The Brazilian Beef Scandal and the Future of US Grass Fed Beef
On June 22, 2017, the U.S. suspended imports of fresh beef from Brazil. Among the problems discovered during inspections were abscesses in the meat, thought to be due to infected vaccination sites
For the past two years, Brazil’s Federal Police have investigated corruption charges within the beef industry. Dozens of food inspectors have been arrested, and one meatpacker has been fined $3.2 billion
While traceability is key for food safety, country of origin labeling (COOL) was rejected by the World Trade Organization in 2014 for being “discriminatory.” Ranchers are now suing the USDA to reintroduce COOL
By Dr. Mercola
Worldwide, we're seeing strong growth in organics and grass fed farming. As of 2016, the organic food sector accounted for 5.3 percent of total food sales in the U.S.1 We now also have a brand-new grass fed certification by the American Grassfed Association (AGA), which is the highest certification you can get for dairy, beef, sheep and goats.
In short, we're seeing a radically increased demand for healthier foods. A lot more people now know about the drawbacks of factory farmed beef and dairy, and are aware that when herbivores are grazed naturally, without hormones, antibiotics and other drugs, you end up with a healthier product.
Unfortunately, the current food system still leaves a lot to be desired. Built around efficiency and profit, inevitable quality and safety deficiencies are par the course. International trade agreements also protect profits over safety and consumer ideals.
While traceability is key for food safety, country of origin labeling (COOL) was rejected by the World Trade Organization (WTO) for being "discriminatory." In other words, you're not allowed to know where a food comes from simply because that might influence you to buy or not buy, depending on your preferences.
The ramifications are presently evident in the beef industry, where tainted beef is being exported around the globe while local ranchers struggle to compete with bottom-priced imports.
US Suspends Brazilian Beef Imports
On June 22, 2017, the U.S. suspended imports of fresh beef from Brazil,2 the fifth largest beef exporter to the U.S. For the past two years, Brazil's Federal Police have conducted an investigation into the country's beef industry. According to investigators, Brazilian food inspectors accepted bribes, falsified sanitary permits and allowed expired meats to be sold.
Nearly 1,900 politicians also received bribes to the tune of $186 million over the course of a few years, including former presidents Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff. Dozens of federal food inspectors have now been placed under arrest, and J&F Investimentos, the holding company of JBS SA, one of Brazil's largest meatpackers and a prime suspect in the corruption investigation, has agreed to pay $3.2 billion in fines.3
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), since March, 100 percent of Brazilian meat imports have been inspected before being allowed into the country. Normally, 1 percent of meat imports are turned away. In the case of Brazil, 11 percent were refused, equating to about 1.9 million pounds of beef.4
Among the problems discovered during inspection were abscesses in the meat — a problem Brazilian deputy agriculture minister Eumar Novacki claims is due to rare adverse reactions in some cattle to vaccines that prevent foot-and-mouth disease; reactions that pose no risk to public health.5 Not everyone's buying this excuse, though. As reported by Reuters:6
"The Agricultural Ministry's linkage of the abscesses to vaccines was questioned by some experts. Vaccines for foot-and-mouth disease are the No. 1 vaccines used in animals worldwide, said James Roth, director of the Center for Food Security and Public Health at Iowa State University …
Roth said 'any injection into an animal might rarely produce an abscess' if the needle is dirty. However, '[I]f abscesses are showing up in the meat, there has to be a failure in the slaughter plant because those should be caught and removed' …"
EU Struggles With Tainted Meat and Animal Feed
The European Union (EU), which has also stepped up inspections of Brazilian beef, reports rejecting shipments due to the presence of E. coli. The Brazilian health inspectors' union, Nacional dos Auditores Fiscais Federais Agropecuários (ANFFA), blames the systemic failures on staffing cutbacks.
While the number of meatpacking plants have doubled since 2002, the number of health inspectors has declined from 3,200 to 2,600 in that same time.7 Meanwhile, in March, the Brazilian government announced it will cut the Agriculture Ministry's budget by another 45 percent. But E.coli-tainted meat from Brazil is not the only trouble found in the EU. Chinese-made riboflavin (vitamin B-2) supplements for use in animal feed have also been found to contain genetically engineered (GE) bacteria, which is illegal in the EU.
Making matters worse, the GE bacteria in question confers resistance to a number of different antibiotics, including chloramphenicol, used for infections such as meningitis, plague, cholera and typhoid fever.8 The tainted supplements first came to light in 2014. As reported by Independent Science News:9
"[R]iboflavin is now frequently produced by commercial fermentation using overproducing strains of GE bacteria. According to EU biosafety regulations, no GMO bacterial strain, nor any DNA, is allowed to be present in commercial supplements. However, the contaminated sample of riboflavin contained viable strains of the genetically modified organism Bacillus subtilis.
The researchers cultured and tested the contaminating bacterium and subsequent DNA sequencing showed it to be a production strain. Further testing showed it to contain genomic DNA conferring resistance to the antibiotic chloramphenicol. In addition, the strain contained DNA extrachromosomal plasmids with other antibiotic resistance genes. These conferred resistance to the antibiotics ampicillin, kanamycin, bleomycin, tetracycline and erythromycin.
