Making Meat, the Writer's Pitfall, and Online Interaction With Readers

Finally, a good example of the way website/online interaction can inform a writer's work! (*1)

A couple of days ago, I commented on a New York Times op-ed piece about land use and meat supply. You can read my comment here, but what’s relevant is the point I made about farm land: Farmers compete with city folks for land. What’s farmland now may, in ten years, contain houses or office buildings, a shift in land use typically identified as “urban sprawl.”

A person identifying herself as Louisa commented on that blog entry. Here is her comment:

Not quite…it’s not land vs. urban spaces, which are actually pretty efficient, but land vs. SUBurban spaces, with all the sprawl that entails. I live in a small town surrounded by farmland. Every year, more farmland is bought up by developers to turn into another grossly oversized subdivision filled with 4,000 sq ft houses- whose owners then turn around and lobby for nuisance laws that are aimed at, among other things, farm smells and sounds. After moving out into the country because it’s “so picturesque.” So yes, we do need to have the conversation about what kind of agricultural system we want. But we also need to have a conversation about what kind of living space we want, and whether we want to do more to protect farmland from becoming suburban sprawl.

I am grateful that Louisa took the time to read and comment (more grateful than she probably knows!), but as important, her comment reminded me that I need to beware of the writer’s pitfall: Don’t assume readers know what you mean. I’ve spent so many years working on the meat book that I tend to write/think in shorthand and make assumptions about what readers know and don’t know. In this case, I should have been more clear about the relationship between farming methods and urban societies.

First to her comment: She’s correct: The more houses, office buildings, and gas stations we build, the more likely we are to use what was once farmland. As I type this, I’m sitting in a house that is sitting on land that was part of a farm just twenty years ago. So, yes, I’m aware of the “urban sprawl” part of the equation. (And, because I live in Iowa, I’m also aware that, as Louisa points out, when people move to houses like mine, they often complain about rural smells and sounds.) (*2)

But I failed to make a more subtle distinction. Americans have chosen to live “in town” rather than “in the country.” Nearly 80% of us live in “municipalities” of one kind or another. Only two percent of us work as “farmers.” So that two percent has to figure out how to make food as efficiently as possible. If we shut down all the Ames, Iowas, razed the “sprawl,” and forced everyone to move to, say, Manhattan or Brooklyn, we’d still have the same equation: Nearly all of us would rely on a tiny minority to make our food.

But even if the agricultural two percent suddenly had access to farmland once devoted to houses and office buildings, it’s unlikely they would decide to send their cattle, hogs, and chickens out into the “pasture” to range freely.

Why? Because those are labor-intensive forms of agricultural production, and we’d still have just 2% of the population making the food. That’s a primary reason that farmers back in the 1950s embraced confinement as a way to raise livestock: they faced a serious labor shortage. They didn’t have enough “hands” to raise livestock the “old-fashioned” way. If they wanted to keep farming, they had to figure out how to do it without additional labor.

Why was there a labor shortage? Because after World War II, farmers’ sons and daughters decided they wanted to live in town, not on the farm. So --- as those sons and daughters left the farms, they became part of the “urban majority” who relied on farmers to produce food for them. But those farmers, in turn, were left short-handed and in need of ways to make their operations more efficient. (*3)

So when I write about the connection between life in an “urban” society and systems of farming, I need to be more clear about what I mean. City folks are not farmers. They rely on others to grow food for them. In an urban society like ours, most people have CHOSEN not to be food producers. The people who do produce the food are then faced with a quandary: How to make enough food for everyone?

It’s perhaps worth repeating the point I made in that blog entry: When a people choose to live in an urban society rather than an agrarian one, they also enjoy the benefit (luxury) of time for intellectual work. The farming two percent make it possible for the rest of us to sit around and invent iPads and smart phones, blog, write critiques of the food system, or whatever. We can engage in "other" work because we don't spend time growing or preserving food.

