by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Meat

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….

Feb 25 2011

UK health agency: limit red and processed meats to 3 ounces a day

The UK Department of Health issued a warning today to eat less red and processed meat.

  • Red meat means beef, lamb and pork as well as minced meat and offal from these animals.
  • Processed meat means ham, bacon, luncheon meat, corned beef, salami, pâté, sausages and burgers.

The warning is based on a new report from the independent Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN).  Its report evaluated the effects of iron on health. Because red meat is a primary source of dietary iron, the committee looked at evidence on the links between red meat and processed meats and bowel cancer.

The report concludes that the link “probably” exists and that:

Adults with relatively high intakes of red and processed meat (around 90 g/day or more) should consider reducing their intakes. A reduction to the UK population average for adult consumers (70 g/day cooked weight) would have little impact on the proportion of the adult population with low iron intakes.

How much is 90 grams?  It is only three ounces of cooked meat.

The UK Health Department advises:

  • People who eat a lot of red or processed meat – around 90g or more of cooked weight per day – are at greater risk of getting bowel cancer;
  • Cutting down to the UK average of 70g a day can help reduce the risk; and
  • This can be achieved by eating smaller portions or by eating red and processed meat less often.

The Department points out that cooked meat weighs about 70% of its uncooked weight (it has less water). So 3 ounces of cooked meat is equivalent to about 4 ounces of uncooked meat.

Expect to hear lots of reactions like “red meat can still be enjoyed in moderation as part of a healthy balanced diet.”

And where are the US Dietary Guidelines on the subject of red and processed meats?  Buried in euphemisms, alas:

  • Choose lean meats
  • Choose seafood instead of some meat
  • Reduce calories from solid fats

No wonder Americans are confused about diet and health.

Dec 31 2010

FoodPolitics catches up: USDA’s meat labeling

After a snow-induced stranding in Miami, the vacation ends, and FoodPolitics.com resumes by catching up on missed events.

Other missed events will follow, but let’s start with USDA’s announcement that it is requiring Nutrition Facts labels on meat and poultry products.

In the Final Rule published on its website, USDA says it will require labeling of fat and calorie content on all industrially packaged intact or ground, single-ingredient, raw meat and poultry by January 1, 2012.  USDA’s rule exempts small producers, however.

Nutrition Facts on meat and poultry have been a long time coming. USDA seriously considered such labels in 1990 when Congress passed the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act.  That act only required Nutrition Facts labels on FDA-regulated foods, which include pretty much everything except USDA-regulated meat and poultry.

By the time the USDA finally got around to proposing its own version in 2001, the agency made labeling voluntary.

You can guess what happened.  Meat and poultry producers happily volunteered not to label their products.

Why not?  Meat producers greatly prefer that you remain ignorant of the amount of fat and calories meat contains.

As is evident from this label example, meat labeling raises issues related to calories, fat, saturated fat, and serving size.

Calories: this particular ground meat contains 21 grams of protein and 11 grams of fat.  These provide 190 calories, per serving.

Fat: Fat is the major determinant of calories (9 per gram as compared to 4 per gram for protein). That is why more than 50% of the calories in this ground beef come from fat.

Saturated fat: The 4.5 grams of saturated fat in this meat account for 22% of the Daily Value, a lot or a little depending on what else you eat.

Serving size: The serving size is a quite reasonable 4 ounces (like a quarter-pounder).  It represents, however, a substantial increase over previous USDA serving size suggestions.  Since 1958, the USDA has considered a meat serving to include just 2-to-3 ounces.

As I discuss in Food Politics, pressures from meat producers over the years induced government agencies to steadily increase the amount of meat (or meat substitutes) recommended for daily intake.

  • 1958 to 1989 (USDA food guides): two daily servings of 2-3 ounces for a total of 4-to-6 ounces
  • 1990 (Dietary Guidelines): two daily servings of 2-3 ounces for a total of 6 ounces
  • 1992 (Food Guide Pyramid): two-to-three daily servings for a total of 5-to-7 ounces
  • 1995-2005 (Dietary Guidelines): two-to-three daily servings for a total of 4-to-9 ounces

If advice to consume two-to-three daily servings of meat (or meat substitutes) still holds, the recommendation will now be 8-to-12 ounces.

