Jolley: Five Minutes With Dr. Gary Smith & Where Food Comes From

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Dr. Gary C. Smith is one of the shrewdest observers of the cattle business. As a teacher, he occupied the Monfort Endowed Chair in Meat Science at Colorado State University, and he served as a Professor (1969-1982) and Head (1982-1990) of the Department of Animal Science at Texas A&M University where he won the Outstanding Teaching Performance Award, the Honor Professor Award, the College of Agriculture Teaching Award, the University Distinguished Teaching Award and the Deputy Chancellor’s Award for Team Research. Last year, he was inducted into the Inaugural Class of the Meat Industry Hall of Fame.


Dr. Smith has been honored with just about every meaningful award given by his University and his industry. He’s observed or played a major role in most of the changes we’ve witnessed during the past half century. His work has been a passion that has kept him extremely busy until now. 
 
He has begun an active retirement, one that most people would still call busy. Still, It has given him time to set back from time-to-time and comment on what’s happening. He’s blogging now and you can read the first sentences of each of his blogs on Cattlenetwork. Dr. Smith will be sharing his thoughts about the who, what, when and where your food comes from. Want to know what he thinks about food borne illnesses, Michelle Obama’s garden, carbon footprints, sustainability and the future of the American farmer? 
 
Check Gary Smith’s blog every Monday and Friday. You might learn something and it will definitely make you think.

Q. Dr. Smith, you're starting a blog called "Where Food Comes From". What was the impetus behind it?

A. I first heard the phrase "Where Food Comes From", and the possibility of its use as a mark of identification, in a speech by Leann Saunders of IMI Global. This remarkably simple expression struck a chord with me because--as a descriptor--it can be used to clarify special efforts of producers, processors and retailers to service the wants and needs of their clientele. Twenty-five years ago, consumers chose specific foods on the basis of differences in taste, convenience, nutrition, variety and price; in 2010, they select foods using those five things plus social causes - the environment, sustainability and animal welfare.

"Where Food Comes From" can identify the "site of its origin" (i.e., local, domestic or international) but can be used to describe much more than that. It can also be used to explain under what conditions (i.e., "how" and "by whom") it was produced, processed, handled and/or prepared. Using that mark of identification, retailers can offer for sale and customers can find products that were generated with the consumers' food-purchase concerns in mind.

Having recently retired after 50 years of university work and wanting to continue to be of service to the food industry, I offered to write some brief explanations of what "Where Food Comes From" means to me. CattleNetwork executives graciously agreed to distribute my remarks.

Q. With the popularity of media events like Food, Inc. and books by people like Michael Pollan that question our food supply and its quality, especially when it comes to meat and so-called factory farms, many people in agriculture are feeling under siege. Will your blog try to balance the scales?

A. It is unfortunate indeed that so many derogatory commentaries have been authored by people who know so little about the production and processing of food. But; it happened. The question is why so many accepted as Gospel what was said in such movies and books. I fear it was because, for so many years, those in agricultural production and food processing didn't think anyone cared about how food was generated--consumers just wanted it to be abundant and cheap. When we didn't bother to tell them, a void was created. Inaccurate descriptions of how food was generated plus fictional accounts of the motives of farmers, ranchers, processors and companies in allied industries rushed in to fill the vacuum.

The food industry was not prepared to respond when John Robbins wrote "Diet for a New America" more than 20 years ago. We all thought it would "just go away". But; it hasn't. As a result, much of the negative prose that has since been written has become urban legend. To help balance the scales is the responsibility of everyone who plays a part in supplying this nation's food. The better we understand the facts, logic, rationale and scientific basis of what we do, the better able we are to level the playing field.

Q. Let's talk about what you're going to be talking about. You've posted a few commentaries already; would you give me a quick overview of what you've written?

A. Thus far, I have written more than 50 commentaries. All are predicated on why knowing "Where Food Comes From" can be important to those who wish to do everything they can to assure that what they produce, process, sell, buy, serve or eat is of high quality, safe, wholesome and respectful of social causes and concerns. I have discussed, in these commentaries: agricultural and food technology, biotechnology and genetic engineering, the pejorative term "factory farming", food safety, sustainability, air and water pollution, market concentration, third-party audits, production-practice claims, "local" foods, traceability, livestock-rearing practices, animal care and handling, greenhouse gas emissions, "crop mobs", high-yield agriculture, activist attacks, carbon footprints, global warming, chemical residues, world food production and press coverage of food-related issues.

