Let’s Process This for a Minute

Perhaps you saw this in the news a couple of weeks ago: New evidence links ultra-processed foods with a range of health risks.

When I saw variations of this headline spill in through my news feeds, I immediately did my 1980’s best Valley Girl imitation…”Like, duh.” I assume that the lead researcher in this study was none other than Dr. Obvious.

What made me really scratch my head, though, was that most of these articles were accompanied by a photo of a cheeseburger deluxe with French fries.

Cheeseburger and French fries ultra-processed? Let’s break this down.

The cheeseburger consisted of one patty made from 100 percent meat (preferably bison) which consists of ground trimmings. Period.

The cheese goes through a bit more processing, but likely consists of milk, whey, yeast and salt. Then, there’s the lettuce, tomatoes, pickle and onion which are…well…lettuce tomatoes, pickle and onion.

The French fries? Sliced, fried potatoes. Agreed; they aren’t the epitome of health food, but deep frying doesn’t qualify as ultra-processed.

The bun may be considered highly processed, but I generally eat my bison burgers without a bun.

The authors apparently had difficulties identifying a specific product that would qualify as highly processed, so I am happy to help them out.

The best place to determine ultra-processed is to look at the ingredient panel for various types of food. Here’s one ingredient panel that caught my eye:

Water, textured wheat protein, coconut oil, potato protein, natural flavors, 2% or less of: leghemoglobin (heme protein), yeast extract, salt, soy protein isolate, konjac gum, xanthan Gum, thiamin (vitamin B1), zinc, niacin, vitamin B6, riboflavin (vitamin B2), vitamin B12.

Wait: That’s the ingredient panel for Impossible Burger®, the lab-created concoction being touted as the healthy, environmentally friendly alternative to meat. Not only is it ultra-processed, but the lab-created heme protein certainly qualifies as genetically modified, and the soy protein isolate is sourced from GMO soybeans.

How about this ingredient panel?

Pea protein isolate, expeller-pressed canola oil, refined coconut oil, water, yeast extract, maltodextrin, natural flavors, gum arabic, sunflower oil, salt, succinic acid, acetic acid, non-GMO modified food starch, cellulose from bamboo, methylcellulose, potato starch, beet juice extract (for color), ascorbic acid (to maintain color), annatto extract (for color), citrus fruit extract (to maintain quality), vegetable glycerin.

That’s the ingredient panel for the Beyond Burger®, another lab-created meat alternative. Making any food from cellulose from bamboo, refined coconut oil, and methylcellulose certainly qualifies that product as ultra-processed.

Perhaps the graphic accompanying the article wasn’t in error. Perhaps the authors just forgot to explain that the ultra-processed item in the picture was one of those laboratory-created burger “alternatives.”

A Head Above the Capitol Herd

Almost every day is fun when you have the privilege of representing bison ranchers from across the United States.

Yesterday was one that I’ll remember for a long, long time.

I was joined by NBA members Mortz Espy of South Dakota and Donnis Baggett of Texas, along with South Dakota taxidermist Gary English as we stood with U.S. Sen. John Thune of South Dakota to celebrate the installation of a bison head mount in the Senator’s Majority Whip office in the U.S. Capitol.

This isn’t the only bison head mount on Capitol Hill, mind you.

 Sen. John Hoeven (R-ND) has had a head mount in his office since he first came to Washington, D.C.  Sen. Mike Rounds (R-SD) has one in his office, as does U.S. Rep. Carol Miller (R-WV) (an NBA member and bison producer, by the way). A few years back, the members of the Kansas Buffalo Association loaned U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS) a head mount to put in his office on Capitol Hill. Sen. Moran was quick to point out to his colleagues that his bison head mount was the biggest of the Capitol “herd.”

Those head mounts are all in offices in buildings surrounding the U.S. Capitol.

Earlier this year, I visited with a member of Sen. Thune’s staff with whom I’ve worked for many years. We discussed that, now that the Senator is the Majority Whip in the U.S.  Senate, he has an office just off of the Senate floor in the U.S. Capitol. What would be more appropriate in that office than a head mount of our National Mammal?

 Congressional rules strictly prohibit anyone from providing anything of this stature as a gift to a Senator. So, we put the word out to see if any of our members would be willing to loan a head mount to the Senator to display in his Capitol Office.

