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May 30 2013

Chinese buy Smithfield: What about food safety, the environment, community health, animal welfare, worker rights?

I first heard about the impending of Smithfield (the gigantic ham-and-pork company) to the Chinese company, Shuanghui International Holdings, from MeatPoultry.com:

The acquisition positions Smithfield to expand its offerings in China through Shuanghui’s distribution network. Shuanghui will acquire all of Smithfield’s outstanding shares for $34 per share in cash, which is a 31 percent premium…Smithfield’s stock price rose nearly 28 percent to $33.20…Smithfield’s common stock will no longer be publicly traded, and the company will become a wholly owned independent subsidiary of Shuanghui.

MeatPoultry.com also reported a statement from the CEO of Shuanghui: 

We are excited about this…Together, [Shuanghui and Smithfield Foods] can be a global leader in animal protein…We are No. 1 in China; Smithfield is No. 1 in the US…Chinese consumers like American pork. US farmers want foreign markets for their pork. This will be a win-win for both countries.

Not exactly, says a e-mailed news release from the Waterkeeper Alliance:

This deal with the Shuanghui – a company with a very recent history of producing tainted food – raises the specter that Americans will lose more control of their food supply, be exposed to tainted food and be left with even more devastated farming communities and drinking water supplies as a result of increased industrialized meat production.

The New York Times put this sale on the front page and Stephanie Strom has an even longer piece on it in the business section.   The Washington Post also had plenty to say.

Smithfield, you may recall, is a company famous for factory farms, pollution, and truly appalling labor practices documented, in among many other places, the movie, Food, Inc.

In 2009, I commented on a previous attempt by Smithfield to sell out to a Chinese company.

Let’s not be too xenophobic about China. China already owns vast amounts of American real estate, holds vast amounts of American debt, and produces vast amounts of the food we eat–globalization in all its glory. We can no longer survive without China so we better figure out quickly how to make this marriage work.

We also better figure out how to make our food production system more sustainable and less harmful to farm animals, the environment, farm workers, and consumers. I was a member of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, which released its report last April. Our report fully documented how CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations) are not nice to animals; pollute air, soil, and water; turn communities into garbage dumps; and promote transmission of nasty—and often antibiotic resistant–microbial diseases to farm workers, community residents, and everyone else.

One major finding of the Pew Commission was that laws protecting communities and the environment currently exist; they just aren’t enforced.  Too bad for anyone living near an industrial pig farm.

This deal stinks?

Additions, May 31: Reuters discusses the ractopamine issue, said to be key to understanding this deal.  The Chinese do not allow use of ractopamine as a growth promoter, but the U.S. does.  Once Smithfield started phasing out its use, the deal became possible.

Ractopamine is a beta-agonist. Initially developed to treat asthma in humans, ractopamine was found to be extremely effective at changing the metabolism of an animal, so that the animal would quickly and cost-effectively add sought-after muscle. The FDA approved the use of beta-agonists in pigs in 1999, for cattle in 2003 and for turkeys in 2008.

Helena Bottemiller writing on NBC News, also discusses this issue.

In March, Smithfield Inc., converted its Tar Heel, N.C. plant – the world’s largest pork processing facility – to slaughter only hogs that were raised without the use of ractopamine….the company’s product line will be 50 percent ractopamine-free as of June 1…Earlier this year, China and Russia demanded that all American meat exports be certified ractopamine-free. The U.S. government initially refused these certification demands, so Russia shut down its market to U.S. beef and pork in February. 

Addition, June 1: The New York Times writes that the Committee on Foreign Investment is about to undertake a national security review of the deal.  The big questions: Are Smithfield’s sales to the military secure?  Does it use special farming technology that could be transferred to China?  Will Shuanghui have the power to disrupt the U.S. food chain for pork?

Another addition, June 1: Apparently, Shuanghui has a history of findings of maggots, excessive bacteria and illegal additives.

Addition, June 4: Guess who owns half of Shuanghui, the company that wants to buy Smithfield: Goldman Sachs, among others.

