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?
May 29, 2009
The other day, the Los Angeles Times did a story on the increasing number of ranchers and farmers raising miniature cattle to cut costs and produce meat and milk more efficiently.
These cows average 500 to 700 pounds, about half the weight of their full-figured counterparts, but they are not genetically engineered freaks. Rather, the article says, they are drawn from the original smaller breeds brought to the United States in the 1800s. Today’s bovine behemoths were bred in the 1950s and ’60s, when farmers were more concerned with getting more meat than using feed and grasslands efficiently.
It sounds sensible. The animals eat less in proportion to the amount of meat and milk they produce, so they give the farmers more bang for their buck. And because they require less land for grazing and producing feed (and, as a farmer in the article notes, produce less methane), they might also be kinder to the environment. According to a 2006 report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, “the livestock sector generates more greenhouse gas emissions as measured in CO2 equivalent—18 percent—than transport. It is also a major source of land and water degradation.”
But, I wonder, are these tiny Herefords and Anguses too adorable to eat? I’m probably not the best person to ask, since I haven’t had a bite of beef since 1987—like my co-blogger Amanda, I turned vegetarian in my teens, though I have gradually, and selectively, added some meat back into my diet. The reasons I avoid beef are many, but I’m sure cuteness factors into it. I feel a lot less guilt about eating a cod than a furry animal with big, sad eyes. And the only thing cuter than a big, furry animal is a wee version of a big, furry animal.
People like me are the reason People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals launched its recent campaign to rename fish as “sea kittens.” I must admit, it hasn’t worked on me yet, and I’m pretty much their target audience. Surely, they’ll have an even tougher time convincing the kind of people the fast-food chain Jack in the Box was going after with its commercial for mini sirloin burgers, which features “cows the size of schnauzers.”
May 22, 2009
Until I became a food blogger, I never noticed how many people write books dedicated to a single item of food or drink. New releases in the past year have focused on the history of the bagel, the doughnut, the potato, pizza, milk, orange juice, and chocolate, to name just a few. (Note to self: Look in fridge for book idea.)
So when a copy of Josh Ozersky’s The Hamburger arrived in the mail a few weeks ago, I admit, I didn’t exactly rush to read it. I finally dragged it out in the gym, of all places, hoping to distract myself from the tedium of the exercise bike. (Note to self: Fellow gym-goers glare at books with tantalizing food photos on cover. Remove dust jacket next time.)
Considering that I haven’t eaten a non-vegetarian hamburger in about 15 years, I found this book surprisingly interesting. It’s really a cultural history of America in the 20th century as much as it is a book about what Ozersky effusively describes as “sizzling discs of goodness,” and a “robust, succulent spheroid,” and, I’m not kidding here, “as artfully self-contained as a Homeric hexameter.” (Note to self: “Spheroid” is not an appetizing word.)
More seriously, he calls hamburgers “the most mobile, satisfying, and efficient sandwich ever devised,” and eventually, “the most powerful food object in the industrialized world.”
He writes about White Castle, McDonald’s, the birth of franchises, brand identities and standardized food production, and how these things tied into Americans’ ideas about themselves.
In honor of Memorial Day weekend, when many Americans fire up the backyard grill, here’s a VERY alternative hamburger recipe which Ozersky dug up in a 1763 edition of The Art of Cookery, Plain and Simple (actually, it’s a recipe for “Hamburg sausage,” which he calls a “proto-hamburger ancestor”):
Take a pound of Beef, mince it very small, with half a Pound of the best Suet; then mix three-quarters of a Pound of Suet cut in large Pieces; then Season it with Pepper, Cloves, Nutmeg, a great Quantity of Garlic cut small, some white Wine Vinegar, some Bay Salt, a Glass of red wine, and one of Rum; mix all these very well together, then take the largest Gut you can find, stuff it very tight; then hang it up a Chimney, and smoke it with Saw-Dust for a Week or ten Days; hang them in the Air, till they are dry, and they will keep a Year. They are very good boiled in Peas Porridge, and roasted with toasted Bread under it, or in an Amlet.*
Mmm…hungry yet? I think I’ll skip the suet and stick with quinoa or veggie burgers, thanks.
*Not sure what this word means, maybe an alternate spelling of omelette?
