On January 18, a highway in Wisconsin was coated in Skittles when a truck spilled its bright red cargo. The Skittles were being delivered to a local farm, it turned out, where the candy would be used for cattle feed.
This incident was covered by the Huffington Post, with commentary from Nicole Civita, Sterling College faculty member in Sustainable Food Systems and Assistant Director of the Rian Fried Center for Sustainable Agriculture & Food Systems.
Civita and her colleagues had a few more things to say about the prospect of candy in cattle feed, however; below are their thoughts.
In 2012, as corn prices surged and the costs of grain-based feeds rose along with them, farmers were keen to find cheaper ways of adding energy—carbohydrates—to their livestock rations. Excess bakery items and candy were both popular waste-based, budget-stretching energy supplements. Cows—like humans—find the sugar highly palatable and some farmers argued that it was a suitable substitute for the high-priced sugars in corn.
Food waste fighters might be inclined to applaud what looks, at first blush, like a legitimate food conservation practice—one that results in less landfilling and increased production of milk and meat. It is true that using some excess food products as livestock feed can be an important part of the solution. Indeed, Civita was confident enough in the value of this excess food management strategy, that, along with the University of Arkansas Food Recovery Project and Harvard Food Law & Policy Clinic studied the laws on it at the federal level and in all 50 states: Leftovers for Livestock: A Legal Guide for Using Food Scraps as Animal Feed. But advocating the use of some excess food as livestock feeds does not imply that we should feed any and all of our leavings to the animals we grow for food. Food waste solutions must always be analyzed in a systems-aware manner. Suitability of using leftovers for livestock depends on the type of food, how it is processed, what it is mixed with and what type of animal it is fed to.
While feeding candy to livestock might reduce waste and increase economic efficiency in the food system, it is important to consider what this dietary supplement does to the internal systems of the animals that are fed on it. We know that feeding grain-based diets to cows—animals that evolved to graze on grasses—changes their gut ecology dramatically. Studies have shown that feeding high-energy, grain-based rations to cows changes the pH in their digestive systems in a way that favors the growth and shedding of dangerous bacteria, like the shiga toxin-producing E. coli O157:H7. Presumably, feeding all of the simple sugars and additives in candy, which are not found in their natural diet, has a similarly negative effect on animal health and would create conditions in the gut that further support the production or persistence of acid-resistant pathogens.
E. coli are normal bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract of animals and humans. Most types are not harmful; however, there are disease-causing strains. Roughly 2% of all cattle are host to the most-feared strain of pathogenic E. coli, the shiga-toxin producing O157:H7, which is enterohemorrhagic and can cause severe intestinal bleeding and other horrible injuries to humans. Mature cattle are unaffected by E. coli O157:H7, but the bacteria can shed into the feces of host animals. When meat is contaminated with cattle feces at slaughter or fruit and vegetables are fertilized with contaminated manure, E. coli O157:H7 can and does enter the human food supply. After a major E. coli O157:H7 outbreak linked to undercooked ground beef served at a Jack-in-the-Box restaurant in 1993 killed and severely injured 63 people, the approach to food safety regulation in the United States. In the intervening decades, controlling E. coli O157:H7 in the food supply and the environment has been a major food safety priority.
Gwyneth Harris, Sterling College’s Farm Manager, explains, “Cattle are often fed starch-containing grains because such rations are easy to feed, relatively cheap (thanks to heavy subsidies), and increase the utilization of dietary protein. This type of feeding increases production and ensures that high-producing animals retain body condition—resulting in more marbling in the meat, and more milk in the tank. But unless the feed ration is properly balanced with proteins and fiber, the bovine gastrointestinal tract, which is designed for extracting energy from long-stem forages, becomes acidified. This results in multiple negative health effects for cattle, including ulcers in the digestive tract, liver lesions, and foot problems. In this context, the most important issue is that excess acid produced by microbes in the rumen creates an environment that mimics our own, acid-based digestion. The E. coli that exist in this acidic environment adapt and become resistant to the acidity which protects humans from many gastrointestinal pathogens.”
By contrast, the carbohydrates of hay and grasses move more slowly through the digestive tract of cattle (which evolved as grazers), and do not promote spikes in acid production that promote the growth of, and development of acid resistance in, E. coli. The simple sugars in processed candy behave more like those in grain in the gut and can exacerbate the problem. From an economic perspective, there is a real incentive for farmers to feed energy that allows full utilization of protein in the diet, thus maximizing production. When that energy comes cheap or free, it is easy to overfeed, resulting in the negative effects discussed.
If carefully balanced, feeding high-starch and sugar in dairy or beef rations does not specifically cause the negative health effects in cattle discussed here, nor promote the growth of harmful bacteria. However, if over-fed, it does increase the acid-tolerance of bacteria when already present. Acid resistant bacteria are able to pass through the gastric stomach of humans, making those humans very susceptible to serious foodborne illness. Thus, It is important to control and reduce the persistence of acid-resistant E. coli, not only in the livestock supply and in the resulting meat products, but also in the environment generally. This becomes even more critical as antibiotic-resistance mounts. Antibiotic resistant strains of pathogens of concern exist, are confounding medical professionals, and pose a real threat to individual and public health.
Skittles are an alarming selection for cattle feed. But there are even worse options out there in regular use. For example, the Skittles spill showed that this candy was, at least, unwrapped. Farmers have been known to feed their cattle individually wrapped candy! While some livestock feeding experts are nonchalant about this, others have expressed concern for potential ramifications for human and animal health. It does not appear that the practice has been studied, but common sense says no one, regardless of species, ought to be eating candy wrappers. Other eyebrow-raising waste-based livestock feeding practices include the questionable use of sawdust-based feeds and serving poultry litter to cows.
So, in sum, skip the Skittles, cut back on the grain, and get those cows out on pasture. You’ll have healthier animals, healthier soil, and healthier people—because grass-fed beef is far better for us, too. If you want to know more, check out our School of the New American Farmstead classes this summer with courses in “Holistic Livestock Husbandry“ and “Grazing and Soil-Building.”