Category Archives: Health

CRUEL AND UNUSUAL LUNCH: outrageous loafs, constitutional standards, and a heck of a lot of intestinal trauma

Does service of a meal that consists of a colorful brick-like lump of pureed vegetables, raisins, meats and various unknown ingredients constitute cruel and unusual punishment?  The answer is now a definite “maybe.”

The founding fathers probably didn’t consider the issue when, concerned about the centralization of power in a national government, they sought to ensure that federal authorities did not impose excessive monetary penalties or disproportionate, tortuous and barbaric punishments upon undeserving citizens.  Inspired by the English Bill of Rights of 1689, they drafted a prohibition that was ultimately ratified as the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution.  It provides that [e]xcessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

Gotcha.  But this is a constitutional standard, and doesn’t that mean that it applies to the federal government and not state prisons?

As ratified, the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments applied only to the federal government.  In the 1960s, during the civil rights movement, the United States Supreme Court held that it also applies to state governments as a matter of due process.  The judiciary did not, however, initially set forth a universal standard to differentiate between valid exercises of police powers and those acts that are unconstitutional abuses.  Chief Justice Earl Warren, writing on behalf of the Supreme Court, later explained that

[t]he basic concept underlying the Eighth Amendment is nothing less than the dignity of man. While the State has the power to punish, the Amendment stands to assure that this power be exercised within the limits of civilized standards. Fines, imprisonment and even execution may be imposed depending upon the enormity of the crime, but any technique outside the bounds of these traditional penalties is constitutionally suspect….  The words of the [Eighth] Amendment are not precise, and that their scope is not static. The Amendment must draw its meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.

The Supreme Court has suggested that unconstitutional punishments include drawing and quartering, public disembowelment and execution by burning a living criminal to death.  It has also considered the application of the prohibition criminal death penalty cases, including proceedings that would result in the execution of minors and mentally handicapped criminals.

Who woulda thunk that the list may also include unappetizing meals consumed by crooks, thieves, con men and rowdy prisoners?

Inmates are arguing that the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment is being violated by correctional facilities that serve a meal affectionately referred to as the “nutriloaf” or the “nutraloaf.”  The brick-like pseudo-meatloaf meal is typically only served to troublesome inmates as a means of deterring negative behavior, such as throwing feces, urine, trays and utensils.

The recipe varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and facility to facility.  Chicago Dining Critic Jeff Ruby is one of the few people who voluntarily – as in, of his own free freakin’ will – secured a reservation at a county jail and dined on Illinois’ version of nutraloaf, which he described as

a thick orange lump of spite with the density and taste of a dumbbell [that] could only be the object of Beelzebub’s culinary desires. Packed with protein, fat, carbohydrates, and 1,110 calories, Nutraloaf contains everything from carrots and cabbage to kidney beans and potatoes, plus shadowy ingredients such as “dairy blend” and “mechanically separated poultry.” You purée everything into a paste, shape it into a loaf, and bake it for 50 to 70 minutes at 375 degrees.

Fine.  I get it.  The dish looks something like a science experiment gone awry or that crazy thing growing in the back of my refrigerator, and I’d be worried that an inmate who was fed the substance would explode and shower a cell with gore. But does it really constitute cruel and unusual punishment, at least insofar as the constitutional standard has been applied to punishments such as drawing and quartering, public disembowelment,  burning alive, and other means of execution?

Most courts have held that nutriloaf may be repugnant but that service of the dish does not constitute cruel and unusual punishment.  The judicial temperament may now be changing.  Last week, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals became the first federal appellate court to explain that service of the nutriloaf may violate the Eighth Amendment.  The case was initially brought in district court by an inmate who claimed that his consumption of nutriloaf caused rapid weight loss, repeated vomiting, severe constipation and an anal fissure.

Yes, an anal fissure.

The trial court dismissed the claim on summary judgment, but the Seventh Circuit remanded the case and directed the trial court to reconsider the ruling.  Judge Posner, writing on behalf of the Court, opined that

Deliberate withholding of nutritious food or substitution of tainted or otherwise sickening food, with the effect of causing substantial weight loss, vomiting, stomach pains, and maybe an anal fissure (which is no fun at all, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anal_fissure (visited March 15, 2012)), or other severe hardship, would violate the Eighth Amendment.

Kind of makes pink slime sound like a culinary treat.  Maybe.

##

AVIAN FLU: I voted against it, before I voted for it.

