Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Choose not to have a choice

The Kansas Department of Agriculture, in US, is considering a new law that will forbid dairy producers to display in their labels that their cows are free from synthetic growth hormones.

Recombinant bovine somatotropin is an artificial growth hormone developed by Monsanto and sold under the brand name Posilac. It is injected in cows to increase milk production. In October this year, as consumers’ opposition to this product increased, Monsanto decided to sell the business unit to Elly Lilly for $ 300m.

If approved, the new Kansas law will be valid from January 2010, banning dairy product labels from stating "rBST free." Companies will also have to include in their labels disclaimers saying "the FDA has determined that no significant difference has been shown between milk derived from rBST-supplemented and non-rBST-supplemented cows."

Backers of the proposal says that the distinction in labels “confuse consumers.” Kansas Agriculture Department spokeswoman Lisa Taylor said they “simply want labels to not be misleading," arguing that there is no proof that milk from BST cows cause health problems.

The question is: how can the statement “free from rBST” be misleading? It is a plain fact. It doesn’t say that the milk is healthier. It just gives information to the consumer to let them make their choice.

Maybe the FDA and Kansas Department of Agriculture believe consumers are not able to make a choice based in facts?

And they say the UK is a “nanny state…”

PS: the pdf version of the regulation and the hearing are not available on the Kansas Department of Agriculture website, but their html versions are, thanks to Google cache:

Notice of Hearing on Proposed Administrative Regulations

Fact Sheet - Dairy Labelling Regulation

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Sharing - it's a good thing

“If you sequence a virus and you leave it in the drawers for three years, you might as well not sequence it,” says Ilaria Capua, the Italian virologist and director of the OIE/FAO Reference Laboratory for Avian Influenza at the Istituto Zooprofilattico Sperimentale delle Venezie in Italy.

Seed Magazine, that very stylish ‘Science is Culture’ publication, recently named Capua as of one of its Revolutionary Minds for 2008.

Capua is the first veterinarian to be included in this list of opinion leaders in the scientific world. Revolutionary Minds
"Revolutionary Minds: Ilaria Capua"
View the video (4:39 mins)
Visit the website
Capua's small act of rebellion was just the spark for a much larger challenge to the system

She is outstanding because of her efforts in sharing avian influenza data within the scientific community through GISAID (Global Initiative on Sharing Avian Influenza Data).

This is remarkable because some sectors of the scientific community, especially the private ones, are not known for wanting to move beyond patents, copyrights and subscriptions.

Capua tells Seed: “I think if you have a big impending threat of concern to human and animal health, then there is no time to keep the information to yourself.

“The system that was up and running at the time wasn’t suitable for the health threat. Hundreds of sequences were generated and were not made available to a larger community of scientists. So I just said: ‘My virus is going into Genbank. Full stop.’

“I actually sent an email to quite a lot of my colleagues saying: ‘I invite you to think about this because there isn’t any space, at least in my opinion, for keeping information in drawers.’”

Patenting the genetic sequence of living organisms has always been tricky. On one hand, the private outfits that spend so much money on such projects want to see some return on investment for all their hard work. Well, you’ve got to pay your bills somehow.

Capua admitted: “The problem with Genbank is that it doesn’t give the depositor any sort of ownership in the protection of intellectual property.”

But on the other hand, some argue that this act is no more different to the way the imperial naval ships behaved during the era of gunboat diplomacy barely three centuries ago.

It’s like Captain James Cook, who, upon discovering New Zealand (after the Maoris, of course), saying to the Spaniards, the Dutch, the French et al: “Alright, guys. My route to New Zealand from Europe is my copyright. If you want to come here, you’ll have to find your own route.”

When I put forward this analogy to a few scientists, one said it doesn’t matter – eventually you’ll find the report or paper on the DNA sequence on some free data-sharing online portal anyway. Another scientist said that some of these efforts have been upheld by the EU law.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a video is worth a million. So in response to the comments made by the two scientists, I only have this animation below to illustrate my point:

"Share by Habib Yazdi"
View the video (0:53 mins)
This Flash animation by Habib Yazdi, a senior communication studies major at University of Carolina, was named the winner of the SPARKY Awards in January 2008

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Vet Medz

Last night on my way home from work I picked up a copy of one of the free papers used by commuters all over London to quicken their journey and distract themselves from the 20-60 minutes that they spend each day squashed insanely close to strangers’ armpits.

