Tag Archives: Nutrition

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.

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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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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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The National Pastime: Peanuts, Cracker Jacks and… an EIGHT POUND hamburger?

Stephen Strasburg is bringing hope to baseball fans in our nation’s capital.  The highly-touted 23-year-old pitcher for the Washington Nationals has taken the mound seventeen times over the past two years, limiting opponents to a .211 batting average while recording 116 strikeouts, .98 WHIP and 2.40 ERA.  Loosely translated, he’s pretty darn good, and the peripheral statistics suggest that he should develop into a perennial All-Star.

The lanky phenom has a new claim to fame: the organization is now cleverly marketing a hamburger dubbed “the StrasBurger” as a homage to the pitcher.  The burger is sold at the Red Porch Restaurant, located in the Center Field Plaza of Nationals Park.  It almost makes too much sense: hungry fans can eat a Strasburger while watching Strasburg.

So far so good… except… the StrasBurger weighs in at EIGHT POUNDS.  It consists of a virtual buffet of ground brisket, chuck and short ribs, topped with an unidentified “special sauce” and a smorgasbord of condiments – and, of course, it’s complimented by a basket of french fries and a pitcher of a soft drink.  When served, the StrasBurger weighs about as much as 32 Quarter Pounders and slightly more than the average newborn baby.

Prepare to be surprised: the StrasBurger is a pretty darn unhealthy dish.  Colleen Greg, a Registered Dietitian who specializes in adult and pediatric weight management and cardiovascular nutrition, provided NBC Washington with the following breakdown:

the StrasBurger is somewhere between 8,000-10,000 calories, packs 600-700 grams of fat, 200-300 grams of saturated fat and 2,500-3,000 milligrams of sodium. It seems that the Nationals are advertising the burger as something to be shared, but even then, it still packs a wallop….  If the burger is split four ways, each person’s portion would therefore be at least 2,000 calories, 150 grams of fat, 50 grams saturated fat and 625 mg of sodium… All of these are higher than what many, if not most, people need in an entire DAY, except for sodium.

What ever happened to peanuts and Cracker Jacks?

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The National Hot Dog and Sausage Council responds to claims that “Hot Dogs Cause Butt Cancer.”

Mayor McCheese was a goofy, bumbling mayor with a head that was molded in the shape of enormous cheeseburger.  The good Mayor’s right-hand man was Officer Big Mac, and his head also consisted of a rather large cheeseburger.  Together they administered justice and order throughout all of McDonaldland, while introducing children to the wonderful world of processed meat, sugary sodas and greasy french fries.

The unfortunate reality is that Mayor McCheese and Officer Big Mac were fictional characters responsible for managing a world that didn’t exist.  For whatever reason, the mascots were quickly forgotten as the nation’s taste for fast food steadily increased.

Proving yet again that job security is a myth, Mayor McCheese and Officer Big Mac have been replaced by new governing body: the National Hot Dog & Sausage Council.  The council consists of real people – not cartoon characters, puppets or fictional creations – and it is lead by Janet Riley, its president and official “Queen of Wien.”

As a bit of an aside, the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council is a “project of the American Meat Institute,” and  Queen Riley moonlights as the Senior Vice President of Public Affairs of the American Meat Institute.  They maintain a place of business in Washington, DC, where the council claims to conduct

scientific research to benefit hot dog and sausage manufacturers. The Council also serves as an information resource to consumers and media on questions related to quality, safety, nutrition and preparation of hot dogs and sausages.

Well, the council is steamin’ mad at a group of physicians and medical professionals.  The Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine, a group of more than 125,000 health care professionals and others, has launched a campaign to warn consumers about the risks associated with the consumption of processed meats, which have been associated with colon and other cancers.

The group placed roadside billboards that poignantly describe the dangers associated with the consumption of hot dogs and processed meats.  The most recognized billboard is located along the Eisenhower Expressway in Chicago, Illinois, and it claims that “Hot Dogs Cause Butt Cancer.”  Similar billboards have also been placed in Miami, Florida and Indianapolis, Indiana.

Yep.  The National Hot Dog & Sausage Council is miffed.  Queen Riley described the sign as “misleading,” “outrageous” and “alarmist.”  J. Patrick Boyle, the President of the American Meat Institute, argued that

[h]ot dogs are part of a healthy, balanced diet.  They come in a variety of nutrition and taste formulas and they are an excellent source of protein, vitamins and minerals. This group’s claims are on a collision course with the facts.

Of course, earlier this month, President Boyle also extolled the virtues of boneless lean beef trimmings, otherwise popularly known as  “pink slime.”

Anyways, frankly – no pun intended, I guess – I’m not necessarily sure that President Boyle should really try to promote the nutritional benefits of mechanically separated meat, beef trimmings, fat, salt and preservatives that include soduim erythobate and sodium nitrate.  Scientific research simply doesn’t support his claim.  For example, the Harvard School of Public Heath recently published the results of a study that indicated that a daily serving of hot dogs and other processed meats increased the risk of dying of heart disease by 21% and dying of cancer by 16%.  Other studies have found a correlation between processed meats and risks for bladder cancer and pancreatic cancer. The American Institute for Cancer Research has also found that the consumption of one hot dog per day increases the risk of colon cancer.

Unfortunately, these cancers are becoming increasingly common and they often prove terminal.  According to a report from the American Cancer Society, in 2010, over 1.5 million people were diagnosed with some form of cancer, and around 550,000 died from the disease.  Slightly more than 102,000 patients were diagnosed with colon cancer and 51,370 patients died from colon cancer.  Other incidents were just as profound: in the same year, 43,140 people were diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and the disease caused 36,800 deaths, and around 131,260 people were diagnosed with cancers of the urinary system, including bladder cancer, and over 28,500 people died from the disease.  Pretty grim statistics, no?

Yeah.  The Queen of Wein and President Boyle are really making me long for the days of Mayor McCheese and Officer Big Mac.  I’ll chose goofy and bumbling over this junk any day of the week.

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