Influenza, commonly referred to as the flu, is an infectious disease caused by a virus that affects both birds and mammals.  Notable symptoms include fever, chills, muscle and body aches, headaches, fatigue, vomiting and diarrhea.  Most people who diagnosed with the flu may pop a few over-the-counter pills, miss a few days of work and survive the incident with little complication. 

Ferris Bueller is reminiscing about being sick and having a day off.

H5N1, commonly referred to as the “bird flu” or “avian flu,” is a subtype of an influenza virus.  Humans who contact infected poultry or contaminated material may develop the avian flu, which can result in severe respiratory illness, respiratory failure and other life-threatening complications.  According to the World Health Organization, most laboratory cases of humans infected with avian flu result in the death of the patient.

Alfred Hitchcock never imagined that the birds could wreck such havoc.

Still, although deadly, reported incidents of avian flu have been fairly limited.  The virus may be relatively common among poultry in several countries in Asia and the Middle East and it may have been observed in Europe and Africa, but as of last month only around 600 laboratory cases involving humans have been observed worldwide.  That’s a fairly positive statistic, given that those 600 laboratory cases resulted in the death of over 350 patients.  An extrapolation of that figure to a global scale would translate to a worldwide epidemic that may well rival the Spanish Flu and kill upwards of 50 million people to 150 million people.

We may well be moving closer to this type of widespread catastrophe.  Recently, researchers from Erasmus Medical College in Rotterdam, Netherlands, and the University of Wisconsin – Madison created a highly contagious strain of H5N1.  Their testing demonstrated that the virus could be transmitted from one ferret to another ferret.  These animals are fairly reliable indicators of the behavior of influenza viruses in humans, and the communicability of the virus suggests that this new strain of H5N1 may be capable of being transmitted from one human to another human.

Stephen King believes that we should take a stand against the creation of a deadly, man-made superflu.

He’s not alone, as many notable scientists have voiced concerns about the implications of the research.  For example, Dr. D. A. Henderson, a scholar at the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and a leader in eradicating the smallpox virus, claims that the research should never have been conducted and that the risks outweigh any potential benefit that could be derived from the work.  Dr. Richard H. Ebright, a professor at Rutgers University and an an expert in bioweapons, agreed with Dr. Henderson, but further explained that “[t]his research should never have been done… [The strain] will inevitably escape, and within a decade…”

Michael Crichton understands the possibility that an andromeda strain may well escape heavily-controlled conditions.

He’s right, but the concerns associated with the man-made superflu are not limited to the possibility that it could escape the confines of a laboratory and infect tens or hundreds of millions of people.  Instead, researchers are determined to fully publish their research in Science and Nature, two prominent scholastic journals.  The publication of the full details of the research could enable terrorist groups or hostile countries to create similar, highly infectious strains that may be used as biological weapons of mass destruction.

Dr. Evil has raised his pinkie to his mouth, and he’s grinning.

The villain may be a work of fiction, but the concerns are embedded in reality.  The U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, the federal advisory committee responsible for offering leadership and guidance on biological research that could be misused to endanger national security and public health, reviewed the materials.  It recommended against the publication of the entirety of the research.  The federal agency expressed its concerns to the original research teams, interested nations and the World Health Organization at a summit held in Geneva.  Regardless, attendees and world governments at the closed-door summit announced a surprising and unexpected agreement to publish the full details of the research.

Ronald Reagan is still reminding us about the terrifying implications of officials from the governing being here to help.

Other governments may have reached a terrifying conclusion, but the United States has continued to place an emphasis on the protection of the public…. at least until several days ago.  At that time, the U.S National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity reversed its position and declared that the studies should be fully and openly published in scientific journals.  Dr. Paul Keim, the acting Chairman of the committee, explained that it changed its recommendation because it now believes that the experiments were not as dangerous as originally believed and that the benefits are greater than originally perceived.  Not surprisingly, the editors of Science and Nature immediately declared that they would publish the research as soon as possible.

Although another political figure is reminded of the consequences of voting in favor of an important issue before voting against the same issue, I’m personally reminded that stories about pink slime, half-baked breadsticks and eight pound hamburgers cause much less stress than developments about an issue that threatens unprecedented global disaster.

##

PINK SLIME: state governors promote the nutritional value of ammonia-washed processed beef filling

State budgetary crises seem to be a remnant of the past and local governments are apparently no longer associated with inefficiencies and waste.  Obviously, our political heroes have already determined the best means of developing local communities, successfully created jobs and reduced unemployment, significantly improved local schools, addressed childhood obesity and crafted an intricate plan to pay for the rising costs of health care.  They’ve served their constituents, overcome the challenges and are now bravely seeking a new campaign.

