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New DNA sampling process to be applied to every pedigree Aberdeen Angus calf

News Roundup: Speak up about the Safe Food Act, ALMA supports Harmony Beef, and Zilmax study shows no harmful effects in cattle

UK DNA ear tag


Big DNA step for U.K. Aberdeen Angus – by Colin Ley

The Aberdeen Angus Cattle Society in the U.K. and Ireland has introduced a new DNA sampling process to be applied immediately to every pedigree Aberdeen Angus calf at birth with the aim of “raising the bar on pedigree validation.”

“With paper-based systems, mistakes have been made in the past in linking the correct calf to the correct sire,” said the society’s chief executive, Ron McHattie, speaking after the launch of the process at the Royal Highland Show in Edinburgh. “We have an extensive pedigree herd book that goes back a very long way but the information in it is only as good as the information we were given. People have made mistakes in the past, genuine mistakes which they didn’t make knowingly, but as a result some bulls have been listed with the wrong sire.

“Errors have been picked up through previous DNA processes, of course, but we’ve not gone as far as checking the sisters of such bulls. We’ll never know, therefore, how many cattle were affected or how big the problem is. By now introducing DNA samples at birth for all pedigree calves, however, we are taking our herd book’s integrity on to an entirely different level. What we’re doing will also protect our iconic Aberdeen-Angus brand.”

From now on, all the breed’s pedigree calves, born in the U.K. and Ireland, will be DNA sampled as part of the normal tagging system, with all samples being kept for seven years. This will be achieved through the use of DNA ear tags which automatically collect a tissue sample when inserted at birth. Another part of the process, also automatic, will seal the sample inside a bar-coded storage tube, eliminating any risk of contamination or record-keeping confusion.

In facing up to past doubts over pedigree recording mistakes, the tagging development is seen by the society as a step which will bring greater consistency to its product worldwide.

“We will be able to identify the genetic lines through the sire’s DNA that deliver a more consistent product into the abattoir and therefore into the retail sector,” said McHattie. “By identifying the genetic lineage that gives better carcass yield, greater tenderness, higher marbling and more succulence we’ll be able to find the bulls that deliver these traits consistently, minimizing the variables that currently exist.”

Asked where such intense checking potential might lead, he said that the vast majority of major retailers were already generic testing carcasses at the point of slaughter, certainly for branded Angus products, to make sure the sire involved was definitely an Angus.

“It’s amazing how much DNA technology has come into the beef industry since the horsegate scandal,” he said. “Who knows? Maybe retailers will one day only take beef from cattle whose sires have been DNA profiled.”

Reaction from breeders in the U.K. and Ireland has been generally positive, despite a few complaints that the process was “rushed through” to cash in on a public launch opportunity at Highland Show, Scotland’s premier agricultural event which attracted more than 178,000 visitors during its four-day run in June.

Breeders have also sought assurance that the new tagging process will work to their advantage and that it will remain under their sole control.

“While a sample will be taken from every calf at the point of tagging and sent for storage, actual DNA tests will only be carried out on samples as and when the breeder gives instructions to do so,” explained assistant breed secretary, Neil Caul. “Ownership of the sample and any DNA test results will also remain with the breeder.”

Questions have been raised by breeders concerning how much the new process might add to their costs, a point which McHattie covered by saying the process would be “cost neutral” in comparison to existing tagging systems.

“It’s really just a different tag,” he said, adding that the seven-year storage process didn’t require any refrigeration and was therefore not an added expense.

As for the global impact of the U.K. and Ireland initiative, he said his society was the first in the world, for any breed, to apply DNA sampling to all pedigree calves.

“Few other breeds have such an iconic brand as ours, of course,” he continued. “In that context, it would be remiss of us not to apply every possible technology at our disposal to protect our product.

“It’s up to other Angus societies, elsewhere in the world, to make up their own mind on whether or not they follow us in this,” he said, before admitting that when he’d outlined the idea during an Angus Forum in New Zealand last October, the reaction from N.Z. breeders, was one of “total surprise.”

“To us in the U.K. and Ireland, however, we believe we are bringing the ultimate full supply chain integrity to our breed and that we are doing it from a strong science base rather than paper base of the past.”


Now’s the time to speak up about Safe Food Act

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency has extended the initial public comment period to August 29 on its proposed overhaul of the federal food inspection regulations under the Safe Food for Canadians Act.

The new regulatory framework presents a sweeping makeover of the CFIA’s food inspection model to arrive at a consistent, science- and risk-based approach to food inspection.

Existing regulations covering multiple acts are being reworked into one set to cover all food commodities (not only those currently under federal regulation) and companies involved in domestic manufacturing of food for interprovincial and export trade as well as importers.

The proposed regulations call for minimum food safety requirements across all commodities, bolstered by commodity-specific rules only where necessary.

