Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Food Nauseous Food

Over recent months, I've been seeing, reading and hearing things which are making me rethink the way I eat. Chocolate obsession aside, I do eat pretty well - most of the time.

We rarely eat out, or get takeaway, but that's probably more due to budget restrictions than anything else. I'm not a big meat eater, and never have been. The thought of a juicy tender steak, or roast lamb, has never excited me. Red meat in general is something I've consumed little of, although spaghetti bolognese has always been a regular favourite - not just for me, but now it's one of the few dishes that both my kids love. I've always loved a good burger, too, but mostly I've stuck to chicken - sometimes seafood - over the years. In fact, the only type of meat to guarantee salivation on my part is salmon - raw or cooked.

When we lived in the UK, I was glad that I didn't really eat red meat. We moved over there not long after the whole Mad Cow Disease scare. For a time, France defied EU regulations and refused to import British beef. It definitely made me question what I ate for a while.

Not eating meat has never been a huge deal for me. I've had enough vegetarian friends - and lived in enough vegetarian households - that I can cook plenty of meat-free dishes. J and I also go through periods where we decide to avoid all meat for few weeks here, a few weeks there. A kind of semi detox, if you like. But we've never cut out (red) meat completely. At some stage, the old classic spag bol is required - as a no-brainer dish to cook, and one that everyone will eat (a rarity). Or a burger from In-N-Out beckons. Those burgers are too good.

A recent TV show I've been following is Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution L.A. I primarily began watching it because The Faery will be starting Elementary school at the end of summer, and I was interested to see what the low-down was on food being served in the schools under the LA School District. Although her school is in a different school district, it's not far away and I have no doubt the food will be pretty much the same.

Apart from being horrified at the secrecy surrounding their school lunches, and the lengths that the LAUSD went to in order to prevent Jamie Oliver's crew from filming in their schools, I learned about some of the more questionable practices in the US beef industry.

Basically, if you're going to eat beef in America, you need to know where it came from. You want to know that it's clean. The cheaper it is, unfortunately, the more likely it will contain something that Jamie  refers to as 'pink slime'. Does that sound disgusting?

Pink slime is the result of meat manufacturers taking all the parts of cows that we normally wouldn't eat - and have previously been used to make pet food only - including the guts (you know, home of E. coli). Someone realised they could make more money if these cow parts are bleached with ammonia to kill the E. coli and salmonella, then ground up and added to other minced (ground) beef. Meat manufacturers are allowed to include up to fifteen per cent of this in the final product. Even worse, is that because the USDA (US Department of Agriculture) has categorised 'pink slime' as a process - not an ingredient - it doesn't have to be labelled on the packaging.

Fucking disgusting.

The only way to know for sure if you're not eating beef which contains pink slime, is if you eat out at a place that guarantees they source their beef from more reliable, conscionable suppliers. The minced beef in supermarkets have nothing on their packing labels which will tell you what you need to know. Because of pink slime being used to stretch out beef and make it go further (therefore cheaper), it would seem in this case that the old adage "you get what you pay for" is true. Cheap ground beef = pink slime included.

Since learning about this practice, J and I have both been more wary where minced beef consumption is concerned. We also watched the documentary, Food, Inc., a few months ago, and that was a real eye-opener. It was so well-presented, without resorting hysteria (which annoys me to no end when people rely on that as a scare tactic) that last night I decided to watch a film - Fast Food Nation - based on the book by journalist Eric Schlosser, who was also behind Food, Inc. Anyhow, the final scenes were filmed in a real abattoir and - going to sleep last night, I couldn't get those awful images out of my head.

Part of me wishes I hadn't seen it now, but part of me is glad. I'd been a little too naive for too long about what was involved in beef manufacturing.

Another area of food that I'm rethinking is organic. We were struck by how much cheaper organic food is here in the States, and began buying more and more of it, especially when Miss Pie first began eating solid food. It seemed like the right thing to do.

Given that it's the norm for growth hormones and anti-biotics to be given to chickens, I still prefer to buy organic milk, eggs, and chicken meat. Who wants that added crap?

