Flatolophiles (and you know who you are) rejoice! At long last, aficionados of the gas we pass finally have a book to call their own – and we’re not talking about the seminal children’s work of that same name. Like everyone else with their finger on the pulse of book publishing, we are talking about a new study by Ph.D zoology candidate at the Zoological Society of London, Dani Rabaiotto, and Virginia Tech ecologist Nick Caruso which began as a light-hearted tweet and has morphed into one of the most talked about tomes on animal behavior this year. Responding to a question as to whether snakes suffer flatulence, Rabiotto crowd sourced the answer by posting on Twitter with the hashtag #DoesItFart. And the Internet embraced the question in the way it does best: it flooded the forum with answers, observations, citations, and further questions. And from this online drollery emerged Does It Fart? The Definitive Guide to Animal Flatulence, a text which is, in the vernacular, a gas. And one of the perhaps most interesting facts to emerge from this collection of malordorous anecdotes and scientific arcana is that kangaroos, those adorable antipodean macropods, were once thought to be the key to solving climate change. Kangaroos? Yes, like Skippy! Kangaroo flatus – the gas passed from the end of the body not connected with the mouth – was thought to contain far less methane than that of cows. As we know, bovine methane production (from digestion and from manure) is the number one leading cause of methane emission which is a significant factor in global climate change, so cutting down on the amount of the gas produced is critical to reducing general levels in the environment.(1) But how could kangaroos be part of the solution? Let’s don our PPE (aka breathing mask) and lean in to the mephitic question…
According to Australian government statistics, there are around 50 million kangaroos roaming wild, a number up from just 27 million in 2010.
The increase in the continent’s most iconic of marsupials is due in part to higher than normal rainfall, which has resulted in increased food availability. And the population over-run is having significant impacts upon the now outnumbered human population. In an interview in News.com.au, Garry Hanigan, a farmer in New South Wales, commented: ‘“Two or three weeks ago we had thousands on here, just moving through, they were here in droves and the amount that are being hit by cars is amazing,” he said. “They’re just devouring anything we’ve got grass wise, they’re starting to cause erosion along fences. Any of the grass country is just being pulled up by the roots.”’(2)
…with kangaroos and wallabies emitting only 20% of the methane of cows.
And the increasing population caught the eye and the imagination of Mark Morrison, a researcher who divides his time between Ohio State University and the University of Queensland, Australia. Noting that kangaroos and their close cousins, the wallaby, produce less methane than ruminants (cows) when fed a substantially similar diet, Morrison took a closer look at the enzymatic processes at work. Sequencing the genes of the bacteria found in the gut, Morisson’s team designed a custom food source for these flora and fauna so they could be studied in vitro. And the results seemed to point to the fact that the gaseous output of marsupials was significantly less potent than that of bovines, with kangaroos and wallabies emitting only 20% of the methane of cows.(3)
So far so good. But what can we do with that knowledge? In essence, the research was aiming to reduce the methane output of livestock by mimicking the micro biome of the marsupial in the rumen of the cow. Simply introduce the marsupial bacteria to the cows, enable them to take root, and reap the benefits as their methane production declines and the animals grow more efficiently.
However, as Alexander Hristov of Pennsylvania State University noted after the experiments failed abjectly, the bacteria ‘“cannot compete with the native rumen microbes for substrate. There are many examples of failed attempts in the literature. Millions of years of evolution is something that is very hard to overcome.”’(4) In other words, nature triumphed and the kangaroo’s digestive bacteria failed to get a foothold in the cow’s stomach.
So can they still play a role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions (GHG)?
So back to kangaroos. They seem to be over-running the Land Down Under, their gastrointestinal flora and fauna is not looking as interesting and scientifically useful as it was, and people are becoming increasingly unsettled at the sheer number of them around. So can they still play a role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions (GHG)? Perhaps sadly for this most iconic of creatures, they can: as a replacement for beef and veal on the dinner plate.
