Will we be able to feed nine billion by 2050?

That is the rhetorical — and practical — question hanging over meetings and conferences associated with agriculture these days.

In the livestock sector, the long-term health and sustainability of our production systems will require sensible laws and guidelines to meet that goal. The key word being — sensible.

Hardly a week goes by that the livestock and poultry industries aren’t beaten up over some generally proven management or processing practice. Commonly, the red flag-wavers are affiliated with the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) or other anti-meat advocates.

Two of their favorite targets include the use of low-level antibiotics in livestock diets and housing gestating sows in stalls.

New CAST Report

The Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST) recently issued a commentary about trends to change the way livestock is raised. The authors focus on how changes may affect animal health and lead to unintended consequences with direct and indirect impacts on human health.

While the most popular trends are focused on sustainability, buying local, economies of scale, animal housing, antibiotic use and animal welfare, great care must be taken to evaluate the trade-offs before intervention jeopardizes the food supply.

“Healthy animals make safer food” is the long-standing premise of the U.S. Food Safety & Inspection Service (FSIS), which serves as the basis for the Meat Inspection Act of 1906. If we accept the premise, then conversely, less-than-healthy animals could increase foodborne risks for humans.

A trickier task is identifying indirect evidence that an animal is subclinically ill (not visibly sick) and, therefore, increases the risk of affecting the quality of our food supply. “Animals stressed or immune compromised by long-term, low-grade illness are more likely to be infected with foodborne pathogens, especially Salmonella,” states the CAST report.

Adequate and proper nutrition in animals — as in people — is important to maintain good health because it optimizes digestion, immune and endocrine functions, reproduction and growth. In the pork industry, producers have improved husbandry practices, housing and biosecurity to minimize disease risk, while inherently reducing the prevalence of foodborne pathogens. Healthy pigs equal healthy pork.

“The improved hygiene of swine production systems, which occurred with the transition from low-management outdoor production to more intensely managed indoor systems, is primarily responsible for the sharp reduction in Trichinella spiralis (thrichinosis)-infected pigs in the United States — a very significant public health improvement,” states the CAST report. Likewise, the evolution of slotted floors has decreased pigs’ exposure to parasites and pathogens in their feces, such as Salmonella.

The report addresses concerns about antibiotic resistance, too. “Concern about antibiotic resistance is not equivalent to actual risk. Resistant bacteria were present long before antibiotics were discovered and (have been) found in many places without livestock exposure. Antibiotic use to prevent and treat animal disease, however, is essential for the health of food animals,” the authors conclude.

The new CAST commentary, “Healthy Animals Make Confident Consumers,” is available as a free download on the CAST website, www.cast-science.org.

Misguided Focus

Continuing this thread to better understanding of food quality, perhaps the public would be better served if human nutrition programs were easier to interpret. A survey conducted by the International Food Information Council found 76% of consumers feel the ever-changing nutritional guidelines create a lot of confusion and angst; 52% of Americans think it would be easier to calculate their income tax than know what they should and shouldn’t eat to be healthier.

Another scary observation from a United Nations’ report, “Food and Agriculture — the Future of Sustainability,” notes: “For the first time in history, we have as many overweight people as undernourished people (in the world) and the consequences of our emerging dietary habits are on a disastrous trajectory for human health.”

Finally, in a study reported in the online journal, Public Health and Nutrition, researchers reviewed the nutritional content of nearly 31,000 menu items from 245 restaurant chains. They found that 96% of the entrees failed to meet nutritional recommendations for the combination of calories, sodium, fat and saturated fat set in USDA nutritional guidelines.

Before we begin making major changes in the way we feed and care for our pigs, perhaps a refocused initiative on what it takes to keep our food supply safe and nutritious would be in order.