Steve Elliott: Redefining mineral nutrition
Tom: Steve Elliott is the global director of the mineral management team at Alltech. He has 25 years of experience in the feed industry, 20 of them with Alltech. He joins us to talk about advances in the nutrition of farm animals that figure into our food chain. Thank you for being with us.
Tom: Your present focus is on how organic trace minerals can improve the health and performance of livestock. What have you found?
Steve: Trace minerals are essential nutrients. In other words, animals must receive them every day in their diet. We found that by providing them in an organic form, we can meet the requirements and do so with much lower fortification levels in the diet. We can have a lower mineral concentration, less mineral excretion into the environment and less interaction with other components in the diet. There are a lot of advantages to looking at the natural way of providing trace elements.
Tom: Which trace minerals are key to improve livestock performance?
Steve: Most people will be familiar with zinc, copper and manganese, but there has been a lot of work on selenium over the last 15 years. Many parts of the United States are selenium deficient. By utilizing an organic form of selenium, we can raise the selenium status in the animals, thus improving their immunity, reproductive efficiency, etc.
We can also fortify consumer diets with selenium by fortifying meat, milk and eggs, transferring selenium from the animal’s diet into the protein.
Tom: And just out of curiosity, where do you find selenium?
Steve: Selenium is one of those essential trace elements. It’s mined out of the earth. But at Alltech, we found a natural way of producing selenium: We take yeast and add selenium to the fermentation, and we can get the yeast to take it up and store it in an organic form. It’s much safer for the animal, safer for the people mixing the feeds and safer for the environment.
Tom: And which, in your opinion, is best: inorganic or organic minerals? Does it matter?
Steve: Yes, I believe it does matter. In nature, animals get all their minerals organically. We’ve supplemented with inorganic trace minerals for 50 or 60 years because they were an inexpensive alternative. Obviously, organic is a safer way of improving trace mineral status in the animals. We can do it in a form with fewer contaminants such as heavy metals, dioxins and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) — things we’re concerned about passing into the food chain. We can avoid that by using organic trace minerals.
Tom: You’ve noted that research from around the world is influencing regional regulatory decision-making with the goal of improving the agrifood sector. Can you elaborate on that, and is this goal being achieved?
Steve: Yes, particularly on the mineral side. For example, the European Union reduced the acceptable amount of minerals fed to animals because of water pollution concerns. Japan has recently moved legislation on lowered levels of zinc and copper to address pollution concerns as well. Korea has done the same. One of the main initiatives in China is lowering levels of trace minerals in the feed. There is almost no potable water left in China due to pollution, particularly from pig farms.
I think there are a lot of initiatives driving producers to look at alternatives to trace mineral fortification. That’s where Alltech is ahead of the game. We’ve been looking at organic alternatives for over 20 years. I think we have a very good understanding of the mineral requirements of animals and the optimum levels at which we can meet them.
Tom: Let’s talk about the Brazilian Food Guide, which appears to be quite disruptive. What is it, and why is it noteworthy?
Steve: Brazil reestablished levels in what they call their Table 4. Table 4 was a system set up by the government to ensure that farmers put adequate fortification in their livestock’s diets. The government does not want feed companies to cheat producers by not providing enough nutrition in the diet. The initial acceptable mineral levels put into that guideline were exceedingly high. We can achieve lower levels by feeding organic trace minerals.
So Alltech, in coordination with major universities in Brazil and professors on the regulatory board, conducted research over the last several years showing that, when you feed the organic form of trace minerals, you can feed or fortify the diets at a much lower mineral level.
The Brazilian government has incorporated these levels in the new guidelines, which now say that if you’re going to use organic forms, you can go well below the old Table 4 levels, thus allowing producers to improve the performance of their animals while lessening environmental contamination.
Tom: The guide blatantly warns people about food advertisements, noting that the purpose of these ads is to increase sales, not to improve public health. How is that advice being received in the industry?
Steve: There’s a lot of misinformation that goes out in some of these ads. From a food quality standpoint or fortification standpoint, we’ve done a lot of work with the Brazilian government on fortification or enrichment of milk, for example, particularly with selenium. You feed selenium to the animal, it passes into the milk, and you then raise the selenium status of the people consuming that milk. We’ve done that with Brazilian school children, and we found that as we improve their selenium status, their cognitive ability, or their ability to pay attention in school, was improved as well as their immune status.
There are a lot of good things we can do with fortifying foods, but there’s a lot of misinformation out there as well. I think the public should be careful and really look at the science behind some of these claims.
Tom: And how can the Brazilian guide serve as a model in the agrifood industry?
Steve: I think in the United States and globally, many people rely on the NRC, which is the National Research Council. The NRC reviews research every five or six years and then establishes guidelines on nutrient fortification levels for production species. Most guidelines were established using old ingredients. For example, inorganic trace minerals.
Brazil and other countries are starting to accept that there is a better way of doing things by using organic minerals. By doing so, it’s going to help the environment and we can fortify diets at a significantly lower mineral level. I think because of the revised Brazilian tables that were recently published, Canada is now talking about revising their tables as well.
We’re hopeful that the next time the NRC reviews production species in the United States, they will take a closer look at organic forms of nutrients, particularly those that Alltech makes.
Tom: So, to bring this all the way down to the food chain, how does the adoption of the Brazilian guide affect the average consumer’s dinner table?
Steve: I don’t know that there is much effect on a consumer’s dinner table. Consumers should rest assured that the Brazilian government is taking a step forward by looking at natural alternatives — not just using the old standards that were used for many years — and not be concerned because the mineral levels have decreased. There’s good science for decreasing those levels: We can clean up the environment, and animals perform better at lower mineral levels in the right form. The consumer can rest assured that Brazil is taking a leading-edge approach by looking at natural feed additives.
Tom: Steve, what do you enjoy most about your work?
Steve: I’ve had the opportunity to travel the world; I’ve been to over 100 countries. I get to deal with the best food producers, the best producers of animal protein in the world. And I get to learn something new every day.
Tom: Steve Elliott, the global director of the mineral management team at Alltech. We thank you for your time.
Steve: Thank you.
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