As we listen to conversations about supply issues, food waste and providing food to the hungry, people not familiar with our beef commodity markets have asked why the U.S. exports beef as well as the ethics of feeding human edible beef to our pets. Here are some thoughts and facts to consider. You might think these concepts are common knowledge, and they probably are among your circle of agriculture friends. Sustainable food production questions rarely have simple answers, but try these to help us all have dialogue together and reach the common goal of a more sustainable food supply.

Why do we export beef to other countries?

The majority of beef variety meats are commonly exported as opposed to finding a home in the U.S.  Diets are cultural and ours does not typically include variety meats, but we respect that they are of value to others. In the U.S., they are mainly used as pet food ingredients.

Annual exports are generally 9 to 11 percent of total domestic beef production and are a critically important source of revenue.  U.S. beef producers receive about $300/head in additional premiums as a result of export values in fed cattle according to Oklahoma State University livestock economist, Derrell Peel.  Foreign markets are willing to pay much higher premiums for variety meats than the U.S. consumer and are also purchasing premium cuts as their economies improve.  

Why do we feed edible beef to our pets instead of feeding ourselves?

Twenty-five to 30% of the meat eaten in the U.S. is fed to dogs and cats, according to a recent UCLA study. There are 157+ million pets in the U.S. as of 2014 ,which is triple the number since the 1970’s.  

While it is not recommended that your dog and cat give up meat, it is good to know that the by-products from beef are an important nutritious ingredient as you do your research on the ingredient label. Veterinary nutritionists tell us that feeding by-products to pets not only is safe and healthy, but it is better for the environment and dramatically reduces food waste.  The pet food aisle has seen an influx of brands made with “human-grade” ingredients to lead us to believe they are better than those that contain animal by-products.  

The Environmental Protection Agency has developed the “Food Recovery Hierarchy” that demonstrates the most valuable use of food waste down to the last resort — the landfill. Wholesome, edible food should be kept in the human food supply whenever possible. When food is no longer edible for humans but still safe and wholesome for animals, the hierarchy recommends diverting these food scraps to feed animals, including pets.

Shifting gears, there is renewed interest in feeding food scraps to livestock as a way to reduce organic waste in landfills and the methane gas it generates.  After disease outbreaks were linked to animal feed back in the 1980’s, there are state laws that regulate the process of converting food waste to animal feed.  The Food and Drug Administration’s Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy/Ruminant Feed Ban Rule also prohibits the use of animal tissue in feeds for ruminant animals such as cattle. Consumers are asking questions about how companies handle their waste, and more research and technology will be needed to overcome some of the barriers of re-feeding people leftovers to food animals. Cattle have demonstrated they can upcycle a variety of products into safe, quality food and can be a part of the environmental solution.