Kansas City, Mo., played host to the inaugural Meat and Poultry Research Conference held Nov. 1-2. Conference presentations were led by industry experts who focused on food safety, human health and nutrition, antibiotic resistance and product quality The meeting was co-sponsored by the American Meat Institute Foundation, US Poultry Foundation, Beef Checkoff, Pork Checkoff, National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service, Poultry Science Association and American Meat Science Association.

State of the industry

Top of mind during the event was the floundering state of the economy and its impact on industry, which Steve Meyer, Ph.D., president of Adel, Iowa-based Paragon Economics Inc., addressed head-on. During his general session presentation titled “State of the Meat and Poultry Industry: Economic Issues and Outlook,” he said moderate growth in GDP, steady private-sector job gains, resumption of income growth, normal spending by consumers, reduction in household debt, increase in the savings rate and an end to the real estate debacle are needed for sustained recovery.

“All except the last were occurring, but have slowed,” Meyer said. “The real albatross remains housing…few new ones and low prices – there’s still a glut.”

Domestic meat demand has improved. From August to September, pork demand was up 4.4 percent; beef, 0.9 percent; and chicken, 3.6 percent according to data from the Univ. of Missouri.

On the other hand, broiler losses have been large and continue due to 2010 expansion coupled with higher grain prices, Meyer said. Industry is finally reducing output. Since July 1, slaughter is down 4.9 percent, but production is down only 2.5 percent. Broiler exports have been flat for four years and are unlikely to grow in 2012, he added.

Meyer’s summary and forecast included egg sets and placements will remain sharply lower than 2010 levels through Q4; higher prices with leg quarters led the cutout to the mid $80s; and breast meat will remain a problem due to the shift to large, boning birds, which have swamped the market.

“This business can turn on a dime – it will remain very competitive,” Meyer added.

In addressing the beef segment, he said the US is experiencing the lowest beef-cow inventory since 1963; 30.9 million head for 2011. US beef exports in 2011 are back to pre-BSE levels, but they will be lower in 2012 due to lower production. In 2011, US beef exports by destination were led by Korea, Canada and Japan.

“Choice cutout is back to $185,” Meyer said. “I expect [it may total] $200-plus by spring.”

US pork exports will be record-large for 2011, and most likely again in 2012, he predicted. Pork exports are closing in on 5 billion lbs. 2011 pork exports were led by Japan, Korea and China.

Looking forward, Meyer said risks facing the industry include the US and world economies, the US dollar versus other currencies, 2012 corn and soybean crops, oil prices, renewable fuels standard waiver/reduction plan and export disruption, among other things. But the most critical issue will remain feed availability followed closely by protein cost, he concluded.

Maintaining quality

Quality issues facing the US poultry industry include meat tenderness, water-holding capacity, color, appearance, consumer preferences and fillet dimensions, said Casey Owens, Ph.D., Division of Agriculture, Department of Poultry Science at the Univ. of Arkansas.

More research is needed in white striping in broiler breast meat; age, strain, size of birds and their effects on meat quality, effects on tenders; marination – process (e.g., timing, holding, etc.), ingredients and fillet size; heat stress/PSE; stunning/welfare; electrical stimulation; and consumer acceptance of products, he said.

Product quality was also addressed by Brian Andrews, Hormel Foods’ senior scientist, who said industry has worked diligently to extend shelf-life and reduce pathogens. “The science of outbreak strain detection now exceeds the science of pathogen reduction/prevention,” he added. “We are no longer in a reduction mode – we are in an elimination mode. Recall is not the solution to ensure public health.”

Consumer protein expectations include meat products should be fresh and wholesome, although they pay little attention to code-date length, he continued. Consumers are using fresh items within three to five days of purchase and keeping ready-to-eat items until the week of code date – and they want longer code dates to give flexibility in meal planning.

Antibiotics in the spotlight

The level of scrutiny and criticism in food animal antimicrobial use has continued to increase, and the call for change has moved from fringe elements to more mainstream groups, said Guy Loneragan, Ph.D., an epidemiologist and professor of food safety and public health at Texas Tech Univ., while addressing antimicrobial use in livestock production.

Antimicrobial resistance is a complex topic, he reminded the audience, and veterinary associations and livestock associations have adopted judicious use guidelines.

“Resistance is as old as bacteria,” Loneragan said. Bacteria exist in competitive environments (e.g., soil) and most antibiotics have derived from soil bacteria.

He suggested to attendees they openly evaluate both benefits and risk in antibiotic use. There is a real likelihood for unintended consequences of broad-sweeping limitations on its use, he warned.

Some uses in animal agriculture might contribute to the burden of human disease, but this does not mean that all uses do, he said. “Where risk of a specific use is greater than the benefit, we should stop that use,” Loneragan added. “If on the other hand, benefits outweigh that risk, we should defend and continue that use.”

Scott Hurd DVM, Ph.D., associate professor College of Veterinary Medicine, Department of Production Animal Medicine, director of the Food Risk Modeling and Policy Laboratory Iowa State Univ., addressed misconceptions about food animal antibiotic use.

The current antibiotic resistance debate is being fueled by misconceptions including:

• Animal antibiotic use is just a public-health issue.

• Antibiotic use is a risk to public health.

• Healthy animals are not important to public health.

• Banning certain antibiotic uses will improve public health without affecting animal health.

• There is nothing veterinarians can or should do.

Regarding animal antibiotic use is a risk to public health, Hurd said all risk assessments done to date show risks of less than one in 5 million of additional illness days.

“We all have concerns about the possibility of antibiotic resistance coming from the farm,” he said. “However, concern is not the same thing as risk. If you actually do the risk assessment where you calculate the probability, then we find that risk is very low.”

Looking to the future, Hurd said, “We must keep our antibiotic house in perfect order.” This means judicious, prudent, full (correct) use; great record-keeping is required; use according to label; and documentation of veterinary oversight.