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The following is part of an Organic Journey Guest Post Series written by Amy, a long time helper behind the scenes of Southern Savers.
I started this Journey 8 months ago, in part, to see if it were possible to eat healthy foods on a tight budget. Many people say that they would buy organics, but they just can’t afford it. I know that was my mantra for years as well. Our budgeting software quit functioning shortly after I started this journey and, at the end of February, it completely crashed. This has caused me to start using a new program which has enabled me to see my spending more clearly (because I’ve been flying blind for months now!) My observations thus far have been that it truly is possible to eat foods that are good for you and the planet while staying on a reasonable budget. Switching to organics, the vast majority of the time, hasn’t broken the bank for us. What I’ve noticed, though, is that prepackaged foods will put me over budget fast. Crackers from Trader Joe’s might be healthier than their grocery store counterpart, but I’m going to pay for the convenience. Organic chicken breasts will sink my financial ship, but I can afford buying organic whole chickens. Healthy cereals even on a good sale add up at the rate my family plows through them, but homemade granola costs a fraction of the price.
I’ve also realized that I have come to enjoy cooking. Now, I don’t always enjoy it, don’t get me wrong. And don’t even get me started on the endless cleaning! However, what I’m starting to see is that there is a price for everything. If I want cheap food, I’m going to pay for it with my health and some negative effects on the environment. If I want healthy, convenient food, I’m going to pay for it with a high grocery bill (even if I shop sales and use coupons). If I want to eat well on a budget, I am going to pay for it with my time. Watching my girls totally freak out over my stuffing the cavity of my whole chicken with fresh garlic, lemon, and thyme totally had me rolling my eyes today. They both were adamant that their husbands would take on that job for them. I think what encouraged me though was that there was no question that this would be a part of their diets. I saw that the choices I am making today will have ramifications in future generations, and that gives me some pretty stout motivation to keep trucking. Even if I did spend 20 minutes after lunch just cleaning up.
One of the most common questions I get is exactly how much I am spending on groceries. It is hovering right at $400-$450/month right now for my family of five. This doesn’t include big stockpiling purchases of meat, honey, and wheat. We put away part of our tax return each year in savings to pay for these purchases. Now everything we buy isn’t organic. I’m still taking baby steps, but for those curious, that’s where we are at now.
Now, to head back into the land of beef. Last week, we dove into the first half of our list of problems with conventional beef. Just the first half of the list was disheartening enough to make my husband want to give up going out to eat at steakhouses and we aren’t through with the list!
Unlike poultry and pork, it is fair game to treat beef with steroid hormones. The FDA maintains that these drugs, which are a pellet inserted under the skin of the backside of the animal’s ear, do not damage the animals, the environment, or those consuming the meat of those animals. There is a tremendous amount of controversy surrounding the use of these hormones and little conclusive scientific data. Here are some reasons that I am concerned though. One, the European Union has banned the use of these hormones in their meat. The EU tends to be ahead of us in these matters of stewardship; so I’m learning to listen to what they are saying. Two, the American Public Health Association gives a long list of hormone-related chronic diseases that are on the rise at alarming rates with no clear explanation. These are diseases like diabetes, thyroid issues, endometriosis, uterine fibroids, breast and prostate cancer, infertility and more. I think their conclusion makes good sense:
The Precautionary Principle and Children’s Health “encourages precautionary action to prevent potential harm to fetuses, infants, and children [from the continued manufacture and use of substances], even if some cause-and-effect relationships have not been established with scientific certainty.” APHA has reiterated its support for the Precautionary Principle in other policy, as well. Because children cannot choose to avoid food and because the use of exogenous hormone growth promoters in beef and dairy production is unnecessary, this policy resolution lays out a precautionary rationale and scientific evidence for public health action to remove these food production uses of exogenous hormones.
Are we certain that these hormones are detrimental to our bodies? No. Is there growing evidence that the hormones are evident in the excrement of these animals and are winding up in our water sources? Yes. I think this one point is key. Is it necessary to give animals these treatments? No. Animals given these treatments get bigger faster and are leaner. That makes our meat cheaper. Is it worth the potential risk? That’s up to you to decide.
Pink Slime and Ammonia Gas
Now here’s a topic that is full of on-going controversy. In fact Time just posted a fascinating article about this that had some interesting insight into how consumers and media are shaping our food system, but I digress. Pink slime is the name given to lean finely textured beef or LFTB. It is made by taking beef scraps that would be otherwise unusable and putting them into a machine that uses heat in centrifuges to separate meat scraps from the fat. Food Safety News explains what happens next, “But beef trim is notorious for carrying pathogenic bacteria – especially, E. coli O157:H7 and its close cousins, the non-O157 STEC bacteria. So Beef Products Inc. developed an ammonia gas treatment step to kill the microbes.” Their treatment is highly effective in killing bacteria and actually exceed the USDA’s current requirements. ABC did a series on LFTB a year ago that left a bad taste in consumers mouths which resulted in a massive decline in the sale of LFTB. Before the media exposed consumers to what LFTB is, you could find it in roughly 70% of all ground beef. A year later, it is in around 5% of ground beef. The creator of the machines that make this product have fought against the backlash of negative press with their own site. They want to clear up misconceptions like the pictures of pink slime that we have all seen online (It isn’t LFTB. Actually, nobody knows where the picture came from.) They also want consumers to know that the USDA inspects it as lean beef and not a filler.
