You are what you eat?
New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman joins the conversation on “pink slime,” a chemically infused product of processed meat, and the deeper issues with the “slime” that go beyond just being unappetizing.
April 9, 2012, 3:55 PM
I was a guest on “Up w/Chris Hayes” Saturday, talking, it seemed, about everything: a bit of an ambitious agenda. When I go back, the conversation will continue.
Meanwhile, since the initial topic was “pink slime,” about which I wrote last week, I used my pre-air time in the studio to outline the issues I thought were worth mentioning. We didn’t get to a tenth of this, so I thought it worth posting.
(I was taught never to apologize for a story submission, but these are close to stream-of-consciousness. But hey: that’s why god invented blogging.)
Perhaps you’ll find some things of interest:
1. Democracy. Are we entitled to know what goes in our food? The answer’s easy, but Big Food thinks it’s “no.” It’s not just ammonia in beef, it’s arsenic and antibiotics – banned antibiotics at that, and Prozac and all kinds of drugs – in chicken and pork. It’s growth hormones in milk, it’s genetically engineered ingredients in just about everything. And we’re told about none of this unless some concerned and often courageous citizen or journalist starts making noise about it.
That’s what’s been encouraging about this pink slime business (and that’s what’s encouraging about ag-gag laws) – how hard it’s being fought. Not that we’re going to get rid of it, not because it’s a major issue in the great scheme of things — it matters, of course, but there are many other, greater problems — but that public pressure is causing changes, like improved labeling. (Almost everyone polled wants to know whether there are genetically engineered products in their foods, and whether ultimately that’s important or not doesn’t really matter, if it’s something everyone wants.) Public pressure can also reduce our reliance on factory farms and industrial agriculture in general, public pressure can make our food supply safer and better, and in turn make us a healthier country.
That’s why the pink slime campaign is important: it’s a victory for public pressure over corporate power and therefore one for democracy. Note, too, that this happened nationally, which shows once again that noisemaking and protests are good for more than local issues.
2. Why is this happening in the first place? Pink slime and E.coli/salmonella; the chicken arsenic and inspection issues about which Nick Kristof wrote last week, cuts in funding at the U.S.D.A., F.D.A., E.P.A., and so on … what we’re seeing are budget cuts as a form of deregulation, and that deregulation is geared toward allowing producers to raise the animals in our food supply any damn way they please, in the most profitable way possible.
As anyone who’s been following these issues knows, cattle are meant to eat grass, not grain. Yet most cattle are fed grain, almost exclusively, and grain messes with their digestive systems. Those cows’ messed-up stomachs become breeding grounds for E.coli — which can cause kidney failure and death — and salmonella, which is rarely deadly but can be extremely unpleasant. (You know how when you have the flu you want to die? Like that.) To combat this, producers must use boatloads of antibiotics — 80 percent of all antibiotics used in this country are given to animals, and the vast majority of those are given prophylactically — and resort to techniques like treating meat with ammonia or (perhaps a shade less distastefully) irradiation.
You might argue that these are public health measures, and in a perverse way they are — they’re making an unsafe product less so — but why do we need them in the first place? Because our production methods create problems. And Big Food, which finds these methods enormously profitable, wants us to deal with the symptoms of the problems (wash tainted meat in ammonia) rather than the problems themselves (raise healthy cattle). To defund programs that attempt to bring those production methods — the real problem — under control, to make them safer, better and healthier, is the equivalent of defunding sewage systems because we’re able to wash down our streets with ammonia. If you get my drift. It ain’t pretty.
3. The jobs issue: I am really annoyed about the “this costs jobs” nonsense, which is simply a line Republicans dredge up when they don’t like something. They’re not complaining about Apple doing all its manufacturing in China, and they don’t make noise when auto workers are laid off, and they certainlydon’t care when budget cuts reduce the number of ag inspectors or administrators in the SNAP program. They only kvetch about job losses when it suits them politically.
We need to push Democrats to have more spine to support intelligent measures even if they “cost jobs.” The extreme example is tobacco: I’m sorry if tobacco farmers can’t sell their crop, but their crop breeds death; I’ll be sorry, too, when Americans stop eating so much meat and people in that industry start losing jobs. I’d be sorry for people on the automatic weapons assembly line if gun control ever develops any teeth. (I’ll be sorry for the unemployed grief counselors, too.)
But if a product means death for you or your neighbor or the environment, we simply shouldn’t be producing it. If people lose their jobs as a result, I’m sympathetic, but we can’t be supporting a process that poisons our citizenry. The extreme example would be to complain about health care workers losing their jobs if we were to eat less industrially processed food and get healthier as a result. If the only way to keep unemployment “down” is to employ people creating deadly products or dealing with their consequences, maybe that’s worth looking at.
If you want to create jobs in the food supply, let’s have real farmers raise real animals, and let’s double the number of inspectors, so we can create jobs that protect people, not jobs that kill them. Sheesh.
4. Finally, a word about Michael Taylor, the so-called food safety czar who is a former Monsanto lobbyist. At the moment we have little room for hope that the food system will be fundamentally changed, but it’s not precisely Taylor’s fault. The changes we need to see are not forthcoming because a) they’re not priorities for the Obama administration and b) even if they were, the administration would be fought to death on them.
