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Mar 30 2012

I’ve been lobbied! Intense efforts to save pink slime aimed at governors, USDA officials, and me

I don’t think I’ve ever been the target of a concerted lobbying campaign before, but efforts to restore the public image of pink slime—a.k.a. Lean Finely Textured Beef—have even gotten to me.

This week, while I was working on my column on pink slime for the Sunday, April 1 San Francisco Chronicle, I received e-mail messages from:

  • Dr. Michael Osterholm, the Minnesota-based food safety authority who I have never met but know about through his expertise and strong support for irradiation as a beef safety measure
  • Bruce Smith, the Environmental Health and Safety officer of Beef Products, Inc (BPI), the company that makes pink slime
  • Bruce Silverglade, the lawyer who now represents BPI but for many years was chief counsel for Center for Science in the Public Interest

All wanted me to know that pink slime was being treated unfairly because it is safe, nutritious and healthy, and getting rid of it will make ground beef more dangerous.

These efforts to educate me must be understood as a tiny fraction of the effort that is going into lobbying in favor of BPI and its product.  Yesterday, the governors and lieutenant governors of five states toured BPI’s facilities and participated in a heated press conference, which also included the undersecretary of USDA for food safety.

This is breathtakingly high-level—and perhaps unprecedented—support for the public relations troubles of a private food company.

Helena  Bottmiller of Food Safety News has a terrific report on these events.   She quotes the remarks of Iowa Governor Terry  Branstad:

We need to stand together to clear up the misinformation that has been circulating in the media…These accusations [against pink slime] are totally unfounded… I am proud to say that for 20 years I and my family have been eating it.

Here’s his instant classic: “Dude, it’s beef!”

The press conference also featured Nancy Donley, the founder and president of STOP Foodborne Illness, and mother of a child who died from eating a contaminated hamburger in 1993.

I had seen Ms. Donley’s letter about her son and the need for safe beef in a BPI advertisement in the Wall Street Journal on March 23.  It contained one eye-popping statement:

BPI has generously supported STOP and has never asked for anything in return.

Really?  I’d say BPI has gotten plenty of return on this particular investment.

STOP posts its tax statements online and these reveal a few small contributions from named private donors ($5000 to $10,000) but one of $250,000 from “a donor who wishes to remain anonymous.”

It doesn’t take much to deduce that this must be from Eldon Roth, the owner of BPI.

My comment to Food Safety News sums all this up:

Evidently, BPI has the political clout to pull in governors, USDA officials, and even food safety advocates on its behalf. I can’t help wondering whether their support for pink slime derives from a genuine belief that the public has treated BPI unfairly, or whether they are responding to the generous campaign contributions and charitable donations by BPI’s owner…I’m willing to grant that pink slime is safe, but that doesn’t make it acceptable [see note below].

Caroline Scott-Thomas writes in NutraIngredients that pink slime is “safe, nutritious—and icky” and that the food industry needs to take action “to avoid being at the mercy of the next consumer scare.”  She suggests:

  • Tell people what you’re selling them, no matter how unsavory it may seem.
  • Spend more time preempting consumer concerns, rather than reacting to them.
  • When industry does need to react, it should – quickly and with honesty.
  • The idea of “pink slime” might be icky, but it has definite advantages, and we should have heard about them before.

Good advice. Watch for my comments on the pink slime situation in the San Francisco Chronicle on Sunday.

Note added, April 4: Michael Osterholm has no financial or other ties to BPI (see post of April 4).

Mar 28 2012

The ethics of meat-eating: A feminist issue?

Staunch feminist that I am, I am greatly enjoying the fuss over the all-male judging panel for the New York Times’ contest calling on “carnivores to tell us why it’s ethical to eat meat.”  The Times’ ethicist, Ariel Kaminer, announced the contest in Sunday’s magazine:

So today we announce a nationwide contest for the omnivorous readers of The New York Times. We invite you to make the strongest possible case for this most basic of daily practices.

We have assembled a veritable murderer’s row of judges — some of the most influential thinkers to question or condemn the eating of meat: Peter Singer, Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, Jonathan Safran Foer and Andrew Light.

In the graduate course in food ethics I taught at NYU a couple of years ago, I had the class read:

  • Peter Singer and Jim Mason’s The Ethics of What We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter
  • Michael Pollan’s critique of Singer’s views in The Omnivore’s Dilemma
  • Jonathan Safran Foer’s critique of Pollan in Eating Animals.  

I also had them read a scientific paper on the nutritional benefits of adding meat to the diets of children in developing countries (Whaley et al.  J Nutrition 2003;133: 3965s–3971s).