The 2010 edition of the Dietary Guidelines is overdue and should be released any day now.   In its report last June, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee said:

Shift food intake patterns to a more plant-based diet that emphasizes vegetables, cooked dry beans and peas, fruits, whole grains, nuts, and seeds. In addition, increase the intake of seafood and fat-free and low-fat milk and milk products and consume only moderate amounts of lean meats, poultry, and eggs.

What will the new guidelines say about the amount of meat we should all be eating?  I can’t wait to find out.

Happy new year to all!

Addition, 1-1-11: I forgot to cite the USA Today story on this (I’m quoted).

Dec 13 2010

FDA says 29 million pounds of antibiotics used in food animals last year

I was interested to read FoodSafetyNews this morning and learn about the FDA’s new count of the number and pounds of antibiotics used to promote the growth of farm animals used as food.

Because this is the first time the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine has produced such a count, it is not possible to say whether the numbers are going up or down.  But the agency is now requiring meat producers to report on antibiotic use so we now have a baseline for measuring progress.

The FDA has been concerned about the use and misuse of animal antibiotics for some time now, so much so that in June it issued guidance on The Judicious Use of Medically Important Antimicrobial Drugs in Food-Producing Animals.

In the Federal Register notice announcing the guidance, the FDA explains:

Misuse and overuse of antimicrobial drugs creates selective evolutionary pressure that enables antimicrobial resistant bacteria to increase in numbers more rapidly than antimicrobial susceptible bacteria and thus increases the opportunity for
individuals to become infected by resistant bacteria. Because antimicrobial drug use contributes to the emergence of drug resistant organisms, these important drugs must be used judiciously in both animal and human medicine to slow the development of resistance. Using these drugs judiciously means that unnecessary or inappropriate use should be avoided….

In regard to the use of antimicrobial drugs in animals, concerns have been raised by the public and components of the scientific and public health communities that a significant contributing factor to antimicrobial resistance is the use of medically important antimicrobial drugs in foodproducing animals for production or growth-enhancing purposes.

The overuse of antibiotics in farm animal production was a key focus of the 2009 report of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production. Our conclusion: the overuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture is an enormous risk to public health and should be stopped.

The FDA report may be short and issued without comment, but it is a sign that the FDA is taking steps to address this serious public health problem.

Sep 17 2010

A decent food safety system: will we ever get one?

I get asked all the time what food has to do with politics.  My answer: everything.  Take food safety, for example.

No wonder meat producers hate bad press.  According to Illinois Farm Gate, when consumers read scary things about meat, they stop buying it.

When media attention is given to animal welfare issues, regardless of the production practices involved, consumer demand softens not only for that particular meat, but for all meats. Over the past decade, pork and poultry demand would be higher, were it not for media attention to livestock production issues. Such attention causes consumers to eat less meat and show preference to spend their food dollar on non-meat items for as long as 6 months after the media report.

This week’s bad press is about the use of antibiotics as growth promoters in industrial pig farming.

Dispensing antibiotics to healthy animals is routine on the large, concentrated farms that now dominate American agriculture. But the practice is increasingly condemned by medical experts who say it contributes to a growing scourge of modern medicine: the emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, including dangerous E. coli strains that account for millions of bladder infections each year, as well as resistant types of salmonella and other microbes.

Dr. James R. Johnson, an infectious-disease expert at the University of Minnesota explains what this is about:

For those of us in the public health community, the evidence is unambiguously clear….Most of the E. coli resistance in humans can be traced to food-animal sources.

Will reports like this discourage consumers from buying pork and other meats?  Consumers are not stupid.  They just might.

As for our profoundly dysfunctional Senate: it seems increasingly unlikely to pass food safety legislation before the midterm election cycle.  All of a sudden, food safety is too expensive?

Tell that to industries producing food that nobody will buy out of fear of becoming sick.

That’s food politics in action for you.

Last year at about this time, Bill Marler, the Seattle attorney who represents victims of food poisonings, sent every senator a tee shirt with this logo on it.  I suppose it’s naive to hope that maybe he will get his wish by this thanksgiving, but I am everlastingly optimistic that reason occasionally prevails.