Addition, June 5: The Wall Street Journal has this helpful graphic comparing the pork supply chains in China and the U.S. along with an excellent summary of the issues involved.

image

Mar 3 2013

Food Matters: Horsemeat scandal has eaters nervous

My monthly (first Sunday) column in the San Francisco Chronicle is now out, this time on the horsemeat scandal.

Q: It makes me sick to think that anyone could eat horsemeat. I don’t see how it could get into so many foods. Tell me how I can be sure I’m not eating it.

A: From this side of the Atlantic, the discovery of horsemeat in European hamburger and frozen dinners is the most riveting of scandals, replete with DNA technology, veterinary drugs, impossible-to-trace supply chains, smuggling, organized crime and outright fraud – not to mention the usual finger-pointing, cover-ups and protestations of shock that accompany food crises.

It is easy to explain how horsemeat got into vast amounts of hamburger and prepared meals. Horses are expensive to house and feed. Something has to be done with them when they are no longer wanted for farming, transport, racing or recreation. Horsemeat is edible, even delicious to some, and costs less than beef.

Complications

In Europe, the supply chains are exceptionally complicated, involving countless companies in more than 21 countries that process, transport or sell horses or horsemeat. The complexity makes it relatively easy to use horses to smuggle people or drugs, to label horsemeat as beef or to slip it into hamburger.

This would just be a matter of economic fraud if people didn’t care whether they ate horsemeat. But some Europeans, and most Americans, care very much. Like you, many people are appalled at the idea of eating any companion animal, let alone one symbolic of the rugged West.

Beyond cultural prohibitions, there are other reasons to avoid eating meat from horses not raised for food. Horses are routinely treated with veterinary drugs, legal and not. The drug traces found in European horsemeat may be too low to cause harm, but hardly seem likely to promote human health.

How long horsemeat has been passed off as European beef is unknown, as is why officials in Ireland decided to do DNA tests on supermarket meals in the first place. Whether done as routine testing or because of a tip, the results were startling. More than one-third of the tested “beef” samples contained horsemeat. Later tests in Great Britain identified “beef” meals made entirely from horsemeat.

This, as the Guardian’s writer Felicity Lawrence wrote in her guide to the scandal, can only be “industrial scale adulteration.”

The ensuing crisis forced many food companies and retailers to recall vast numbers of products, some intended for school meals. Nestlé (no relation) recalled pasta meals, but issued assurances that such products do not leave Europe and that none of its American products contains horsemeat-laden European beef.

What to make of this? In our food studies programs at New York University, we discuss food as a marker of cultural identity. People in other nations eat horsemeat. But like you, about 80 percent of Americans are appalled at the idea of eating horsemeat and oppose slaughtering horses for food or any other reason.

Yet horsemeat used to be eaten by Americans (and still is, by some), and even more so by pets. As Malden C. Nesheim and I wrote in our book about the pet food industry, “Feed Your Pet Right,” horse slaughterhouses created pet food companies to dispose of the meat. Through the 1940s, nearly all domestic horsemeat ended up in pet food.

Under pressure from horse lovers and animal welfare advocates, pet food companies replaced horsemeat with meat from other animals. Although horsemeat is permitted in pet food, and in theory could show up in rendered byproducts and meals, no American company would knowingly use it as an explicit item in an ingredient list. One can only imagine the uproar if it did.

Inspection issues

In 2007, Congress blocked the Department of Agriculture from inspecting slaughterhouses, effectively banning their use. As unintended consequences, the 140,000 or so unwanted horses each year had to be transported to slaughterhouses in Canada or Mexico, and populations of neglected and abandoned horses increased. As a result, Congress permitted horse slaughterhouses to reopen last year, but the USDA has yet to authorize inspectors to work in them.

Could American beef be contaminated with horsemeat? We had a similar scandal in the 1950s. But if U.S. officials are testing hamburger for horsemeat DNA these days, they aren’t saying.

Because horsemeat is not produced here, it won’t be in butcher shops or supermarkets – unless the stores imported it or acquired contaminated products before the recalls, or unless the USDA assigns inspectors and allows horse slaughterhouses to reopen. Right now, without DNA testing, you can’t be sure.

You find this alarming? Short of going vegetarian, you have an option: Buy kosher meat. Jewish dietary laws prohibit horsemeat – horses are not ruminants and do not have cloven hooves – and kosher slaughterhouses are diligent about excluding forbidden animals.