Correspondence between German diplomats, Chinese authorities and the company subsequently established that these antibiotic resistance genes constituted key differences between the strains the company claimed to be using … Only the erythromycin and chloramphenicol resistance genes were acknowledged by the producer. Whether the altered strains had been used intentionally or were inadvertent contaminants is still not clear."
Where Does Your Beef Come From?
In all, the U.S. imports beef from 22 different countries totaling over 3 billion pounds in 2016. Australia, Canada and New Zealand top the list of countries supplying beef to the U.S., followed by Mexico and Brazil.10
RankCountryTotal pounds imported 2016
When it comes to grass fed beef, as much as 80 percent is imported, most of which comes from Australia. Brazil is also a significant source of grass fed beef. A little-known fact that hides the country of origin is that as long as a piece of imported beef passes through a USDA-inspected plant, it can be labeled as a "Product of the USA." In other words, by importing entire carcasses and processing them in a U.S. facility, the imported meat suddenly becomes American.
Even the USDA beef checkoff tax is being used to promote imported beef rather than U.S.-raised beef11 — this, despite the fact that the checkoff program12 (a mandatory program that requires cattle producers to pay a $1 fee per head of cattle sold) is supposed to be used for research and promotion of beef to benefit and support American cattle ranchers.
Considering the steady growth of grass fed ranching in the U.S., why are we still importing the vast majority of it? One of the main reasons is because Australia and Brazil can produce it at a lower cost, as their climate allows for year-round grazing. In fact, in Australia, grass fed is the norm; 70 percent of the cattle there are raised on open pasture.13
According to a recent report by the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, "Back to Grass: The Market Potential for U.S. Grassfed Beef,"14 accurate labeling is imperative to "ensure that consumers are getting what they think they're buying." Not only may you be buying imported beef without knowing it, the grass fed beef you're buying may not be as wholesome as you expect it to be, thanks to weak standards. As noted by Jill Isenbarger, CEO of Stone Barns Center:15
"The U.S. market for grass fed beef has grown at 100 percent per year for the past four years, yet consumers don't realize that much of this beef is coming from cattle that haven't actually spent the whole of their lives on open pasture, eating real grass."
Pasture-Raised Versus Grass Fed
It's not easy being a consumer in today's food landscape. Labels that seem self-explanatory enough sometimes mean something else entirely, or nothing at all, as in the case of the "all-natural" label, which is basically meaningless and used as a marketing ploy more than anything else. When it comes to grass fed beef labels, there's plenty of confusion to go around, as well. As explained in the "Back to Grass" report:16
"The clearest distinction between grass fed and conventional beef occurs at the finishing stage. Grass fed cattle remain on pastures and are finished on a diet of predominantly grass or other forages. They grow more slowly and are typically slaughtered at 20 [to] 28 months of age. Meat from these animals is usually sold with a grass fed label approved by the [USDA] and sold into niche grass fed beef markets for a premium.
However, the USDA's allowance of partial grass fed claims (e.g., '50 [percent] grass fed') and the absence of a requirement for on-farm inspection for grass fed claims mean that not all beef sold with a grass fed label necessarily follows these production standards.
Some cattle are kept on pasture through the finishing phase, but their diet is supplemented with grains; these animals are 'pasture-raised' but not 100 [percent] grass fed. A striking development in recent years has been the emergence of 'grass feedlots,' where cattle are fed grass (often in the form of grass pellets) in confinement."
The following graph illustrates the main differences between pasture-raised, pure grass fed, conventional and "grass feedlot"-type beef:
Why Authentic Grass Fed Beef Matters
Getting clarity on this issue is important because these differences result in significantly different types of meat and environmental impacts. Mounting research shows regenerative grazing methods:
• Improve human health by producing healthier meats. Compared to conventional beef, grass fed beef has:
Significantly better omega-6 to omega-3 ratios
Higher concentrations of conjugated linoleic acids(CLAs)
Higher levels of antioxidants
Lower risk of E. coli infection
Lower risk of antibiotic-resistant bacteria
• Improve animal welfare: Grass fed cattle are healthier and require few if any drug treatments
• Protect the environment: Regenerative grazing systems help restore grasslands, build soil and protect water supplies, whereas the concentration of manure in and around feedlots pollute air, soil and water
• Sequester carbon in the soil, thereby improving soil quality, offsetting cattle methane emissions and helping to mitigate rising Co2 levels in the atmosphere
The report goes on to issue four specific action items to strengthen the U.S. grass fed beef industry:
Focus on producing high-quality, pastured and grass-finished beef year-round. To do this, seasonal finishing products need to be made available across all regions of the U.S. Training and technical assistance is also needed
Create stronger standards for the grass fed label and brand-building campaigns to educate consumers about American-raised grass fed beef
Improve scale and aggregation in the grass fed supply chain, especially at the grass fed finisher level, to improve efficiency
Build "well-managed, scaled-up finishing systems to produce grass fed beef at low cost." Doing so could bring grass fed beef closer to conventional feedlot beef prices
Cattle Ranchers Fight for Country-of-Origin Labeling
As mentioned earlier, the WTO ruled against the use of country-of-origin labeling back in 2014, saying COOL impeded trade between the U.S., Canada and Mexico, creating a "detrimental impact on the competitive opportunities" for Canadian and Mexican livestock. At the time, the American Meat Institute and North American Meat Association said:17
"The WTO decision upholding Canada's and Mexico's challenge to the U.S. COOL rule comes as no surprise. USDA's mandatory COOL rule is not only onerous and burdensome on livestock producers and meat packers and processors, it does not bring the U.S. into compliance with its WTO obligations. By being out of compliance, the U.S. is subject to retaliation from Canada and Mexico that could cost the U.S. economy billions of dollars."
