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Inspired by “Cattlegate” – June 2023

Inspired by "Cattlegate"

While I typically enjoy researching and writing about topics that recall personal developments or milestones in my life, the topic I am about to write about is neither of those things. Yet, with a twist of irony I symbolically tie this infamous event to not only my inner reasoning and ideas regarding sense of community and responsibility, but I tie the formative effects directly to my chosen career path – why I do what I do.

Let me explain.

This month marks the 50th anniversary of an infamous event known to fellow Michiganders as “Cattlegate.” Sometime in early 1973, workers at a chemical factory in my hometown of St. Louis, Michigan, inadvertently switched bags containing a common cattle feed supplement with other poorly marked bags of a known flame retardant containing polybrominated biphenyls (PBBs) as the main ingredients. The bags were then shipped to feed mills throughout the state of Michigan and used in the food supply chain for dairy cattle and other livestock. The intended cattle feed supplement was made from magnesium oxide, otherwise known by the tradename NutriMaster, while the flame retardant was known under the tradename FireMaster. When it came to the front of the news cycle at the time, it was reported that the incident came down to simple, human error that had originated from a communication oversight. It was later found that a shortage of prelabeled paper bags marking the contents therein led to the plant erroneously sending shipments of 50-pound bags of FireMaster, in place of NutriMaster, to the Michigan Farm Bureau Services building near Battle Creek, Michigan. The bags were then shipped to feed mills throughout the state and used in the food supply of hundreds of farms within the state of Michigan. By the spring of 1974, PBBs were found in the food chain through widespread farm product consumption of milk, beef, pork, lamb, chicken, and eggs.

As a result, over 500 farms within the state were shown to be contaminated and were promptly quarantined by spring of 1974, when the disaster was officially recognized by then Governor Milliken and various state officials. Even though I was just a child when the political fallout started, I remember hearing worried conversations and heated debates amongst extended family, neighbors, and teachers at the time. Thinking back on it, I was too young to fully grasp the magnitude of what had happened around me. I distinctly remember how amazing it seemed to me at the time that so many people who I loved and respected – and still do to this day – could simplify the situation as easily as they did. People immediately took sides: It was either the fault of industry or it was the fault of government restrictions – case closed. Nobody was reasoning in color; everybody was reacting in black-and-white. It would be years later, in a college-level argumentative writing class, that I would be given a one-word description to describe what I intuitively knew I had witnessed in depth as a child: polarization.

As a result of the disaster sometime in the mid to late 1970s, the Michigan Farm Bureau Services was forced to quarantine over 500 Michigan cattle farms where several thousand farm animals were destroyed, along with supplies.

  • 30,000 cattle
  • 4,500 pigs
  • 1,500 sheep
  • 5 million chickens
  • 800 tons of animal feed
  • 18,000 pounds of cheese
  • 2,500 pounds of butter
  • 5 million eggs
  • 34,000 pounds of dried milk products

PBB mixtures were manufactured for their general versatility as flame retardants but have since been replaced with other brominated flame retardants (BFRs) such as polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), hexabromocyclododecane (HBCD), and tetrabromobisphenol A (TBBPA). PBBs have 209 possible structural isomers that are formed by substituting one or more hydrogens on a biphenyl ring with bromine and have no known natural source in the environment. PBBs belong to a larger class of compounds known as organohalogens – compounds that contain at least one halogen (e.g., bromine, chlorine, and fluorine) bonded to carbon. This larger class of compounds includes environmental news darlings, such as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Simply replace the bromine on the biphenyl ring with chlorine and PBBs become their more infamous cousin, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). While they no longer dominate in the news, PBBs share common characteristics with these other organohalogens such as persistence in the environment, bioaccumulation, long-term health effects in living organisms, and long-range transport beyond the local areas of their use. Due to these properties, once-useful BFRs remain subjects of regulation even though some have been banned in several countries.

A few years later, by 1980, the factory was closed down facing an impending doom of lawsuits and increasingly precautionary regulations not only from the state of Michigan but from the US EPA. These were the days of the newly drafted Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) legislation, and gone were the days of corporations innocently using industrious job-creation as a defense for contamination of local resources. As the news started to settle down, the small farming town economy of the St. Louis (population of just over 4,000 at the time) would be decimated after factory jobs were cut.    

In a world of constant change, it is reassuring to reflect on our reasons for why we are on our chosen path – however wide or narrow that path may be. When we do this, we realize that our paths have probably thrown several obstacles our way, causing us to change direction many times, but the original inspiration acts like a magnet drawing us toward our purpose even through the many twists and turns. We can change many things over the course of our lives, but eventually, we come to the realization that we can never change the original reasons that we embarked on our paths because those reasons were created by our own free will.  

 “Work is not what one does for a living – work is instead what one does with their living.”  
– William J. Bennett; The Book of Virtues

Why use magnesium oxide as an agricultural feed supplement?

A term used by rural veterinarians, “grass tetany,” is a highly fatal disease associated with low levels of magnesium in the blood of cattle. As ruminant animals, cattle are unique in the predisposition to this phenomenon because of their high dietary intake of lush spring (or fall) grasses. These grasses are often associated with a high potassium content, which necessitates the animal to push this potassium abundance out into the rumen in exchange for sodium – which, in turn facilitates magnesium uptake. When the rumen contains grasses with high potassium contents, this pump does not work well resulting in a low efficiency of magnesium digestion. Grass tetany can be fatal, thus forcing the farmer to supplement a source of magnesium into the food supply, which is a fairly common practice in the U.S.

Mark Lybeer

Data Project Manager