Somewhere between the latest on the economic down turn and an interesting piece on Lindsay Lohan’s mismatching tanned legs and pale feet was a curious little article that got me thinking about my latest conference – Companion Animal Products.

The ‘phenomenon’ on the web of is a site less than two years' old that was sold for an estimated $2m nine months ago. It gets more than two million hits a day and has been named the 8th most powerful blog by The Observer. The website contains pictures of people’s cats and funny captions, 10,000 people submit their efforts daily with only nine or ten making the cut.

These jokes have developed their very own subculture, constantly referring back to earlier musings. It has its own language - a cross between baby language and text speak known as “lolspeak” - with very strict rules and its own wiki conversion site, reoccurring characters and even its own mythology.

Believe it or not, visitors to the site recently attended a huge convention at the O2 arena. Many admitted to stalking their cat with a camera and not being able to look at their pet without thinking of captions in the now cult language of lolspeak. is just one example of the increasing devotion of people to their pets but it reflects the growing opportunities for product development in this area and is the main reason for the growth that we have seen in the companion animal products industry.

This years’ Companion Animal Products conference, Prague, 26-27 November 2009, has been designed show you how to spot the best opportunities for your product portfolio and predict your competitor’s pipeline. Attendees will benefit from leading market analysis, recent product launch industry feedback and the latest developments to address the unmet needs in the companion animal product market.

Obviously you need to come to the conference to get this expert market intelligence and industry researched information from our experienced speaker panel but for the time being I hope that you enjoy this insight into a large section of your target market’s psyche....

Friday, 10 October 2008

Don't eat meat and save the world?

The beef burger epitomises all the ingredients the modern consumer is hooked on
I am quite intrigued by a reader’s response to Mojtaba Tegani’s weblog on the World Poultry News.

Tegani’s reaction to the United Nation (UN)’s Dr Rajendra Pachauri’s prescription on our diet in the face of climate change (`give up meat for one day a week, and you’ll do the environment a lot of good’) was:

“Is it realistic to expect that a reduction in meat consumption influence factors associated with climate change? Additionally, will a vegetarian dietary style solve these problems?”

The said reader’s response to Tegani’s blog: “I think it is all about appropriate scale and management.”

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization told us in 2006 that animal manure and some agricultural practices contributed to some 18% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

We all have a hand in it. I contribute as well, just by breathing alone.

I agree that issues like antibiotics seepage in soil and water should be looked at closely. But before we allow the consumers to lay the blame solely on the industry practices, let’s remind them of our (yes, our – because we’re all in it) eating habits and our lifestyle.

A rich nation like the United States acquired the taste for meat, poultry and dairy products only as early as the 1920s.

Before that, they ate mainly bread. Before the Industrial Age in the 1800s – and the introduction of the milling plants where wheat could be processed efficiently – bread was not the staple food in Europe or in the US.

People survived on crops other than wheat. They ate things like gruel, porridge and soup. Meat was a delicacy. Bread was the food of the aristocrats.

The Western media reports on the Chinese as if they’ll eat through the entire world’s food supply
But meat, like bread, is the kind of luxury that cannot be let go easily once you acquire a taste for it. Even the introduction of sliced wheat bread in the 1930s could not water down the Americans’ love for meat. The consumers were hooked on it.

So when you have a capitalist system in place, driven by bottomline, and shaped by the demands of the consumers, how do you think the supply is going to look like? What kind of technology is created and employed to support this cause?

Of course, we can argue that some huge corporations manipulate the markets, and our diets, so we have very little choice but to consume what is on offer.

But we do have a choice. We want meat.

The New York Times reported that the upwardly mobile Chinese have acquired a taste for pork – they, too, are eating more meat.

This is another interesting thing I find about the way the West reports on the good fortunes of the Chinese. It’s as if they’ll eat through the entire world’s food supply, and leave us with nothing at all if they become rich. It’s a very Malthusian, dog-eat-dog, point of view that should be left in the Industrial Age, when it first came about.

