Black Ink

by Steve Suther

Black Ink

Perceptions, Science and Business

The ancient Greeks used to debate what people know and HOW they know it. Deeply held convictions have wrestled with science-based knowledge ever since. And eventually, economics entered in, usually linked to science, if only the qualitative data on what people do with their perceptions.

You may know something because it is stated by a source you consider reliable, even infallible. You could know it because you’re confident of your interpretation of the data about it. Or you might feel the truth of something “in your soul,” as if your own perceptions are infallible; then you look for bits of science to support your beliefs.

That range is found everywhere from the ranch to the food consumer. Fans of certain “food philosophy” writers elevate authors to authorities because persuasive prose rings true for them. With enough disposable income, they may even pay more for food that fits their gastronomical belief system.

Consumers write the checks that pay our way in the beef industry, but you have to wonder how they know how beef cattle should be raised.

Perceptions can be spot-on, but they can also be arbitrary and out of touch. Consumers several generations removed from the farm may think the scale required to make a living in agriculture is just wrong. Hundreds of cattle in a herd rather than six or eight? Trying to make a profit? That can’t be good.

Some beef producers choose to cater to the various niche markets these ideas spawn, as an example of business meeting perception-based opportunity.

There’s often less risk in catering to science-based opportunities. Stories about the beef and producers are increasingly important in marketing. But just telling banquet guests a story about the beef won’t improve its flavor unless that beef was selected based on meat science to please consumers.

Many consumers “know” all fat is bad, even though science has discovered there is good fat (beef marbling) and bad fat (generally external and trimmed off the beef). On the producer side, some focus on genetics that deliver the good fat, but others see it as a fad or the cattle feeder’s concern.

Because of one brand’s success, some consumers form a positive impression of all beef linked to a breed. Yet science says that ability to please consumers has more to do with the specifications than the breed, or rather that breed can provide all the attributes and tools required to hit those specs.

Science may trump perception, but business must consider both, along with practicality in labor costs. Investing too much in a fad can be a mistake if perceptions shift, but always going with science can take you down a different road to ruin.

Your well-informed perceptions must guide your decisions. If science can add 30 pounds of beef at the expense of consumer satisfaction, it is worth it? The industry may never know what it lost.

Is it worth it to follow the recipe for crossbreeding to capture the scientifically proven (infallible?) 4 percent advantage in commodity beef production? Or can you make up for it with the simplicity, greater predictability and genetic focus found in one breed?

Ultimately, in the long run, the consumer will decide.

y current on animal health issues. “We are continuing our efforts to make the agency more user-friendly, and hope these tools will be convenient for livestock owners,” said Myles Culbertson, Director of the New Mexico Livestock Board (NMLB).

New Mexico’s current outbreak of vesicular stomatitis (VS), highlights the need to distribute information as quickly as possible, Culbertson said. “Restrictions on and requirements for moving livestock have been changing quickly as new cases of VS are found in different parts of the state. Using the internet to get information out immediately allows people to act quickly to protect their animals’ health.”

Cattle, horses and pigs can be affected by the disease, which causes painful lesions on animals’ mouth, nose and lips. “Livestock owners need to watch their animals closely, and contact their veterinarian immediately if they suspect their livestock may be infected,” said Dave Fly, New Mexico State Veterinarian. “New Mexico’s last significant outbreak of VS was in 2005, so we have a large animal population that is susceptible to the disease.”

VS is a contagious disease, spread mainly by biting insects. “One of the best things people can do to protect their livestock is to be diligent with fly spray, especially in the afternoon and evening when biting insects are more active,” Fly continued.

This summer, VS cases have been identified in Otero, Valencia, Socorro and San Miguel Counties, and other areas in the state are likely to experience the disease over the next several months. The NMLB is recommending extreme caution in the movement of livestock into any affected county, unless they are going directly to the auction market. Event organizers are asked to work with a veterinarian to ensure all livestock entering the event are free of the disease. This is a disease that creates very fluid control and management systems, so stay in touch with your veterinarian and watch the NMLB website for up-to-date information, Culbertson said.

Vesicular Stomatitis is considered mildly zoonotic and in rare cases can be transmitted to humans, according to Dr. Paul Ettestad, New Mexico Department of Health. In people, it can cause an acute illness that resembles influenza. The incubation period is usually three to four days, but can be as short as 24 hours or as long as six days. The symptoms may include fever, muscle aches, headache and malaise. Vesicles are rare, but can occasionally be found on the mouth, lips or hands. Most people recover without complications in four to seven days.

Precautions are recommended when handling suspect livestock, Ettestad continued.

Humans can become infected when handling affected animals, contaminated fomites, tissues, blood or virus cultures. To prevent infection, protective clothing and gloves should be used when handling infected animals.

To sign up for online updates from the NMLB, people can “like” the agency’s Facebook page, or visit www.nmlbonline.org, and click on the red “Sign up for email notices from the NMLB” button. “We believe these will be excellent tool for notifying the livestock industry on news items, alerts, emergencies, new rules, and other timely notices,” Culbertson explained.

“Facebook is becoming a popular way to get information out to the public, but we realize that it’s not the best way to reach everyone,” he continued. “With two options – Facebook and direct emails – we hope to reach a majority of the people we serve. Of course, we are always available to answer people’s questions over the telephone and in person.”