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Shorter US Food Purity and Safety Policy: Eat Shit and Die

August 8, 2010 10 comments

Food – specifically, healthful, unadulterated food – is a topic that interests all 3 weird sisters.  Lyta and I have both read Michael Pollan’s The Ominvore’s Dilemma; Beth hasn’t because she’s worried it will make her afraid of all food – and that’s not a groundless concern.  When you dig into what really goes into our “food” and how much of it is made up of things your grandparents would have never considered putting into their mouths, it does instill some paranoia.

But that’s why it’s important to get informed about it and modify your buying – and eating – habits as warranted.  While it would be very difficult if not impossible for most of us to eliminate all of what Pollan refers to as “food-like substances” from our diets, cutting 50 – 75% of it out really isn’t that hard to do.  It mostly comes down to reading labels.

I started noticing a sharp decline in food quality in general at about the same time the cats started refusing to eat Friskies Buffet.  Miss Ella was the last cat I had who would eat it – she died in 1999.  My next cat ate it for a few months but then started turning her nose up at it.  Figuring she must have just been finicky, I tried it with the next cat.  Same thing.  And the kitty I have now won’t go near it, either.  I concluded that whatever nasty leftovers they had been using to make it prior to 2000 were for whatever reason no longer available – and so they had turned to even nastier leftovers – leftovers so nasty that even a cat won’t eat them.  That got me wondering about why the nasty leftovers used to make Friskies Buffet prior to 2000 were no longer available – what were they being used for now?

As it turns out, for the past 10 years most Americans have literally been eating cat food.

But that’s not the worst of it.  As bad as it is to think about the viscera and connective tissue that goes into your child’s chicken nuggets, it’s small beer compared to the pink slime that’s been going into your hamburger since the early 2000s, when the Bush administration agreed that mixing generally inedible “beef trimmings” treated with ammonia into ground beef to lower the price by 3 cents per pound was a good idea. This NY Times piece from last December gives a good overview – really, more than you wanted to know – about the pink slime issue.  Basically, pink slime is manufactured from fatty trimmings from the outside of the carcass – the parts of the carcass most likely to be contaminated with e coli, salmonella and other food pathogens.  It gets chopped and mixed into a slurry, which is then treated with ammonia gas.  The final “sterilized” product then gets mixed with hamburger meat.

Here’s the kicker, though:  under government regulations, they don’t have to tell you the product contains ammonia – they’re allowed to describe it as a “processing agent.”  Better yet, once the producer of pink slime had been exempted from government testing, based solely on their own in-house testing, they tinkered with their sterilizing formula – and both e coli and salmonella showed up in their product.  So now, we’re getting both the ammonia and the pathogens, in return for eating cat food.

The mystery of what happened to Friskies Buffet has been solved.

If only it were an isolated example.  Unfortunately there is a similar story for just about every food out there.  BGH in milk, injected chemical “broth” in chicken, e coli contamination of raw produce, HFCS in everything, allowing labels to claim “0 grams trans fat” per serving when a product contains hydrogenates and is NOT “trans-fat free”… the examples are endless.

So what are we to eat?  Pollan has another book – pamphlet, really – called Food Rules, a series of simple guidelines about what to eat.  Things like, “if you’ve seen it advertised on TV, it’s not really food – it’s a highly-processed food-like product.”  “If your grandparents wouldn’t have recognized it as food, it’s not food.”  “If there are more than 5 ingredients on the label, particularly ones that you can’t pronounce, it’s a highly-processed food-like product.”  Pretty simple stuff, actually.  Thanks to Food Rules, the pasta I buy now has this listed on the ingredients label:  “ingredients:  wheat.”

The criticism that food-purity zealots often come in for from people who can’t wrap their heads around the idea of preparing their own food is that most people “can’t afford” to eat this way.  To that, I can only call bullshit.  My food budget – the amount I spend on food each month – is probably less than most people’s.  My average monthly grocery bills are $225 or less, for one person and a cat (who eats Fancy Feast because my fellow Americans are eating the classic pre-2000 Friskies Buffett).  I might spend as much as $50 per month in restaurants.  That works out to an average of $3.05 per meal – and I could cut that by probably a third without going hungry or eating more processed crap, if I did things like spending NO money in restaurants, making my own salad dressings and salad croutons, etc.  I’d not only be spending less, I’d be eating even better.  There’s just no way a grocery cart piled with frozen pizzas & dinners, Lunchables for junior’s snacks, and various and sundry other highly-processed food-like products is less expensive than one filled with basic unprocessed or lightly-processed food items.

I suspect the reason this criticism of real food is the one most frequently levelled is that most people have become so disconnected to food and where it comes from that they don’t give it any thought at all; also, people are lazy and change is difficult.  It does take more time and more work to prepare real food, and these days, most people don’t know how to do it.  In addition, people’s palates are desensitized.  I have a friend who hates to cook and more or less lives on fast food.  She can’t smell the chemical aroma coming out of the bag, or taste the sugar in the hamburger bun, the pizza crust, or the corndog coating.  She knows it’s not good food, but she hates to cook so she chooses not to think about it – just like the kids on Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution were fine with the fact that they were eating chopped up chicken connective tissue in their chicken nuggets, because the deep-fat frying made them tasty.

Which is to say, at this point, there are a lot of people for whom the fact that they’re now eating the equivalent of pre-2000 Friskies Buffet wouldn’t matter.  If they aren’t squicked out about eating chicken viscera, beef scraps and ammonia in their hamburger isn’t going to be a cause for alarm.  We’ve reached a place where if you could mix enough sugar, salt, and fat into feces, “Deep-Fried Shit on a Stick” would become the next fad food at fairs and carnivals nationwide.

I will say this though:  you’ve gotta hand it to Republicans.  They managed to get most of America on a cat food diet without first destroying Social Security, Medicare, food stamps or the school lunch program, thus rendering silly liberals’ concerns about their continuing attempts to dismantle the entire social safety net moot.

Who’s going to worry about having to eat cat food in their golden years when they’ve been eating it for decades already?

Update:  (h/t to actor212 in comments at Sadly, No! for the tip on the whole pink slime thing.  I don’t eat or buy hamburger and haven’t for years, so I’ve never looked into how much worse it is than I suspected.  For me, it was enough that they were grinding up multiple cows in huge batches, spreading germs and possibly rogue prions throughout, not to mention that it’s a very fatty meat.  And I never could acclimate my palate to the pasture-raised ground beef.  Word to the wise – if you don’t want to eat pink slime, don’t buy hamburger anywhere – switch to ground chuck or sirloin.  They don’t add it to the leaner ground cuts.)

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