Had we consume our foods – and our fuel and so on – in moderation, we would not have been in this predicament.

I believe that’s what the web reader meant when he mentioned “appropriate scale and management”. Do things in moderation.

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

My way, or the highway

The EU consumers want to know what goes into that milk, where it comes from and how the cow is treated
Photo: Greshoj

Monsanto’s decision to drop the bovine growth hormone Posilac (Monsanto to divest BST, 12th August 2008) from its portfolio of products speaks volumes of the power the European Union (EU) is wielding over its trade partners, in particular the US.

The message from the EU is clear: If you want to do business with us, you have to live up to our safety standards. If not, you can take your business elsewhere.

This applies not only to food exports, which affects the farming and crop protection industries, but also to other types of goods as well, such as cosmetics, drugs and electronics.

Such is the power of the EU safety legislations that the US has now been turned into a “dumping ground” for EU rejects. Other trading partners such as China – a serial offender when it comes to exporting dodgy food and non-food items to the EU – have no choice but to adhere to the EU standards.

While it’s easy to dismiss the EU as the big bully from Brussels, the animal health and agrochemical companies have little choice but to pay attention to the people they do business with: the EU citizens.

Traditionally, when an EU bill that’s not in favour of the industries is passed, the industry people will claim that it’s politically motivated, and not based on scientific rationale.

Animal health has to pay attention to the people it does business with: the EU citizens
Photo: Anne Koth

Because it’s the EU and not quite the Third World, they can’t play the small violin solo of “you need this technology to combat food shortage caused by overpopulation”.

Greenwashing must be tempting to some of these people, who’d go to great lengths hiring expensive PR agencies to manage the message, and commissioning top universities to come up with studies to back their products.

But you can’t win the public that way. If ‘green’ is not what your brand is known for, don’t greenwash.

Getting Cornell University to say that using a particular genetically modified (GM) cow growth hormone could help a farmer reduce greenhouse gas emissions (Hormone treatment cuts dairy gas emissions, 15 July 2008) because it can increase the milk productivity in cows – and therefore reduce the number of animals needed for dairy production – just won’t cut it.

It’s better to admit that this is not the product the public wants. The public is a bit nervous about it and of what it could possibly do to the human immune system.

It’s also time openly acknowledge that the animal welfare lobby is gaining strength. While the EU consumers enjoy their dairy products, they’re not happy to know that the cows put on the hormone are at risk of getting mastitis.

We live in an age where consumers want to know where their food comes from, and how the food-producing animals are treated.

Nike bounced back from the bad press in the 1990s by improving its business ethics and trying to understand its suppliers' manufacturing constraints. "One of the reasons for the disconnect between a company’s code of ethics and what happens among its suppliers is that suppliers and even boards of directors often are seen as external to the company," says Mark Vickers, vice president of research for i4CP
Photo: Nike

Now, since when is the welfare of the livestock the companies’ responsibility, when their first duty is to make profits? Since it starts hurting the profits, of course. Supermarkets go the extra mile rebranding and relabelling food packages to placate their customers. That must count for something.

What I find interesting about Posilac is that both the European Commission (EC) and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) found that milk produced using the supplement is “no different to that from untreated cows”. But the product is still banned in the EU.

It is generally understood that the EU cannot ban, say, a T-shirt, because it is made using child labour outside the economic zone. But what the EU can do is ban a T-shirt that is found to contain some hazardous chemicals.

However, we all remember what happened to Nike’s sales in the 1990s amid the sweatshop allegations. No nasty chemicals found and no Brussels prodding was needed to get the sales to nosedive.

Of course, that’s just clothes. The public is less forgiving when it comes to food. The EU regulators’ attitude towards the supplement is indicative of the influence the public perception has over a brand, and how particular the EU citizens are when it comes to food.

Monday, 28 July 2008

Keeping track of problems

A research flock at the US Sheep Experiment Station near Dubois, Idaho, USA. Unlike their USA counterparts, the EU member states still disagree over the implementation of sheep and goat tags
Photo: USDA

Nobody asked for electricity when it was invented. Thanks to marketing and powerful lobbying, electricity is now something both businesses and consumers can’t do without.

