Mom, local farmer, veterinarian: 3 perspectives on America’s food system

Sometimes it seems like you can’t read a paper or magazine, check out your television or radio or go online without hearing more concerns about the health and safety of our food supply.

I agree with anyone who says we deserve to know all there is to know about what goes on our plates. I’d like everyone to get clear information, direct from the source. When it comes to the antibiotics and hormones that are administered to farm animals, I feel like I can be that source because I have three unique perspectives on the food system in America today.

I’m a mom

I completely understand why shoppers want to buy the best, safest food they can. I have a baby daughter, and just like every parent I want her to be as healthy and successful as possible. I have worries just like most of my mom friends do; Why isn’t she crawling yet? Why won’t she eat asparagus? When should we start swimming lessons? But one thing I don’t worry about is the safety of the food I feed her.

When I go to the store, I am 100 percent confident that the items in my cart are safe and healthy for my daughter and for our whole family. And I’d like other parents to know what I know and to share my confidence when it comes to feeding their own families.

I’m a farmer

As a member of a third-generation Illinois farm family, I wish everyone had the same understanding I do of what it takes to bring the best, safest items to your local store.

My family’s farm raises pigs and hormone use isn’t an issue. Regular use of hormones to increase growth is simply not a part of the swine industry. The same is true for poultry. Some farmers of both beef and dairy herds do employ hormones to promote lean growth for a higher protein and lower fat product, but the amounts that get transferred to the related food shouldn’t cause concern.

A three ounce steak from a treated steer contains 1.9 nanograms (billionths of a gram) of estrogen. The same steak from an untreated animal has about 1.3 nanograms of estrogen. In comparison, a baked potato on the same plate has 225 nanograms of naturally occurring estrogen.

Because I have a daughter the stories about a trend toward earlier puberty in young girls catch my attention. Here’s what I’ve learned: Recent research has found that the most consistent link factor in precocious puberty is child obesity.* Kids with more body fat tend to have high levels of a protein called leptin, which can trigger the body’s release of hormones that start puberty.

Since the early 1990s, researchers have looked for a link with hormones in dairy milk, and so far they haven’t found one. It’s interesting to know that the most common hormone administered to dairy cattle, rBGH, is what’s called a protein hormone. That means that unlike steroid hormones like estrogen, it is broken down by the digestive process and never enters the system. Even more interesting, it is impossible to test the difference between rBGH, which is given as a shot, and endogenous BGH, which is made naturally by the cow.

I’m a veterinarian

As a practicing veterinarian, it’s frustrating when our practices are misperceived, misunderstood or misreported.

The simple fact is that we do use antibiotics in treating livestock for the same reason your doctor would prescribe them: to treat an illness. There are two good reasons for administering antibiotics to get an animal healthy: Raising an animal means taking responsibility for its health and well-being, and a healthy animal is a better producer.

To see that there are no antibiotic residues in finished animal products such as milk and meat, farmers follow strict Food& Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines that specify withdrawal times between when the animal is medicated and when its products can be used.

For example, when a dairy cow receives antibiotics, she still gets milked; but, until her milk is free of any trace of medication and the withdrawal period is past, the milk does not go to market.

Another important issue around antibiotics is their role in the development of drug-resistant pathogens. There are new FDA Veterinary Feed Directive (VFD) regulations coming into effect in late 2016 that will require farmers to work much closer with their veterinarians to use antibiotics in the feed, a huge step in reducing antibiotic resistance.

Everything I’ve learned from my farm background and my veterinary practice makes me believe that our American food supply is safe and healthy. Does that mean we’re perfect? Probably not. Farm practices have changed since my grandpa started Gould Farms in the 1960’s, and I know they’ll keep improving as we gain more knowledge.

* Frank Biro, M.D., professor, clinical pediatrics, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, Ohio; Patricia Vuguin, M.D., pediatric endocrinologist, Steven and Alexandra Cohen Children’s Medical Center of New York, New Hyde Park; December 2013, Pediatrics.

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