October 6, 2011
I’m somewhat shocked and appalled that human behavior allows for recurring blog posts on criminal behavior involving food. Not that I’m one to complain about my muse. The month of September alone was rife with new shenanigans, and a couple of convictions, from society’s dark underbelly.
September, 2011. Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The raw food movement?
On the afternoon of Monday, September 12, Wal-Mart security officers saw a man opening packages of raw hamburger and stew beef and eating some of the contents before putting the items back on the shelf. Police were contacted and arrested Scott Shover, 53, at taser point and charged him with felony theft. While only about $25 worth of meat was involved in this particular incident, Shover received the felony charge as this was his fifth retail theft offense.
September, 2011. Mount Prospect, Illinois. A Late Night Snack.
When most people get hungry in the middle of the night, they make a beeline for the kitchen. Hachem Gomez, 19, preferred to make a 3:00 a.m. trip out to Mr. Beef and Pizza. No matter that the restaurant was closed and the drive-through window was barred: Gomez broke through the security grating to gain access to the kitchen, where he began to prepare himself chicken tenders and fries in the microwave. Officers arrived on the scene at 3:30, and when asked if he worked there, Gomez simply said no and that he was just hungry. He was arrested and charged with burglary.
August, 2011. Denver, Colorado. Bring out your dead.
In the 1989 movie comedy Weekend at Bernie’s, two men, promised a ritzy weekend at their boss’ weekend home, arrive to find their boss dead, but decide to tote the corpse around so that they can enjoy the few days of luxury they felt entitled to. According to police reports, on the evening of August 27, Robert Young, 43, arrived at the home of Jeffrey Jarrett, only to find the man unresponsive. In lieu of calling 911, Young, along with friend Mark Rubinson, 25, piled the corpse into a car and went to Teddy T’s Bar and Grill. Jarrett was left in the car while the other two enjoyed libations charged to his card. Next stop was Sam’s No. 3, a diner, before they returned Jarret’s corpse to his house. Young and Rubinson next made a pit stop at a strip club, using Jarrett’s ATM card to withdraw $400, and before the night was over, they flagged down a police officer notifying him that they suspected their buddy was dead in his home. The pair was later arrested, and while they are not suspected of causing Jarrett’s death, they stand charged with abusing a corpse, identity theft and criminal impersonation. Both men were released on bail. Young has an arraignment date set for October 6. Rubinson has since been arrested again for drunk driving. He also happened to be driving in a stolen vehicle, but whether he was the one who snatched it has yet to be determined.
September, 2010. Denver, Colorado. Playing chicken.
To some, like The New York Times, raw chicken evokes l’amour in a big way. But 58-year-old lobbyist Ronald Smith was feeling less than amorous when he placed raw chicken in the heating ducts of his ex-wife’s home. (Other non-food-related acts of vandalism included wiping the hard drive of her computer, pouring bleach on her grand piano and marring her hardwood floors with mountain bike cleats.) Michelle Young, the former Mrs. Smith, discovered the damage on returning from a California vacation. It was allegedly the culmination of months of harassment, and while prosecutors could not produce eyewitnesses to definitively place Smith at the scene, they were, however, able to illustrate that the blue duct tape used to package the chicken pieces matched the roll of duct tape found in Smith’s home. Jurors deliberated for about six hours before arriving at their decision. Smith was convicted in September 2011 of second degree burglary and criminal mischief and is awaiting sentencing. He could face up to 18 years in prison.
January 2010. Leeds, England. A big break.
On the evening of January 30, Hussein Yusuf had been drinking at a local pub when he asked the chef, Roger Mwebiha, to cook him a meal. After repeatedly entering the kitchen asking if his food was ready yet, Mwebiha got fed up to the point where he returned Yusuf’s money. At 3:00 a.m. the following morning, Yusuf again asked the chef to prepare him some food and the two began to argue. Mwebiha went to take out the trash when he was confronted outside by Yusuf, who kicked the chef’s right shin, shattering both lower leg bones. Yusuf fled the scene while Mwebiha spent months recuperating from the injury. But about a year later, in a logic-defying move, Yusuf returned to the restaurant. The chef recognized his attacker and notified police. Yusuf, 23, admitted to the crime and was sentenced in September 2011. He is currently serving a 15-month prison term.