The national stereotype of the Australian is that of a BBQ lover who, as actor Paul Hogan once noted, know that ‘shrimp is not the only thing that is put on the Barbie.’(5) So, with the current overrun of marsupials, it seemed only a matter of time before a cull for meat was declared because, as David Paton, Associate Professor at the University of Adelaide, noted, culling programs would not only protect the country’s unique biodiversity but also create a sustainable food source for those who eat game.
And from a purely practical perspective, this does seem to make sense. However, when it comes to food safety, meat from game animals – in the U.S. this includes deer, wild boar, snakes, alligator, rabbit, wild turkey, reindeer, moose, and even squirrel – is a whole new can of metaphorical worms. Here at home, the processing of meat from game animals is regulated by four different governmental agencies: the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Inspection Service (APHIS); the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS); the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC); and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), with each agency holding a mandate for subtly different areas of concern. And they may all have their work cut out for them.
Since 2010, consumer interest in non-ruminant meat has increased and, using a Vector Auto Regression (VAR) model of statistical analysis, the future ‘per capita meat consumption in Australia is expected to increase by approximately 1% per annum over the period from 2010 to 2025. In contrast, GHGs emissions associated with meat consumption are expected to decline […] by nearly 2.3% per annum. These empirical findings suggest that even though the total per capita meat consumption is expected to increase in Australia during the next decade, the composition of meat consumption is expected to change significantly [with consumers] substituting more ruminant meat (beef and lamb) with non-ruminant meat.’(6)
So given that ‘Skippy’ is about to become ‘the other red meat,’ we must assume that protocols are in place to ensure public safety.
Especially, of course, if Australian producers are setting their sights on expanding their market share to include export to countries within Europe and to the U.S. Well, maybe, but maybe not, and this has some within our own regulatory agencies concerned. The issue with game meat is that, by definition, it is not farmed and therefore treated in a semi-controlled way. Game are wild animals that are hunted and killed in an environment where oversight in the field and contamination control are both spectacularly absent. According to the group ‘Kangaroos At Risk,’ an affiliation of scientists, academics, and public figures concerned at the status of kangaroos, the animals ‘are shot in conditions where contamination of kangaroo meat is logistically unavoidable. There is no oversight in the field where the basic butchering and gutting of shot kangaroos is done by the shooter in rural and isolated areas across Australia.’(7) At present, the requirements to obtain a permit as a kangaroo butcher are seemingly lax. Following a 6-hour online course culminating in a brief, open-book examination and a phone assessment, hunters are now licensed as butchers – with no further training necessary.
‘“You don’t see any other meat production transported the way kangaroo is – in the open air, gathering dust and flies.”’
And when an individual is shot, unregulated and unsupervised gutting – known as ‘field dressing’ – has to occur in situ. This can mean that intestinal spillage can occur, with the contents of the intestines potentially remaining on the carcass for the up to 14 days it takes to transport the animal from the field to the processor. And the state of the carcasses during transport is considerably less than optimal. In an interview with Queensland Country Life, a newspaper dedicated to agribusiness, lifestyle, and local events in Queensland, John Burey, a processor based in Charleville, encapsulated the essence of the problem: ‘“You don’t see any other meat production transported the way kangaroo is – in the open air, gathering dust and flies.”’(8)
Furthermore, once the carcasses reach processing facilities, the picture does not necessarily improve. According to a report by journalist Amy Corderoy in The Sydney Morning Herald, documents obtained under freedom of information laws in 2015 led the New South Wales authorities to uncover evidence of ‘numerous hygiene compliance breaches including chillers contaminated with old blood; dirty floors, walls and ceiling; lack of water and soap for handwashing; carcasses hung from rusty hooks; and live animals being allowed to roam around the chiller area.’(9) And as John Kaye, the Member of Parliament who first requested this information, acknowledged the level of contamination was sufficiently high that anyone eating this meat faced a potential risk for serious infection:
“Poor hygiene practices have potentially devastating consequences for any food but game meat is particularly vulnerable. No one should eat meat that was hung on rusty carcass hook, processed over a tray with old dried blood or exposed to other live animals with the risk of faecal (sic) and other contamination. This so-called healthy alternative to other red meats could be riddled with pathogens.”(10)
And, according to independent testing, it is.