Not all technological innovations have been that lucky, though.

Radio-frequency identification, or RFID, has been trying to make an inroad into animal health for quite some time.

While it has succeeded in penetrating the retail sector, via supermarkets and to a certain extent, pharmaceuticals, it still has to justify its existence to agricultural groups and packaging sectors that are still comfortable with low-tech identification (ID) techniques, such as barcode labelling.

Digital Angel’s announcement to restructure its Destron Fearing animal ID business shortly after receiving approval from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) for its swine livestock identification tag system does not come as a shock, given the current financial climate in the US and the various issues plaguing animal ID and RFID in general.

As you would know, the European Union (EU) requires all sheep and goats across the European Union to be electronically tagged by the end of 2010 (Regulation 21/2004). Tagging the animals will not stop the disease. What it can do is to help the relevant authorities to monitor the movement of livestock through the supply chain, and hopefully identifies the source of an outbreak when the proverbial hits the fan.

The sheep industry leads the resistance to "double-tagging" in the UK, it is alleged
Photo: DirectGovKids

The proverbial finally hit the fan this month. A small bluetongue outbreak occured in the southeast of Germany. A few days after this incident, which took place in the Ortenaukreis district, near the French border, the disease was identified in Portugal. Spain is monitoring the situation closely.

In January this year, Spain and Italy made their unhappiness clear when the mandatory tagging of livestock was postponed from the end of 2009 to the end of 2010 (EU extends electronic ID deadline for sheep and goats to January 2010, 8th January 2008). Despite the technical and financial obstacles, Spain and Italy committed a significant amount of resources at national level to prepare for the 2009 deadline.

They found the excuses put forward by other member states who ‘failed’ to meet the deadline simply “unacceptable”.

The UK, egged on by the sheep industry, welcomed the postponement.

I suppose the Southern Europeans have a valid reason in supporting an automated animal monitoring process. The geography makes the spread of the unwanted – and I am not just talking about animal diseases – a tad easier in the region than in an isolated island like the British Isle. Meat products are a major revenue earner for Spain and Italy, so they can’t afford to mess up.

The story, however, is slightly different in the UK, where living and operating costs are ridiculously high. An animal tagging system integrator told me that the resistance against the 21/2004 regulation “is being led by the sheep industry in its fight against double-tagging”.

Bluetongue up close: Hyperaenia of the oral cavity and oedema of the mucous membranes
Photo: Crown Copyright/DEFRA

“Double-tagging” is a peculiar issue, and it doesn’t help the RFID cause one bit. The 21/2004 directive requires all sheep to be double-tagged in any event when leaving holding of birth. From January 2008, one of the tags must be an electronic device. Individual recording of livestock will also be compulsory.

Again, if you have hundreds of sheep, you have little choice but to do this electronically. Setting up a new electronic record-keeping system costs money. To muddle matters further, the 21/2004 directive gives a further derogation that “lambs” (yes, baby sheep) leaving their holding of birth do not require an electronic device.

Before you come to the conclusion that lamb-tagging is daft, I'll have you know that the UK's Institute of Animal Health (IAH) thinks bluetongue virus can be passed by pregnant ruminants to the foetuses they carry. IAH reckons that's how it survives the winter (Bluetongue virus might survive the winter within foetuses, 5th March 2008).

The same chap told me that the beef industry, very much spooked by bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), supports electronic tagging. It’s the sheep farmers that are throwing the spanners in the works.

So how much does an average tagging system cost then, I asked.

“A handheld reader starts from £60. A slaughter line is from about £2500, and a livestock market system with multireaders, £10,000. Tags are priced from £0.16 to £0.85 per piece.”

(No) thanks to global warming, midges can survive the Northern European winter and spread the disease all year round. Isn't it time the animal health industry stops compensating for other industries' greenhouse activities, and do something to reduce carbon emission in agriculture?
Photo: Institute of Animal Health

If it’s true that the basic cost of the EU scheme to the UK farmer would be between £13,000 and £16,000 – according to DEFRA – and if it’s true that the average UK farmer is earning below £15,000 a year, then both the sheep industry and the animal tagging industry can kiss each other goodbye. With about 67 million sheep movements a year, how could the sheep farmers cope with the costs? And let’s not forget the rising feed costs.

