In 2013, A&W become the first, and so far only, national burger restaurant in Canada to serve beef raised without the use of hormones or steroids.
"We did a lot of research, and it became clear that today's restaurant consumers want to see things on the menu that are free of steroids and hormones. So, we did something about it," said Jeff Mooney (BA'66), a U of S alumnus who headed A&W Food Services Canada until 2005 and remains the company's chairman emeritus and controlling shareholder.
"There are a lot of groups advocating for change in the foods Canadians eat," Mooney said, "but it's one thing to talk about change and another to actually do it. A&W serves over 200 million customers a year. I could argue that A&W is doing more to change the way Canadians eat than many other organizations."
"Food animals are an important component of sustainable food production in a globally secure food system." - Andrew Van Kessel, University of Saskatchewan Department of Animal and Poultry Science
The debate about the use of steroid hormones, or hormonal growth promoters (HGPs), in beef cattle has been going on for decades, and is one of the longest-running trade conflicts between North America and the European Union (EU). North America allows the use of HGPs in beef cattle, the EU does not. Six HGPs are approved for use in Canada: three natural, three synthetic. Most are administered as time-release implants behind the ear, with each implant containing a specific dose of hormones.
North American producers use HGPs because it allows them to produce more and higher quality beef at less cost, on less land and with lower greenhouse gas emissions (meaning less manure). The EU does not allow their use because of concerns about their impact on the environment and human health. There are studies to show that HGPs can leach into surrounding aquatic ecosystems and impact fish habitat. The scientific evidence supporting a negative impact on human health, however, is hotly debated.
"No regulatory health agency has identified HGPs as a human health hazard. The World Health Organization, U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Health Canada—all have used strict measures to rigorously investigate therapies and pharmaceuticals used in cattle, and HGPs have been found to be sound," said Andrew Van Kessel (PhD'93), professor and head of the Department of Animal and Poultry Science at the U of S.
Hormone-free is something of a misnomer. All animal products contain hormones because animals produce natural hormones. "The level of hormones in beef cattle given HGP and those not given the hormones is similar, and in both cases, it is far less than what you'll find in products like soy or even cabbage," Van Kessel said.
According to the Canadian Cattlemen's Association and Beef Information Centre, a 100 gram serving of beef from cattle given HGPs has 2.2 nanograms of estrogen and 44 nanograms of progesterone. The same serving of beef from cattle not given HGPs has 1.5 nanograms of estrogen and 27 nanograms of progesterone.
Compare this to a 15 mL (one tablespoon) serving of soybean oil, which has 28,773 nanograms of estrogen equivalent activity (phytoestrogens) or a 100 gram (2/3 cup) serving of cabbage, which has 2,381 nanograms.
As the debate about hormones in beef cattle production continues, Van Kessel wondered, "Maybe we, as scientists and researchers, haven't done enough to inform people. Maybe we are letting special interest groups lead the discussion instead of having science lead the discussion."
The threat of antibiotic resistance
In 2014, Health Canada announced a plan to limit the use of antibiotics for growth promotion in livestock within three years. In 2015, it issued a "notice of intent" to address personal/own-use importation of veterinary drugs, including "medically important" antibiotics that are critical to human health. Such steps ensure Canada's food safety standards align with those in other developed countries.
Antibiotic resistance is not just a concern—it is a reality. Dr. Trisha Dowling, DVM, is a professor of veterinary clinical pharmacology at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine at the U of S. She is also founder and co-director of the Canadian gFARAD, a national food safety service that provides veterinarians with guidance regarding drug therapy in food animals.
"I'll get calls from veterinarians trying to treat an infection, but it's primarily about a dog or cat. They'll tell me what they've used so far and as they go down the list of antibiotics, I often have to tell them, ‘that's it, I've got nothing left,'" Dowling said.
In a presentation at the 2015 Beef Cattle Conference at the University of Calgary, Dowling said, "It's our own complacency that brought on the threat of antibiotic resistance. We got complacent about thinking there was a pill for every ill."
In the food industry, the issue is not the use of antibiotics to fight infection, but their use as a prophylaxis (to prevent infection).
"We need these tools; we can't overuse and risk losing them," she added. "We teach our students proper guidelines for antibiotic use, but we also have to train people not to demand antibiotics for everything—for themselves or their pets."
"The sub-therapeutic inclusion of antibiotics in feeds for growth promotion and prophylactic control of disease is a valid concern," Van Kessel agreed. "If an animal is sick, we need to treat it, but we need to regulate how and when we use antibiotics. I think there is a reasonable link that sub-therapeutic prophylaxis is contributing to antibiotic resistance, and I think the food industry should discontinue the use of antibiotics that are important to human medicine."
"I'm not afraid of my food supply. I'm more afraid of a plane engine falling out of the sky and hitting me on the head than what's in my lunch," Dr. Trisha Dowling, Western College of Veterinary Medicine
Restricting antibiotic prophylaxis is driving research into alternatives. "There's no silver bullet that we can add to animal feed that will do the same thing, but there's good scientific evidence that pre and probiotics can influence the development of resistance to, or protection from pathogens," Van Kessel said.
Research has shown that the live organisms in pre and probiotics occupy niches in the intestinal tract that a pathogen would normally occupy, so the pathogen cannot attach.
"There are a thousand different kinds of bacteria in your gut, so we're still in the early stages of understanding how they work and which parts of the immune system they turn on. There's also phytochemicals, organic acids and other chemicals—all are thought to modify microbiota, limit pathogens and increase a host animal's ability to protect itself."