The USDA subsequently scrapped COOL in 2016, but now, ranchers are suing the USDA to reintroduce it, arguing the USDA's change violated the Meat Inspection Act, which requires slaughtered meat to be clearly marked if it comes from a country other than the U.S.
By no longer requiring imported meats to be properly labeled, imported meats have been allowed to be sold as U.S. products, thereby misinforming consumers, putting national producers at a disadvantage and jeopardizing food safety. The lawsuit was filed by Public Justice on behalf of the Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America and the Cattle Producers of Washington. Public Justice attorney David Muraskin told Fox Business News:18
"Consumers understandably want to know where their food comes from. With this suit, we're fighting policies that put multinational corporations ahead of domestic producers and shroud the origins of our food supply in secrecy."
Know Your Grass Fed Labels
Ideally, the best way to ensure you're getting exactly what you pay for is to buy directly from a trusted farmer. Many are more than happy to give you a tour and explain the details of their operation. Your next best option is to know your labels. The American Grassfed Association (AGA) recently introduced much-needed grass fed standards and certification for American-grown grass fed beef and dairy,19 which will allow for greater transparency and conformity.
Prior to this certification, dairy and beef could be sold as "grass fed" whether the cows ate solely grass, or received silage, hay or even grains during certain times. As reported by Organic Authority:20
"The new regulations are the product of a year's worth of collaboration amongst dairy producers like Organic Valley as well as certifiers like Pennsylvania Certified Organic and a team of scientists. 'We came up with a standard that's good for the animals, that satisfies what consumers want and expect when they see grass fed on the label, and that is economically feasible for farmers,' says AGA's communications director Marilyn Noble of the new regulations."
AGA Grass Fed Standards Are Head and Neck Above the Rest
The AGA grass fed logo is really the only one able to guarantee that the meat comes from animals that have:
Been fed a 100 percent forage diet
Never been confined in a feedlot
Never received antibiotics or hormones
Been born and raised on American family farms (remember, a vast majority of the grass fed meats sold in grocery stores are imported, and without COOL labeling, there's no telling where it came from or what standards were followed)
There are a few other grass fed labels as well, but none are as comprehensive or as strict as the AGA's. These include:
• Certified Grassfed by AGW (A Greener World):21 This standard is an addition to the Animal Welfare Approved standard for cattle, sheep, goats and bison. Animals can only be fed grass and other forages from weaning until slaughter, and animals must be raised on range or pasture for the duration of their lives. No growth hormones or sub-therapeutic antibiotics are permitted. The AGW grass fed label is available in the U.S. and Canada.
• Pennsylvania Certified Organic (PCO) Grass-Fed: This label has standards for the kind of plants cows can eat. The following feeds are not allowed: grain or grain byproducts; corn kernel or corn kernel byproducts; cake or meal foodstuffs; concentrates; food processing byproducts or waste; small grain or corn allowed to mature past the vegetative state and sprouted grains.
PCO certification is an optional add-on certification for operations that are also certified organic under the USDA National Organic Program.22
Why Most Grass Fed Labels Cannot Be Trusted
The AGA standard officially launched in February, a month after USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) rescinded its official standards for the grass fed beef claim.23 This means the USDA no longer has any grass fed standards for producers to follow. The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), which approves meat labels in general, still approves grass fed label claims. However, producers of grass fed meats are free to define their own standards!
According to the AGA, "FSIS is only considering the feeding protocol in their label approvals — other issues such as confinement; use of antibiotics and hormones; and the source of the animals, meat, and dairy products will be left up to the producer."
In other words, a producer of "grass fed beef" could theoretically confine the animals and feed them antibiotics and hormones and still put a grass fed label on the meat as long as the animals were also fed grass at some point. The take-home message here is that, unless it's an AGA grass fed label, you really won't know what you're getting. No other grass fed certification offers the same comprehensive assurances as the AGA, and no other grass fed program ensures compliance using third-party audits.
Remember: Don't Overeat Meat, Even Organic American Grass Fed
While most people enjoy eating animal protein and find it delicious, it is vitally important to remember to avoid eating too much. The literature is fairly clear that those who eat excessive amounts of animal protein will die prematurely, even if it is the highest quality American grass fed organic.
It would be wise to limit your serving size to 2 ounces if you are a small woman or child, or 4 ounces for a large male, and only eat it a few times a week. Intakes above this are likely to activate the mTOR pathway and may have unhealthy consequences.