This gives the horsemeat scandal one clear winner: Sales of kosher meat are booming.

Dec 12 2012

We eat what we buy. Both need improvement, says USDA.

USDA’s Economic Research Service has just issued a report, Assessing the Healthfulness of Consumers’ Grocery Purchases.

The bottom line?  Americans buy fewer fruits and vegetables than recommended but far more refined grains, sugars, and meat.

Here’s the summary diagram:

These results should not come as a surprise.  According to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines, the leading sources of calories in U.S. diets are:

  1. Grain-based desserts
  2. Breads
  3. Chicken and chicken dishes
  4. Sodas and other sugary beverages
  5. Pizza
  6. Alcoholic beverages
  7. Pasta and pasta dishes
  8. Tortillas, burritos, tacos
  9. Beef and beef dishes
  10. Dairy desserts
We eat what we buy (or are given).
That’s why congressional pressure to increase grains and meat in school lunches (see yesterday’s post) is questionable from a public health standpoint.
Jul 26 2012

USDA supports Meatless Monday? Not a chance.

I was asked by a reporter yesterday for comment on the press release issued by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) in response to USDA’s announced support of the Meatless Monday campaign.  

What? 

My immediate reaction: It’s pretty unbelievable that USDA would support Meatless Monday. Where’s the USDA statement? [see addition below]

The NCBA press release said:

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) recent announcement that the agency embraces the “Meatless Monday” concept calls into question USDA’s commitment to U.S. farmers and ranchers. USDA stated “one simple way to reduce our environmental impact while dining at our cafeteria is to participate in the “Meatless Monday” initiative.”

NCBA said Meatless Monday “is an animal rights extremist campaign to ultimately end meat consumption” and “NCBA will not remain silent as USDA turns its back on cattlemen and consumers.”

Without having seen what USDA said, I told the reporter:

If USDA is really supporting Meatless Monday, that’s big news. Historically, the USDA has worked hand in glove with the meat industry and has firmly resisted suggestions that it would be healthier for people and the planet to eat less meat.

The meat industry complained that the 2010 dietary guidelines pushed seafood and that meat got lost in protein in MyPlate, so they are supersensitive to this issue. Anyone who has ever been to a feedlot or industrial pig farm knows that the environmental issues are huge. You can smell them from miles away.

And what did the USDA actually say?  Oops.  Mistake.

According to the Boston Globe:

The Agriculture Department says a statement on its website encouraging its employees not to eat meat on Mondays was made without proper clearance.

The posting earlier this week was part of an internal newsletter that discusses how staff can reduce their environmental impact while dining at the agency’s cafeteria.

….USDA spokeswoman Cortney Rowe says the department does not endorse the “Meatless Monday” initiative, which is part of a global public health campaign.

Apparently, the USDA pulled the statement within minutes after the NCBA statement went out. 

How did USDA announce this to the public?  On Twitter!

USDA MT @usdapress: USDA does not endorse Meatless Monday. Statement on USDA site posted w/o proper clearance. It has been removed // @FarmBureau

 Food politics in action!

Addition, June 27: Here’s the original USDA Newsletter that caused all this fuss.  Scroll to page 3.

Apr 11 2012

The legacy of LFTB (a.k.a “pink slime”): power politics in action

The noise about lean finely textured beef (LFTB), commonly known as “pink slime,” is bringing attention to some of the more unsavory aspects of the U.S. political system—public relations spin, the revolving door, and other aspects of power politics.  Here are some recent examples:

According to the Sioux City Journal:

Gov. Terry Branstad on Monday called for a congressional investigation into the source of what he called a “smear campaign” meant to discredit the Lean, Finely Textured Beef made by a Siouxland company.

“Clearly, this is a safe product, it is a lean product, it helps reduce obesity, and there is a spurious attack being levied against it by some groups who are against it…And you can suspect who they might be — people who don’t like meat.”

Helena Bottemiller of Food Safety News reports that Branstad’s colleague, Steve King (Rep-Iowa) explains how the hearings will work:

Witnesses would be under oath and they’re of course obligated by law to tell the truth, those who have been the ones who have perpetrated this smear campaign against one of the stellar companies in the country…I think they’ll have an obligation then to explain themselves why they could not base their allegations on facts and what they’ve done to damage an industry.