However, the recent E. coli outbreak in Germany has worried me. Thirty-one people dead, because they ate organic bean sprouts. That's scary. I began to read up on organic farming in general, and saw that - at least where fruit and vegetables are concerned - it's somewhat of a con. Much more land is needed to result in the same yield that conventional farming gives. This means that independent organic farmers are paid significantly less than their conventional couterparts for their efforts... however, it turns out that in California, most organic produce comes from the same suppliers as non-organic - they just allocate part of their land to organic instead, and are reaping the benefits instead of smaller, independent farmers. Fertilizers are also not what they were twenty years ago, and don't contain E. coli (unlike cow manure). I don't know... from an environmental and economical perspective, organic farming suddenly sounds less than ideal to me.

So, what do I change? I think I'm going to give organic fruit and vegetables a wide berth from now on. If I want my money to go the smaller, independent farmers, then farmers markets look like the way to go. And red meat? I'm seriously considering giving it up completely, especially minced beef. That's the hard part though, as it's pretty much the only beef I consume, and my kids love spaghetti bolognese. Has anyone tried making it with turkey? Any good?

Ugh. All I know is, I feel incredibly protective about what goes into my kids' mouths. I don't want them having growth hormones, anti-biotics, or ammonia-sludged meat. Not for me, either.


  1. This pink slime thing has bothered me since you first mentioned it. I dislike buying mince (or ground beef as the Americans call it) unless you know what's in it. I'm pretty sure we don't have it here but they do put lots of other nasty preservatives into mince that bother me.

    Some years back, I read "Fed Up" by Sue Dengate in which she talks about food sensitivity rather than allergy. The book is handy because you realise how much of an impact expediency in food production, processing and storage has led to the people involved in those industries taking shortcuts at the expense of the consumer and what the effects of those shortcuts might be.

    I am not given to conspiracy theories as you well know and I don't believe this is one but I do think we have a problem with food here (and it is worse in the States). I have always stuck to the general rule that the closer something is to its natural state, the better it is. I might eat junk food but I am fully aware that it IS junk food and I know it's not good for me. Therefore I should only eat small amounts and not very often.

    What is a problem is that even basic foods which are supposed to be healthy are often not. Strange additives and preservatives are put into them to prolong shelf life and as yet, we have no real idea what these are doing to us long term.

    It does appear from what many people have observed in themselves and their own children over the years, that some of these chemicals have massive impacts on learning ability, behaviour and general health.

    An intolerance is very different to an allergy. I am intolerant to sulfites but what that means is I can only eat so much of them before they start causing symptoms. If I have one or two dried apricots once in a while, it's fine. If I were to eat them every day, I would have an asthma attack every day too. It's that kind of effect.

    I think what you've raised is really important because the ones most susceptible to these things are children. If they are spending their childhoods struggling to learn and having behavioural and health problems caused by the food we all are eating then this has big implications for where we are headed as a society.

    I don't know what the answer is except that if you find out someone is adding something bad to your food, you can stop buying it and tell them why (preservative 282 was removed from bread in Australia due to consumer backlash but mind you they left lots of other shit in there!) I'm sure most of us read labels but it is hard too when percentages make the difference in what is shown on the label and what is not (as I think you pointed out). Definitely makes informed choice very difficult.

    Sorry ... I've just written a rambling thesis on this. Talk about blog jacking! I should save my rants for my own cyberspace.

  2. Thanks Mel! You are so knowledgable about these things, and I appreciate you taking the time to write the above (but yes, it's time you start blogging again - I miss your posts).

    I know what you mean about intolerances - J is like that with gluten. A little here and there is fine, but if he overdoes it, he sure knows about it.

    I agree about food being better if it's closer to its natural state. We make an effort not to buy too much processed stuff... but that doesn't stop me from indulging in junk too (everything in moderation, I say), but it's like you said - we know the difference. Too many people don't, and therein lies the problem.

    My sister has made some good suggestions. One is buying a mincer, to grind our own beef (although I suspect I may be a little lazy for that). The other is to look out for a meat substitute, such as Quorn, which she recommends. I'm not sure if they have Quorn here, but there has to be a similar product at Whole Foods. Also, I was just at Trader Joe's and it occurred to me that the mince they sell is probably 'safe'. I'm going to look into that... but then there's the whole slaughterhouse issue, which sits uncomfortably with me as time goes on. Tricky.