April 22, 2009
Bittman’s thesis is simple but sobering: What you choose to put on your plate has a direct impact on the environment, especially in terms of global warming. Especially if that something is beef, raised on a factory farm.
To produce one calorie of corn takes 2.2 calories of fossil fuel…but if you process that corn, and feed it to a steer, and take into account all the other needs that steer has through its lifetime—land use, chemical fertilizers (largely petroleum-based), pesticides, machinery, transport, drugs, water and so on—you’re responsible for 40 calories of energy to get that same calories of protein.
Still don’t get it? He puts it more bluntly:
Eating a typical family-of-four steak dinner is the rough equivalent, energy-wise, of driving around in an SUV for three hours while leaving all the lights on at home.
Calm down, carnivores! Bittman’s not saying you have to become a vegetarian, and neither am I. He’s simply pointing out that Americans eat far more meat than we need from a nutritional standpoint. Both our bodies and our planet would be a lot healthier if we would cut back even occasionally on our beloved burgers and buckets of fried chicken. Or, as Michael Pollan famously wrote: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
Bittman’s personal approach to eating more consciously, he says, is to consume about one-third as much meat, dairy and fish as he used to. Refined carbohydrates, fast food, or junk food are only occasional indulgences, with the exception of pasta, which he still eats regularly. It’s been a big change, but a “nearly painless” one, he says, and has brought down his weight, blood sugar and cholesterol. And interestingly, his appetite and food preferences have adjusted to match his new habits. While some diets grow tiresome in the long run, this one feels more natural with time.
As someone who made a similar shift about 10 years ago, I heartily agree. It’s been so long since I considered McDonalds or Burger King as vendors of actual food that it doesn’t even occur to me to stop there when I’m hungry; they might as well be selling office supplies. I don’t have to force myself to eat vegetables—I crave them. (On a trip to Germany, after days of dining mostly at tourist cafes whose idea of a “salad” was a few scraps of cabbage slathered in mayonnaise, I literally dreamed about broccoli at night!)
On the other hand, I’m far from perfect. I still eat some processed foods, and several of the soy-based products in my fridge and freezer come from industrial-scale farms too many miles away. I don’t have a garden (although this year I’ve invested in a CSA half-share which will supply me with a weekly bounty of locally grown, organic fruits and vegetables). And I’m not giving up coffee, wine, cheese, or chocolate, even though I don’t technically “need” any of them in my diet. But I will be more thoughtful about the sources I support with my food dollars, both at the grocery store and in restaurants.
That’s Bittman’s point: Eat sanely. Eat consciously. And enjoy.
March 24, 2009
Let me start with a disclaimer: I’m not exactly an unbiased reporter on this subject.
I became a vegetarian when I was 16. Although I’ve morphed into more of a “flexitarian” (eating fish or poultry occasionally) in recent years, I basically never eat red meat. On the other hand, at a catered dinner last month I got my first-ever taste of filet mignon and was blown away by how good it was. It made me wonder if I should start eating beef again.
Now, reading my morning paper, I feel a renewed sense of commitment to those chickpeas in the cupboard. A new study in the Archives of Internal Medicine finds that routinely eating as little as four ounces of red meat (a small hamburger’s worth) each day appears to raise people’s risk of death mortality rate by 30 percent or more! Processed meats such as cold cuts, hot dogs and sausage are also risk-raisers, while poultry and fish actually seem to decrease mortality slightly.
The study incorporated 10 years’ worth of self-reported data from more than half a million 50- to 71-year-olds who participated in the National Institutes of Health-AARP’s Diet and Health Study. Dr. Rashmi Sinha and other researchers at the National Cancer Institute took this data and analyzed it to connect the dots between participants’ meat consumption habits and their risk for heart disease and cancer.
The correlation was especially dramatic among women who were daily red-meat eaters: Their risk of dying from heart disease skyrocketed 50 percent above other women, and their risk of dying from cancer shot up 36 percent. In men, regular consumption of red meat raised the risk of death from heart disease and cancer by 27 and 22 percent, respectively.
Unsurprisingly, the American Meat Institute isn’t swallowing the study, arguing that self-reporting is an
“imprecise approach” and noting other recent studies that appear to challenge the connection between red meat consumption and health risks.
I want to know what you think. Do you eat red meat on a daily basis? If so, will this study change your habits at all?