Corporate money gives Big Beef a seat at the academic table

Universities tout privately funded research, but others raise questions.

Big Beef’s influence is reaching into universities in the top five beef producing states in the country.

Harvest Public Media found that land grant colleges in Kansas, Texas, Nebraska, Iowa and Colorado focus heavily on research that benefits the corporations and commodity groups that make up much of the U.S. beef industry.

Of $71.2 million spent on beef-related studies at those five colleges during the last five years, more than 30 percent came from private corporations — the majority from animal pharmaceutical companies and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, public records show.

The remaining $45.3 million in government money was mostly aimed at the protection or promotion of industry interests, such as growing cattle into bovine behemoths to produce more meat and reduce the risk of food poisoning from large feedlots.

Thanks to fewer government research dollars in agriculture, the trend in privately funded research is expected to continue in the United States and globally.

Robert Taylor, an agricultural economics professor at Auburn University, said that because of changes in federal law years ago, research faculty members began chasing money from what he called the “sugar daddies.”

“That becomes an implicit corporate subsidy to research the questions the corporations want answered,” Taylor said, “which is not necessaily the questions that common people need answered.”

Pharmaceutical companies were the largest research funders at the land grant colleges, Harvest Public Media found, contributing 38 percent of the industry total during the last five years, or about $8.5 million. Pfizer Inc. paid $4.3 million for studies on E. coli and genetics. Just at K-State, $861,000 was spent on Pfizer’s Epitopix, a new E. coli drug, which was approved by the USDA in 2009 with the university’s help. Pfizer declined to comment for this story.

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association provided 34 percent of total industry donations to the land grant colleges, spending $7.6 million to study beef tenderness and flavor, E. coli and salmonella, and meat “merchandising strategies.”

Other funding from Big Beef:

•  Cargill has promised $500,000 to K-State for the Cargill Center for Feed Safety Research.

•  K-State’s Beef Cattle Institute is the national headquarters for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association’s training program. After an initial $490,000 grant from the school in 2007, the institute has operated since then on $200,800 from five pharmaceutical companies. It taught producers to change the injection sites for drugs in cattle from the rump to the neck so less meat is damaged.

•  JBS USA Beef donated $498,344 in the name of its Five Rivers Cattle Feeding business to pay for one professorship and a graduate student at Colorado State University.

•  Texas A&M University, home to the largest beef producing state, accepted $19 million in public and private money, with $10.5 million coming from the USDA for studies on how to fatten cattle with grain, trace contamination in carcasses, and merchandise meat.

Mike Miller, the National Cattlmen’s Beef Association’s senior vice president for global marketing and research, said the group’s research priorities are food safety, the role of beef in a healthy diet, and finding new cuts or “fabrication methods.”

Three new types of beef were the result of research, Miller noted, including the popular flat-iron steak.

“What that allows us to do is to go back and talk to processors and packers and retailers and food service operators around the country about how they might utilize these new items,” he said. “And what it means for our industry is that in some cases it may be the difference of beef being on the plate or beef being off the plate.”

College officials also are proud of the public-private collaborations, viewing them as a way to supplement dwindling public research dollars.

“It’s very clear to me that we’re not investing enough in creating a safe food system for future generations, not just for this country but for the world,” said John Floros, dean of K-State’s College of Agriculture, Research and Extension.

Floros and other academics decry the lack of federal funding and maintain that public-private collaborations create the “synergy” that will help America feed the estimated nine billion people inhabiting the planet by 2050.

Critics have not suggested that all corporate-funded beef and pharmaceutical studies are pre-ordained to favor the funder, and there is no overall data on that issue.

But a 2011 K-State study of a cattle growth promoter called Zilmax — funded by Intervet, a division of Merck — found that cattle feeders could get an extra $21 a head by using the drug and beef packers could realize an extra $31 a head in “increased red meat yields.”

K-State researchers noted that “potential impacts on beef quality,” such as meat tenderness, have caused some producers to stop using it and some packers to refuse cattle treated with the drug.

But in the end, K-State researchers found, “longer-term market effects of Zilmax adoption to the cattle and beef industry reveal that the ultimate beneficiaries of this technology are cow-calf producers and consumers as the benefits from feedlots and packers are transmitted through the rest of the market system.”

The researchers didn’t address the tenderness issue, or whether that economic model would still be of benefit to feedlots.

Merck Animal Health said other research has demonstrated consumer satisfaction with meat from Zilmax-fed cattle.

“We believe that providing support through grants or donations to third-party veterinary organizations is an important way to advance our mutual objectives to improve health and advance animal care,” said Kelly Goss, a Merck spokesperson.

But critics of the business influence at universities are mostly concerned with what they call the “funder effect,” and how research agendas are increasingly set by the large corporations who pay for the studies.

Research on pure science, or studies that would benefit small operators, organic farmers or sustainable agriculture are “orphan issues,” said Patty Lovera of Food & Water Watch, an environmental watchdog group in Washington D.C.

“It makes sense that your research agenda is going to be influenced by who’s paying for the research,” Lovera said.

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------ Harvest Public Media collaborated with The Star on part of this series. Harvest Public Media is a collaboration of NPR stations throughout the Midwest, focusing on stories about agriculture and food production. Its five-part series is airing this week on KCUR 89.3 FM. Go to HarvestPublicMedia.org for “America’s Big Beef.”