Key areas of the framework are licensing, trade, preventive control plans (PCPs) and traceability.

PCPs address food safety risk and are the centrepiece of the legislation. Wherever possible the regulations state the requirements for a given commodity and give the company the flexibility to meet the standard taking into account the product, the processes involved and the size of the operation. This allows the companies to adopt innovations without having to wait for regulatory changes. They also have additional responsibilities when it comes to issuing recalls on products.

The CFIA’s new role will be to provide guidance, verify that the PCPs are appropriate, and ensure they are followed. Risks that remain after a company puts its PCP in place would determine the level of oversight the CFIA would provide.

The traceability component addresses record-keeping to ensure a rapid response in the event of food safety failures.

Instead of registering facilities, the CFIA proposes renewable two-year licences to ensure its database remains current.

Ryder Lee, Canadian Cattlemen’s Association’s (CCA) manager of federal-provincial relations, says the people in our federally inspected packing plants don’t anticipate any difficulty in meeting the new standards because they have always been highly regulated. The proposed requirements for PCPs would bring other plants up to the same level.

The CCA is still trying to learn what it all means for the people who send those animals to the plants. There are some grey areas related to applying the international Codex Alimentarius standard for traceability that requires tracking one step forward and one step back in the production chain and the general safety requirements for “everyone who imports, prepares, grows or harvests food for interprovincial trade or export, regardless of the commodity or size of operation,” says Lee.

This framework is about safe and healthful food, but the process is about the agency’s inspection model, Lee explains. As such it sets the stage for modernization of plant and animal regulations down the road as outlined in the CFIA’s integrated agency inspection model.

“The CFIA is presenting its model, so this is a chance to have a say in how you will operate in the future. The more people who weigh in, the better. Change doesn’t come along easily afterward, so it’s important to participate and think about what the proposed framework might mean in the future.”

Producers can have their say through the CCA, their provincial organization or by adding their own comments.

Disclosure of information, violations subject to penalties, and recall and review mechanisms will be addressed in the near future. The food labelling modernization initiative could lead to regulatory change in labelling, grades and standards of identity.

The agency also plans to introduce and consult on requirements for transporters, warehousers and distributors starting in 2016. This gap was identified in last year’s consultations with industry.

The quickest way to find the framework on the CFIA’s website ( is to type “2014 presentations, draft regulations and accompanying policies” into the search box.

The act received royal assent in November 2012 but won’t come into force until the regulations are published in Canada Gazette II sometime in mid-2015.


ALMA supports upgrades to Harmony Beef

Sometime this year, Harmony Beef will join the big names of beef processing – Cargill and JBS – to become the third beef processor in Western Canada.

Being the “new kid” on the block, however, means the plant requires a niche that differentiates it from the competition. To that end, CEO Rich Vesta says the European Union is a good starting point, given that a trade agreement between Canada and the EU is in the works. Vesta, a veteran of the meat industry, has visited Europe several times to study and borrow best practices in meat processing to ensure that Harmony Beef’s products meet the requirements of the EU market.

Harmony Beef purchased the former Ranchers Beef plant in Rocky View County just outside Calgary in November of 2013. The Ranchers plant ceased functioning in 2007 and reviving operations is among the tasks Vesta is tackling. To get things moving, the plant needs a biological water treatment facility and upgrades in fabrication and refrigeration systems.

“These are two critical elements that need to be addressed for Harmony Beef’s future,” says Vesta.

In line with its mandate of spurring growth in Alberta’s meat sector, the Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency (ALMA ) is supporting Harmony Beef with the upgrades.

“Our objective is to create competitiveness and strengthen the Alberta meat industry and the rural economy. That’s the reason we are supporting Harmony Beef because there are going to be tangible dividends from this support,” said Gordon Cove, president and CEO of ALMA.

The water recycling solution will enable the plant to operate without any water or sewer services from Rocky View County. It will use 35,000 gallons of fresh water for its functions on a daily basis. Upgrading the fabrication and refrigeration systems will enhance safety and efficiency as well as improving carcass chilling and storage capability.

Once operational, Harmony Beef will process 125 head per day. This figure is planned to increase to 600 head per day at the end of year one. The plan is for the plant to process 650 head per day in its second year of operation, and possibly 800 head in the third year.

Vesta says once the plant is fully operational, it will be the largest plant in Canada set up to meet EU requirements. Ultimately, he envisages that Harmony Beef will scale up its operations to meet the growing demand in the Chinese market.

Cove welcomes the optimistic outlook for the plant.

“ALMA will continue to encourage and support the meat industry to target foreign and domestic markets,” he said.


Zilmax shows no harmful effect on cattle – study
The cattle feed additive Zilmax has no noticeable detrimental effect on cattle health or well-being, according to research by scientists from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service.

