Tuesday, October 6, 2009

A Plateful of Politics: Mystery Meat

Friend or Foe?

"I want a hamburger, no a cheeseburger. I want a hotdog. I want a milkshake. I want potato sala--"
"You'll get nothing and like it!"

The Debate
Back in July, our family went to a backyard barbecue at the home of another family with children about the same age as our son. It was a beautiful evening in the high 70’s with terrific company. We had a great time despite a little dust up between me and the host.

I know that some people find having over a person known for their cooking to be intimidating. Because I enjoy being invited to parties, I try hard to counteract this by profusely complementing the host and hostess wherever appropriate and squelching any suggestion that could be perceived as even remotely critical. My favorite story of success is the time that my law school roommate cooked Easter dinner, lamb with mint jelly. Not being blessed with gifts in the kitchen or the palate, she abused this poor creature so badly, PETA should have been called. The meat was gray and badly textured. No jelly, gravy or sauce could have salvaged this meal. The first bite was a torment to the taste buds. Immediately, I pulled my napkin to my mouth in an attempt to transform my grimace to a forced smile. Each bite was agony. I got through about half, begging off the remainder claiming it to be too rich. I couldn’t imagine that my performance had been believable until a few weeks later when she offered to make “her famous lamb” again for a Sunday dinner because I had enjoyed it so much. I found another commitment for that Sunday and every Sunday thereafter.

Fortunately, I’ve never had another experience to match that and the meals that I’ve enjoyed at the homes of my friends have been almost routinely excellent. The Sunday barbecue was no exception. That was not the source of dispute. Instead, it involved the proper temperature of ground beef.

As I enjoyed a lovely glass of rose on the deck, the host began to place burgers on the grill. Intentionally, I ignored the discussion being had between the host and another friend as best as I can until I heard:

“Let’s ask the chef. Melissa, what temperature should we cook these to?”

Taking a deep breath as I suspected where this would lead, I responded:

“It depends on where you got the meat.”

Unfortunately, having seen the cello wrapped, styro bottomed meat package inside, I already knew that this was corn-fed, feed lot beef from one of the major grocery chains.

“Dominicks, I think.”

My face unconsciously moved sideways into a grimace as I spoke slowly.

“In that case, 165º F.”

“165º F. Isn’t that well-done?” the host asked quizzically and accusingly at the same time like how could I as a food-lover commit such meat abuse. “Do you eat your burgers like that?”

Deep breath, “Well no, but I buy different meat.”

“Different meat, you mean sirloin?”

“No, we get it from a local farm.”

Thankfully, my husband at this point sees what’s happening and intervenes diffusing the situation with some deferential humor about me being a food snob. I didn’t care at that point. Given that we really like the host and hostess, I just wanted the awkwardness to dissipate, which it did, particularly after my husband took one for the team and ate the burger in question.

Diffusing Be Damned
After reading this Sunday’s New York Times front page article, Woman’s Shattered Life Shows Ground Beef Inspection Flaws, diffusing be damned. The article highlights the perils of eating ground beef produced by the agri-giants while telling the tragic story of a woman paralyzed as a result of her reaction to the virulent strain of E. coli know as O157:H7. The author writes:

“Ms. Smith’s reaction to the virulent strain of E. coli was extreme, but tracing the story of her burger through interviews and government corporate records obtained by The New York Times, shows why eating ground beef is still a gamble. Neither the system meant to make the meat safe, nor the meat itself, is what consumers have been led to believe.”

The article is horrifying, hair-raising and yet entirely unsurprising. The offending burger was made by the food giant Cargill, one of the four multi-national companies that collectively control over 80% of U.S. beef processing. The article details all the breakdowns in food safety, from cutting corners in testing to the demand for speed on the cutting floor, which leads to a higher probability of contamination. The author concludes that there is potential for contamination in every step of the process. The meat that made up the offending burger came from locales as far flung as Nebraska, Texas and Uruguay. That’s what I call mystery meat.

