Pink Slime and History, Redux

No, I don't plan to blog obsessively about Pink Slime (PS to you and me) --- but I had another thought after I posted yesterday's rant about PS and history

My brain kept coming back this comment by Marion Nestle:

If [allowing the use of deboned meat] is acceptable to people, it essentially means it’s OK to eat the kind of stuff we put into pet food." “Culturally we don’t eat byproducts of human food production. It’s not in our culture. Other cultures do. We don’t.”

Where do I start? How about with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years of human history. Think about the stereotype of the "French housewife," making practical use of every bit of food that comes her way.

Think of peasants from prehistory to, well, now --- also making practical use of every bit of food that comes their way. With food always in short supply, and hungry people to feed, humans have, for ages, used up every bit of food.

You know? Like scraping every. last. bit. of meat from the bones of a carcass. Like dumping the bones and their remnants of meat into a pot of water and cooking it until the bones are softened and those last jots of protein have fallen from the bone.

Only someone who has never wanted for food would equate "pink slime" with dog food. Only in the extraordinarily affluent U.S. would people attack an industry for trying to make use of rather than waste food.

As I've noted here before, Marion Nestle is prone to playing fast/loose with facts. (*1)

 In this case, she goes too far. Way too far. To refer to meat as "dog food" simply because she doesn't like where that meat comes from is more than wrong-headed. In this case it borders on immoral.

There is another critcism of PS that's also worth mentioning (along with, yes!, a bit more history):

Some critics argue this: If the stuff is safe to eat, why do its manufacturers use ammonia-based (and other) processes to sterilize it?

Folks, you'd be amazed at how much of your meat gets sterilized these days before it hits the table. In this case, the procedure was added to the deboning process back in the 1990s, presumably after an outbreak of e. coli-related illnesses. (See yesterday's blog entry for that point.)

Here's the thing about e. coli: As I hope most of you know, we all carry this bacteria. It's in us all the time. Cattle also carry it in their digestive tracts.

Critics argue that e. coli has become more common in recent years because meat inspection has become lax.

Maybe. Maybe not. (I favor the "not" side.)

But here's another point that most people don't know (because only a nerdish history-head like me would know stuff like this):

e. coli first became problematic back in the early 1980s. At the time, that puzzled scientists --- but eventually they pinpointed the likely reason why e. coli had suddenly become a problem:

For more than a century, one of the main missions of the US Department of Agriculture has been to eradicate livestock diseases, whether "Texas fever," pleuro-pneumonia, bruccelosis (I probably spelled that wrong) or the dozens of respiratory diseases that afflict poultry. The USDA combatted livestock disease because those cause high mortality rates among livestock, reduce herd and flock sizes, and drive up the cost of food.

(As I said yesterday, it's impossible to overestimate the impact of Americans' demands for cheap food.)

By the middle of the twentieth century, the USDA had succeeded in eliminating and controlling most livestock diseases. The department's campaigns were so effective, in fact, that cattle grazers and feeders reduced the number of vaccinations they gave their livestock, or abandoned the shots altogether.

The unexpected consequence was that, for the first time in a century, the e. coli that cattle naturally carry had a chance to flourish unimpeded, and rather quickly became a problem for humans. (We have a much harder time with e. coli than do cattle.)

Meatpackers have always used various materials and substances to "preserve" meats --- meaning to prevent the growth of bacteria in those meats. The method used to sterilize PS is just one of those methods.

Any chance we can all just step back from the witch hunt hysteria and think about this matter? Fearmongering, whether by politicians or food activists, is bad policy because instilling fear becomes a convenient way to prevent otherwise rational people from thinking a problem through. 

So. How 'bout a little reason and a few facts with that Pink Slime?


*1. Just so we're all clear: I've got nothing personal against Nestle. I don't know her. Have never met her. It's unlikely I ever will meet her. My point is that she commands attention and it's unfortunate that she chooses to abuse her power by playing so fast/loose with facts.