Discussions, to say the least, were lively.

As for the other two: Mark Bittman writes eloquently about ethical issues in food choice for the New York Times.  Although I am not familiar with the work of Andrew Light, a quick Google search reveals that he writes about the ethics of climate policy.

All happen to be white men.

On her blog, the “vegan-feminist intellectual” Carol Adams,  author of The Sexual Politics of Meat, says:

Here’s the crux of the problem, our culture is heavily invested in the identification of meat eating with manliness…. How could an intelligent woman miss the fact that her own panel of “ethicists” is male-dominated and that such a choice is, itself, an ethical issue?

Michele Simon writes on her blog, Appetite for Profit:

When I asked why all the judges were male, Kaminer replied that she couldn’t find one female expert in food ethics with a fraction of the name recognition of the men. She argued that the famous male judges would bring far more attention to the contest, and in turn get more people to consider the ethics of meat eating.

Full disclosure: Michele puts me first in her list of ten women who should have been considered.

You can see why I am amused, no?

If you want to enter this contest—and please do!—send written entries of no more than 600 words to ethicist@nytimes.com. Entries are due by April 8.

Jan 16 2012

The latest in meat safety: another form of zapping?

Bacterial contamination of meat is an ongoing problem and everyone wishes for an easy fix—one that does not require meat producers and packers to prevent contamination.

Irradiation works, but raises feasibility and other concerns.

How about electrocution?

Food Production Daily reports that hitting meat with electrical current reduces toxic E. coli O157:H7 on meat surfaces by 2 log units.

The research report says researchers inoculated meat with the bacteria and then applied electrical current.  But by inoculation they must mean just on the surface, because they only counted surface bacteria.

Surface bacteria, alas, are not the problem.  Searing meat effectively kills surface bacteria.   Bacteria in the interior (of hamburger, for example) survive unless the meat is well cooked.

And 2 log units is unlikely to be good enough for bacteria that cause harm at low doses, as this kind does.  The FDA requires a 5 log reduction for fresh juices, for example.

I wish researchers would apply their talents to figuring out how to keep toxic bacteria from getting into and onto animals in the first place.  Then we wouldn’t have to worry about designing techno-fixes to deal with contaminated meat.

 

Jan 4 2012

Peevish about “protein”

Reading the New York Times dining section this morning kicked up my annoyance at use of the term “protein” to refer to meat.  A story about what to do with holiday leftovers says “…repurposing top-quality proteins into dinner is easier than it seems.”

Another on Simon Doonan’s new book, Gay Men Don’t Get Fat, quotes him as pointing out that “straight food…tends to be leaden, full of protein, thick with fat.” Now you know.

But protein is a nutrientFoods are sources of nutrients.

Nutritionists like me consider protein a “macronutrient,” meaning that foods contain many grams of protein and also that protein is a source of calories (4 per gram as opposed to 9 for fat and 4 or so for carbohydrate).

Diets contain about 15% of calories from protein on average, an amount much greater than most people need—about twice the minimum required for maintenance and growth.

“Protein” is most definitely not a synonym for meat or even tofu (see table).  I’ve listed the plant sources of protein in Italics.

FOOD SOURCES OF PROTEIN IN U.S. DIETS

PROTEIN SOURCE % TOTAL PROTEIN
Poultry 17
Dairy 16
Refined grains 15
Beef 11
Seafood  7
Pork  6
Vegetables  6
Whole grains  4
Eggs  4
Fruit  2
Nuts and seeds  2
Sweets  2
Legumes (beans, peas)  1

Source: J Am Diet Assoc. 2010 February ; 110(2): 291–295.

Grains, vegetables, and fruits are not the biggest sources, but they are important contributors.  Vegans, who consume no animal products at all, do not lack for protein.

And while proteins from meat resemble our own proteins more than do proteins from vegetables, their constituent amino acids are the same in all foods.  Varying food intake and eating enough food takes care of amino acid balance.

Hence, my peevishness at the use of “Protein” as a separate category in USDA’s MyPlate (see previous post).

Grains and dairy, each with its own sector, are important sources of protein in American diets.

Why protein?  USDA used to call the group “meat” even though it contained beans, poultry, and fish.  The meat industry ought to be happy about “protein.”  Meat producers have spent years trying to convince Americans to equate meat with protein.

A plea: let’s keep terms clear and talk about nutrients when we mean nutrients and foods when we mean foods.  Protein is not food.

NOTE: More about protein tomorrow when I discuss the new JAMA study on whether high-protein diets help you lose weight (spoiler alert: they don’t).

