Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Policy Point Wednesday - Ethics and Meat

As a casual reader of the NY Times online, this contest on the ethics of eating meat caught my eye - and apparently I wasn't the only one.

While I understand that the point of this contest is to "convince" a "murderer's row" of judges, I have a problem with any discussion on ethics that begins as a defense of a particular bias: an ethical issue should be studied from as many perspectives as possible before making a judgement, order to ensure no critical information is lost.

Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman, who in a balanced panel would represent the middle ground, are both food advocates/cooks who advocate for a mostly plant-based diet and whose discussions of meat often center on what's wrong with it. The three philosophers on the panel: Peter SingerJonathan Safran Foer, and Andrew Light could all be described as anti-meat - they may approach the issue from different perspectives, but their conclusions are similar. 

With these issues in mind, I wrote the following email to the Ethicist, suggesting that the panel recruit Colorado State University Professor of Animal Science, Dr. Temple Grandin. She has spent most of her life working in agriculture and speaks often on the ethics of meat eating from the perspective of our current agricultural system, and she has been instrumental in making humane changes to our current system of food production. My letter:
I just read the post by Michelle Simon regarding your all-male panel for the "Ethics of Meat" contest (which I have planned to enter.) I would agree with her that your panel seems biased: not only do you have only males, but also your panel is comprised of cooks and philosophers, most of whom lean towards either eating as little meat as possible or not eating it at all - making the panel biased in more ways than one.

You have no one on your panel who actually studies agriculture or animal husbandry. To that end, I would like to recommend that you contact Dr. Temple Grandin, who has captured popular culture just as much or more than your other panelists, and who actually has owned cows and pigs. I do not know Dr. Grandin, but I trust her practical experience and clear sense of judgement.
The contest is coming up in a few days, and I'm not entirely sure that I can condense all my thoughts on the subject into 600 words, but if I succeed, you know I will be posting it here.

Meanwhile, In other ethics-of-meat news, I assume all of you have by now heard of "pink slime". Fellow blogger and food activist Bettina Elias Siegel of The Lunch Tray helped bring this issue national attention by starting a highly successful petition to remove LFBT from school lunches. In response, the beef industry has rallied with a resounding "pay no attention to that man behind the curtain" campaign.

As you may guess from reading the title of this blog, I am a longtime nose-to-tail beef eater: there isn't a beef part out there that scares me.I have no problem with connective tissues, scraps, hides, or hearts.That being said, I'm not the kind of person who "disguises" foods so my family will eat them - I don't cover broccoli with cheese sauce, or grind up chickpeas into cake, or hide the tongue before I cook it.

I was quite offended to find this is exactly what BPI products seems to be doing: gaslighting consumers who express displeasure when they find their "ground beef" may not be made from muscle tissue and fat, but from connective-tissue heavy scraps left on the carcass. Thus far, no data about the quality of protein (connective tissue is made of protein, just not nutritious protein - it's the main ingredient in gelatin) has been offered by BPI, simply a "nutrition label" that lists the amount of protein as "virtually the same."

Another point I'm uncomfortable with is the manufacturing process for LFBT, but I should say my concerns apply equally to conventional ground beef: aggregating multiple carcasses and grinding them together offers a prime opportunity for large-scale pathogenic contamination (in LFBT this process also involves increasing the temperature.) While LFBT, unlike ground beef, is "sanitized" with ammonia gas after it is centrifuged, why encourage a process that begins by increasing the chances of contamination? The beef industry typically manages the contamination problem by shifting responsibility to consumers, telling them to cook ground beef thoroughly, but numerous recalls of tainted ground beef (no relation to LFTB, to be clear) indicate blaming is not an adequate protection for public health.

Our current food system offers very little in terms of consumer protection: it is extremely difficult to track the source of an outbreak, and even then, since so may foods are aggregated and mixed together, it's equally difficult to stop one without a massive nationwide recall.  Systems like the one used in LFTB, irradiation and pasteurization may offer protection by post-production sanitizing of foods, but even canned foods (which are typically extremely food-safe) have been implicated in foodborne illness outbreaks.  I'd like to advocate for a system of smaller processing hubs which have the tools for increased accountability so that tainted food is caught and removed from the foodstream before it goes to processing.


joelfinkle said...

A note on "pink slime" -- I'm with you on this: properly labeled, I don't see this as more than a thin shade of gray beyond mechanically separated meat, or the sorts of emulsified meats used in bologna and hot dogs. But it's not properly labeled in most cases. If I want to avoid LFTB, I'd like to know what I have to do to achieve that. If I know a product has LFTB but I want it anyway (mmm... Meatsicles(TM) just like Mom used to make!), at least I'm educated on what I'm getting.

It's the demand for meat (or in this case meat-like substances) that's driving this: previously, this would only go into animal feed such as pet foods, and now people are eating it.

The results of this manufactured outrage will be more expensive meat, or the same customers ending up with an equivalently-priced product with lower protein and more fat.

Michele Hays said...

@Joel, in my mind, the difference between sausage and LFTB is twofold - typically, sausages have redundancy built in, they're processed with both salt and high heat, and people pretty well expect to find gristle and even non-meat fillers in sausage - and an ingredients list.

I'd be less uncomfortable if LFTB's process involved cooking and sale as precooked "seasoned taco meat" or such - as long as they aren't calling it "ground beef."

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