Farm animals on a diet, so you don’t need to be

The black-and-white splotched Holstein shuffles her way across the barn and sinks her voluminous udder onto the outstretched, metallic arms of the waiting robot: Vicki knows she’s ready to give milk.

Top: A dairy cow waits her turn to enter a robotic milking system at the Bakerview Ecodairy.  The robotic milker allows cows to be milked whenever they feel that they are full and can access the machine 24 hours a day

Top: A dairy cow waits her turn to enter a robotic milking system at the Bakerview Ecodairy. The robotic milker allows cows to be milked whenever they feel that they are full and can access the machine 24 hours a day

VANCOUVER — The black-and-white splotched Holstein shuffles her way across the barn and sinks her voluminous udder onto the outstretched, metallic arms of the waiting robot: Vicki knows she’s ready to give milk.

At the sprawling Abbotsford, B.C., farm where she lives, no human hand will be yanking on her juicy bits.

That’s because her proud owner believes a more healthful cup of the white stuff froths out when Vicki is left free to do whatever she likes to do.

“They milk themselves two or three times a day,” says Bill Vanderkooi, president of Bakerview EcoDairy, which produces Vitala brand dairy and eggs. “They go to the machine when they want to. We’re not pushing them or anything. It’s available 24 hours a day.”

With its own flock of research hens, specially formulated feed and manure-fuelled power system, Bakerview EcoDairy is champing at the bit of B.C’s green craze to gobble local, organic and healthful foods.

While some North American diets in recent decades have excluded eggs because of cholesterol concerns, and non-dairy milks have gushed into greater popularity, Vanderkooi’s operation has been selling to a wizened breed of conventional food lovers who believe back-to-basics with a twist is the best option. Others want farm-fresh but can’t escape the downtown.

Catering to these shoppers, Bakerview has developed a variety of products Vanderkooi says are nutritionally enhanced through scientific, but natural means.

He feeds his chickens and cows a diet rich with flaxseed and tuna oil, resulting in bona fide eggs teeming with DHA omega-3 fatty acids, and vitamins A through D and Se. His “traceable” milk flows with DHA omega-3, conjugated linoleic acid and the mineral selenium. A stroll through the tour-friendly farm presents a veritable lotus land of animals munching gourmet cud.

But back in suburbia’s garden variety grocery stores, city slickers in egg aisles are confronted with a dozen or so choices from standard white eggs to jumbo, free run-organic-omega-3 oeufs in fancy packaging.

It’s more of the same inside the milk fridge, and it’s enough to get anyone cracked.

Nutrition scientists agree that health-conscious consumers can indeed expect to find what’s on the label packed inside the food.

Numerous studies show that animal products can be specifically enriched in various nutrients by changing the animals’ diets, says professor of poultry nutrition Doug Korver, at the University of Alberta.

“You are producing a different composition and you’re certainly not reducing the nutritional value,” adds David Kitts, University of B.C. program director of food, nutrition and health.

“But to say it’s better? You have to qualify what better is. To say, for example, it reduces cardiovascular disease — I don’t know, no one has studied that.”

Enhanced food labels rely on well-established “nutrient function claims” regulated by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, instead of directly linking the food to disease risk reduction or a therapeutic effect. For example, products with DHA omega-3 can say the particular nutrient “supports the normal development of the brain, eyes and nerves.”

The essential fatty acid has been shown to help in reducing cholesterol triglycerides, clot formation and tumour growth and improve immunity.

“It takes a huge amount of time and effort and resources to get a health claim,” Vanderkooi says, adding he agrees with the strict rules because they protect consumers.

He’s currently waiting for regulatory approvals from Health Canada to market a drinkable yogurt with enhanced egg yolk and eggs that provide 50 per cent of the suggested adult vitamin D intake.

Having discovered in his college years he’s an insulin-dependent diabetic, the now 41-year-old father of five young children says his condition churned up his passion for creating new foods.

“Our goal is to have a positive influence in terms of trying to develop functional foods that really have the ability to help somebody who is consuming them to get healthier,” he says.

Bakerview EcoDairy is among fewer than 10 farms in the province that use the self-milking technology, Vanderkooi says.

And with a self-grooming station, comfy mattresses and a floor made of rubber in the barns, he says that just like his chickens, his cows are free-run too.

“From the consumer’s view they can feel good about how the cows are cared for,” he says, noting the cows milk themselves more frequently than average at 2.8 times per day.

“Taste is still paramount … if a product is healthy it will tend to taste good.”

Unlike a conventional dairy — where milk is pooled from many cows at many farms — it’s possible to determine which cow produced the Vitala-brand milk.

But one addition that’s not made through diet is one required by law.

All Canadian milk gets a boost of naturally-sourced vitamin A and D during the final processing stage, ensuring consistency in each bottle.

Manipulating the diets of cows follows more than 20 years work by scientists doing the same with the grain diets of birds.

Researchers at the U of A pioneered the “designer egg” concept and they keep breaking new ground today.

Not only are they refining feeds, they’re testing the best way to grow antibiotic-free broiler chickens, enriching fowl meat with omega-3, and reducing the allergenicity of eggs so more people can eat them.

“Just eating an enriched product and expecting it to save you is not enough,” notes U of A assistant professor Robert Renema, with the school’s department of agriculture, food and nutritional science.

“Some of the things we try to get more of do not make much difference if we still eat a lot of processed, fatty foods … as this can nullify the potential benefits.”

Even though enriched foods are far afield from controversial genetically modified products, not all diners see the so-called natural enhancements as good eats.

“I don’t know where the cows would get tuna oil in the wild,” chuckles Surrey, B.C.-based Richard James, 31, who has spent the last four years researching to create a documentary and website about kicking addiction to processed foods called “The Whole Food Project.”

“OK, we can experiment and try and say omega-3s are better, but if cows’ milk was supposed to have omega-3, nature would have made it that way. Cows are meant to eat grass.”

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