Again, the physical form of the urban setting is irrelevant. Sure, if we all moved to Manhattan, we'd free up land for farming. But it's unlikely we'd have more FARMERS. We'd still have 98% of the population living in an urban setting, and two percent making the food.

So. Memo to self: in the manuscript of what is becoming a “real” book, I need to be wary of skipping A so I can get to B.

Again, many thanks to Louisa for her help. __________________ *1: We writers hear this all the time: We can engage with readers! (Yes, of course.) We can use feedback from readers to shape our work! Umm. Okay? Maybe? Not sure. And I've been one of the doubters. But now I "get" how interaction can, in fact, shape my work.

*2: Indeed, that conflict was one of the first ideas that came to me when I decided to write this book. See this blog entry I wrote for Powell’s Books six years ago.

*3: Another point is worth mentioning: Even those “young” people who chose to stay on the farm were no longer willing to work 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year. They were even more willing than their fathers and mothers to embrace labor-saving tools and systems of production, including livestock confinement.

Pink Slime: (More) History and A Dollop of Sermonizing. Part Five

Part One --- Part Two --- Part Three --- Part Four


So. Where does this leave us? With an uproar rooted in fear and emotion rather than in fact, and the possible bankruptcy of a family-owned business whose owners were devoted, and I do mean devoted, to food safety. 

I need to be clear about something: I’m all for good food. I’m not a shill for “corporate” America or for “Big Ag,” as the critics call it. I don’t eat much meat and when I do, I buy “good” stuff. Is it expensive? Yes, it is. That’s why we don’t eat much of it. (At our house, meat is an accompaniment to a main dish, and almost never the main dish itself.) (*1)

I’m all for environmentally sound farming practices (and so are most farmers.) I’m all for “real” food: eat butter, not margarine. Eat real cheese, not the fake stuff. And for god’s sake, please don’t eat Twinkies. (Ugh! I’m not a nanny-type, but if it were up to me, Twinkies and other fake food would be off the shelves.) I’m also for cooking at home, for those who have the time, and for eating wisely rather than stupidly. (see *1 below)

But I’m also for smart shopping: If you want to buy some burger, it’s real simple: don’t buy pre-packaged stuff.

Or, more precisely, don’t buy pre-packaged stuff with a brand name. Don’t grab pre-formed, pre-packaged burgers from the freezer section. That stuff’s been mixed at a packing plant and yes, odds are it contains LFTB. 

Instead, go to your meat department, and look for stuff packaged there in the store. Chances are it’s been ground in-store, using bits of meat left over from the other cuts of meat. Use common sense. Your stomach will thank you. 

Finally, if we’re going to have a conversation about food, let’s discuss rather than shout. Let’s try to be factual and honest and focus on reason rather than fear-mongering.

Here’s one thing I’ve picked up on in the past few years: There are a lot of people on the web who are “reporting” on food. But they’re not reporters in any conventional sense of the word. They’re advocates and they have an agenda --- and this is true on both “sides,” by which I mean the pro-food, locavore, “our food system is dangerous” side, and the “American farmers feed the world,” farmers-are-good-stewards side.

It’s in their best interest to persuade people and many of these "reporters" play fast/loose with the facts, employ emotional language, and rely on innuendo to make their point, assuming, apparently, that most people who read their work are gullible and won’t ask questions. These advocates present themselves as “reporters” but what they trade in is not accurate reporting, but polemic and sensationalism. 

Bottom line: Read with care. When you read an outrageous statement or an assertion that feels like a bombshell, don’t take it at face value until you’ve verified its accuracy. Eventually you’ll be able to separate the crap from the substance. 

You heard it here first.