Perhaps King will call on Representative Chellie Pingree (Dem-Maine) who has submitted a bill calling for labeling of LFTB. The the Sioux City Journa quotes Branstad’s comments about her:

Pingree is guilty of spreading “bogus misinformation” about lean, finely textured beef along with celebrity chefs and “media elites.”

Pingree should have no trouble explaining why she wrote the bill:

Consumers have made it pretty clear they don’t want this stuff in their food…If a product contains connective tissue and beef scraps and has been treated with ammonia, you ought to be able to know that when you pick it up in the grocery store.

Calling people up before congressional committees is harassment, given how rude congressional committee members typically are to witnesses.

On a lesser scale, Bettina Siegel, the school lunch advocate who initially wrote the USDA to stop using LFTB, has been so harassed by nasty comments on her blog that she has had to set up a filtering system (I’m considering doing the same).

The Concord Monitor reports that USDA undersecretary Joann Smith, the official who approved LFTB for use in school hamburger, was an appointee of President George H.W. Bush and formerly a beef industry advocate.

When Smith left government, she was appointed to the board of directors of Beef Products Inc., the maker of LFTB, which paid her $1.2 million over 17 years [actually, she was on the board of IBP, a supplier of BPI].

Republic Report says that Beef Products Inc. retains a team of lobbyists from the firm Olsson, Frank & Weeda. One lobbyist employed by the firm is Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, a former congresswoman from South Dakota and leader of the “Blue Dog Caucus” of pro-corporate Democrats.

It’s enough to make anyone start buying organics.

Addition, April 16: Food Safety News has published an excellent timeline on the history of the “pink slime” crisis.

Addition, May 10: Legal scholars weigh in on whether pink slime should be labeled.  No, they say, requiring labeling would violate the First Amendment.

Apr 4 2012

Oops. Apologies to Mike Osterholm

Dr. Michael Osterholm, the director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, and a well known advocate for safe food, has asked for a correction to my post of several days ago.

He thinks the post can be interpreted as suggesting that he has financial ties to Beef Products, Inc (BPI), the maker of the ingredient.

In reading over the post, I can see how that interpretation is possible.  That was certainly not my intention.

Dr. Osterholm tells me that neither he nor his University of Minnesota Center have financial, consultative, or political ties to BPI or to Cargill (which also makes the ingredient).

His concerns about the issue have to do with facts about food safety and with correcting misinformation.

I did not mean to suggest otherwise, have personally apologized to him, and have edited the post accordingly.

 

Apr 2 2012

“Pink Slime:” Some questions about what’s really at stake

The “pink slime” furor gets curiouser and curiouser.  It’s hard to keep up (see yesterday’s post) but here’s my summary of where we are with this for the moment.

What is the furor about?

The best place to start is with Michael Moss’s December 30, 2009 investigative report in the New York Time on the ammonia process used by Beef Products, Inc to make LFTB (lean finely textured beef).

The article contains the first mention of the term “pink slime” as a pejorative for this product.

Moss provides confidential documents detailing the effects of the ammonia processing of LFTB, and revelations of the discrepancy between USDA’s standards for beef safety and those of its school lunch program.

How much LFTB is used in ground beef?

According to a report in the Wall Street Journal (March 28), Cargill Inc. estimates about 850 million pounds per year.

What is the “pink slime” crisis going to cost the beef industry?

According to the business press, meat packers are likely to lose a record $101 per head as a result of the pink slime crisis. Multiply that by the 34 million head of cattle slaughtered each year for food. And then there’s the economy:

Margins for meat packers have been declining for several months as consumers began to push back against high prices at retail in order to cope with rising gas prices. In response, processors have reduced slaughter rates in an effort to maintain beef prices [see Addition at the bottom of this post].

Who supports BPI and why?

BPI is a strong supporter of the Republican party and its candidates. But it is also generous elsewhere.

See, for example, BPI’s full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal, March 23, 2012. It quotes from “In defense of food safety leadership,” by Nancy Donley. Donley is a founder of STOP (Safe Tables Our Priority), an organization of mothers whose children died from eating contaminated hamburger.

