that feedlots or grain-finishing cattle is complementary to grazing. Many operators combine grazing with feedlot finishing without taking into account the damages incurred by the environment, and by the animal itself. Advocates of feedlots insist that the efficiency shown by the model (e.g. fatter animals in less time) more than justify the risks involved. Nevertheless, the most gentle solution for the environment and animal rights would be a return to 100% pasture-fed and -finished beef production.
Public health is another hidden cost. Argentina has the world’s highest mortality rate of E. coli (strain 0157:H7) related deaths.
According to data provided by the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), Uremic-Hemolytic Syndrome (UHS), a complication resulting from infection by E. coli 0157:H7, is endemic to Argentina. In 2006 there were 464 new cases, 64% of which were infants, a sum that triples the rest of the world’s cases in general. This particular strain of E. coli is mainly associated with beef, but has also been found in water, fresh fruit and vegetables, dairy products and other processed foods. Studies have found that the bacteria are resistant to almost all environments except those of extreme heat.
Yet, considering that Argentina has one of the highest rate of beef consumption per capita in the world, a disease that primarily affects beef eaters seems to go largely unnoticed by the population. According to one medical publication (Prensa Médica Argentina), “the difficulties of accessing updated and reliable statistics allow for the supposition that in Argentina, infection by E. coli 0157:H7 is underestimated and under-diagnosed.” Local media coverage is practically nonexistent, averaging one or two articles yearly, nothing in comparison with the attention given the swine flu virus a couple of years ago.
“The Hamburger Disease”
There is no way to tell if food has been contaminated by this strain of E. coli. There are no differences in taste, smell or colour. This is why it is important to treat all foodstuffs as if they had been in contact with E. coli, washing hands and surfaces thoroughly and cooking meat until it reaches 140ºF internal temperature (80ºC). Ground beef is particularly susceptible to contamination because the grinding of the meat puts exposed sides of meat (which might otherwise be seared and thus safe to consume) in contact with all other cuts, infecting all.
Most public health initiatives directed towards protecting the consumer aim at educating with regards to proper food handling in the home as well as in businesses (i.e. restaurants, butcher shops, grocery stores, etc). While this is indispensable given the present situation, it is also important to understand the relationship between modern food production techniques and E. coli contamination.
Cows being fed a grain-based diet within an enclosed environment, such as a feedlot, have been consistently tested to show high acid levels in the rumen, otherwise known as acute or sub-acute ruminal acidosis (SARA). This is a result of the breakdown of dietary carbohydrates (e.g. starch), particularly from cereal grains such as corn and barley. This in turn leads to a chronic digestive disorder in the herd, impaired cow health and involuntary culling of the herd. According to the American Association of Bovine Practitioners: “acidosis is the most important nutritional problem that feedlots face daily and is a major challenge for dairies as well. Both the dairy and feedlot industries have continued to opt for the use of more grains in their feeding programs. Relatively cheap grains have provided an excellent and economical energy source. But this has also resulted in an increasing problem with acidosis. The severity of acidosis may range from mild to life threatening.” The cattle are then administered antibiotics to mitigate the problems arising from acidosis, adding to the list of additives that are undesirable for human consumption. In fact, cattle consume 70% of all antibiotics administered in the US but this does not imply that the sick animals are culled from the herd. On the contrary, they proceed to be slaughtered along with the healthy animals.
The problem then becomes one of evolution. E. coli which lives naturally in the digestive tract of many organisms becomes acid resistant in the cow that is fed grain. So acid resistant, in fact, that it can survive beyond the low pH of the human stomach, and go on and cause gastroenterological problems in humans, among others, UHS.
What is less known is that cattle that are grass-fed do not suffer from acidosis in general. In fact beef from grass-fed cattle is higher in omega 3’s, lower in saturated fat, and less susceptible to contamination from E. coli. Cattle that have been removed from a grain-based diet to a grass diet recover their normal pH after two weeks of grazing. This implies that feedlot operations have been misguided regarding grain feeding cattle and that human consumers have been exposed to intolerably high levels of acidity and E. coli contamination in the beef that they consume.
Ruminants were never intended to be fed grain. In fact, most grains have to be laced with molasses in order for the cattle to even try it.
Much has been said regarding the superiority of grass-fed beef over grain-fed beef, but said superiority may not be a question of nutrients. A consumer probably would not be able to tell the difference between grass-fed or grain-fed beef inasmuch as flavour, tenderness, marbling, or other sensory qualities are concerned. Nonetheless it is true that cattle raised on pasture “have a positive impact on fatty acid tissue profile…which affect the nutritional value of fat because polyunsaturated fatty acids have beneficial effects on human physiology and health, preventing the occurrence of coronary heart disease, hypertension, inflammatory and immune disorders, and neurological dysfunctions” (Beef Lipids in relation to animal breed and nutrition in Argentina; Science Direct). It would seem that the win-win relation between human health and bovine health generated by pasture grazing would be an easy matter to defend in a political arena. Nevertheless, there are many interests in maintaining the status quo.
The grass farmer during the past two decades has been unable to compete against the feedlots, on the one hand, and on the other, grain cultivation. He has been able to survive, for the most part, by exporting to other countries, primarily the European Union, and by fulfilling international standards for grass-feeding, grass-finishing, and organic (no antibiotics or hormones administered) beef production. One producer, EcoPampa, states that 99% of its organic grass- fed beef finds its way to supermarkets in the UK, under the framework of the Hilton Quota, an international tariff agreement whereby Argentina and other nations enjoy duty preferences as suppliers of “high quality fresh, chilled, or frozen beef” to the European Union.
