Does He Who Pays the Piper Really Call the Tune?

I love Forbes.com. Not because they put out a nice article on our previous work a couple of years ago (although it did make a refreshing change) but because of the following quote in a Forbes blog post by Trevor Butterworth:

Yes, the topic of industry funding of scientific research is tantalizing for journalists because it implies corruption, but the reality is that most universities depend on their science departments to bring in research grants from private as well as government sources (35 percent or more is taken by the university as “overhead”). Grants for research on Shakespeare do not, a university’s upkeep, pay for. More to the point, scientific research is good if it is done well, not simply because the researchers doing it are independent.

Picture the scene, just as it has occurred so many times. I’m at the end of a conversation with a journalist, during which the interviewer seems to genuinely “get” that improving productivity and efficiency in livestock systems has beneficial environmental and economic effects, just as it does in any other industry.

Just one last question,” says the interviewer, in a casual tone, “Where do you get your funding?”

Why, the livestock industry.” I answer.

Stunned silence. I can almost hear the crackling and hissing as the interviewer’s hair spontaneously combusts. Surely that simple 2+2=4 math that we just discussed is now biased! Flawed! Bought and paid for! This “impartial” University researcher is nothing but a pawn of big ag! An industry zombie!

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not claiming that my research is flawless. Any mathematical modeling work is only as good as the data that goes into it and our models are evolving all the time. However, I am really tired of the old adage that industry dictates the results of scientific, peer-reviewed research. If anyone has a bright idea as to who will fund applied livestock research aside from industry, send me a link to the call for proposals and if mine gets funded I’ll laud you to the heavens in the acknowledgements section.

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Real Food – Now Available in Plastic!

Remember the all-new singing-and-dancing MyPlate? That handy guide to what to eat that only seems to apply to those of us on a discrete meat/starch/veg  diet eaten off school cafeteria-style segmented tableware?

Now any Home Economics teacher can easily include MyPlate in the curriculum – with this handy MyPlate food kit!

“This fantastic assortment of food replicas provides you with a wide variety of foods so you can create many different meals on MyPlate or you can use these replicas in conjunction with those you already have on hand.”

Or… you could use real food. You know, so students could learn to prepare and eat it rather than gazing at a plastic molded apple. Just a thought.

I can’t express how much it amuses me that the food kit associated with this first-lady-approved-PC-food-ideology doesn’t include tofu in the protein group.

Meat Quality is Related to Care?

I had one of those “What the XXX?” moments when reading a blog post today. The “Accidental Hedonist” posted the following:

“Ultimately, my guess is that the flavor of grass fed beef comes down to the quality of care given given to the cattle by the rancher”

I’m glad she put guess in italics, because she may as well have substituted the second half of the sentence for <<insert your own half-baked idea here>>.

Obviously the way that animals are cared for makes a difference. If animals are diseased, have a high parasite burden or are exposed to extreme temperatures or weather conditions, their productivity, growth and potentially meat flavor may be affected.

Yet her post seems to imply a utopian grass-fed paradise where the rancher goes out and tenderly caresses each animal, whispering sweet nothings into their ears and telling them about the happy ranch in the sky where they’ll frolic and kick their heels some day soon. Those efficiency-driven feedlot guys produce identical, anonymous widget cattle that by implication, must taste bland.

I’m an animal scientist not a meat scientist (for great meat science info head on over to itweetmeat’s blog) but I know that cattle diet, age at slaughter and post-harvest processing have a huge influence on meat flavor.

If only every self-proclaimed expert* (I eat food, so I know all about it, right?) did a little research before they published their guesses. La, la, la, la, luddite?

*Please note – I do not claim to be an expert in anything. Apart from perhaps eating carrots for 33 years on four continents (and even that expertise is debatable).

Pesticides, Hormones and Drugs, Oh My!

“Product A is healthier than Product B

“Product C is ethically produced”

“Product D is better for the planet than Product E”

But what if it’s not? What if claims are based on one single paper out of 1,000 published papers?

What if the next human health claim “Product F contains increased concentrations of fatty acids that improve heart health and prevent cancer” is true… but the fatty acid concentrations are so low that you’d need to eat 500 lb of the food product per day to have a significant human health effect?

My all-time favorite food advertisement is posted below. It’s an amazing concept, beautifully-drawn, thought-provoking… and it says nothing. Yet if you buy any other milk, aren’t you feeding your children, grandchildren or partner with pesticides, hormones and drugs?

Marketing is awesome. Mis-marketing does nothing but confuse the consumer, the policy-maker and the retailer.

Organic Valley Advert c. 2009