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Published October 15, 2012, 10:35 AM

Not a production issue

The world may already produce enough food for 9 billion mouths, but wastes too much.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

FARGO, N.D. — Does the world already produce enough food to feed the 9 billion people expected to be on the planet by 2050?

J. Brad Morgan says yes.

“We already produce enough food, today, to feed twice that many people,” says Morgan, senior food safety and production efficiency specialist in Pfizer Inc.’s veterinary specialty operations area. Morgan was one of the speakers at the recent North Dakota Stockmen’s Association annual convention in Fargo, where he addressed the topic: “Meat Industry Issues: Perceptions are Real, Facts are Negotiable.”

It’s hard to believe, Morgan says, but each U.S. consumer throws away an average of 242 pounds of food a year. “We throw away so much food that it’s just about embarrassing,” he says. He thinks part of the reason for U.S. food waste is that food is relatively cheap here — costing only 7 to 8 percent of disposable incomes. “We’re very cheap, very efficient,” Morgan says, referring to American production costs. “We do a nice job of producing food in this country. We take it for granted.”

Meat is more expensive than other kinds of food. “We throw away about 12 percent of the meat that’s produced in the United States on an annual basis,” Morgan says. “We’re talking about edible, lean meat. Our servings are too large, but when I order something, I expect to get a large serving. We don’t need that much to begin with.”

Leafy vegetables — perishable with a short shelf life — are thrown away at a higher rate. Many vegetables don’t even leave the field because they have a color or shape defect — cosmetically flawed enough so consumers won’t accept them.

“We throw away 40 to 50 percent of what we produce: tomatoes, 50 percent; strawberries, about a third,” Morgan says. “And of course if you throw away a third, the retailer — if they know they’re going to throw away a third — they increase the price of a product by a third to cover the cost of throwing it away.”

Meals for the masses

Cable television’s Food Network recently aired a program in which celebrity chefs cooked a meal for 200 people for a fundraiser for a New York City food bank. All of the food used to prepare the meal was from food that had been thrown away. “They were shocked when they saw what was thrown away,” Morgan says, noting that “beautiful salmon filets” had been thrown away because they had a cosmetically imperfect blood line, or the shelf life had technically expired.

Morgan says the waste extends to petroleum and other energy needed to produce food. “We throw away about 380 million barrels of oil just on the oil used to produce the food that we throw away,” he says.

Morgan spoke on some of the topics in late June when he attended the Reciprocal Meats Conference, which attracted 900 people from about 20 countries.

He says the National Beef Quality Audit shows the industry needs to be more transparent — talking about its practices and getting ahead of the curve “and not just always retaliate or try to refute things when they hit the headlines” whether involving lean, finely-textured beef (LFTB) or other products.

Since the LFTB controversy, the price of the product has declined by about two-thirds, Morgan says. “It is wasted today,” he says. A lot of byproduct is produced from grain-fed cattle that is 50 percent fat and 50 percent lean and the LFTB, which is about 93 percent lean. “We need 85 percent lean to make a hamburger patty, so we need to find sources to blend to make hamburger patties,” Morgan says. He says it costs about $78 for every steer or heifer that is slaughtered.

He also talked about technologies that producers are using from a food safety standpoint. For example, Pfizer Animal Health makes a vaccine that reduces the amount of E. coli 15787, a bacterial virus in beef animals. A similar vaccine does the same thing for salmonella.

The U.S. cattle herd has declined because of drought and other issues, Morgan says. To come up with enough beef for the nation’s consumers, the industry is importing high lean beef trimmings from Australia and Central America and South America. If the nation went away from grain feeding cattle, it would take a third longer to finish the animal and steaks wouldn’t have the “rich, succulent” and “buttery” flavor that consumers are used to, he says, and instead would taste “a little gamey, a little grassy.”

“We’ve got a good story to tell, and we need to start telling that story,” he says. “People will understand what we do for a living if we just try to explain it to them.”