Oct 28 2011

Surprise! Consumers don’t trust the meat industry

According to MeatingPlace, the Center for Food Integrity asked more than 2,000 respondents to rank a field of 8 possible priorities for the  meat industry.  The rankings of meat industry respondents were quite different from those of consumers.

Meat industry respondents ranked profitability as #2 and humane treatment of farm animals as #8.

In contrast, consumer respondents ranked profitability way down the list as #7 but humane treatment of farm animals as #4.

These disconnects, say industry observers, are serious and “feed an overall distrust of commercial ag operations.”  The survey report explains:

There is an inverse relationship between the perception of shared values and priorities for commercial farms. Consumers fear that commercial farms will put profit ahead of principle and therefore cut corners when it comes to other priority issues. As farms continue to change in size and scale we have to overcome that bias by  effectively demonstrating our commitment to the
values and priorities of consumers.

Maybe the message is getting out there?

Aug 8 2011

It’s time for some Q and A’s

I’ve just turned in the copy-edited manuscript of Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics (pub date March 2012) and now have time to catch up on some questions:

Q. I was recently given to read a book titled “The China Study” which is based on research conducted in 1970′s in China by Dr. Colin Campbell. His main conclusion is that eating dairy and meat causes cancer. His resolution is that a plant-based diet (i.e. vegan) is the (only?) healthy diet for humans. This book has made strong enough of a point to convince several of my friends to “convert” to a vegan diet in order to save their health. Could you share some comments on the validity of the research and conclusions this book presents with regards to detrimental effects of dairy and meat on human health?

A. Campbell makes a forceful argument based on his interpretation of the research and on case studies of people whose diseases resolved when they became vegans. And yes I’ve seen Dr. Campbell’s new movie, Forks over Knives. The first half is a terrific introduction to how the current food environment promotes unhealthy eating.  The second half promotes Dr. Campbell’s ideas about the hazards of meat and dairy foods.

Whether you agree with these ideas or not, the film is well done and worth a look.

Some scientists, however, interpret the research as demonstrating that people are healthier when they eat dairy foods.  For example, the enormous consensus report on diet and cancer risk from the American Institute for Cancer Research and the World Cancer Research Fund concluded in 2007 that eating lots of red meat and processed meat is convincingly associated with an increased risk of colorectal cancer (but no others).

On the other hand, they found dairy foods to be associated with a decrease in the risk of colorectal cancer.  They found limited and less convincing evidence that dairy foods might decrease the risk of bladder cancer but increase the risk of prostate cancer.

How to make sense of this?  These are two food groups in the diets of people who consume many kinds of foods and who do many things that might increase or decrease cancer risk.  Given this complexity, one food or food group seems unlikely to have that much influence on cancer when considered in the context of everything else people eat and do.

Nutrition research, as I am fond of saying, is difficult to do and requires interpretation. Intelligent people can interpret the studies differently depending on their point of view.

The new Dietary Guidelines say to cut down on saturated fats. Those are most plentiful in meat and dairy foods (plant foods have them, but in smaller amounts). Pretty much everyone agrees that plant-based diets promote health/  But whether they have to be 100% plant-based is highly debatable.

The new USDA MyPlate food guide suggests piling plant foods—fruit, vegetables, and grains—on 75% of your plate so the argument is really about what goes on the remaining 25%, what USDA calls the  “Protein” section. You can put beans in that quarter if you don’t want to eat red meat, poultry, or fish.

Q. I’d love to hear your take on the recent walnut flap [accusations that the FDA now considers walnuts to be drugs].  I suspect walnuts got caught with such offenders as Pom, Froot Loops, and Juicy-Juice, but I’d love to find out what the FDA actually said about this. For some odd reason I don’t believe the article is presenting the whole truth.

A. This is a health claims issue. The FDA is not saying walnuts are drugs. It is saying that Diamond Walnut is claiming walnuts as drugs on package labels. How so?

The labels say the omega-3 fatty acids in walnuts may help lower cholesterol; protect against heart disease, stroke and some cancers (e.g. breast cancer); inhibit tumor growth; ease arthritis and other inflammatory diseases; and even fight depression and other mental illnesses. These are disease claims for which the FDA requires scientific substantiation.

The company’s petition did not provide that substantiation so the FDA issued a warning letter. In general, you should be skeptical any time you see a nutritional factor advertised for its ability to prevent or treat such a broad range of problems.