The University of Technology, Sydney is home to the Center for Compassionate Conservation, a public research, education, and advisory body that promotes the development of compassionate frameworks and tools that drive policy changes and create conservation objectives for the protection of Australia’s wildlife. The center’s senior lecturer and director, Daniel Ramp, pointed out that contamination thresholds are ‘way above safety standards [with] high levels of salmonella and E.coli.’(11) This point is reinforced by Kangaroos At Risk which says that the meat contains ‘many human affecting pathogens including Salmonella spp and Toxoplasma gondii. Ongoing testing of retail ready kangaroo meat at processing plants and supermarket shelves for E. coli and Salmonella spp shows unacceptable high counts of both pathogens.’(12)
Currently the state of California is the only one in the Union to prohibit the import and sale of kangaroo meat.
Along with the United Kingdom, which recently committed to kangaroo meat-free grocery store shelves after a protracted campaign by animal welfare group Viva!, California views kangaroo products as a threat to biodiversity and species survival as well as to unsuspecting consumers. But on a federal level, noting that Russia banned imports of marsupial meat for repeated problems of contamination as far back as 2014, the FDA is empowered to act under the terms of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act) to ensure that imported products meet the same standards of safety as foods produced domestically. In addition, any imported food products must also meet the standards required by the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act (FPLA) and failure to comply with either set of governances results in imports being seized for destruction or re-exportation.
Perhaps the bottom line is that safety guidelines are in place but the practical nature of the business precludes – or at least makes difficult – their following.
So does this mean that consumers can rely upon these safety nets? The short answer is ‘probably not.’ While the FDA can seize and destroy items that do not conform to our standards for food safety, there is little the agency can do about ensuring that processors overseas comply with our standards in the first place. In an article published in Food Safety Magazine, Patrice N. Klein observes that the FDA ‘takes very seriously the risks to public health of [imported foods from] wild animal populations that may harbor dangerous zoonotic diseases.’(13) And, for sure, this should include confirmation that all vendors are in compliance with Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) protocols, Current Good Manufacturing Practices (cGMP), Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), and other associated guidelines. A quick perusal of the Food Regulation Standing Committee’s technical report on the ‘Australian Standard for the Hygienic Production of Wild Meat Game for Human Consumption’ did reveal references to HACCP and other protocols. However, most concerningly it also turned up myriad standards that would be extremely difficult to accommodate in the field. For instance, in chapter 16 – Hygiene and Sanitation Facilities, the report states that field depots should have available ‘facilities that enable the effective cleaning and sanitising (sic) of premises, equipment and protective clothing’ and that the facilities should have ‘overflow directly to the drainage system.’(14) This seems unlikely when kangaroos are shot in the wild and ‘field dressing’ is the only form of gutting and initial carcass preparation. Furthermore, in terms of the comfort and safety of operators, the report recommends that toilets should not ‘open directly onto areas where wild game is produced’ – again, this seems evident but in a field situation, the likelihood of there even being restrooms is low. (15) Perhaps the bottom line is that safety guidelines are in place but the practical nature of the business precludes – or at least makes difficult – their following.
As a bottom line, while it behooves any business looking to break into the American market to familiarize itself with our regulations, it is not known whether the Antipodean butchers and processors have this level of regulation squarely in the forefront of their minds. To comply with U.S. policies, animals must be properly fed, housed in appropriate living conditions, treated per the requirements of good animal husbandry practices including veterinary care where appropriate, and should be slaughtered and processed in ways that prevent the transmission of infections or diseases to humans. And, with the practices routinely condoned within Australia’s kangaroo processing industry, these requirements are clearly not being met. As John Burey, the processor in Charleville, reflected, unless the industry changes dramatically, his business will not survive in its current incarnation: “Shooters say, this is how we are – take us or leave us. Well, people left them.”(16)
Perhaps, in the name of food safety, as potential consumers of kangaroo meats and other products we should follow their lead and just do the same.
If you live outside of California you have the opportunity to buy kangaroo meat – so do you? What are your feelings on game meat? Let us know in the comments!