*1: At my house, there are only two of us, and we're not teenagers, if you know what I mean. And we both work at home, which means there's time to plan and prepare meals. (MAJOR money saver.) So, yes, it's "easy" for us to buy "good" meat. But I am well aware that for families pressed for time, and for those operating on marginal budgets (and I was both of those people for many many years), there's not always time/money to investigate and then act on alternatives. That's why my bottom line on all this is: don't eat so much meat. I stopped eating meat for "political" reasons when I was in my 20s back in the 70s. But the political morphed into the pratical and not eating meat is how I stretched tiny dollars into very good, and healthy, food for years on end. I recommend it. Anyone who says food isn't worth it (or too hard) just because there's no meat involved is wrong. Period. And no you don't have to become some fancy-schmancy "gourmet" (god but I hate that word) cook nor do you have to become a suffering vegetarian.

Pink Slime: (More) History and A Dollop of Sermonizing. Part Four

Part One --- Part Two --- Part Three --- Part Five 


So --- back to the “pink slime” controversy: Many critics object to the fact that package labels don’t say “this meat contains meat scraps extracted from a carcass and subjected to ammonia gas in order to elevate its pH levels and kill bacteria.”  

Others object to the fact that LFTB is being used in school lunch programs. In response to that particular point, I’ll just say this: We barely pay teachers a living wage for teaching. What makes anyone think the American taxpayers are willing to spend more of their tax dollars on school lunches? (As with our drinking culture, we get the educational system we want.)

But let’s not lose sight of the reason meatpackers developed techniques to utilize those scraps: They were trying to keep consumer prices down and still allow the owners/shareholders of packing/processing companies to earn a profit. Those scraps represented a way to achieve both goals. 

Which brings us to the last of the major objections:Critics object to the CONTENT; to the stuff that LFTB is made from.

Many people believe that the ingredients in LFTB aren't “real” meat; that the scraps are byproduct material suitable only for dog food.

That truly puzzled me. How, I wondered, could any sane person think this is non-edible food? I finally found the answer: In 2009, a New York Times reporter wrote a story about BPI, and in that report he describes LFTB as

made from beef that included fatty trimmings the industry once relegated to pet food and cooking oil.

Aha! Apparently, that’s where the “dog food” critique came from. Let’s think this through, shall we? 

The fact that the packing industry “once relegated” those scraps to use in pet food doesn’t make it “dog food.” What it means is that packers couldn’t figure out how to use those scraps in a way that consumers would accept (because of the “bone” problem).

But that's not the same thing as saying the scraps were/are “dog food,” or that they were inedible or unsafe for human consumption. All it means is that, barring a better method of utilizing those scraps, they’d turned them to profit by selling them to manufacturers of dog food.

Why would they do that? Because here’s a little-known but immensely useful fact about meatpacking in general and beef processing in particular: It’s damn near impossible to make a profit from the MEAT itself.

Packers have always relied on byproducts, whether hides, bone, hoof, thyroid, or whatever, to subsidize the cost of making the actual meat. Prior to the 1940s, those byproducts brought in good money: Packers sold hides to shoemakers, for example, and various animal parts to drug makers.

But from the 1940s on, meat byproducts declined in value: shoemakers replaced leather with vinyl, especially the soles; synthetic pharmaceuticals replaced old-fashioned drugs; plastic replaced bone buttons. You get the picture.

The loss of income from these byproducts was devastating to the packing industry. Many packers went out of business, and the survivors survived because they built ultra-efficient plants where machines replace human labor. (Another fact that drives critics crazy.)

Packers don’t have a choice, not if they want to keep the price of meat low enough to satisfy consumers: By itself, the meat won’t pay the bills. Packers must come up with other ways to reduce costs.  

So if they had meat scraps that couldn’t be mixed with other “beef,” their best bet was to sell the stuff to someone who could use it, in this case pet food manufacturers. But once packers developed a bone-free method of utilizing the scraps, they could add it to other ground beef and use it themselves rather than selling it to Purina. Makes sense to me.

Next: Be careful what you read. Even here!

Pink Slime: (More) History and A Dollop of Sermonizing. Part Three

Part One --- Part Two --- Part Four --- Part Five 


By the early '00s, Roth’s method of manufacturing LFTB had been perfected (more or less; Roth is a guy who believes in constant improvement and refinement). BPI was selling LFTB to a host of customers, including grocery chains, food processors, and clients in what is known as the "hotel, restaurant, insitutional" trade (HRI).