Q. A question about sugar and how it is counted: My books say: 4 g = 1 teaspoon = 15 calories. My Illy Caffe says 10 g of sugar, but 50 calories. Ingredients: coffee, sugar, potassium bicarbonate, potassium citrate. If the drink is 50 calories, shouldn’t it say 12 g or more for the sugar listing?

A. Sugar should be the only ingredient that has calories in this coffee but I’ve seen calorie lists that say 5 calories per gram for sugars. Food companies have some leeway in the way they compute calories. Illy may be using a method that gives 5 rather than 4. But the difference between 40 and 50 is hardly measurable and I wouldn’t worry about amounts this small, annoying as imprecise figures may seem.

May 19 2011

Food politics, Barcelona style

A reader, Jeff Harpell, comments on my scheduled talk in Barcelona:

I lived in Barcelona last year and the year before….While they are becoming more influenced by American fast food, having both parents work, and buying more from one stop food markets, the lifestyle, social support systems, i.e., healthcare and eating habits still are very different from the USA

….I suspect that the Catalonians are concerned about their citizens’ heading down a path of bad eating habits and how to prevent them. Any thoughts to share?

Three first impressions:

1.  The tourist bureau on La Rambla gives out a free city map courtesy of McDonald’s.  The map helpfully identifies the location of all of the McDonald’s outlets in Barcelona, and its such a relief to know that you don’t have to go far to find one.  I counted at least 10.

2.  The Carrefour supermarket has a meat section unlike any supermarket meat section in the United States. Those unwrapped hams are not cheap (yes, that’s 79 Euros, nearly $140, but it’s a big ham).  Leaving the ham attached to the hoof is an interesting touch.  I can only imagine what the New York City health inspectors might say about them.

3.  The Boqueria open-air food market has the most beautiful cut fruit for sale—something like this would make getting those daily fruit servings a real treat.

More to come!

Apr 19 2011

The politics of contaminated meat

By this time, you must have heard about the study in Clinical Infectious Diseases sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trusts.  The study found nearly half of supermarket meat and poultry samples to be contaminated with Staphylococcus aureus. Half of the contaminated samples were resistant to multiple antibiotics.

Staph causes awful infections.  When I was a child, my mother had a Staph infection that kept her out of commission for what seemed like months in that pre-antibiotic era.  Antibiotics can keep Staph under control, but not if the Staph are antibiotic-resistant.   Staph resistant to multiple drugs are a clear-and-present danger.  No wonder this study got so much attention.

The study provides strong support for the idea that we ought to be reducing use of antibiotics as growth promoters in farm animals, an idea strongly supported by the CDC.

Even though 80% of U.S. antibiotic use is for farm animals, the meat industry strong opposes any proposal to change its practices.

The National Cattleman’s Beef Association responds by attacking the science:

Calling into question the safety of U.S. beef without conclusive scientific evidence is careless and misleads consumers. Pew Charitable Trusts, an agenda-driven organization on this issue, funded this study, which concludes that its extremely small sample size was ‘insufficient to accurately estimate prevalence rates’ and that ‘public health relevance of this finding is unclear.’ The study’s authors clearly call into question the validity of their own study. The bottom-line is U.S. beef is safe and is part of a healthy, well-balanced diet.

The American Meat Institute reassures the public that meat is safe.  After all, you are going to cook your meat, aren’t you?  In any case, the responsibility rests with you.

While the study claims that the many of the bacteria found were antibiotic resistant, it does note that they are not heat resistant.  These bacteria are destroyed through normal cooking procedures, which may account for the small percentage of foodborne illnesses linked to these bacteria.

As with any raw agricultural product, it is important to follow federal safe handling recommendations included on every meat and poultry package that urge consumers to wash hands and surfaces when handling raw meat and poultry and to separate raw from cooked foods to ensure that food is safe when served.

These sound like the arguments that the meat industry has made for years for Salmonella and E. coli O157:H7.

I see this study as another reason why we need better food safety regulation, and the sooner the better.

Postscript: Bill Marler reports that he had 100 samples of chicken tested from Seattle markets:

IEH Labs found S. aurea [sic], or staph, in 42 percent of the samples overall and Campylobacter in 65 percent. The supermarket chicken was contaminated with other pathogens as well: 19 percent of the samples tested positive for Salmonella, one tested positive for Listeria, and 10 percent showed the presence of the methicillin-resistant S. aureus (MRSA). In an unusual finding, one of the chicken samples tested positive for E. coli 0126, Shiga-toxin producing E. coli (STEC) bacteria more likely to be a contaminant of beef than poultry. Organic Chicken proved to be slightly less contaminated than nonorganic with 7 of the 13 (54%) testing positive for harmful bacteria.

As I said….

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