After what I personally experienced watching my son suffer and die, I am very skeptical and cynical about for-profit meat companies and their professed commitment to food safety. Not all companies ‘walk their talk.’ BPI does.

BPI is well known to be the donor of the anonymous gifts to STOP of $250,000 last year and $500,000 the year before (see the tax forms posted on STOP’s website).

What is the USDA’s position on LFTB and BPI?

Obamafoodorama (March 29) reports on USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack’s press conference in Iowa on March 28. He joined Governor Terry Bransted, a Republican, in defense of LFTB.

Here’s what Obamafoodorama says Secretary Vilsack said:

  • The product is crucial to fighting childhood obesity.
  • This product is safe…There’s no question about it. We’ve said that hundreds of times and we’ll continue to say it.
  • It is a “leaner product” than regular ground beef, and crucial for the battle to end childhood obesity. That’s one of the reasons we’ve made it a staple of the school lunch program.
  • We are…concerned about obesity levels, and this is an opportunity for us to ensure that youngsters are receiving a product that is lean and contains less fat.
  • “Historically” the product is less expensive than other products…For that reason it’s been part of the school lunch program.”
  • [It] doesn’t have to be labeled when it is included in ground beef because “it is safe.”

Obamafoodorama’s report concludes:

Somewhat disappointingly, the Secretary’s efforts to defend lean, finely textured beef did not include him digging into a plate of the product and eating it on camera.

Why is a Democratic USDA Secretary going to bat for a private company well known for supporting Mitt Romney in particular and Republicans in general?

I can only speculate that it has something to do with Tom Vilsack’s wife, Christie, who is running for Iowa’s 4th Congressional District. In Iowa, BPI has bipartisan support, and Christie Vilsack says:

LFTB is safe…it is the women in our community who can put BPI back on it’s feet.

I think one of the biggest strengths in this audience today are all the women here, because we tend to be the ones who go to the grocery stores, and we’re the ones who choose the products that we bring home and feed to our families.

No concerns at all. It’s a safe product, and these are wonderful people who work there.

Who stands to benefit from the “pink slime” furor?

Wendy’s for one. I saw the company’s full-page ad in USA Today and the New York Times (March 30):

Where’s the pure beef? At Wendy’s that’s where! We use nothing but pure, 100% fresh, never-frozen North American beef.

We’ve never used fillers, additives, preservatives, flavor boosters, or ammonia treatments.

We’ve never used ‘pink slime,’ and we never will.

If LFTB is safe, isn’t it acceptable?

I’ve heard this argument before. It’s the same one used for GMOs. As I discuss in my book Safe Food, even if technological processes like this are safe, they are not necessarily acceptable—especially if they are not labeled and do not give consumers a choice.

What should BPI and other companies do when caught in a crisis like this?

Bill Marler has an explanation and some suggestions. This CEO:

  • Did not trust consumers with the truth.
  • Did not openly explain how the food product was made and what additives and ingredients it contained.
  • Ignored dissenting expert opinions in memos and emails.

To rebuild public trust and sales, Marler advises, do not:

  • Shoot the messenger.
  • Threaten legal action.
  • Play the political card.
  • Make political supporters eat your product or say how safe it is in front of the national media.

What should companies do? Simple:

  • Just tell the truth.
  • Tell consumers what they already know.
  • Tell the public how the product is made and what is in it.
  • Tell consumers the real benefits of the product.
  • Post test results online.
  • Invite the public, not politicians, to your plant for a tour and a taste test.
  • Bottom line: If you have nothing to hide, hide nothing.

My last questions for now:

  • Why are we allowing the school lunch program to be the dumping ground for cheap food?
  • Why don’t we have a food safety system in place that requires beef to be safe in the first place—so it doesn’t have to be treated with ammonia?

We should all be asking these questions and demand that our elected leaders ask them too—and insist on answers.

Addition: AFA, a competitor of BPI, filed for bankruptcy, because of reduced demand for all beef products.

Apr 1 2012

The dilemma of pink slime: cost or culture?