The Hilton Quota would be one way of financing grass-fed beef production, an attractive one for most grass farmers. Unfortunately at current standards of grass-fed beef production, Argentina is not fulfilling the permissible quota. This represents a lost opportunity for most domestic grass farmers who either have not completed the certification process by which they are included in the registry of producers, or for one reason or another, cannot be certified. It must be noted here that the rigorous certification process for exporting beef to the European Union is upheld and respected by Argentine producers and inspectors.
Nonetheless, there is a double standard regarding norms and standards in Argentina’s beef production industry. On the one hand, there is an established infrastructure of standards and certifications which qualify beef for exportation, the APAC, or Approval for Food Products and Derivatives, but on the other hand there is no such infrastructure for meat destined for domestic consumption. In theory, according to one SENASA employee, the same rules apply to both markets; in practice, there is a world of difference.
Let the buyer beware (Caveat Emptor)
According to the Chamber of Bovine Livestock Fattening (CAEHU), in 2001, 10% of all beef produced in Argentina came from feedlots. The director of the Institute for the Promotion of Argentine Beef (IPVCA), Dardo Chiesa, in a 2009 interview declared that 75% of beef intended for domestic consumption came from feedlots. While there is some discrepancy based on the time of the year the statistics were taken (there is a greater presence of grain-fed beef during the winter months than during the summer), there can be no doubt that there has been a tremendous increase in the amount of grain-fed beef consumed domestically. The transition from grass-fed beef to grain-fed beef that in the US took place over a period of 50 years, in Argentina has taken place in less than ten. Perhaps for this reason, the Argentine consumer is largely unaware of the change. Theoretically it is possible to buy grass-finished beef in Argentina; the problem is telling the difference between grass-fed and grain-fed. Beef intended for local consumption is not labelled, marked, tagged, or graded in any way. For purposes of E. coli contamination, for example, it makes no difference if the cow were grass-fed or grain-fed because once the carcass has arrived at the slaughterhouse, there is no standing system which differentiates between the two. Once the grass-fed beef has entered into contact with the contaminated grain-fed beef, the result is the same for both.
In spite of the fact that grain-fed beef implies hidden costs in the form of environmental damage and public health issues, the feedlot appears to be here to stay. There simply is not enough pasture on which to raise cattle. Therefore it is necessary to bring feedlots under the framework of government regulation in order to assess risks and damages
Dr. Anibal Pordomingo, Senior Research Fellow for the INTA, in an exclusive interview for the Argentina Independent, considers that Argentina “is not prepared to manage feedlots on a large scale.” In addition, the production process which leads from farm/feedlot to abattoir, to butcher/grocery, to consumer leaves much to be desired. Traditionally the carcass is carried over the shoulder, hung from hooks in trucks that may or many not be refrigerated, and transported to the different distributions points in the country where it is then cut, packaged and sold. “The exposure to bacteria is tremendous,” says Dr. Pordomingo. “There are no irradiation processes, and no policies for environmental management that function. The slaughterhouses don’t cover registries of origin. During one study, six of eight carcasses showed E. coli contamination. No one speaks of it.”
This apparently is the result of inadequate government regulation. Certification for a slaughterhouse in Argentina, for local consumption, is a mere bureaucratic application, costing approximately $300 (US$80).
To invert this situation, Dr. Pordomingo recommends the following steps:
1. The regulation and control of feedlots, especially risk assessment and damage control of environment and public health. Reveal the hidden costs.
2.The regulation and inspection of slaughterhouses. Meat should be cut, packaged and sent out in refrigerated trucks to distribution points. There should be no double standard regarding meat intended for exportation and meat intended for domestic consumption. Meat should be adequately tagged and marked, showing its origin, whether it is grass-fed or grain-fed, inspection number etc.
3. New legislation should maintain and control the distribution chains
4. If possible, grass farmers should invest in the concept of ‘Boutique Meat’, high quality grass-fed beef (in addition to other types of meat) to be sold at competitive market prices locally and internationally. Local consumers could then express a preference which now is denied them.
Eating beef in Argentina is a risky proposition.
Definitely. Although there can be no doubt that the quality and nutrition of the beef produced in Argentina is among the finest in the world, the lack of controls and regulations on beef intended for local consumption makes eating it a risky, oftentimes lethal, affair. Therefore please take into consideration the following suggestions regarding the purchase, preparation and consumption of beef while in Argentina.
1. Cook your meat thoroughly and demand that the beef you buy in restaurants also be cooked thoroughly (Internal temperature of 80º C or 140º F). Be especially careful with ground beef and ground beef products such as hamburgers. Wash hands and surfaces after coming into contact with uncooked meat. Do not wash or cut other foods on surfaces that have come into contact with raw meat. Grass-fed or grain-fed meat is no replacement for hygiene and good culinary practices.
2. The hidden costs of feedlot operations are paid by society in the form of damages to the environment and health care. Raise consciousness by inquiring at butchers and grocery stores about the origin of the beef sold there. If possible, demand that the meat you consume be labelled adequately as to its origin and processing method. Buying grass-fed beef is a vote in favour of the environment and human health.
3. By refusing to buy and consume meat that is inadequately handled, packaged, and marked, there is more likelihood that control standards and norms given for beef intended for exportation be applied to beef intended for domestic consumption. If you are not convinced as to the equality of standards regarding local beef handling and packaging, do not buy it; instead, demand the meat products safeguarded for export inasmuch as possible.
Lead image by NDSU Ag Comm