Imagine a consumer biting into a beef product and busting a tooth on something small and metal. Now, multiply that reaction exponentially if the consumer figures out the small metal object is actually a piece of buckshot or birdshot.

Never mind their dismay at the obvious lack of quality control. In this day and age, consumers might consider such supposed product tampering a blatant act of terrorism.

“Industrial food ingredient users and fast-food restaurants are really becoming concerned about this since Sept. 11,” says John Butts, vice president of research for a sizeable U.S. maker of sliced lunchmeats and industrial food ingredients.

“How will consumers react in the ‘new world’ to foreign objects?” he asks. “If a person found a piece of buckshot or birdshot in one of our products, would they be likely to call the police or even the FBI? Could shooting animals accidentally or intentionally be labeled a terrorist act?”

Anecdotal evidence suggests the incidence of buckshot and birdshot discovered in beef between harvest and the consumer is on the rise. The 1999 National Market Cow and Bull Quality Audit (NMCBQA) equated the 0.30% incidence rate it uncovered to 15,000 separate incidences each year. The report pegged the cost at around $100,000/incidence, or about $1.5 billion/year.

If anything, these estimates are conservative.

Merton Haynes, director of technical services for another of the nation's large food ingredient manufacturers, simply says, “I've never seen as much of it as I have in the past two years. It's a growing problem.”

Plus, the audit accounts for only market cow and market bull beef, and only for cattle in which buckshot or birdshot has been detected at the packing plant.

“We're finding the problem in fed steers and heifers, too,” says Gary Smith, who holds the Monfort Chair in Meat Science and Research at Colorado State University (CSU). “We find it more often in bulls than cows, and more often in cows and bulls than in steers and heifers.”

One reason shot turns up more in bulls and cows is their age. The longer a beef animal prowls the range, the more opportunity it gives ignorant or frustrated hunters, depraved vandals, would-be do-gooders and even ranchers to pepper it with intentional or accidental aim.

16¢ Shells To $105,000 Hickies

Before considering the potential liability cost associated with an angry diner who loses a gold filling to a beef product, the actual cost of buckshot and birdshot damage escalates dramatically the further it travels undetected through the supply chain.

John Raede is the quality assurance vendor manager for one of the nation's leading makers of frozen handheld meals and snacks. He explains the direct costs of buckshot to the food supply chain stem from a number of factors. For one, there's stopping production lines and disposing of contaminated product at the packing plant. There's also lost production and returned product at the processor level. And, there's the increased cost and product loss at retail. All told, he pegs the eventual loss caused by a 16¢ shotgun shell at about $105,000.

“The losses magnify as it moves up the chain,” explains Haynes. He says an incident last year, which would be regarded by food manufacturers as minor, cost one manufacturer about $38,000. If it had been caught at the packinghouse, Haynes says the loss would have been more like $5,000.

In a more significant incident, he says one processor and its customer, an ingredient manufacturer, are trying to figure out how much of a 30,000-lb. batch of beef may be contaminated with shot. Ultimately, Haynes says the incident could cost the two companies more than $250,000.

These figures don't account for potentially deeper damage at the hands of shaken customer confidence and lost market share.

“Beef (as an ingredient) is costing us more money because we have to screen it so heavily,” explains Raede, “If we can't make our margin with beef products, we'll have to use an analogous product.” This is a company that purchases millions of pounds of beef per year.

“In a high-risk situation, I'm going to buy product off-shore where I know the incidence (of finding buckshot and birdshot) is less likely to occur,” says Butts. He describes “high-risk” as those situations in which beef contaminated with shot would cost his company more than mere business.

Remember, these are two companies that are currently willing to handle beef. According to industry sources, some ingredient and food manufacturers have declined to take on large, beef-based contracts solely because of the liability they believe goes along with beef and its incidence of buckshot and birdshot.

As it is, tens of millions of pounds of beef are used by domestic ingredient and food manufacturers each year in everything from pizzas to convenience snacks. Folks like these say beef's opportunity to play in the convenience food category — one of the fastest growing categories at retail — will have plenty to do with its ability to get shot under control.

Pellets In A Beef Stack

The only way to guarantee that beef is shot-free is taking control of the problem at the producer level. For one thing, it's tougher to detect shot visually than it used to be, simply because taking the hides off carcasses — which used to be done almost exclusively by hand — has become a mechanized function of processing.

Packers use metal detectors, but even if they're calibrated to pick up both ferrous metals like stainless steel and non-ferrous metals like lead, they'll miss shot that is imbedded too deeply in the muscle. As for detectors calibrated to find foreign objects based on density, Haynes explains they work best on frozen product and are less accurate on fresh product.

Consequently, shot is typically found either at the processor or the ingredient and food manufacturer. By then, contaminated beef has already been manufactured and packaged. Thus, most of the cost is already incurred before the problem is found.

So far, packers and processors have endured the added cost, buying expensive X-ray machines that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. But, Haynes says, “This is always going to be an issue unless we do something about it. The only solution is to eliminate it at its source.” (See “What You Can Do” below.)

Who's Pulling The Trigger?

Fingering hunters and vandals is obvious and easy. But, Bill Sanguinetti of the Sanguinetti Ranch at Farmington, CA, points out, “We have coyotes here. People will see coyotes moving among the cows and shoot at them, thinking they're doing me a favor.” So, do-gooders no doubt add to the problem.

But some ranchers are to blame, as well.

“We always thought it was the hunters,” says Haynes. But when he and his crew started searching for the source of the increasing incidence of shot in the trimmings they buy, a veterinarian, who's also a cow/calf producer, admitted he and other producers use shotguns when flushing cattle out of brush or when herding by helicopter. Haynes says its obvious these ranchers aren't trying to shoot the cattle, but the results are the same.

Even so, given the fact that market bulls and cows travel so many different directions and so far in modern marketing, CSU researchers who conducted the NMCBQA say the problem can't be pinned on any one region.

“What concerns us the most is that this is not only a beef safety issue, but it's also an animal welfare issue,” explains Sanguinetti, who is vice-chairman of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) subcommittee on beef quality assurance.

Indeed, Paul Clayton, vice president of export services for the U.S. Meat Export Federation (USMEF) says, “How do you explain it to customers? When someone does find it, it brings up a lot of questions about what's going on. There is no positive twist to it. The perception is that cattlemen don't care about their animals.”

Incidentally, shot discovered in some U.S. product exported to South Korea two years ago ultimately cost the U.S. more than $1 million and depressed future demand. It's still the first concern U.S. meat trade teams hear from South Korean importers.

“You have to think further downstream. Every pound of beef produced by every farmer and rancher affects the livelihood of every other producer,” says Smith.

For more specific information or a brochure about the issue, contact NCBA at 303/694-0305.

What You Can Do

  • Educate employees, neighbors and hunters that buckshot and birdshot is an adulterant that causes huge amounts of meat to be condemned.

  • Post “No Hunting” or “No Hunting Without Permission” signs on your property. Inform hunters there will be a penalty for hunting near cattle.

  • Require all hunters to sign a logbook that includes their names, addresses and phone numbers.

  • If you allow hunters on your property or you are in the hunting lease business, gather cattle and move them to areas not used for hunting.

  • Utilize alternatives to guns for pest or predator control.

  • Never use shotguns to move or gather cattle.

  • Get tough. It's your product and your responsibility.
    Source: NCBA