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Food Safety: What Is An Acceptable Risk?

Perceptions of risk will be responsible for deciding the future structure of the cattle industry and the availability of the tools we have to safeguard the health of our cattle. Let me help you understand different perceptions of risk and how we need to make sure our elected and appointed officials have a reasonable view of risk.

Essentially, risk means exposure to the possibility of harm (a hazard) in one form or another. Hazards in our case include foodborne pathogens, development of antibiotic resistance in these pathogens or in other organisms, and violative drug residues. The risk involves the potential for exposure to these hazards and the likelihood that this exposure would actually cause harm.

As cattle producers, risk describes our daily life. We are risk takers. We manage risk through calculated investments in animal health interventions, breeding stock and feeder cattle purchases, and financial instruments. And, we do this in an environment of skyrocketing capital investment for the same (or diminishing) returns.

Consumer perceived risk

Meanwhile, our beef consumers have their own perceptions of risk. Nothing is more objectionable to them than perceiving that someone else is profiting from a practice that exposes them to risk. In fact, this is a marketing approach used by the Chipotle restaurant chain – “Get your antibiotics from your doctor, not your beef,” which proposes that eating somewhere else other than their establishment is risky.

Regulators and legislators also function in a manner that addresses risks, especially risks to their reelection. Their perceptions of risk, and acceptable risk, are affected by other perceptions and “facts.” The problem with “facts” is that they are in abundance on the Internet, with little responsibility for accuracy.

Formal risk assessment procedures, either qualitative or quantitative, have been adopted by some regulatory bodies. An example is the approval of antibiotics for food animals, where FDA’s acceptable risk standard is “reasonable certainty of no harm.”

Yet, however we define risk, we still have to determine what is acceptable risk. I’m convinced that many anti animal-agriculture groups and legislators will only be satisfied with zero risk, which is only attainable by abolishing food animal production in the U.S.

For anti-agriculture groups, “standing up for the consumer” is their brand, and trumpeting inflated risks is how they bring in the money to keep their jobs and advance their careers. At least we are starting to see cracks in the popular perception that these groups are unbiased.

Reach out to elected officials

So, what can you do to ensure our industry is fairly treated in the risk arena? The internet malarkey and misrepresentation of facts by these groups – such as on the issues of water consumption, antibiotic use and greenhouse gas production by cattle – are hard to counteract in the public arena. However, our animal agriculture groups (and individual producers) can counteract this propaganda where it matters by having a constant presence in the offices of our elected officials.

We need to reach beyond the staffers and demand direct meetings with our elected officials. In districts where agriculture voices aren’t heard, the officials may interpret these issues as a way to demonstrate support of consumers, while the unmerited adverse effects happen to voters in other districts.

Our elected officials need to be aware of the issues enough to call rogue regulatory agencies on the carpet for their actions. We’re already making strides in this area, but make sure all of your agricultural organizations are involved, and support them with your membership and time. This isn’t a new message, but it is taking on a new urgency.

Mike Apley, DVM, PhD, is a professor in clinical sciences at Kansas State University in Manhattan.

TAGS: Beef Quality