Tag Archives: food

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.

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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.”

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Human ingenuity combines with corporate marketing to create a better breadstick

Domino’s Pizza has launched a national marketing campaign that has absolutely nothing to do with pizza.  Enter the wonderful world of Domino’s Parmesan Bread Bites, the latest offering that is the subject of a brand spankin’ new commercial that’s part of the latest corporate advertising campaign.

The commercials feature Brian Edler, a franchise owner in Findlay, Ohio.  He’s been a rising star in the industry for some time, first receiving national attention when he set a world record by baking 206 medium cheese pizzas in one hour.  His pizza-powers are the stuff of legends, as he served as  Captain of the U.S. Pizza Team, competed at the World Pizza Championship in Italy and won the Fastest Dough title at the annual World Pizza Games.

Well, Franchisee Brian is back in the news.  He apparently designed the Parmesean Bread Bites by deciding to cut a breadstick into four separate and distinct bite-sized pieces and sell the product to consumers.  Customers no longer need to bite into a breadstick; they’re now able to more efficiently consume the product by simply popping a bite-sized piece straight into their mouth.

A marvel of human ingenuity, no?

Patrick Doyle, the Chief Executive Officer of Domino’s Pizza, agrees that Brian’s product is revolutionary.  He appears in the commercial, grinning and giggling while he praises Brian’s leadership and initiative.  Not surprisingly, he has directed all other franchisees to begin selling the bite-sized pieces of breadsticks.

The best ideas come from the folks on the front lines, no?

Brian’s friend Bob LaRichie apparently believes that the creativity of those in the trenches can rival corporate research.  Friend Bob also appears in the commercial, almost unable to control his excitement as he marvels at Brian’s decision to cut breadsticks into four bite-sized pieces.  He pointedly stresses that the decision originated in Ohio and that the product wasn’t the result of management’s influence on corporate test kitchens.  According to Friend Bob, “that’s what’s awesome about this!”

If Franchisee Brian is able to significantly contribute to executive operations, CEO Patrick should fear for his job, no?

Brian’s employee Lauryn Schlinghof makes a cameo appearance and explains that CEO Patrick should probably begin seeking alternative employment.  Employee Lauryn joins Friend Bob is recognizing Franchisee Brian’s decision to cut breadsticks into four bite-sized pieces.  Dressed in a neatly pressed uniform and standing in the world’s cleanest franchise, she explains that Franchisee Brian should be promoted to the Chief Executive Officer of Domino’s Pizza.

Anyway, I’m not sure why this whole damn marketing campaign agitates me.  It probably says more about me than CEO Patrick, Franchisee Brian, Friend Bob or Employee Lauryn.  I’m sure they’re nice people, and I’m probably just frustrated that no matter what I do and no matter how hard I work, my efforts will never be recognized by Domino’s Pizza.

Not so fast.  Domino’s Pizza has also announced it’s “Think Oven” campaign.  The new initiative will allow consumers to submit ideas through an online suggestion box.  Now, we all have the opportunity to become the next Franchisee Brian, without making the commitment to owning and operating a franchise.  Life is good.

Here’s to hoping that the company accepts my idea to slice its medium pizzas into twelve pieces instead of eight.  Fame and fortune are calling.

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Peanuts and Cracker Jacks? Baseball weighs in with an eight pound burger, a two foot hotdog and a three pound pretzel

Earlier this month, the Washington Nationals unveiled the StrausBurger, a hefty hamburger composed of ground brisket, chuck and short ribs topped with a heck of a lot of condiments.  The damn thing weighs in at around 8 pounds and contains somewhere in the neighborhood of 8,000 to 10,000 calories.

Ironically, the sandwich is named after Stephen Strausburg, a lanky young pitcher who looks like he’s never eaten a hamburger, much less a ball of meat that weighs as much as the human head.

Nolan Ryan, the competitive owner of the Texas Rangers, is obviously not impressed with the StrausBurger.  Earlier this week, his team introduced the Champion Dog, a 2 foot hotdog served on a virtual loaf of bread that weighs in at around a pound.  The monstrosity is complimented by sauteed onions, shredded cheese, chili, jalapenos, and, of course, a side order of french fries.  As you can tell from this picture, it’s about as big as a baseball bat.

Steve Peterson, President of Classic Foods, the producer of the meat used in the Champion Dog, was obviously excited.  When referring to the surreal combination of meat trimmings, fat, flavorings and preservatives, he claimed that it was “the next ka-pow.”  I’m still not sure if he was referring to the hot dog, the 2,000 to 3,000 calories contained in the meal, or its $26 price tag.

It’s not the first time that the Texas Rangers have offered fans the opportunity to stick a foot in the grave.  In 2010, the Ballpark at Arlington began serving a pretzel that tipped the scales at an absurd 3 pounds and topped the charts at between 3,400 and 3,700 calories.  It’s served with a modest sampling of marinara sauce, honey mustard dressing and nacho cheese and served in a cardboard pizza box. At the end of the day, it weights nearly as much as a chihuahua

Ballpark Operations Manager Casey Rapp explained the twisted reasoning behind the knot-shaped combination of flour and salt by reasoning that “[l]ast year during the playoffs, we said, ‘We gotta come up with something that’s bigger than anything else, that really signifies Texas.'”

Mr. Rapp certainly hit a home run – no pun intended – because everything really is bigger in Texas.  Including people.  For those of you keeping score, Arlington – the home of the Texas Rangers – now ranks as the 15th fattest city in the entire country.  Over 35 percent of the city’s population is clinically obese, which is the second highest rate in the entire freakin’ country.

Surprised?

(And before all the southerners call foul… yes, I live in Texas.  I used to live in Arlington.  But I’m still alive)

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LINKS, WORLD WATER DAY EDITION

Yes, it’s a bit of self-promotion.  No, I’m not proud of it.  Sorry.

Today is World Water Day, and today’s event explores the relationship between the availability of water and world hunger.  Earlier, we discussed it in an article, WORLD WATER DAY: A far more meaningful cause than National Oatmeal Cookie Day.

If you’re interested in World Water Day and recent discussions of world hunger, you may want to check out a few other articles on this blog, such as PROFESSIONAL ATHLETES, COMPETITIVE EATING AND WORLD HUNGER: when sarcasm and epidemics collide.  If you enjoy the original, don’t forget to read the sequel, A HEARTFELT APOLOGY TO COMPETITIVE EATERS… but only if you ignore the sarcasm and cynicism.  Anyone who was forced to watch Caddyshack II knows that sequels rarely live up to the original, but the second article isn’t really all that bad.  Don’t trust me, though: I’m biased.

Also, if you’re interested, don’t forget to check out THIRST FOR KNOWLEDGE: bottled water, cultural phenomena and two million tons of landfill waste.  It’s not necessarily an article that discusses the availability of water, but it does address the corporate and environmental aspects of the bottled water industry.

Yeah.  Self-promotion.  Painful.  Sorry.  Penance.

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