So, no longer content to merely revel in their success, local government leaders are now promoting the consumption of lean finely textured beef, thereby touting the benefits of “pink slime” and discouraging further public outcry against the widespread use of the filler.

As we’ve already learned – in no small part because this story just won’t die – lean finely textured beef, commonly known as pink slime, consists of fatty beef scraps and connective tissue that originate from those parts of cows that are highly susceptible to contamination due to their exposure to considerable amounts of feces.  Producers wash the scraps with ammonia hydroxide to remove Salmonella and E. coli and other pathogens.  After treatment, the parts are spun in a centrifuge, thereby transforming the product into a pink gelatinous mass that is used as a filler in commercial and retail meat products.

Information relating to the use of the pink slime has been shrouded in secrecy for years, in no small part because the United States Food and Drug Administration authorized producers to simply label the ingredient as meat.  The public therefore had no meaningful way of knowing that they were consuming the product until recent reports revealed that around 70 percent of meat bought at grocery stores and other retailers contained the ammonia-washed ingredient.

The outrage was considerable, and it resulted in dwindling demand for meat containing lean finely textured beef.  As a result, last week, Beef Products Inc., the largest manufacturer of the ingredient, announced that it would suspend operations at several facilities, including its plants in Garden City, Kansas, Amarillo, Texas and Waterloo, Iowa.  The closure of these plants will likely reduce the production by a whopping 900,000 pounds per day while resulting in the temporary layoff of around 650 employees in affected states.

The company isn’t going down without a fight, though, and it has since announced that it would embark on a massive public relations campaign designed to restore confidence in the product.  Lacking for substantive challenges and no longer concerned about the appropriate use of taxpayer monies, governors from affected states have joined the public relations campaign to crusade against the lack of demand for the product.

On Thursday, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback, Iowa Governor Terry Branstad and Texas Governor Rick Perry banded together to tour Beef Products Inc.’s facility in South Sioux City, Nebraska.  They were seemingly impressed by their foray – which lasted a full thirty minutes –  and they want you to know all about it.  The governors issued a joint statement that assured the world that “[o]ur states proudly produce food for the country and the world – and we do so with the highest commitment toward product safety.  Lean finely textured beef is a safe, nutritious product…”  Individually, they echoed the sentiment:

  • Governor Perry focused on the damning effects of the reduction in demand.  He was concerned that the decreased consumption of the filler will deprive the public of a “safe” product that “is very much needed in this country…

Ironically, the most vocal response to the politician’s campaign did not originate with a consumer advocacy group or an organization of concerned citizens.  Instead, the fast food industry has assured the public that it disavows the use of lean finely textured beef filler regardless of the governors’ claims about its safety and nutritional value.  That’s right – even the industry that has historically peddled highly processed pseudo-beef and the most unhealthy foods has drawn a proverbial line in the sand.

On Friday – the day after the governors attempted to rally public support for the use of lean finely textured beef – Wendy ran an advertisement in eight major newspapers, including the New York Times and USA Today.  It plays upon the old catchphrase of “Where’s The Beef” and appears as follows:

The advertisement isn’t the first statement that the fast food industry has made about the use of pink slime.  Earlier, McDonald’s claimed that it no longer used lean finely textured beef in its products.   Taco Bell and Burger King have also assured the public that they have ceased using meat containing the filler.

What does that mean?  It means that politicians want you to eat a product that they claim is healthy and safe even when the freakin’ fast food industry won’t serve to the public. Tune in next time, when state governors campaign against the use of seat belts and promote the benefits of illegal drug use.

##

2012 Gallop-Healthways Well-Being Index Report: Most Obese Metropolitan Areas

The Gallop-Healthways Well-Being Index attempts to track Americans’ physical and emotional health and quantify other information necessary to evaluate programs that can increase productivity and lower healthcare costs. Every year, the information collected throughout preceding months is used to generate a report of those metropolitan areas that have the highest obesity rates among its citizens.