I devoted this month’s (first Sunday) Food Matters column in the San Francisco Chronicle to the current hot-button issue, pink slime.

Q: I keep hearing about pink slime being fed to school kids. How could anyone even think about putting something so disgusting in school lunches?

A: Pink slime is the pejorative term for “lean finely textured beef,” a product designed to recover useful bits from carcass trimmings. These are warmed, centrifuged to remove the fat, treated with ammonium hydroxide gas to kill pathogens and compressed into blocks that are frozen for later use.

The final product is pink; therefore, it’s meat – or so says the meat industry. And from a strictly nutritional standpoint, it is. But from any other standpoint, LFTB creates a dilemma.

For one thing, it solves an enormous problem for meat producers. Only about half the weight of the 34 million cattle slaughtered each year is considered fit for human consumption. The rest has to be burned, buried in landfills or sold cheaply for fertilizer or pet food.

LFTB recovers 10 to 12 pounds of edible lean beef from every animal and is said to save another 1.5 million animals from slaughter.

This is the same argument Mal Nesheim and I used in our book, “Feed Your Pet Right.” If American pets were not fed byproducts of human food production, they would need the equivalent of food for 42 million people.

Our readers did not buy this argument. They do not want their pets eating byproducts. They believe their pets deserve food of higher quality. Don’t kids?

A dilemma

Here’s the dilemma. LFTB solves a serious food safety problem. The meat trimmings that go into cheap hamburger are said to often be heavily contaminated with bacteria, some of them dangerous. The ammonia processing makes LFTB safe.

Since LFTB’s introduction, safety officials say they rarely find toxic E. coli in school hamburger.

LFTB’s leading manufacturer, Beef Products Inc., has just announced suspension of LFTB production at three of its four plants. This alarms some food safety advocates. They worry that if public pressure causes LFTB to be eliminated, bacteria-laden beef trimmings will go back into hamburger, just as they used to, and the meat will be much less safe.

Under public pressure, some fast food chains, grocery retailers and school districts say they will no longer mix LFTB with hamburger. Walmart will offer customers a choice, and so will the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Members of Congress have written the USDA, asking, “If fast food chains won’t serve pink slime, why should school cafeterias?”

Calling LFTB “pink slime” presents a massive public relations problem. Human culture determines what is socially acceptable to eat. Most of us don’t eat the parts of animals our culture considers inedible.

LFTB is not really slimy and it is reasonably safe and nutritious. But it violates cultural norms.

Chef Jamie Oliver proved this with schoolchildren. In one episode of his “Food Revolution,” he made the chicken version of pink slime (white slime?) from bird parts the kids found disgusting. When he formed the slurry into patties, the kids ate them anyway. They forgot about the patties’ origins.

But we are acculturated adults. Once we know how chicken nuggets are made, we might want to think twice before eating them. Now we know hamburger is mixed with LFTB. Do we still want to eat it?

Letter to USDA

School food advocate Bettina Siegel collected 230,000 signatures on a letter to the USDA to ban LFTB. She wrote, “It is simply wrong to feed our children connective tissues and beef scraps that were, in the past, destined for use in pet food and rendering, and were not considered fit for human consumption.” The USDA buys loads of LFTB for school hamburger because it is cheap. Districts that choose higher-quality meat will have to pay more for meat. Can they afford to?

Of course they can, says my go-to guru for all matters concerning school meals, Kate Adamick. Her new book “Lunch Money: Serving Healthy School Food in a Sick Economy” (cookforamerica.com/lunch-money) shows how schools can buy new equipment and better-quality food by creating strong breakfast programs and cooking meals from scratch.

This means that the acceptability of LFTB in supermarket hamburger or school meals boils down to a cultural choice. Even if LFTB is safe, nutritious and tastes like hamburger, it may not be culturally acceptable.

Do we want LFTB in our food? Or do we and our children deserve better? Serving healthy and delicious food is a way to show respect for our culture, food, children and schools, and to invest in the future of our nation.

Perhaps the best solution to the pink slime dilemma is simply to label LFTB as an ingredient. This would give individuals and schools the opportunity to decide for themselves whether culture or cost is the more important value in food choice.

An even better idea: Let’s produce safe meat in the first place.

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