August 23, 2011
In the criminal justice system, those who live outside the law sometimes meet their downfall through their relationship with food. These special cases keep cropping up, and some themes even begin to emerge, be it Jell-O-centric criminal behavior or the nefarious activities of ice cream peddlers. Take your fill of a few more stories from the underbelly. (Here is the apropos sound effect if you’d like to play it as you read each entry.)
Port St. Lucie, Florida. July, 2011. A minor beef.
It was a drug deal that spun out of control. Timethy Morrison shelled out $100 for marijuana, and the dealer drove up and handed Morrison a white bag through his car window and began to drive off. Inspection of the bag’s contents, however, revealed nothing but ground beef, and Morrison promptly turned around and fired several shots at the dealer’s Volvo and fled the scene. He was later apprehended and charged with attempted murder, burglary, escape, possession of marijuana and providing a false name to a law enforcement officer.
Kittery, Maine. March 2010. “Redemption is a dirty business.”
Many states add a 5-cent deposit to the price of bottled and canned drinks—and you can get that deposit back if you return your empties a redemption facility. But in addition to the consumer getting back a bit of change, the facility is paid a handling fee on the order of a few cents for every can processed. It is illegal for facilities to process out-of-state containers, since a state’s beverage industry is paying back those deposits. But a at a few cents a pop, who would put the effort into working the system? Attention turned to Green Bee Redemption in Kittery Maine, when Dennis Reed of New Hampshire rolled up with some 11,000 empty bottles and cans. Reed, along with the facility’s owners, Thomas and Megan Woodard, were all charged with fraud. During the Woodards’ trial, it was revealed that they arranged for Reed, along with Green Bee employee Thomas Prybot of Massachusetts, to collect large quantities of cans which would then be dropped off at the Maine facility after hours. Thomas was found guilty of stealing more than $10,000 by way of processing the illegal empties while his wife was acquitted. Reed is slated to stand trial in October while Prybot was not prosecuted for his role in the crime in exchange for his testimony. It is estimated that some $8 million worth of bottle fraud takes place in Maine every year.
Holyoke, Massachusetts. August, 2010. A load of baloney.
Postal inspectors in Puerto Rico had been working with authorities to try to crack down on illegal drugs being sent via mail to the United States—and their attentions turned to Juan Rodriguez of Holyoke, Massachusetts, after several parcels were sent to his home in May and June of 2010. When the post office alerted Holyoke police about another shipment being sent to Rodriguez, narcotics dogs detected the presence of drugs and an undercover agent delivered the package. After the package was signed for, police raided the residence—and it turned out that Rodriguez had a way with b-o-l-o-g-n-a. About 2.2 pounds of cocaine, worth about $100,000 on the street, had been hidden inside a hollowed-out loaf of luncheon meat. Rodriguez was arrested and charged with cocaine trafficking.
Webster, Massachusetts. July, 2008. Get ‘em while they’re hot.
On July 27, 2008, a tractor trailer traveling on Interstate 395 was involved in an accident and overturned, spilling its contents—a shipment of live lobster—and tow-truck operator Robert Moscoffian was called to the scene. Prosecutors allege that Moscoffian also called Arnold A. Villatico, owner of Periwinkles & Giorgio’s restaurant to the scene, who drove to the site with his refrigerated truck, and the pair took crates of lobster from the scene, with an estimated value of some $200,000, and sold them to local restaurants. Some of the upscale crustaceans were returned to the authorities, and the contraband lobsters discovered at Periwinkles & Giorgio’s were released into Boston Harbor. Indicted on charges of conspiracy to commit larceny, larceny over $250 and selling raw fish without a license, Moscoffian and Villatico are currently slated to stand trial in 2012.
March 17, 2011
As delicious as the golden arches’ minty nod to St. Patrick’s Day—the Shamrock Shake—may be (or as delicious as I remember thinking it was the last time I had one, circa 1978), it’s not exactly Irish. Surprisingly, something on the McDonald’s menu is authentically Irish, and green to boot: its beef.