Animal tagging is a novel idea, one that I support wholeheartedly. But like many types of technology, it needs to be supported by a justifiable business strategy. The much-touted Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) has been around for more than 10 years, but hey, if you can organise a knees-up with good old text messaging, why need WAP? Similarly, if you can get by with good old head-counting and low-tech ID methods, why bother upgrading?

But if we have a reliable tracking and tracing system in place, it will be a lot easier to know where to look first when the diseases strike again.

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Pilled up pets

All of the behavioural issues that we have created in ourselves, we are now creating in our pets
Photo: Litter Kwitter, Cleverlad Pet Products

Several months ago, James Vlahos asked us if he could use our report, Companion Animal Behavioural Products, to get some ideas for his feature on the same subject for The New York Times.

We said yes.

“Pill Popping Pets” was published last week, and it makes a very intriguing read.

There were many funny bits in the feature (at last, a life science feature that is actually funny), but the one that I love the best is about Booboo the crazy cat who attacks her owner randomly. Growing up, I had one or two crazy cats like that. Drugging your pets is not necessarily the answer for behaviour modification, but I wish we had Prozac to pill them up. We would have had them longer.

Echoing the opinions of our report author, Dr Uwe Gerecke, some of the people interviewed by Vlahos said that what owners perceive as inappropriate behaviour for their pets could very well be their normal behaviour as a dog or a cat, but one that is undesirable in a human set-up.

Vlahos wrote: "Although most animal-behaviour problems are believed to have genetic roots, their expressions are typically triggered by the unnatural lives that people force their pets to lead.'A dog that lived on a farm and ran around chasing rabbits all day would be more prone to being stable than a dog living in an apartment in Manhattan,' [Dr Nicholas] Dodman says.

Vlahos: "Although most animal-behaviour problems are believed to have genetic roots, their expressions are typically triggered by the unnatural lives that people force their pets to lead."
Photo: Janet Goulden

"Undomesticated canids, neither confined nor excessively attached to people, don’t suffer from separation anxiety. Some captive horses endlessly circle their stalls or corrals — a compulsive behaviour similar to Max’s tail chasing — but such purposeless repetitions have never been observed in the wild."

If your lock your pet up in a city flat for eight hours a day, or let it loose in an area full of other pets - all competing for space - while you’re away at work, of course it’s going to turn loopy and develop some habits. Some humans go nuts doing things that are not naturally human. Like spending eight to 12 hours behind the desk, and another two hours commuting back and forth on public transport every day.

What I find interesting is the length pet owners go to make their animals fit into their lifestyle. Vlahos observed that "people’s willingness to employ behaviour-modifying medications stems in part from a growing desire for more convenient, obedient household animals".

"The studies of Reconcile (the fluoxetine hydrochloride product by Eli Lilly used to treat dog's separation anxiety) show why behavioural pharmacologists prefer not to rely on the medicine bottle — or for that matter, retraining — alone. Dr Steve Connell, a veterinarian at Eli Lilly, told me that 'behaviour modification by itself works. There’s not any question about that. But if you use behaviour modification in conjunction with Reconcile, it works quicker and it works better.'"

No pooping allowed. But is the dog in the wrong?
Photo: Edwin PP

A pharmaceutical company executive told Vlahos that “all of the behavioural issues that we have created in ourselves, we are now creating in our pets because they live in the same unhealthy environments that we do.”

I asked Dominic, our web programmer who recently acquired two kittens, if he uses ‘aids’ to modify his kittens’ toilet behaviour. He is currently training them to do the business in the designated area, i.e. the bathroom.

“No,” he said. “I just moved the litter tray to the bathroom. As long as they know where it is, and they don’t get yelled at, there is no problem”.

Vlahos's feature got me thinking about the real motivation behind pet ownership. No doubt some people love animals. But for some, it isn’t really about the pets. Making the pets fit into their lives like some toys or on-demand entertainment devices speak volumes of their need for love and reassurance.

You can read the full article by James Vlahos on

You can get the full copy of Companion Animal Behavioural Products for free if you subscribe to Animal Pharm.