When we were young, we were always told to be honest and never to cheat. The phrase “Cheaters never prosper” was ingrained in us from an early age. But, as we grow older, we begin to wonder about this statement. We all know people who have cheated and were not caught and they sure seem to have prospered. This phrase also baffled me when seen in the show ring. At my local county show, the exhibitor that took all the big awards might also be known as one of the greatest “cheaters” in the history of dairy cattle showing. So how can we say that cheaters never prosper?
I have come to the realization in life that you can tell the true measure of a person by what they do when they are under the greatest pressure. Nowhere have I seen this to be truer than in the show ring. As the stakes and intensity of the competition get higher, for some, their ethics begin to deteriorate. Now there are those that say, as long as you don’t get caught, it’s ok. But I wonder if some of the exhibitors who test these limits think about the bigger picture that is being created, whenever their ethics are being tested?
Media Headlines – Killers to our industry
Recently a headline from the Indiana State Fair, “Drugged animals disqualified, kids punished at Indiana State Fair” not only caught the attention of exhibiters but also the general public. Those consumers buy our milk and we are dependent on their good will. Dozens of Indiana State Fair contestants have been disciplined in the past four years, after their show animals tested positive for drugs. Most of those disqualified were top prize winners in the sheep, cattle and swine competitions. They earned an automatic disqualification for each “doped” animal and harsh penalties for the children who raised them. In some livestock categories, the drug problem among top contestants is considered epidemic – but, usually, it all happens away from the crowds and cameras and it’s not detected until long after each fair is over.
The Indiana State Fair started testing show animals for banned substances and illegal drugs in 1992 – and the program was strengthened a few years later in response to a cheating scandal discovered nearby. After the 1994 Ohio State Fair, meat inspectors found that the Grand Champion and Reserve Grand Champion steers were tainted with banned substances. One of the animals was injected full of vegetable oil to make its muscles appear larger (a violation of federal pure food laws),and the other tested positive for an illegal drug that makes animals gain muscle instead of fat.
Last year they detected two unapproved drugs in last year’s group of winning sheep. The first is Zilpaterol (brand name Zilmax), a common feed additive that builds muscle mass in cattle but is not approved for use in sheep. The second is methylprednisolone, also known as Depo-Medrol that can be used to treat pain associated with arthritis, tendinitis and other musculoskeletal conditions in horses and dogs. It is not approved for use in lambs, where some competitors inject it under the skin to help hide and reduce wrinkles when sheep are sheared for competition. “Depo-Medrol to a sheep is like Botox to a supermodel,” explained an Indiana sheep breeder. “To a judge, the smoother the hide, the better,” he said.
When it comes to positive drug tests at the Indiana State Fair, sheep are not the only animals affected. In 2013, the fair disqualified five champion beef and dairy cows for failed drug tests, and in recent years, multiple swine have tested positive too. Fair records show 42 animals were disqualified due to drug residues detected since 2011. That represents approximately 3.7% of all the animals tested during that time – a small percentage, but still a significant concern. The problem is not unique to Indiana. Information from state fairs and livestock expositions across the US, such as Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Nebraska, Texas, Missouri, Utah and Louisiana all say they too, like Indiana, disqualified recent winners for failed drug tests.
It’s Not Just a Dairy Issue
The problem stems from the fact that anytime you have competition, you are going to have those people that will do whatever it takes to win. Just like Tom Brady and the New England Patriots and the “Deflate Gate” scandal, or steroids in baseball, you are going to have those who push the envelope. Moreover, there will be those that step over the line. But where is that line. Is it just when you get caught?
There is no question that when they do get caught and it makes national headlines it’s very detrimental not only to the show ring but also to the industry as a whole. While the animals exhibited at shows only represent a very small portion of the industry, the effect this publicity can have enormous impact on the industry as a whole. As an industry, we cannot afford to risk the public perception of the food we produce.
That is why the Indiana State Fair and 4-H spend about $16,000 each year to test for drug residues in livestock entries at the state fairgrounds, and why they’ve implemented strict guidelines and harsh penalties for violators.
At major dairy shows across North America, there are ultrasounds and other rule enforcement methods that are trying to protect, not only the equality and ethics of the competition, but also the industry as a whole. It’s our job as an industry to not only keep a fair playing field for all but also to protect the food chain and the public perception of our industry. But even severe penalties – losing significant prize money and being banned from future competitions – have failed to eliminate cheating from our industry. Maybe the unwritten code among exhibitors is no longer enough? (Read more “The Code: The Unwritten Rules of Dairy Cattle Show Ethics”) There are many exhibitors over recent years that have not been able to exhibit at some major shows because they are banned from those shows due to ethics violations. Sure they may not make the media headlines for these actions, but young people see these people win, and yet they never realize that they have been caught cheating and are now paying the price. Instead, they think that these cheaters are hero’s and seen as “winners” something they also aspire to be.
The Bullvine Bottom Line
Anytime you have intense competition, there are going to be those who want to push the limits. Add to that the financial considerations and the pressure to perform increases that much more. When you’re dealing with the potential to make six figures, and you’re dealing with that much pride and competition, some exhibitors will step out a little too far. I think the ones that do step over this line are forgetting that even if they don’t get caught and make the headlines, or even if they don’t have children of their own, they are affecting others. There are young people watching them and those who are raising children. You want to teach them the right values and you want to make sure they do things the right way. Most may never end up in the dairy industry, let alone showing cattle, but the values you are teaching them at this young age, are they values they will have for the rest of their lives. We need to remember why we all love this industry and show cows in the first place. (Read more “For Love of the Ring!”) Competition breeds jealousy in any business. We have very gifted people in the industry, but sometimes the competition does drive some to go too far and,when that happens, it does give a black eye to the industry and has long lasting effects on our youth. There is no room for cheating. I hope more attention on this issue will bring more awareness, more education and more confidence to our food supply. Without excuses. Without exceptions. Cheating must be stopped!