Were there problems? Of course. In 2009, a reporter for the New York Times detailed some of the woes BPI encountered with its product --- but noted that BPI’s processing was regarded as more safe than most.

Which brings me to a point worth pondering: Journalists have been quick to report instances when BPI and other companies have been “caught” sending out product that was supposedly contaminated with a strain of e. coli or tainted with salmonella. But here’s what those reports rarely mention:

First, many times a company will recall a product if they suspect it’s tainted. They don’t have proof from tests, but, for whatever reason, they suspect a batch may be tainted, and so they pull it. Suspicion and proof are not the same thing.

Second, reporters rarely mention a crucial fact about testing methods: Those change constantly. And I mean from year to year, even from month to month. I picked up on this when I was researching the use of hormones in cattle production.

In the mid-1950s, cattle producers began adding diethylstilbestrol, or DES, to cattle feed. (It accelerated growth, so that cattle reached market weight faster, and on less feed. At the time, making meat at lower cost came close to being a national priority. Politics, foreign policy, and an educated consumer society drove the urgency.)

From the mid-1950s until 1979, when DES was banned, the tests used by the USDA and FDA to determine the presence of the hormone changed dramatically and often. The tests became both more powerful and more “accurate.” As results changed, so, too, did the definition of “acceptable” levels of use. What was an acceptable level in, say, 1958, had become “unacceptable” by 1963 because new test procedures allowed investigators to find more, if you will. 

That’s also true for e. coli. Researchers find “more” e. coli in foodstuffs in part because they’ve got far better tests now than they did in, say, 1986.

I hasten to add that, unlike humans, who evolve slowly, bacteria experience a much speedier evolutionary process; they also have the ability to become and to transmit resistance, which, in turn, means that they can change as they evolve.) So between rapid evolution on one hand, and better testing on the other, it’s no wonder that we hear so much about “contaminated” foods: We find more contamination because we have better ways of finding it.

But I gather from comments made by readers of my first two PS blog entries that many scientists believe that modern methods of cattle feeding may contribute to both the quantity and the virulence of e. coli bacteria. I’ve not had a chance to read up on that, but I’ll take their word for it. (For now.) (This is a good time to remind readers that I’m a HISTORIAN, not a chemist, microbiologist, or animal nutritionist.) (*1)

Next: Dog food, byproducts, and profits


*1: A reader named Christopher Gordon posted a detailed comment about this in response to an earlier PS blog entry. I thank him for the time he took to comment:

I think you need to brush up on your knowledge about E. coli. It is one species of bacteria with many strains -- not all are harmful, not all can live in the same environments, and most are very specific and named. The strains normally present in grazing cattle have adapted to living in a higher pH than those normally present in humans. Any harmful strain in grazing cattle would not likely survive in our gut.

However, grain-fed cattle have much lower intestinal pH, and bacteria which colonize it will be able to survive in our intestines. This is where the dangerous strains of E. coil come to play -- they can survive in the acidic environment of cattle intestines, and can also survive in ours. What makes them dangerous are toxins secreted by these particular strains.

If you do a little research, you'll find scientific papers which show that finishing grain-fed cattle with a period of grazing or hay will correct the pH and significantly reduce or eliminate the nasty strains of E. coli. Additionally, the harmful strains are virtually unknown in cattle that are slaughtered after only grazing (no grain-feeding at all).

Pink Slime: (More) History and A Dollop of Sermonizing. Part Two

Part One --- Part Three --- Part Four --- Part Five 


The MSM (mechanical) process fell out of favor in the 1980s: Pork and beef packers were reluctant to use it, and for the same reason they were reluctant to use irradiation: They feared consumers would regard the product as unsafe.

But the idea was sound --- use those scraps --- so inventors developed other ways to “salvage” scraps without getting bone into the mix. These people, who included a scientist at a Nebraska university, created a second generation of the “separation” process. 