Dowling thinks the answer lies in better vaccines and disease prevention. "It's just not effective to chase bugs with drugs. Bacteria develop so quickly—that's their survival advantage. When you throw antibiotics at bacteria, the bacteria develop resistance. It's like night following day. I think it's about preventing disease in the first place."
Despite concerns about HGPs and antibiotic use, Dowling is confident in the safety of Canada's food supply. "I thank farmers for giving us the safest food supply in the world and for the fact that I'm going to outlive my grandma by 20 years," she said.
Haskap: underdog of superberries?
When the U of S's Fruit Program began breeding a berry bush called haskap in 2001, they were intrigued by its hardiness. Haskap can withstand the intense cold of a prairie winter, yet it is still one of the earliest fruits to mature—haskap berries are ready to pick in June.
The Fruit Program received funding from Saskatchewan Agriculture in 2006 and released its first haskap variety in 2007. It has since sold more than a million plants to growers, with new cultivars set for release in 2016 and 2017. The popularity of U of S-bred haskap has a lot to do with its taste (somewhere between blueberry and raspberry), but its nutritional profile is earning the headlines.
A 100 gram (2/3 cup) serving of haskap berries provides 60 per cent the daily value (DV) of vitamin C, 15 per cent DV vitamin A and 12 per cent DV fibre. The berries are also high in antioxidants, which are believed to help the body combat a host of health issues, from cancer and heart disease to Alzheimer's and rheumatoid arthritis. This has some calling haskap the new "super berry," although you probably won't hear the term from James Dawson.
Dawson is a PhD student in the Department of Plant Sciences at the U of S. He's keen on haskap, not so keen on the superberry label.
"I understand that it's great for marketing," Dawson said. "But I think we get hung up on terms like that, and then we don't hear the science."
Dawson is all about the science. He is currently working to quantify the content of specific phytochemicals in haskap. "Haskap has a ton of antioxidants," he said, "but we don't know exactly how the antioxidant compounds in haskap work."
At first, it was thought that since plants use antioxidants to quench oxygen radicals, eating foods high in antioxidants would provide humans with a similar benefit, that the antioxidants would get into our bloodstream and quench oxygen radicals. Science proved otherwise.
"They found that only a small amount of antioxidants make it past the gut and into the bloodstream," Dawson said. "So, the science changed. Research has now found that some antioxidant compounds act as messengers to tell your body to react to the radicals."
"It's a case of the science evolving," he added. "We thought we knew the way it worked, but we didn't. That's the kicker—if you rely on the science to help with marketing, then you have to let the science evolve."
Drink your fruits and veggies
The fact that Canada's Food Guide continues to recommend adults eat seven to ten servings of fruits and vegetables a day, combined with the fact that Canadians seem unable to meet this guideline, are perhaps the biggest drivers behind the growing popularity of cold-pressed juices.
Cold pressing uses hydraulic pressure to extract more vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients from fruits and vegetables than traditional spinning blade methods. But for many consumers, the real secret to cold-pressed juices is often what is not in the bottle.
"Every 16-ounce bottle of Thrive juice contains three to five pounds of raw, cold-pressed produce. We don't add sugar, preservatives or any other additives. We stay with simple, raw ingredients," said Maile Crowe.
Crowe and Danica Slattery (BA'15) are the co-founders/co-owners of Thrive Juice Co. They had known each other since childhood, but reconnected while attending the U of S. A shared passion for healthy foods—especially knowing what was in the foods they were eating— led them to establish Thrive Juice Co.
"It was a case of creating what we wished existed," Crowe said. "Danica and I both wanted to create something around healthy food, so we became the first in Saskatchewan to offer raw, unpasteurized, cold-pressed juices."
The proof is in the label. "The Local" smoothie contains Saskatoon berries, haskap berries, raspberries, seabuckthorne berries, blueberries, raw honey, coconut H2O and protein. "Rejuvenate" juice contains beet, carrot, celery, grapefruit, orange and lime. It is this kind of basic ingredient list, minus additives and preservatives, that is so appealing to consumers— so much so that they will pay a premium.
There is debate about unpasteurized products. Health Canada recommends that children, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems not consume unpasteurized products due to the risk of potentially harmful bacteria.
"We're aware of the advisory, and we do let our customers know that Thrive Juices are raw and unpasteurized," Crowe said. "But we also have measures in place to ensure our produce is clean and that our back-of-house production is properly handled. In the end, I think it comes down to choices—and our customers want natural, healthy alternatives."
Thrive Juice has grown by leaps and bounds since taking third place in the U of S's i3 Idea Challenge in 2014. The company has gone from a booth at the Saskatoon Farmers' Market, to online subscriptions, to the Thrive Juice truck, to a new storefront cafe on 20th Street in the heart of Saskatoon's foodie district.
The growth of a local cold-pressed juice company, the surge in interest in the little-known haskap berry, the ongoing debate over hormone and antibiotic use in the food industry—it all attests to growing consumer interest in knowing more about the food on our tables.
"Cold-pressing produces an extra smooth texture and really rich flavours and colours—it's like the fine wine of juices," Maile Crowe, Thrive Juice Co.
According to a 2015 Global Health and Wellness Survey by Nielsen, North Americans are going back to the basics when it comes to food.
- 32% want GMO-free
- 32% want foods made from fuits/vegetables
- 32% want no high-fructose corn syrup
- 31% want natural flavours
- 29% want all natural
This article was written by Beverly Fast, and originally appeared the the Green & White, the University of Saskatchewan alumni magazine.