Gentlemen, start your engines
By Trent Loos
Last week I completed another voyage north of the border to Regina, Saskatchewan, for an Elanco Animal Health swine meeting. I truly enjoy spending time with our neighbors in Canada and this trip was great despite the delay in getting back to the states due to engine failure.
So what could a canceled flight have in common with exporting farm commodities around the world? I think I can make that case the two things actually have a lot in common.
First of all, pork exports for the calendar year 2013 are off by nearly 15 percent. Of the top eight customers of U.S. pork, only Canada has increased pork purchases to date. The other seven have reduced imports, particularly Russia and China but do you know why?
In March, China began requiring third-party verification that U.S. pork products were ractopamine-free. Russia, the sixth-largest buyer of U.S. pork, blocked imports of U.S. meat containing ractopamine weeks before.
As a bit of background, ractopamine is a beta-agonist that was originally developed for human beings with respiratory issues. Somewhere along the way, it was discovered that ractopamine had repartitioning abilities or the capability of converting fat into muscle. The Food and Drug Administration approved the use of ractopamine in livestock feeding in 1999. Since then it has been used in hogs, cattle and turkeys.
So a beta-agonist that has helped to improve the overall efficiency of agriculture is now being rejected by two of our largest pork purchasing countries. Why? Not one bit of scientific data suggests any concern about the use of ractopamine in food animals. It can only be narrowed down to the fear of the unknown.
Allow me to switch gears for a minute and talk about my flight home. I was scheduled to leave Regina at 3:05 pm. We boarded the plane and headed to the runway like normal only to sit there for an hour without moving. This is never a good sign, or perhaps it is a great sign if you care about safety. To make a long story short, we have an engine failure issue so they take us back to the gate to rebook our flights for the next day.
As was typical of a every flight prior to our engine issue, people may causally grunt at one another as we board, limited small talk can be heard in spots on the plane but for the most part today’s travelers do not want to engage in conversation.
As we stand in line for another 3 hours waiting to figure out how they are going to rebook everyone, we now have experienced a “trauma” together so we now have something in common. Some are quick to panic, thinking that the world is over if they don’t get out of Regina right now. They are on phones, iPads and computers trying to find a solution.
The majority, however, are waiting calmly in line and beginning to share ideas and conversation. By the time we spend the evening together in a hotel and a restaurant, I have met a college student, a firefighter, a safety trainer for electrical companies, an electrical engineer and Pat Sabors, a Drago corn head sales rep who knows many of my good friends.
Events like this have happened before, where a shared event or trauma brings people together only to learn that almost everyone in the United States knows someone you know. There are many shared things about life that would have remained a secret had it not been for this unscheduled change in our plans.
Isn’t marketing pork products, using a proven technology like a beta-agonist, the same general concept? You fear what you don’t know. I predict that I will maintain some level of communication with a number of people who were on that plane but that wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t been stranded together. We can maintain our relationship with our pork customers if we break down that wall that stands between us.
What we need to do is figure out how to open up and share the real facts about food safety with our trading partners before the fear of the unknown hits. The shared traumatic event in the pork case will not be an extra overnight in a hotel, but rather a general starvation of the human population in those countries.
So I contend that we not wait for the bad news to hit. Instead, “Gentlemen, start your engines” of communication today.
Editor’s note: Trent Loos is a sixth generation United States farmer, host of the daily radio show, Loos Tales, and founder of Faces of Agriculture, a non-profit organization putting the human element back into the production of food. Get more information at www.FacesOfAg.com, or email Trent at firstname.lastname@example.org.