Not green as in artificially colored (like the shake); green as in “good for the environment.” As in grass-fed, which is the standard in Ireland, unlike in the United States and many other countries, where cows are often fattened with grain on massive feed lots. If you’ve ever been to the Emerald Isle, or even seen a picture of it, you know why: the country really is just lousy with chlorophyll. The first time I visited my Irish friend Annette, a farm girl from County Kilkenny, it was January. Just as I was thinking to myself that I’d never seen so much grass in my life, Annette said she wished I could see the country in summer, when it would really be green.
As for the other kind of green, vis-à-vis Mickey D’s and its burgers, some qualifications are in order: This grass-fed Irish beef is available only in Europe, and only in about one in five burgers. Also, opinions differ on whether even grass-fed beef production is sustainable. But most people can agree that grass-fed is at least an improvement over grain-fed—it’s leaner and its production emits less greenhouse gas. This week the worldwide chain reported that it had increased its export of Irish beef to its European outlets by 37 percent, to 110 million Euros. (Ironically, in the United States McDonald’s has taken flak for importing some of its beef from New Zealand—where grass-fed is also the norm—to supplement its domestic meat purchases.)
All of this underscores another trend in the Republic of Ireland: a renewed emphasis on farming following the collapse of the “Celtic Tiger” economy, which had transformed the country from the late 1990s to 2008. During the boom, Irish citizens who had once had to emigrate to find employment (I met Annette in 1992 in Germany, where we both found temporary work as hotel maids) could return or stay home. For the first time in recent history, mass immigration was happening in the other direction. When I last visited, in 2000, this transformation was in its early stages. The dirty old town of Dublin I remembered from my first trip was starting to sprout gleaming skyscrapers and trendy cafés.
Since the bubble burst, agriculture has been one of the few bright spots in the wounded economy. Irish agricultural exports grew almost 10 percent in 2010 over the previous year, according to The National, which also cited a government report identifying “the agrifood and fisheries sectors as the country’s most important and largest indigenous industry.” Teagasc, the Irish agriculture and food development authority, says agriculture and its associated professions account for 10 percent of employment there. Some Irish workers who had abandoned or rejected farming during the 1990s construction boom have returned to the livelihood that sustained their parents and grandparents.
Blessed with abundant pasture land and little need for irrigation, Ireland is well-positioned to help satisfy growing world food demand, the government believes. The strong market in developed nations for artisanal foods is also a natural fit for Irish dairy producers. Teagasc recently reported that Ireland’s milk was rated as having the lowest (tied with Austria) carbon footprint in the European Union, and its meat had one of the lowest.
I remember my first taste of unpasteurized milk from grass-fed Irish cows on Annette’s family’s farm. The cream rose to the top of the pitcher, and even the milk below it was far creamier and more delicious than any dairy I had ever tasted. Maybe McDonald’s should try using it in its Shamrock Shakes. They already contain another ingredient associated with Ireland: carrageenan.
April 8, 2010
Have you had a chance to read the April issue of Smithsonian yet? I recommend “Breeding the Perfect Bull,” a wonderfully written feature by Jeanne Marie Laskas about a family of cattle ranchers in Texas. Judging from readers’ response, she really captured the flavor of the modern cowboy’s lifestyle, as well as explaining the scientific and practical details of breeding cattle.
There was one sentence in it that puzzled me, though: “All cows eat grass.”
I paused when I read this. It unsettled me somehow, and not just because it was the mnemonic device we learned in high school band to interpret the bass clef.
I’ve heard a lot about grass-fed beef lately, and how it’s healthier and tastier than cattle fattened in a feedlot on corn and who knows what else. But if Laskas is right—and she is; though it may be only as calves, all cows eat some grass—does the term “grass-fed” really mean anything?
I called Carrie Oliver, founder of the Artisan Beef Institute, to see if she could shed some light on this and other terms consumers might run across when buying beef. Turns out, I know next to nothing about beef—which, given my recent tale of stumbling into vegetarianism, probably doesn’t surprise you! (For the record, I’m not vegetarian anymore. But I generally don’t eat meat unless I know where, and how, it was raised.)
She dispelled my first misconception even before we spoke, with the tagline on her Web site: Psst! It’s not about the marbling! So, I asked, what is it about? What should consumers be looking for on labels?
