Thursday, March 15, 2012

You Can't Do That On Television

Unless you’ve been living under a rock or don’t have kids, you’ve probably heard about the “pink slime.” If not, “pink slime,” dubbed by former United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) scientists and whistleblowers Carl S. Custer and Gerald Zirnstein[1], is the scrapings of beef scraps, connective tissue and other fatty beef trimmings off the slaughterhouse floor (read: stuff that no one else will eat), ground to a gelatinous pulp, centrifuged to remove excess fat, and then treated with a “puff of ammonium hydroxide” to kill food pathogens, such as E. coli and salmonella.[2] According to Zirnstein, 70 percent of supermarket ground beef is BLBT.[3] But why can’t we see it? Because it’s often mixed in with “real” beef as filler and there are NO USDA regulations for labeling it as anything other than “100% beef.”
School kids get the delightful mixture of BLBT as well. In 2009, the USDA school lunch program bought 5.5 million pounds of the stuff. This year, the USDA was slated to buy 7 million pounds for school kitchens across the country.
            Beef Products, Inc. (BPI),[4] the sole manufacturer of this tasty concoction, calls it “Boneless Lean Beef Trimmings,” (BLBT) and claims it’s perfectly safe to eat.
            Well, surprise, surprise, beyond absolutely disgusting, the “beef” is not safe. Even without testing, the method in BLBT is made could leave you with the heebie-jeebies. BLBT is made with trimmings that have the most contact with outermost parts of the cow – the same parts that are smeared with cow manure.[5] According to the New York Time’s article on BLBT, between 2005-2009, BLBT was four times more likely to contain salmonella. Cargill, the food behemoth with a checkered food safety history, stopped using BLBT because of salmonella contamination. Even McDonald’s, Taco Bell and Burger King stopped using the “beef” as filler for their products last year.[6]  In spite of this and other reported E. coli and salmonella outbreaks, USDA still deemed the stuff safe to eat.
But can you avoid it? Yes, if you grind your own meat or avoid beef all together. What about your kids? Pack them their own lunch.
But today, after 228,000 (and counting) people signed a petition to get BLBT out of school lunches and much bad publicity, the USDA announced that school districts would be able to opt out of buying BLBT meat for school lunches.[7]
 But this doesn’t solve the problem. The larger problem lies in something else: money.
The real losers in the pink slime fight are the poor. While everyone has zeroed in on the safety issue of pink slime (and rightfully so), the safety issues are really the byproduct of ruthless penny-pinching and corporate lobbying.  The only reason why BLBT even exists is because of the lobby efforts to promote it as “beef.”[8] The reason why the USDA contracted BPI for the meat in 2000, in spite of the misgivings of the Agricultural Marketing Service (the USDA division that buys food for school lunch programs), was so they could save about $.03 (!) per pound of meat…at a total saving of about $1 million dollars a year[9], versus buying regular trimmings.[10]
According to the USDA’s own numbers, 31.6 million children receive low cost or free lunches. Even though school districts might have a choice in buying no-filler beef, the likelihood that poorer school districts can afford the cost differential for better quality beef is little to none. These are the kids who have NO choice as to the quality of food they receive. And for some, school lunches may be the only meal they get all day. Has the school lunch system gotten so bad that the USDA is willing to sell out their health for 3 fucking pennies?!
And this is the crux of the problem. The quality of children’s nutrition and food is the most important factor in the School Lunch Program – not cost. What kind of lessons are we teaching our children when we say that food comes from a centrifuge and an ammonia aerator? And worst of all, is the USDA contributing to a society of have and have not’s in which the poor only receive the dregs of food only fit for dogs, under the excuse of the bottom line?
            While many of us can be grateful for increased awareness regarding our food system, we must remember that many do NOT have those resources. If there’s any lesson to be gleaned from this scandal is that money talks – and often talks over those who have none. Civil society is the first step in making sure moneyed interests don’t win over those of social justice. Get angry...and then do something.

NB: If you want to sign up for petition to get BLBT out of school lunches, please go here:

Ground Beef
For those of you who want to be sure what’s in your ground beef, there’s a really easy way to do this: grind your own.  While you can choose any cut you like for grinding, I think it’s helpful to think what you will be using the beef for before your grind. For example, for burgers I prefer chuck and a bit of sirloin for a meaty, but not too fatty burger. Others, namely Pat LaFrieda (the meat purveyor to Minetta Tavern and other top New York restaurants), use a combination of chuck, short rib and brisket. For other recipes, such as Bolognese, plain chuck is going to be fine, since it will be cooked down with other meats and tomato. But for grinding your meat, you can use an old-fashioned meat grinder (I have one and love it) or do it in a food processor. If you choose to do it in a food processor, there are a couple of things to keep in mind.
1.     Cut the meat into 1-inch cubes before your process. The processor can’t handle giant chunks of beef. Cutting it beforehand will make easier to process.
2.     Don’t put more than a pound of meat at a time. Your processor will get overworked and even worse, you will have unevenly chopped meat.
3.     Pulse, pulse, pulse. Process the meat in steps and there won’t be any temptation to over-process it into meat slime…kind of like the stuff above. This is especially important for burgers – over-processed meat will not pack nicely or cook properly.
If you are the type of person that doesn’t want to drag out the machines every single time you need ground beef, just do it all at once and freeze in portions. And yes, this method also works for pork, veal, and lamb. You’ll never go back to mystery meat again.

[1] This comes from Michael Moss’ Pulitzer Prize winning article in the New York Times:
[2] Yes, this is the same ammonia, NH3, which is in bleach and other fine cleansing products.
[4] The euphemism “products” for what this company is selling is pretty laughable.
[5] Quick science note: E. coli is occurs naturally in digestive systems of warm-blooded animals, including humans. While most strains of E. coli are harmless (and are good for your digestive system), there are known strains that cause food poisoning, including E. Coli O157:H7, E. Coli O121:H19, etc. In the case of beef, E. Coli O157:H7 are often present in the intestinal tracts of beef cattle. The transference of E. Coli to beef is often a result of poor food processing, animal husbandry, and/or slaughtering practices. Granted, anything food is susceptible to E. coli poisoning, but due to its natural occurrence in cattle, beef is the most suspect in E. coli outbreaks.
            Salmonella is a different story. Although it too is naturally occurring, it is primarily pathogenic, and it also resides inside intestinal systems of mammals and birds. Once again, spread through fecal matter, good animal husbandry and slaughtering practices will often cut transmission rates from animal to food. But it’s not foolproof. Thus for both salmonella and E. coli, regular testing at all food contact sites (farm to processor to retail, etc.) is critical to catch cases before the spread. Also, proper food handling (keeping food refrigerated, washing hands, cooking food thoroughly) will also cut transmission rates.
[6] This, of course, begs the question of what the hell was fast food doing placing this crap in the burgers in the first place?
[8] In a 2002 email message, Gerald Zirnstein, the USDA whistleblower mentioned above, wrote: “I do not consider the stuff to be ground beef, and I consider allowing it in ground beef to be a form of fraudulent labeling.”
[9] One million dollars seems like a lot of money, but compared to, uh, military spending…like the C-17 fighter, which even Senator John McCain has admitted was useless, at a cost of $250,000,000 per plane, maybe we should be spending our money a little more wisely…
[10] Yes, once again, why are we using these trimmings to begin with?
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