My article on poultry litter ("The Rest Of The Story," October 1997, page 56) generated much comment; some of it supportive and some critical. Folks on both sides of the issue make very good points and I agree with them.

What was surprising, however, is that no one responded to the main point of the article. The focus was not poultry litter, but rather the news media. My purpose was not to discuss poultry litter - but to point out how the news media misinformed the public. Less than 11/42 of 1% of all feedlot cattle receive any poultry litter - yet the media led the public to believe poultry litter is a common feed ingredient.

Worse yet, the media manufactured a news item. They slandered our industry by intimating poultry litter feeding is the source of E. coli poisoning.

There Is No Science As I pointed out in the article, no responsible health agency - not the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control, The Environmental Protection Agency or the U.S. Department of Agriculture (nor any state agency or legitimate scientific body) - has even suggested anything remotely related. That was clearly a manipulation on the part of the media.

With respect to the criticism of me personally, I see nothing wrong in pointing out that there are no health risks by feeding poultry litter. As a nutritionist and scientist, I have studied and advised clients on how to successfully feed poultry litter for 15 years.

Like most by-products, unless rations are formulated judiciously, problems can occur. But the problems manifest themselves in the cattle, not people. Meat from cattle fed poultry litter is indistinguishable from cattle fed conventional rations.

I fully understand the problem of perception. The problem is that when you begin to give way to perceptions, you can fall into a bottomless pit. With respect to cattle feeding, if we succumb to public perception, we would not be able to use implants or antibiotics. Indeed, we wouldn't even be able to feed corn ... since much of the public believe it's morally "wrong" to feed grain to livestock. (In some countries it is actually illegal to feed corn to cattle.)

Everything To Lose But never mind the moral issue, if we give way to public perception, there would be no corn anyway. The reason is that we in the cattle business are not alone with respect to negative perceptions. Just about every technological input in modern farming is considered "bad."

If agriculture in general gave way to negative perceptions, farmers would not be able to use fertilizer. Soil microorganisms break nitrogen down into nitrates, which is the form of nitrogen absorbed by plants. Yet the public believes that "chemical" fertilizers such as urea or anhydrous ammonia are dangerous to human health.

Beyond fertilizers, the public abhors other farm chemicals. Herbicides would be out. Farmers would absolutely not be allowed to use pesticides. It has been said the greatest threat to humanity is not nuclear terrorism, but organic farming. Although trite, that is nonetheless true. Without technology, we cannot feed the world's population.

As producers and scientists, all we can do is what we know to be right. Certainly image is important, but we must keep the big picture in mind.

Ratings Motivate The News We must also understand what motivates the media. It's not fairness, truth or accuracy. It is ratings. If we voluntarily "banned" poultry litter, feed additives, implants and antibiotics, would that help our image? Probably not. The media would most likely still seek to fabricate issues (like BSE) to "shock the public."

With respect to image, I genuinely believe our best hope is to follow Paul Engler's lead (and force the media to tell the truth).

It wasn't long ago that public relations experts within the National Cattlemen's Association told us discussing issues such as this publicly would only bring more adverse publicity.

The reality in this case, however, has been quite different. Stunningly, the media has told the truth about BSE. Whether they continue telling the truth will depend upon the outcome of the suit. It doesn't make sense to abandon perfectly healthful products or practices just to suit someone else's misperceptions.

David P. Price is a consulting nutritionist specializing in feedlot and range cattle. A number of his books and a subscription newsletter are available through BEEF magazine by contacting Marilyn Anderson at 800/722-5334, ext. #710.