About 10 years ago or so I sat in the audience as an executive from McDonald's explained the fast-food giant's rationale for switching from foam packaging to paper packaging. The change was made, he said, despite the fact that McDonald's leadership believed that science indicated foam packaging was actually better for the environment than paper.

"We're in the business of selling hamburgers, not defending types of packaging," the McDonald's exec said. In other words, if McDonald's customers wanted paper packaging, then it was paper they'd get.

I've recounted this story before but I think it offers some perspective on the discussion framed on pages 23 and 24 of this issue -- Should the beef cattle industry be feeding poultry litter to cattle?

I say "no," but not because the practice is unsafe. Literally decades of research and experience with processed poultry litter have shown that the practice is not only safe and efficacious, but it also makes good economic and environmental sense. We should stop feeding poultry litter because the concept can't be sold to the consumer.

The Downside To Poultry Litter The downside to feeding poultry litter is that most consumers find the concept far from tantalizing. When you consider that the beef industry has spent years and tens of millions of dollars selling the "sizzle" and taste image of beef, don't we run a serious risk of sabotaging all those efforts by potentially damaging that mouth-watering appeal?

Glenn Smith of the Georgia Cattlemen's Association makes some extremely valid points in his letter on page 24. In defending the practice of feeding poultry litter to beef cattle, Smith cautions about the "slippery slope" down which the industry begins to slide when it allows the popular opinion of the day to overrule sound science. "Cattle industry leaders," he says, "must not react to emotional challenges without full benefit of scientific review."

I don't think it's possible to win a public relations battle on this poultry litter issue because it's so easy for opponents to evoke a negative image of the practice and thereby harm our product. Science works well in defending ideological or political issues. But, it's a much tougher battle for science when it goes up against emotion spearheaded by gastronomic preferences and taste buds.

The Public Sees It As "Manure" We can call it what we want and argue its safety, feed value, environmental attributes, etc., but outsiders still see it simply as "chicken manure." And, the most valid and convincing scientific argument isn't going to counteract a gag reflex.

Dr. David Price, the consulting nutritionist whose column appears monthly in this magazine, says that no more than 3-5% of the nation's cattle receive any poultry litter, and most of them are cows in breeding herds or backgrounding cattle. Less than .5% of cattle on finishing rations receive litter, he adds.

But, as Allan Pratt, a producer from Webster, SD, asks in his reader letter on page 23: How much is that small percentage feeding litter affecting the future and fortunes of the much larger majority?

The beef industry adopted a strong consumer-oriented focus when it developed its long-range plan. That philosophy seems to really be catching on among beef producers today. It's refreshing to receive letters like those of Pratt's and Larry Bryant of Kansas. It shows that more producers are taking seriously the notion that beef demand is the number-one priority, and satisfying the consumer is the best way to approach it.

Feeding poultry litter to beef cattle, even though it's done sparingly, does make sense -- a whole lot of sense. Scientifically, it's a safe and sensible practice. But, is it in the best interest of a beef industry truly listening to its customers? I don't think so.