I guess I look at all this and ask myself some questions: Is it necessary? Is it best? The ammonia gas isn’t supposed to be harmful to us, but what about the workers that are dealing with it day in and day out? Is there a better way to do this? I think maybe there is.
Irradiating Meat and Food Poisoning
When cows go to be slaughtered that have been living in the filth of the feedlots, they don’t get perfectly cleaned. It’s nasty, but it is what it is. Michael Pollan says it best here, “Make no mistake, the need to irradiate meat is because there is a certain amount of manure in the meat. So the idea is to kill the microbes in the manure rather than keep the manure out, which they’re trying to do also. But better to kill it after; it’s easier and cheaper.” So what is irradiation? It is compared to pasteurization in that it is an attempt to rid food of pathogenic organisms (bad bacteria, pests, and the likes) only instead of achieving this by heating the food, it is achieved by exposing the food to differing forms of radiation. As with what we saw with the pasteurization of dairy, the thought process behind irradiation makes sense. The desire to eliminate toxic things from our food supplies is a good desire. And those that are in favor of irradiation claim that there are zero negatives involved. They say food tastes the same, smells the same, looks the same and is essentially the same. The only difference is that the food is safer.
Those that are concerned about irradiation say that it changes the genetic structure which can lead to massive issues from cancer to reproductive disorders and a whole other host of problems. This is another one of those times that I wish that I had majored in science (not really, it would just help me to wrap my mind around what is happening to our food). I know this might be a tad bit of my idolization of the Little House on the Prairie days of old, but it just seems sad to me that our food is being produced in such a way that we need to consider irradiating it to be safe and wise.
The good news is that there is clarity on whether or not your food has been irradiated. If it has, the FDA requires that the food is labeled with this symbol. [can we insert the symbol in here somehow? the symbol is in the FDA link.] So, if you don’t want irradiated food, don’t buy it. I honestly have no clear direction on this one issue by itself.
If you are like I am, you probably were clueless that ground beef purchased from your local grocery store actually was made up of hundreds of cows. However, that is the case due to the way that it is processed (which is why food poisoning is such a bigger deal now because one bad bit of cow can contaminate the whole lot). Even if you had already pieced all of that together, did you know that your high end steak might actually be made of meat scraps that are glued together with an enzyme called transglutaminase? Yeah, I didn’t either. Transglutaminase or meat glue as it is commonly called, is made from the blood of pigs and cows. It is the coagulant that makes blood clot that is specifically used as the glue. Some meat glues are produced through the cultivation of certain bacterias. So how does it work. Mercola explains it well,
“When sprinkled on a protein, such as beef, it forms cross-linked, insoluble protein polymers that essentially acts like a super-glue, binding the pieces together with nearly invisible seams. The glue-covered meat is rolled up in plastic film, followed by refrigeration. Some manufacturer’s have gotten so proficient in the practice that even an expert butcher can’t tell the difference between a piece of prime beef and one that’s been glued together with bits and pieces of scraps!”
I was all fired up when I first read about this. The article I read claimed that you don’t have to label that meat has been glued together which makes me feel downright deceived. After further investigating, I discovered that isn’t the case. If meat glue has been used, the FSIS requires that it is labeled in such a way. A common label would be “Formed Beef Tenderloin.” There will typically be some usage of the word “Formed” in the label. The enzyme used must also be listed in the ingredients.
The real danger though was admitted even by a proponent and user of meat glue. He says:
“The most important information I give chefs in meat glue training is: be aware that using TG can introduce bacteria into the interior of your product. The interior of whole muscle meat is relatively sterile. Most contamination is on the outside. When we cook a traditional rare steak, the searing kills the bacteria on the outside and we are left with uncooked, but fairly safe, rare-meat at the center. The danger with TG is that a cook might bond two pieces of meat together and treat them like a whole muscle cut without any further precautions… a serious error…The reason hamburger is so dangerous is that it has a huge surface area exposed to the potentially contaminating environment of meat grinders, kitchens, hands, etc. All that contamination is thoroughly mixed into the center of the product. Hamburger is easy to abuse. A piece of meat that is brought into the kitchen whole and sliced once with a very clean knife on a very clean board has a much lower increase in potential contamination than meat you grind.”
I appreciate his honesty and acknowledgement that if meat glue is used, you’ve got to make concessions in the way you prepare the food.
So are you ready to become a vegetarian? I’m not. I’m wrestling between being precautionary and careful and falling into the category of alarmist. Honestly, I don’t want to be an alarmist. I want to be wise. And so next week we’re going to dive into some hopeful alternatives. Let me leave you with a preview of what’s to come. This is a quote from Will Harris, the owner of White Oak Pastures from a video he was in entitled Cud, “My beef is just like industrial commodity beef, except I think it’s safer and healthier, better for the environment, better for the welfare of the animals, better for the integrity of our local food system and it tastes better. Except for those things, it’s just like industrial commodity beef that you can buy at any discount store.” Love it.
What problems in our beef industry surprised and/or disturbed you most?