Sometimes I use scientific evidence or statistical data to address issues; other times I use logic, reasoning, rationale or common sense. I try to honor the fact that there are some customers and consumers who will not purchase, sell, serve or eat foods produced or processed by means they consider unsafe, unwholesome or disrespectful to growers, workers, animals or planet Earth. I do so by saying something like "That's okay; you can find special kinds and forms of food (e.g., Natural, Organic, Certified Humane, Free Trade) in many supermarkets and restaurants--just be sure you use the logic of knowing 'Where Food Comes From' to be sure you get what you pay for.

Q. You'll be reviewing "the literature", watching the news, listening to people who have something to say and debunking the occasional over-the-top claim. You'll have more than enough input. How will you narrow it all down to the most meaningful issues?

A. The most meaningful issues are those that: 

(1) Are presently gaining resonance or traction among consumers because those in the food industry have not yet provided sufficient information or convincing arguments to refute the claim.

(2) Are egregious (i.e., notably bad or flagrantly erroneous) because the claim was conceived, promoted or exaggerated by persons who had incomplete, inaccurate or imagined information. 

(3) Question the intent, motives or integrity of any of the principals involved in the food production, processing and supply chain. 

(4) Have the potential to limit or preclude use of production or processing technologies which do not detract from--or possibly improve--the quality, safety and wholesomeness of food, as well as lower its cost. 

(5) Offer alternatives to conventionally produced and/or processed foods for those consumers who believe "I can take action to make my family's food safer than is that which conforms to standards set by federal regulators."

Q. Let's stay with where you'll get your input. What are the organizations and who are the people that always seem to have something meaningful to say about food and its origins?

A. The organizations that are most helpful to me are American Meat Science Association, American Meat Institute, National Meat Association, Institute of Food Technologists and Food Marketing Institute. The scientific journals I cite most often are Journal of Animal Science, Journal of Food Science, Meat Science and Journal of Food Protection. I use as technical publication resources Council of Agricultural Science & Technology reports, Food Protection Trends, Food Quality, Food Safety, The Scientist, Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News and Food Technology. 

To stay informed of trends and issues in the animal, meat and food industries, I depend heavily on the print media (e.g., Feedstuffs, Render, Beef, Drovers, Pork, Poultry, Western Livestock Journal, meatingplace, Meat & Poultry, National Provisioner, Supermarket News, Restaurant News, Food Product Design, Prepared Foods) and on the Internet (e.g., Feed-Lot, USMEF Daily News, Meat & Poultry, Drovers/CattleNetwork, Food Quality).

The people who work in the plant, animal and food industries that most often seem to have something to say about food and its origins include: 

(a) The teachers, researchers, scientists and executives in universities, government agencies or the private sector.
(b) Those who represent grower, producer, processor, retailer or commodity organizations and associations.
(c) Editors and reporters who write for technical publications, print media or Internet sites.
(d) Members of the US Congress plus local and state government elected officials.
(e) Activists--ranging from singular-cause proponents to CAVEs (i.e., Consumers Against Virtually Everything). 

Not all of what individuals or groups of people say is positive or correct, but all of it must be carefully considered as we chart our course and determine our future.

Q. Where food should come from is a subject that seems to be growing more controversial every year. Would you share your thoughts on the subject?

A. Because of the fragility of the US and world economies, "where food should come from" is presently on the back burner for all but the activists and those who have the money to buy whatever they desire. But; it won't disappear. Those in the food industry should consider this its "bye week" or month, or year, or decade and realize that this could be the lull before the storm. They should use this period to develop their "game plan"--crafting counter-arguments to the critic's claims, correcting mistakes or miscalculations, doing what is known to be needed more often and more consistently, and being much more open about what they do, and why. 

The battle is far from over; perhaps it has only begun. It should be a matter of pride and something each participant in the food production, processing and supply chain wishes to brag about. How better to do this than to proclaim "this is where food comes from and I am--personally--proud of it".

Q. Thousands of people read CattleNetwork. What would you like to say to them?

A. Many of those who read CattleNetwork don't have as much time to read and study as I now have; they have to work for a living, I'm retired. Confronted by those who criticize the beef industry, farmers and ranchers are sometimes "stuck for an answer" to rebut false accusations. It is vitally important that participants in the beef industry have as many facts as possible to help formulate their responses. 

In writing these commentaries, I hope to use this vehicle as a means for putting arrows in the quiver of those who wish to arm themselves with factual information. If nothing more is accomplished by sharing these commentaries than to provide ammunition to the readers of CattleNetwork, I will be immensely gratified.

Chuck Jolley is a free lance writer, based in Kansas City, who covers a wide range of ag industry topics for Cattlenetwork.com and Agnetwork.com.

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