I do want to remind everyone, however, that candidate Obama thought G.M.O. labeling was a great idea; President Obama, evidently, doesn’t care so much. Yet a million people signed a petition asking the F.D.A. to mandate labeling of G.M.O. foods and in polls, something like 80 or 90 percent of Americans want that to happen. The fact that it hasn’t happened is not Taylor’s fault, but because Monsanto still has a disproportionate amount of influence, which it would no matter who was in charge of this stuff. Margaret Hamburg, ostensibly Taylor’s boss, is one of the good guys.
Not that I’m in favor of Taylor, and not that I think he’s going to be helpful in getting G.M.O.s labeled. But once again, he’s a symptom — not the disease.
As those who know me best will attest, I am far from crude. If anything, I tend to err the other way — with an excess of Monkish fastidiousness. It is in deference to that inclination, and on the chance you may share it, that I warn you in advance of a departure this conversation requires. I am about to use the word “snot” in a less-than-pleasant context.
I was having dinner in an airport restaurant last week, around the time nutrition news was slathered in pink slime. Two young businessmen were sharing a meal and spirited conversation at a nearby table. I was not listening in, and don’t know what their conversation was about. But I couldn’t help but notice, out of the corner of an eye, that one of them was repeatedly dipping a fork into a small plastic container of salad dressing, before spearing some portion of his salad.
That’s a good practice, by the way, because dressing on the tines of a fork imparts flavor to the salad with a lot less dressing, and many fewer calories, than if the dressing douses the salad. But the relevant consideration was something else. As he raised his fork from the container of dressing, it hung down from the tines in strands each time, looking for all the world like long strings of purple snot. Sorry — I warned you.
What WAS it? The purple was, presumably, imparted by balsamic vinegar — no problem there. But I’m sure you know as well as I that the consistency of vinegar is not remotely snot-like. What gives salad dressing the consistency of the mucopolysaccharides we do all we can to banish from our nares, sinuses, and bronchi? I don’t know.
I received a plastic cup of “balsamic vinaigrette.” It was pink, and slimy, and I ignored it. I asked for olive oil and balsamic vinegar — and made use of those. No slime, or snot, was involved.
I have been reflecting on pink slime, and purple snot, ever since, and think there are five important implications here, only one of which — and the least important — has to do with pink slime, per se.
1. Pink slime is rather yucky. As you likely know by now, this less-than-flattering but well-deserved moniker applies to lean finely textured beef, a widely-used food additive. Some of you now know that you have been eating the stuff all along, in blissful ignorance.
Whether or not pink slime is bad for health — a topic generating impassioned debate — may be moot. If people don’t like the idea of eating it, it will go away. I have an opinion about the likely health effects of pink slime, but there’s no need to go there. What I know best is that the foods best for health are generally not prone to any such adulterations.
2. Pink slime is the visible tip of an invisible iceberg. I know this from working in nutrition for 20 years. I know it, in particular, from work related to NuVal, which has required that over 100,000 foods — literally — come over the transom, with full ingredient lists on display. I had much better-than-average knowledge of the food supply before this, but looking at ingredients in 100,000 foods, I certainly have learned things I never knew I never knew!
Pink slime tells us much about the character of a modern food supply comprising hundreds of thousands of packaged foods, and a whole industry devoted to additives. Pink slime has been “outed,” so you can get it out of your diet. But how many other variations on the theme of pink slime might there be? What IS that purple snot salad dressing, anyway? How many food components have yet to be outed, and thus are still finding their way into you — and your family — as a matter of routine? Food for thought.
3. Beware the post-apocalyptic Twinkie. Jokes abound that little other than cockroaches and Twinkies will survive the apocalypse. But this is only funny up to a point. Many studies show that higher intakes of pure foods — mostly plants — enhance the length and quality of life; while diets of mostly processed foods generally mean less years of life, less life in years. In other words, if it lengthens the shelf-life of foods, there is a good chance it shortens the shelf-life of people eating those foods! When the “people” in question are, for instance, your kids, suddenly it’s not at all funny. What we eat matters!
4. If you want to know what ISN’T in your food, you only need to know what is! OK, so you didn’t know about pink slime before last week, and you don’t know what makes purple snot either. And neither of us knows how many other things there might be in our food that we don’t really want to eat. But we don’t have to. The immune system doesn’t know every pathogen in the universe — it just knows “self,” and what belongs in the body. But knowing what belongs on the reservation, it can do a pretty good job of keeping everything else off. We can do the same — by eating foods with ingredients we know, recognize, can situate in some part of the plant or animal kingdom, and can pronounce. Don’t assume that what you don’t know about food can’t hurt you. There is some evidence to suggest that in some instances, it has been engineered to do exactly that. Or at least to make sure… that you can’t eat just one.
5. Demand — or lack thereof — trumps supply! The major supplier of pink slime to the food industry is filing for bankruptcy. This did not require any legislation — just widespread consumer outrage. If you won’t buy it, they can’t sell it. Of course, I feel badly for any factory workers losing jobs over this — they are the innocent, collateral damage in the war for food integrity. But the real message here is that the food supply is not some inviolate, immutable thing. When the food demand changes, the food supply changes! We have real power, folks, so let’s use it. If every loving parent and grandparent in the nation took a real interest in, acquired a working knowledge of, and made purchases in accord with what’s in our food — the food supply would get better in a big hurry.
Pink slime happens to have been outed. But what other things that you never knew you never knew were in your food are still finding their way into you, and your kids? “You are what you eat,” combined with either pink slime or purple snot, make a rather unappetizing recipe.
So let’s know what we eat, and eat what we know. The most important thing this tale reveals is that when we do so, we’re in charge!
For more by David Katz, M.D., click here.
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