KPBS Investigates Fast-growing Cattle
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October 30, 2009 – KPBS Investigative Reporter Joanne Faryon traces your beef from the cattle ranches to the feed lots to your dinner plate.
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GLORIA PENNER (Host): KPBS Reporter Joann Faryon has been busy these days tracing the food we eat back to the farm, the field, ocean and factory. She's learned that industrialization and our demand for big, juicy and cheap steak has created corn-fed, hormone-injected fast-growing cattle. These are animals that travel thousands of miles and through many handlers before arriving at your local grocery store. So, Joann joins us to talk about her report for Envision San Diego. Welcome, Joann. JOANNE FARYON (KPBS News): Thanks, Gloria. PENNER: Why are you working on this project? FARYON: Well, we wanted to find out: could we actually track our food? California is the number one agricultural producer in the country. Agriculture is a big part of San Diego's local economy. So we asked a number of questions. In regard to beef, when I go buy a steak at the grocery store, can I track that steak back to the ranch? PENNER: Can you? FARYON: No. We honestly didn't know what we would learn when we asked that question. You can track the steak to the packing plant, but from the packing plant to the rancher, it's like putting together with pieces missing. We actually have no federal tracking system in this country. PENNER: Why is it important to be able to track our beef supply back to the source? FARYON: It really become a safety issue for one, because you really want to know if there is some sort of contamination, you want to be able to find the source. And from an industry point-of-view too, if they have cattle that's sick, you want to know where it originated and you can go right to that ranch and correct the problem. Right now they do it, but it becomes this very intricate –looking at all the pieces in the magnifying glass and trying to piece it all together. PENNER: So we do have a clip about need of tracking in the cattle industry. Here's a cattle rancher from El Centro, his name is Bill Brandenberg. BILL BRANDENBERG (Cattle Farmer): For the cattle industry itself, we need a tracking system to track each animal that we can identify each animal, track them, so that if we do get any disease outbreaks in the country, we can trace those back or if there is any other problem at the packing house or whatever, we can trace everything back to its origin and get answers. To me, I'm in favor of that, that's very important for us and it's overdue and it should have been done a long time ago. People are just resisting it, and are afraid of government interference in their business. We got every other regulation in the world that we have to deal with, it's burdensome and that's one that would actually help us. PENNER: So, is government resistance a reason that beef isn't being tracked or other reasons? FARYON: According to Bill Brandenberg there's a couple of reasons too. I talked to an animal sciences professor up in Pamona and he said, you know, we've got 50 states with 50 different sets of laws, we're a large country, very diverse, so it makes having one big system of tracking, to put that in place, would be very difficult. But I want to tell you, Japan tracks their beef, countries in Europe track their beef, I mean, it is done. PENNER: Well, let's get into it then. How physically different are the heads of cattle today than they were years ago. FARYON: Well, first of all, they are bigger. They are about 300 pounds heavier than they were a generation ago. They're fatter, and one of the reasons they are fatter is they corn. What your seeing right now, those are cattle, young cattle, start off eating grass. For about six months in Southern California they'll live the way that you see on the screen right now, where they are grazing. After about six months they're sold to someone is another state, because we don't have enough grass, we don't have enough water, where they graze another six months on grass. And after that, they go to the feed lot, and that's when they start to eat the corn, that's when they start to get the hormones to make them fatter, juicier and bigger. PENNER: So, what are the drawbacks to this? So, they're bigger, they're in feed lots, they eat corn, what's the problem? FARYON: Well, it seems one thing leads to another. When we started feeding them corn in the 60s and the 70s, and we discovered, oh, they get bigger and they're juicier, isn't this good? Well, when we started feeding them corn we also realized, it's too much fat. Rhey don't have enough lean muscle tissue. So, in order to make more lean muscle tissue, we started giving them hormones, because it helped them make that muscle tissue. We also discovered that corn is a bit tough for them to digest, so we started giving them microbials in their feed as well. When we put them on feed lots to feed them all together, it was also learned that wow, one sick animal, all of them will get sick if they are so close together and so we give them antibiotics. You see within the chain. One unintended consequence after another. PENNER: Well, we are going to learn much more about this because Joann and a team of KPBS reporters are tracing the food from your dinner plate back to the farm, field and ocean. And you can see those reports on our Web site, at KPBS.org/food. There's a special, it's called "Envision San Diego: Food" and it airs November 16 at 9 p.m. on KPBS Television.