 And, as often happens, Sandy and Jacki Limpert of Slim Buttes Buffalo Ranch in South Dakota generously stepped forward. Jacki said that they were having a large old bull mounted, and would be happy to loan it to the Senator to display in his Capitol Office.

Large is an understatement. Gary English of Golden Hills Taxidermy told me, “I have probably created about 2,000 bison mounts throughout my career, and this one is as big as it gets.”

English put his best skills to work. Last week, he shipped the mount to the home of one of Senator Thune’s staff members, who then hauled it to the Capitol in the back of her large SUV. Earlier this morning, English worked with the Capitol construction staff to make sure that the mount was appropriately—and securely—mounted on the wall in the Senator’s outer office. A few hours later, we celebrated the installation with a brief ceremony.

 The Senator even good naturedly donned a pair of Bison Hump Day glasses to commemorate the event (it was Wednesday, after all).

Oh, and we had to break the news to Sen. Moran’s office that there was a new, larger herd bull on Capitol Hill.

During a time of serious debates and contentious arguments in Washington, D.C., this was a day of smiles and celebrations…a day I’ll remember for a long, long time.

Let’s ‘Unpack’ The Carcass Price Story

This is the best time of year to be in bison business.

Northern state ranchers are finally feeling the warming rays of spring sun after a long, cold winter. Across most of the country new red calves are dotting greening pastures.

It’s a season of anticipation and expectation.

This spring, though, there’s a bit of angst that’s been unfamiliar in our business for the past decade. For the first time in the past 15 years, the finished bison market took a sharp drop since December. While our prices are still the envy of any other livestock sector, any drop tends to make ranchers a bit nervous.

And, like all other sectors of agriculture, ranchers are looking for reasons for the drop.

I recently received a letter from one new member who had transitioned into bison from a long career in the cattle business. He noted with concern that the fed bison market had dropped but that retail prices don’t seem to be budging. He wondered if this was a sign that—like the cattle industry– the “big packers” were somehow responsible for the drop, and were busy pocketing some extra cash.

In a sense, he’s right. The “big packers” are playing a role. But, not in the way he suspects.

As bison meat grew in popularity through the years, we successfully expanded demand for all parts of the carcass. Restaurants across the country now feature bison short ribs, fajitas, and brisket. People are cooking more bison burgers, and chili for their families. Carcass utilization has thankfully extended to the products that families feed their companion animals as we

An expanding number of pet food brands have started to include bison as a key ingredient in their premium products. And, with a relatively small number of bison processed each year, the availability of those ingredients is limited.

A few years ago, one company that specializes in buying bison byproducts from the packers, and then processing that material into ingredients for the pet food industry made a major move to corner the market on those byproducts. In short, that company offered our processors an extremely high—and unexpected—price for those ingredients.

Our “big packers” could have pocketed much of those pet food premiums. Instead, they passed that money back to the producers in the form of higher carcass prices. According to some processors, those premiums have added as much as $300 to the carcass value.

Here’s where it gets sticky.

The same company that locked up bison pet food ingredients is also a major importer of water buffalo ingredients being sold and labeled simply as “buffalo.” After the National Bison Association mounted a challenge to improperly labeled water buffalo, that company has decided to significantly lower the money it pays for bison byproducts.

Some have said that we should have turned our head and ignored the issue of mislabeled water buffalo as long as that company was willing to pay strong premiums for bison ingredients.

After spending years of building a relationship with our customers based upon honesty, transparency and integrity, is it in the best interest of our business to be a party to mislabeling in the marketplace?

Fortunately, many pet food brands are committed to honestly labeling their products. And, there are other companies that supply ingredients into the pet food business. Many bison processors are already working with those other companies.

The National Bison Association has launched a new on-line page entitled “Sniffing Out the Best Brands for Bison-Loving Pets” That page—which identifies the best brands, along with some to avoid—is being promoted heavily through social media, traditional media, and other avenues that reach “pet parents” across the country.

 The fundamental demand for all parts of the bison carcass remain strong. The he NBA is working with our commercial marketers to develop new areas of consumer outreach to continue to build our market demand in retail stores, restaurants, and the pet products sector.

We face an unanticipated challenge as we move into the months ahead, but there’s ample reason to smile as we welcome the new crop of calves this spring.