Well, it’s that time of year again.  The report has been released, and the results are weighty:

1.  McAllen-Edinburg-Mission, Texas
Obesity rate: 38.8 percent
Health care costs due to obesity: $411 million

2.  Binghamton, New York
Obesity rate: 37.6 percent
Health care costs due to obesity: $132 million

3.  Huntington-Ashland, West Virginia-Kentucky-Ohio
Obesity rate: 36 percent
Health care costs due to obesity: $147 million

4.  Rockford, Illinois
Obesity rate: 35.5 percent
Health care costs due to obesity: $179 million

5.  Beaumont-Port Arthur, Texas
Obesity rate: 33.8 percent
Health care costs due to obesity: $183 million

6.  Charleston, West Virginia
Obesity rate: 33.8 percent
Health care costs due to obesity: $147 million

7.  Lakeland-Winter Haven, Florida.
Obesity rate: 33.5 percent.
Health care costs due to obesity: $279 million

8.  Topeka, Kansas
Obesity rate: 33.3 percent
Health care costs due to obesity:$110 million

9.  Kennewick-Pasco-Richland, Washington
Obesity rate: 33.2 percent
Health care costs due to obesity: $117 million

10.  Reading, Pennsylvania
Obesity rate: 32.7 percent
Health care costs due to obesity: $190 million

##

PINK SLIME: grassroots crusades, corporate campaigns and an insatiable appetite for knowledge

Several months ago, nobody really knew anything about Gerald Zirnstein.  Times change.

Mr. Zirnstein is a microbiologist who previously worked for the United States Department of Agriculture, and he is largely credited with coining the term “pink slime.”  The phrase refers to a beef filler known as boneless lean beef trimmings or lean finely textured beef, which consists of fatty beef scraps and connective tissue that are removed from parts of cows that are exposed to significant amounts of feces and are highly susceptible to contamination.  The scraps need to be treated with ammonia hydroxide to remove pathogens such as Salmonella and E. coli before being heated and spun in a centrifuge to isolate protein and remove fat.  The concoction is thereby transformed into a gelatinous mass that almost radiates a shiny hue of pepto-bismol pink, which is used as a filler in commercial and retail meat products.

Not surprisingly, producers fill meat products with the compound because it’s cheap, efficient and positively impacts the bottom line.  Michael Moss, a reporter for The New York Times who won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for reporting about such practices, recently explained that

[i]n the meat industry, there’s something called least cost formulations… Companies will mix and match trimmings from different parts of the cow and different suppliers to achieve the perfect level of fatness. This material is … slightly less expensive

The widespread use of pink slime flew under the proverbial radar for years, even though Mr. Zirnstein estimated that around 70 percent of meat bought at grocery stores and other retailers contained the ammonia-washed filler.  It recently gained widespread attention, however, when Celebrity Chef Jamie Oliver began crusading against the use of pink slime.  Advocacy groups joined the conversation, the issue went viral and pink slime became a topic frequently debated through social media and on network newscasts.

The United States Department of Agriculture didn’t quite realize the significance of the public outrage – even though its actions had already been subject to criticism – but the agency eventually decided to change the federally subsidized lunch program so that schools will now be provided with the option of serving students with meat that does not contain pink slime.  In a somewhat surprising but related development, McDonald’s publicly declared that it would not rely on the pink slime to fill its meat products, and Taco Bell and Burger King discontinued its use.  A number of grocery stores still sell meat that contains pink slime, but many others no longer sell meat containing the filler.

Beef Products Inc., the largest supplier of pink slime in the country, has experienced a considerable decline in its operations due to these events.  The extensive media coverage, coupled with retailers refusing to stock meat that contains pink slime, has led to a significant decrease in demand for the filler.  As a result, Beef Products Inc. announced earlier this week that it would suspend operations at several facilities, including its plants in Garden City, Kansas, Amarillo, Texas and Waterloo, Iowa.  These sites collectively produced around 900,000 pounds per day, and their closure will result in the temporary layoff of 650 employees.

The company is now engaging in an aggressive public relations campaign designed to restore confidence in its products.  Industry groups and politicians are also rallying behind Beef Products Inc.  For example, Governor Terry Branstad of Iowa, home to one of the processing plants, has vowed that pink slime is lean, quality meat that costs less and is healthier than alternatives.  Governor Branstad will be joining Texas Governor Rick Perry and Kansas Governor Sam Brownback, whose states housed other processing plants, to demonstrate their support for Beef Products Inc. by touring its facility in South Sioux City, Nebraska, later this week.

Even United States Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has voiced his support of the use of pink slime.  Earlier this week, he said that “I can guarantee you that if we felt that this was unsafe, we wouldn’t allow it to be marketed and we wouldn’t make it part of our school lunch program.”  In other words, trust the government… just don’t listen to the government’s microbiologist who first voiced concerns about the use of pink slime, referred to it as an “adulterant” and recommended that it not be included in ground beef.  He’s shady, the rest of us are trustworthy.