The Real Mystery
But to me the real mystery is how many smart, affluent parents turn a blind eye to these concerns, effectively playing Russian roulette with their personal health and that of their children. Some of the same parents think nothing of spending thousands of dollars on schooling, extra-curricular activities even baby-proofing to keep their children healthy, happy and safe.

Are the Cargills, Swifts and Smithfields soley responsible for the decline in quality of our meat? No. The American consumer must also shoulder some of that blame with its seemingly endless appetite for cheap beef and its disinclination to think about the consequences. While I’d never relieve these monster corporations from reaping the reprobation that the seeds of their greed have sown, we as Americans need to face up to the true costs that cheap food has exacted upon our communities and our health. We can no longer afford to overlook the oversights and infractions of the meat industry. We need to demand better quality product, better safety precautions and more testing. If we don’t, we get the food system that we deserve. But if we do, the ripple effect would be enormous. Businesses listen to consumers and we need to make a statement with our wallets and our forks.

A Teachable Moment
After feathers were smoothed that July evening, cooler heads prevailed and a healthy discussion ensued. Another guest legitimately suggested that the location of the meat source didn’t guarantee its safety. That’s absolutely correct. Iowa’s right next door, but a ton of the beef raised there is on feed lots. The question is not just whether the meat is local, but is it sustainably raised?

The vast majority of the meat that my family eats at home comes from a small family owned farm, Cedar Valley Sustainable Farm, which is located in Ottawa, Illinois. We purchase a six month share and costs about $1,000 a year. We get a few chickens, some ground beef, excellently made sausages, eggs, chops, roasts and a dozen or so eggs. Now, this may not satisfy the American carnivore, with our flexitarian tendencies, it’s more than sufficient. The farm’s owners, Jody and Beth Osmund, raise Angus beef, chicken and Hampshire-Duroc hogs. All are allowed to graze regularly on pasture and their diets are supplemented with locally-grown grains.

In terms of food safety, local, sustainably raised and grass fed beef is far superior to the feed-lot product that you see at the grocery store. The risk of E. coli contamination substantially lessens when the cattle are fed a grass-based diet. Grain-fed cattle develop abnormally high stomach acidity, which allows for the development of the acid-resistant E. coli. The grass-fed cattle’s healthy stomach acidity will generally kill the E coli. Cedar Valley’s Angus beef is grain-finished, meaning that after they’ve grazed for a period, they fatten on locally grown hay and grains in small groups. It isn’t perfect, but it’s far better than the feed lots where cattle are fed corn for their entire existence in pens with little room to even turn around. Cedar Valley sells its Milk and Meadow beef by the cow, half cow and quarter cow. As the name implies, the cattle is fed only milk and grass. If you’ve got room in your freezer, I think this would be a great deal.

Grass fed cattle pose less risk at the slaughterhouse as well. According to www.eatwild.com:

“E. coli contamination takes place in the slaughterhouse when manure from an animal comes in contact with meat. The less manure on an animal when it enters the slaughter house, the less likely the meat will become contaminated. It is difficult to remove all the fecal contamination from feedlot cattle because they stand all day long in dirt and manure.”

Cedar Valley’s beef and pork travels about an hour to be processed and frozen at Bittner’s Eureka Locker, founded in 1941, which with the help of The Land Connection
became the first certified organic meat processing facility in 2005.

When we supplement our meat share, we do so at the farmers’ market. Vendors such as Heartland Meats, Mint Creek, TJ’s Poultry all sell a superior product that I feel comfortable feeding to my little locavore. I feel strongly that if we as parents open our eyes to what’s happening in the meat industry and make a statement against it with their buying power, we’ll finally see the real sea change that we need.

For more information about the issues raised in this post, visit The Sustainable Table. In their issues section they have an excellent print-out on Slaughterhouses and Processing and one on Food Safety. Also, Tom Philpott of Grist.org is a relentless reporter on food safety issues. Follow him on Twitter @tomphilpott. To find grass-fed products in your neck of the woods, visit www.eatwild.com.

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