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June 2004

Savoring U.S. Meat, a Summertime Tradition

Bob Stallman
American Farm Bureau
By Bob Stallman
President, American Farm Bureau

Fire up the grill and tie on your aprons, summertime is here. Backyard barbecues are as much a summer tradition as cooling off in the water sprinkler, eating ice cream from a truck or cheering on your favorite baseball team.

In my mind, there’s nothing better than fresh corn-on-the-cob, potato salad and a juicy steak or chop. Barbecuing is a means of bringing family and friends together, as well as an excuse for men to proudly show off their finely tuned ability to cook meat over a blazing fire.

But as we sit down to our grilled hotdogs, hamburgers, ribs and chicken this summer, we need to keep in mind that we are able to feed our families safe and wholesome meats because of the benefits of America’s modern livestock operations and efficient meat production system.

Meeting Demand, Being Realistic

In spite of that fact, there always seems to be a fair amount of static to go around - starting with attacks on our livestock industry and ending with hand-wringing about how isolated incidents are handled once identified. Occasionally there is news coverage of disreputable livestock or meatpacking operations, which tends to give the entire industry a bad rap. I am in no way defending the bad actors, but I want to set the record straight about the reality of modern livestock and meat production.

The vast majority of U.S. livestock producers - including larger scale ones - care about the handling, health and welfare of their animals and are dedicated to ensuring their facilities respect the environment and the quality of life of the folks who live near them. Further up the production chain, meatpackers and food processors run sanitary, humane operations with highly applicable and adhered-to food safety practices. This cooperative system helps ensure that Americans enjoy the safest, most affordable and most abundant food supply in the world.

But, folks, we have to be realistic. As domestic and global populations grow, so does demand. Larger livestock and meatpacking facilities play a vital role in meeting the increasing consumption needs of today’s world.

In 2003, Americans consumed 63 billion pounds of meat, roughly 218 pounds per person.

We have also seen a significant increase in demand from other nations. For example, as China’s economy has led to a sizeable middle class, that nation’s meat consumption increased from 30 pounds of meat per person in 1980 to more than 90 pounds in 1995. That’s a 200 percent increase!

Times Have Changed

Since Upton Sinclair first wrote about the disarray of the meatpacking industry in his novel The Jungle almost 100 years ago, our meat production system has grown into one of the most regulated industries in the nation.

Starting at our livestock farms, there are literally hundreds of thousands of regulations on livestock production, animal and meat handling, sanitation, inspection, slaughter and safety. Furthermore, federal Food Safety and Inspection Service inspectors are present in packing plants to ensure all of the regulations are followed.

Nearly 6,000 meatpacking plants are inspected by the Agriculture Department and must comply with the Federal Meat Inspection Act. Another 3,000 plants opt for state inspection, whereby they must comply with state regulations that are the same as or equal to federal laws. State-inspected plants cannot export internationally or across state lines.

The Humane Slaughter Act regulates strict animal handling and slaughter practices for all U.S. meatpacking plants, including animal access to water, a stress-free environment and a painless slaughter. Veterinarians check animals before and after slaughter and federal inspectors monitor products during all stages of production to ensure safety and accurate labeling.

Furthermore, nearly 95 percent of meatpacking plants routinely conduct self-audits and a majority has hired consultants to address animal handling issues. Plants that supply retail and foodservice chains are regularly inspected as an industry requirement.

So, as you throw another chop on the grill this summer, be assured you and your family are getting ready to enjoy one of the safest, highest quality and delicious foods in the world. It’s all made possible by the teamwork of America’s livestock producers, meat processors, and the world’s best food safety inspectors – and of course the master griller that burns deep inside each and every one of us.