For what’s it’s worth, I’m pretty sure that the campaign fails to address the heart of the issue by blaming the outrage exclusively on public disgust about the health risks associated with eating a visually unattractive beef filler.  I don’t really think that this is the case, because many Americans already choose to consume highly processed food made from the most disgusting scraps of animals – even though they realize that eating the highly processed food may well adversely affect their health.  As a culture, society has already accepted the risks associated the consumption of these products, and campaigning against this issue is almost akin to rallying against a straw man argument.

In 2010, for example, consumers spent more than $1.6 billion on hot dogs, which generally consist of meat trimmings, fat, flavorings and preservatives that are mixed in vats, forced into tubs and stuffed into natural or synthetic casings.  The United States Food and Drug Administration specifically recognizes that hot dogs can contain any amount of mechanically separated poultry and up to 20% of mechanically separated pork, which the agency describes as

a paste-like and batter-like poultry [or pork] product produced by forcing bones, with attached edible tissue, through a sieve or similar device under high pressure to separate bone from the edible tissue.

That’s visually unappealing and raunchy, yet the process has done little to deter many consumers.  People know that hot dogs may well be prepared using a reprehensible processes, that the processed food contains may well contain many foul animal byproducts and that their consumption correlates with many known health risks.  Regardless, the same people still knowingly decide to eat the food.

Where’s the outrage?  What aren’t people attacking the hot dog industry?   They’re not, arguably because the risks have been disclosed, the process is transparent and neither the government nor the industry are perceived as disempowering Main Street America.

And that’s what this comes down to: choice.  It’s the heart of the problem, and a considerable amount of the outrage is likely derived from the fact that consumers are only now learning of the reality of pink slime.  We’ve been eating it for years, but its existence wasn’t readily disclosed and we therefore have been unable to make an informed decision about whether we should consume the product.

And, of course, many activists blame the United States Department of Agriculture of the concealment of information.  The agency allows distributors and retailers to label pink slime as meat.  The product is not listed on nutritional labels, and therefore even the most diligent consumer was unable to chose between purchasing meat containing the filler and meat not containing the ingredient.  Incidentally, Undersecretary of Agriculture Joann Smith was heavily involved in the decision-making process, and she was appointed to the Board of Directors of Beef Products Inc. once she left the agency.

Bettina Elias Siegel, a face of this grassroots movement and author of the popular petition on change.org, recently summarized the manner in which the lack of information – or the concealment of information – led to the present situation.  She’s eloquent and objective, so I’m simply going reproduce part of her recent posting:

But clearly something else arose out of my petition and the media coverage associated with it.  Consumers learned — many for the first time — that USDA allows [lean finely textured beef, or LFTB] to be mixed into the nation’s ground beef supply, up to 15%, without any labeling to disclose that fact.  Reportedly, 70% of beef in this country now contains LFTB.

And as it turns out, consumers are quite unhappy about this fact.

Some people are concerned about food safety, given the pathogenic nature of the raw material used by [Beef Products, Inc., or BPI] to make the product.   Its safety record, though now admirable, was somewhat more troubling between 2005 and 2009 when E. coli and salmonella were repeatedly found in its product, as reported by the New York Times.   Some consumers – rightly or wrongly — worry about the use of ammonium hydroxide in the processing of their food.  Some people consider the inclusion of an unlabeled filler to be a form of economic adulteration, in that their package labeled 100% ground beef might only be  85% ground chuck or ground round and the rest a gelatinous meat filler.  And others claim there are aesthetic differences between beef with LFTB and pure ground beef.

Whether any or all of these concerns are valid is almost beside the point.  Our free market is founded on informed consumer choice, but in this case USDA deprived consumers of the ability to make that choice when it made the controversial decision to treat LFTB as “ground beef,” no different from ground chuck or ground round.

Now that the truth about LFTB is coming to light, BPI’s business may be suffering.  But this consumer reaction should not come as much of a surprise to the company;  why else did BPI, according to the Times, lobby USDA back in 2001 to exempt their product from labeling?

Of course, that was always Mr. Zirnstein’s contention.  The USDA microbiologist-turned-whistleblower has simply explained that “[t]he public’s not aware of it, hasn’t been for years. It’s not their fault. Nobody told them.”

##

%d bloggers like this: