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Beyond Meat? More like Beneath Beef in my view

Beef 911: Plant-based burgers may come close in some aspects but it remains a highly processed food

Well cattle and beef producers, this is solely marketing for marketing’s sake.

With the organic, vegetarian, raised without added antibiotics or hormones movements we are seeing, I suppose a plant-based protein product was probably inevitable.

What we as beef producers need to do is keep telling our story — and what we do to raise fantastic animal protein. Plant-based proteins are fine. It is just humorous that they want it to taste like beef and even be in a patty like a beef burger.

This means the taste of beef is paramount. My new definition is calling it Beneath Beef as it must be inferior if all the different ingredients must be added together to come up with something that tastes like ground beef. The word ‘beyond’ has a superior or far-reaching connotation and although I am not in advertising regulations, I believe this is on the edge. In more regulated industries, strict promotional marketing rules would have prohibited this type of wording for sure.

Meat scientists and butchers have been improving how we grow, harvest and cut up meat for consumption. Consumer tests look at not only the taste but the texture (tenderness and juiciness), smell, colour and the overall eating experience. Even the colour of our white fat barley-fed beef is extremely desirable for esthetic reasons.

These are things that can’t be replicated with a meat substitute in the lab.

Nutritionists have talked about processed foods in general and stated that we want to have less of them, not more. Well, all these substitute meats are highly processed, in my opinion, and the telltale difference on a taste test is the texture. On taste and colour, they have got close but the cost to produce this highly processed food source is going to be quite high.

Meat scientists have been paramount in looking at the qualities of real meat and refined how the butchering, chilling, aging and even hanging of the carcasses affects the end product. What used to be considered poorer cuts of meat and a little tougher have now been turned into valuable cuts. And when beef is ground and the right amount of lean and fat are blended together, it produces a great eating experience.

Look at the McDonald’s burgers and how consistent the final burger is.

Quality control and an absolute zero tolerance for bone or cartilage and the right blend produces the ideal burger. From X-ray machines to metal detectors, any non-meat substance is removed from beef. Cattlemen have reduced any metal under their control in the form of broken needles to almost zero and the metal detectors pick out the rest. Buckshot is also found very occasionally (and there are probably a few reasons for that), but again metal detectors can pick that up. Food safety is an absolute concern and samples of product are cultured for E. coli O157 H7 on a routine basis as a safety measure.

Most traditionalists don’t want any flavour added to their burgers, and love the taste of pure 100 per cent beef.

We all need to talk up beef and how it is raised as well. Most of us need to tell the story of our animal welfare experiences. This includes how we are using painkillers on the management procedures that result in a bit of pain or when an animal is sick or hurt, and how painkillers (NSAIDs) are becoming commonplace. This inadvertently may result in less antimicrobials used or for a less period of time as recovery may be quicker.

You have all developed more stress-free handling skills and chute facilities have improved as well resulting in greater health outcomes. Vaccinations have reduced sickness and the public needs to know that we vaccinate our cattle much as people do their newborn sons and daughters. The principles are the same.

All beef is essentially antibiotic free when it is sold, which is why I struggle with the raised without the use of antibiotics marketing. In spite of all our good intentions, cattle still get sick and with treatment — often including antibiotics — recovery is complete.

We all recognize withdrawal periods so the antibiotics are cleared from their system. To start with, Canada has much longer withdrawals than the U.S. because of how the tolerance limits are set.

Also, on your ranches the classes of antimicrobials most helpful to humans are avoided if at all possible. This is where veterinarians need to use their best judgment in prescribing antimicrobials. Feedlots have computer warning systems to track withdrawal periods based on the scanning of the RFID tag, which is a foolproof system providing data is imputed properly.

The added hormone or HF (hormone-free) program to get cattle into the European Union is growing. Again we need to teach the public that beef is extremely safe, whether or not cattle have been implanted. The implant hormones are simply a very similar substitute for the natural hormones.

As an example, when we castrate, we remove the natural hormones and the implants are a substitute at not nearly what is removed from a natural bull calf, but the bad behaviour of an intact bull is greatly minimized. Production is increased, it is totally safe and it minimizes behaviour problems compared to if you fed a pen of bulls.

The HF program gives us access to another completely different market and we do rely on lots of exports of Canadian beef, so it is good as long as the financial benefits are there for the producer. With the HF programs there is minimal amount of paperwork but you are sacrificing tremendous gains, so this must be factored into the equation as well.

There are a lot of marketing campaigns but at the end of the day producers can be proud of the quality, safety, productivity and animal welfare parameters they raise their beef under. It is a competitive world out there, but even the variety of beef programs in Canada strengthens that.

About the author

Columnist

Roy Lewis practised large-animal veterinary medicine for more than 30 years and now works part time as a technical services veterinarian for Merck Animal Health.

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