Among them was Eldon Roth, who founded BPI, Inc., the company at the center of the current controversy. Roth is a natural engineer: despite lack of formal training, he devised ways to use, process, and preserve meats in innovative ways, and designed the machinery needed to carry out those processes. (*1)

Roth’s method for utilizing scrap meats consisted of subjecting the carcass to very high pressure water bath; the pressure scrubbed the carcass clean of all meat, sinew, etc. without taking any bone with it. Then he ran the scraps through a “desinewing device for the removal of virtually all non-functional material such as cartilage, bone chips, connective tissue, and sinew.” (*2) 

Next the material was subjected to “a modified centrifuge” that eliminated most of the fat, leaving muscle (protein) behind. (*3)

The resulting meat matter, which was 94% lean, was flash frozen (a process that takes about 90 seconds), chopped, pressed into a block form, boxed, and shipped to other packers, who incorporated it into their ground beef.

(Roth himself was not a beef processor. He didn’t slaughter animals. Instead, he bought carcasses from other meatpackers and only used those that he deemed to be safe, free of contaminants, and so forth.)

The problem with these second-generation processes was e. coli: The more a carcass is handled, the more likely that some of the bacteria in the carcass will migrate out of the intestines and collect on blades or on parts of the carcass.

What to do? Roth came up with (another) ingenious solution: In its natural state, beef contains ammonia and has a certain pH level. By elevating the pH level, he could kill bacteria. He ran the meat stuffs through a “blender” “where nH3 [was] added to form ammonia hydroxide, which elevate[d]d the pH levels in the finished product.” (*4) (*5)

I gather that Roth needed a fair amount of trial and error to get the level right: enough to kill bacteria, but not so much that the meat smelled like ammonia. (Apparently that was a problem in the early days of this method.) Think of this as the grandchild of the original MSM process.

If you’ve been tracking the current controversy, you know that many people are bothered by the ammonia part of the equation. Bare minimum, most people don’t understand what it is. I gather we can thank Jamie Oliver for that.

During an April 2011 segment of his TV show, he told viewers he wanted to show them what he “imagined” packers did in their plants:

If you don't want to watch, here's a summary: He shoved hunks of beef carcass into a washing machine to demonstrate the “centrifuge” process. Next he dumped “rendered” meats into a container, added liquid ammonia, and then told the audience that’s what packers were doing to the stuff. All the while, he was explaining that the original product was “inedible.” Not safe for humans. 

Oy. So far off the mark that it’s not even funny. And, alas, why so many journalists and bloggers keep referring to beef scraps being “dunked” in ammonia. It’s gas, folks. Gas. Not liquid. And many foods, both “natural” and processed, contain ammonia. Eat onions? You’re eating ammonia. Eat cheese? Ditto. Eat grass-fed, “organic” beef? It contains ammonia. So do many PROCESSED foods.

As for Oliver’s claim that PS begins with parts of the animal that are unsafe to eat, well, that’s simply not true.

Also, and for what it’s worth, BPI, Inc. has been lauded for many years for its devotion to sanitation and safety: the conveyors belts, for example, are outfitted with top and bottom sprayers to sanitize the belts constantly. Even the air in the plant is scrubbed and sanitized.

Next: Testing and food safety


*1: For a time line of BPI’s history, see this report by James Andrews in Food Safety News. Andrews’ work is reliable. He’s one of the few “food” reporters out there who focuses on facts rather than innuendo.

*2: Brent Langman, “Creating Food Safety Through Innovation,” National Provisioner 216, no. 4 (2002): 26.

*3: Ibid.

*4: Ibid. 

*5: I have not seen the patents for the ammonia gas process. I don't know who "invented" it --- but am assuming that Roth developed a specific, and efficient, way to use the "idea." I'm confident that if I had the time to read through university research reports, or ag experiment station bulletins, I'd find evidence of someone somewhere developing the idea of doing this. Roth then (I'm betting) developed a way to make the idea viable on a large scale. He's a smart, inventive guy.

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.