The study was undertaken after Zilmax’s maker, Merck Animal Health, temporarily suspended sales of the additive last year when concerns emerged in some quarters that it might cause lameness in cattle, says Ty Schmidt, a UNL animal scientist, who worked with colleagues including Jeff Carroll and Nicole Sanchez, both of USDA-ARS.

During the 26-day study, scientists collected blood, via catheters; body temperature; and video images from 20 heifers, which were divided into two groups, with half receiving Zilmax at the recommended dose and half not receiving it. On the last day of the trial, four days after Zilmax supplementation was discontinued, heifers were exposed to a simulated stress event to mimic the stress response that would be anticipated in cattle being shipped from the feedlot to the packing plant.  At the conclusion of the trial, heifers were harvested at UNL and their hearts, liver, lungs, kidneys and adrenal glands were studied.

Results from the study demonstrated some differences in physiological and endocrine markers of stress and muscle accretion in heifers that were supplemented with Zilmax compared to heifers not fed Zilmax. Heifers fed Zilmax had an increase in parameters that indicate increased muscle mass. The increase in these parameters was expected, as the drug label for Zilmax includes statements pertaining to increases in creatinine and creatine phosphokinase, Schmidt says.

Results from this study, he added, also demonstrated that heifers supplemented with Zilmax had a decreased production of the stress hormone cortisol, and decreased body temperature during the simulated stress event. Histopathology of the heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, and adrenal glands revealed some differences between the heifers supplemented with Zilmax and the heifers not receiving Zilmax. The livers and right adrenal gland of the Zilmax heifers were slightly smaller than heifers that were not fed Zilmax, but there was no difference in lungs, kidneys, or heart.

“Overall, the results of this trial indicate that while there are variations in the body temperature, endocrine and metabolic parameters and histopathology of major organs of Zilmax-supplemented heifers, these differences are minor and show no indication that supplementation of Zilmax is detrimental to the health or well-being of cattle,” Schmidt said.

Back in March Reuters reported on a study by Texas Tech University and Kansas State University researchers suggesting 40 to 50 per cent of 3,800 deaths in 10 feedlots that were fed Zilmax in 2011 and 2012, were likely attributable to Zilmax.

The manufacturer of Zilmax, Merck, criticized the methods used in the study saying the findings were based on observational information rather than randomized controlled trials. Elanco, the manufacturer of Optaflexx, provided seed funding for this study.


Fundamentals strong, but beware of ceiling

The cattle industry is transitioning from he liquidation phase to the expansion phase in terms of numbers, according to Kevin Good, senior market analyst for Cattlefax. When combined with a very robust domestic and global demand for beef, it helps point to a rosy picture for the industry. Good made the remarks during a general session of the 2014 Cattle Industry Summer Conferences in Denver, August 1.

“It’s one for the ages,” Good says, referring to the cattle market. “It’s been a tremendous change from a year ago.”

He says the industry is accelerating the rate of expansion, and “it’s a great opportunity to take advantage of the trend.” However, while the fundamentals are friendly, he said, “the market will have a correction. And that correction could be soon.

“Something needs to give.

“You have to be prepared for that ceiling.”

Good says a “perfect storm” was in place for the industry in terms of profitability. There’s a tighter animal supply in general, with the PED virus in the pork industry and hatchability and genetic issues in the poultry industry keeping pork and chicken supplies in check. With all animal protein supplies stable and prices increasing, beef is not that far out of line, he said.

U.S. calves in 2014 are averaging $2.40 cwt, while feeder cattle are $2 and fed cattle $1.50. CattleFax expects prices should be stronger again on average in 2015, but larger supplies of beef by 2016 and larger total meat supplies will limit prices by then.

Lowering corn prices are giving the industry some relief. They are the lowest since 2010, and are expected to average in the $4-per-bushel range, and possibly in the upper $3s, for the year. Production in 2014 is expected to be in the 14-billion-bushel range, he said.

Range conditions are the third best they have been in the past 20 years. El Niño has been moderately strong, and is also providing relief for much of the country devastated by drought. However, he says the industry is still in the midst of a 20-year drought, so producers should still be cautious about conditions for 2015, ’16 and ’17.

Exports are increasing, and will continue to be a key component of producer profitability, according to Good. The China market (including Taiwan and Hong Kong) has become the top importer of beef in the world, and will continue to be a critical export market for beef-producing countries in the future. Good said about 17-18 per cent of a U.S. beef animal’s value is exported in beef, variety meats and hides, and producers should recognize the importance of this income source.

“We are living in extraordinary times,” Good says. “And prices are going to be continually strong over the next couple of years.” Still, he urged producers to exercise caution. “It’s easy to be optimistic today,” he said. “But markets don’t go up forever.”

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