Oliver uses the term “artisan” to describe meat from suppliers who are focused on raising flavorful food, rather than trying to produce “as much, as cheaply and as uniformly as possible,” she says. It’s more of a mindset than a strict definition.
“From a big picture perspective, the meat industry is really focused on speed, yield and uniformity,” Oliver explains. Her institute focuses on different criteria: The beef must contain no artificial growth stimulants or antibiotics, be “gently handled,” and be a breed or cross-breed that makes sense for the region where it was raised (for example, Black Angus should be crossed with something more heat-tolerant to thrive on southern ranches, she says).
Oliver compares fine beef to to fine wine, because “unique flavors and characteristics emerge from influences of the breed, growing region, diet, husbandry and aging techniques.”
That’s right, aging techniques—another thing I didn’t know about beef (I assumed the fresher, the better). Oliver explained that aging produces a more intense flavor and tender texture, depending on the process used. (This article by Brooklyn-based butcher Tom Mylan explains the difference between dry vs. wet aging.) But much of what you see in the supermarket isn’t aged at all, and she thinks that’s a shame.
Oliver agreed that the term “grass-fed” can be confusing, although the USDA has defined it, and recently issued rules for organic beef to ensure it comes from cows who are at least 30-percent grass-fed. Perhaps the more important question is not whether the cow eats grass but what else it has eaten, says Oliver, particularly because grain feed often includes preventive antibiotics, growth hormones or other additives. She asks a series of questions before buying beef: Is it grass-fed? Has it ever eaten grain? No? So, is it grass-0nly?
The smartest thing consumers can do to ensure they’re getting the best beef is to find a good butcher, Oliver says. Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done—traditional butchers are an increasingly rare breed in many parts of the industrialized world.
“But if we all start asking these questions even at the supermarket, it will start to have an effect,” she adds. “The more we ask, the more they’ll have to know. Start by asking what farm the meat comes from. If you get a blank stare, walk away.”
October 8, 2009
Everyone’s talking about food safety—or rather, the lack of it—in the American food system these days.
The New York Times published a deeply disturbing account this week of the trauma inflicted on one young woman by E. coli-tainted beef. At age 22, Stephanie Smith was left paralyzed by the simple act of eating a hamburger—a hamburger grilled by her own mother, who had no way of knowing that the frozen “American Chef’s Selection Angus Beef Patties” she had purchased for her family contained “a mix of slaughterhouse trimmings and a mash-like product derived from scraps” from as far away as Uruguay.
Such severe reactions to food poisoning may be rare, but the industry practices revealed by Smith’s story are not. A pound of commercial hamburger contains bits of meat from as many as 400 different cattle, as sustainable foods advocate Marion Nestle has written. The documentary Food, Inc. offers an even higher estimate of up to 1000 cows in a single burger. Gross!
Beef is not the only issue. The Center for Science in the Public Interest recently ranked the “10 riskiest foods” in the country, based on the number of food-borne illness outbreaks associated with all foods under FDA regulation. With leafy greens, lettuce, potatoes, tomatoes, sprouts and berries on the list, it seems that even vegetarians aren’t immune to the risk of food poisoning. Eggs, tuna, oysters, cheese and ice cream are also in the top ten. (Beef isn’t, but it’s regulated by the USDA, so wasn’t factored into this study. Actually, eggs fall partly under USDA’s purview, too. The distinctions can be confusing—maybe this will help, or at least provide a much-needed moment of levity amidst this gloomy discussion.)
“Together, these 10 foods alone account for nearly 40 percent of all food-borne illness outbreaks linked to FDA-regulated foods since 1990,” the report states, adding that because so many cases of food-borne illness go unreported, “the outbreaks included here represent only the tip of the iceberg.”
As a look at a Google News timeline will show, “food safety” has been a buzzword for at least a decade now. Unfortunately, the only thing everyone can agree on so far is that we have a problem. Some people are calling for more government involvement in monitoring and enforcing food safety; others want less; some think oversight should be consolidated. Industry groups hope that advances in food science and technology will provide the answers. Many point the blame at our globalized food system, and advocate eating local.
What do you think?