Footnote 1: China is considering the death penalty for perpetrators of food safety crimes: “Officials who are involved in food safety crimes should not be given a reprieve or be exempt from criminal punishment.” Mind you, I am not a proponent of the death penalty, but I do think we need a safety system that holds food producers accountable.

Footnote 2: And then there is the half billion”incredible” egg recall.  Slow Food USA has a nifty video on the alternatives: “USDA and FDA.  Make eggs edible.  Now that would be incredible.”

Jul 21 2010

Be green and healthy: eat less meat?

How can food producers become more sustainable? Use less meat in their products.

Rita Jane Gabbett writes today on Meatingplace.com, a meat industry site, about a talk given by Cheryl Baldwin of Green Seal at a recent meeting of the Institute for Food Technologists.

She told Meatingplace that meat producers should better understand “the production methods used to feed and raise animals, making sure they are treated humanely and looking for ways to reduce the carbon footprint of processing methods.” She also said that “grass-fed animals created a lower carbon footprint than those that were grain fed.”

One can only imagine the reaction of meat producers to her comments.

Meatingplace noted:

Earlier this year, however, a study by the University of New South Wales published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology indicated beef produced in feedlots had a slightly smaller carbon footprint than meat raised exclusively on pastures. (See Feedlot beef could be “greener” than grass-fed: study on Meatingplace, Feb. 8, 2010.)

More recently, Washington State University scientists concluded that improvements in U.S. beef industry productivity have reduced the environmental impact of beef production over the past decade. (See Better beef industry practices have reduced carbon footprint on Meatingplace July 15, 2010.

This follows soon after the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee report’s advice to:

Shift food intake patterns to a more plant-based diet that emphasizes vegetables, cooked dry beans and peas, fruits, whole grains, nuts, and seeds. In addition, increase the intake of seafood and fat-free and low-fat milk and milk products and consume only moderate amounts of lean meats, poultry, and eggs.

To the meat industry, advice about health and sustainability must come as a serious challenge. Keep an eye on the “eat less meat” theme. My guess is that we will be hearing a lot more about it.

May 25 2010

The Slaughterhouse Problem: is a resolution in sight?

After years of hearing sad tales about the slaughterhouse problem, it looks like many people are trying to get it resolved.  A fix no longer seems impossible.

The slaughterhouse problem is what small, local meat producers have to contend with when their animals are ready to be killed. The USDA licenses so few slaughterhouses, and the rules for establishing them are so onerous, that humanely raised (if that is the correct term) animals have to be trucked hundreds of miles to considerably less humane commercial facilities to be killed (see added note below).  Furthermore, appointments for slaughter must be made many months or years in advance — whether the animals are ready or not.

Perhaps because the USDA has just announced guidelines for mobile slaughter units, lots of people are writing about this problem. Here, for example, is what I ran across just last week:

  • Joe Cloud, who works with Joel Salatin, writes about the need for small-scale slaughterhouses in The Atlantic.
  • The San Francisco Chronicle reports Joe Cloud’s concerns that USDA regulations will put small slaughterhouses out of business.
  • Carolyn Lockwood has a front page story in the San Francisco Chronicle about the worries of operators of small slaughterhouses about safety requirements for microbial testing.
  • Christine Muhlke writes in the New York Times magazine about her experience observing a mobile slaughterhouse developed by Glynwood’s Mobile Harvest System.
  • Marissa Guggiana, president of Sonoma Direct Meats in Petaluma, CA, says in Edible Marin & Wine Country that “in Northern California, the lack of local slaughtering options is at a crisis point.”

If enough people complain about this problem, the USDA might get moving on it.  The guidelines are a good first step.

The guidelines, by the way, are up for public comment.  For comments (or attached files with lengthier comments), go to the Federal eRulemaking Portal.   Be sure to include the agency’s name, USDA, and docket number FSIS-2010-0004.  Comments must be filed within 60 days.

Added note: the USDA has a new study of “Slaughter availability to small livestock and poultry producers — maps” that tells the story at a glance.  Many large regions of the country have limited or no access to slaughterhouses small enough to handle animals from small producers.

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