The Problem with Governors Eating Pink Slime

Even 8,000 miles away, I’ve been unable to avoid hearing about “pink slime” – or, if you prefer, “finely textured lean beef” – and the resulting commotion being made as people come to learn that the ground beef they are buying often contains additives that have been treated in some disturbing ways.

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This week, a trio of governors (Brownback from Kansas, Perry from Texas, and Branstad from Iowa) visited a Nebraska meat processing plant owned by the ominously named Beef Products, Incorporated, with media in tow. To prove their claim that this finely textured lean beef is safe to eat, after their tour of the plant they ate hamburgers made from the meat additive.

Good for them, but their publicity stunt missed the larger issue. The question isn’t whether or not this finely textured lean beef meets the minimum standards of food safety. The question is whether consumers have a right to know whether the ground beef they are buying contains any of this highly processed additive.

Let me explain my rationale: When you go to the store and buy a pound of ground beef, or when you buy a “100% beef” hamburger at a restaurant, this is what you probably have in your mind:

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You expect chunks of beef, perhaps with a little more fat than this picture shows, that have been ground. But if that’s all you expect, you may be in for a stomach-turning shock.

It has been reported that up to 70% of the ground beef sold in the United States has finely textured lean beef (a.k.a. “pink slime”) added to it and, of that ground beef, up to 25% of the total may be made up of the additive.

This additive is made from the stuff that’s left over once all the “meat” is cut off the cow’s caracas: stuff like connective tissue and spinal, rectal, and digestive lining. In the strictest sense, I guess it is “beef”… but it isn’t what I have in mind when I buy ground beef.

Now, my personal philosophy on food and nutrition is that we are better off when we eat food that has been processed as little as possible – ideally, not at all. Each step of processing robs nutrients from the food and generally increases the cost of the food.

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When I think of eating meat – and despite having spent a few years in university as a vegetarian, I’m definitely a meat eater – I would never want to eat any meat that has had to be sent through large rollers, as in the picture above, which shows how the finely textured lean beef is produced at the BPI plant. “Meat” that has to be sent through rollers can’t be a healthy choice, even if it meets the Food and Drug Administration’s definition of “generally recognized as safe.”

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Which is why I think at the heart of this matter – the heart that the merry trio of hamburger helper governors has missed – is a question of transparency, of consumers’ right to know, of truth in labeling. Something that is labeled as “100% ground beef” shouldn’t contain any finely textured lean beef… which we more accurately ought to call “ammonia bathed offal.” Instead, it should be labeled something like “ground beef with up to X% additives.” 

Again, I’m not saying that this product shouldn’t be allowed to exist on the market. I just think that we have a right to know what has been added to our food and how our food has been processed before we buy it.

 

Trying to Eat Healthy

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Most weeknights, Tawn and I try to eat dinner at home.  Whatever I cook, it almost always includes a salad with lots of vegetables.  This is our attempt to fill up on veggies, rather than on meats and carbs.  Sometimes, I try for something a little fancier like this steak salad with thin slices of American sirloin, roasted red peppers and onions, and shavings of Parmesan cheese.  Most of the time, though, the salads are a little less ambitious.

Weekday breakfasts are also eat at home meals, usually oatmeal with a combination of dried fruits and nuts, sometimes with a little quinoa, which provides some protein to start my day.  Since I work from home, my lunches are also usually eaten at home, often leftovers from dinner the night before.  From time to time, though, I will step out for lunch, stopping most often at a neighborhood ramen shop for some noodles.

All this weekday eating at home is offset by frequent social events on the weekends, when we end up eating out for most of the meals.  On both Saturday and Sunday this past weekend, we had engagements for lunch and dinner.  The odd calculus of this pattern of socializing is that while my wallet gets thinner, my mid-drift gets thicker.

 

Food in BKK: Beef Noodles on Sukhumvit 16

One of the nice things about knowing Chow, the author of Bangkok’s Top 50 Street Food Stalls, is that I get exciting offers like, “Oh, there’s this really good beef noodle vendor on Sukhumvit Soi 16 I’ve been dying to go back to.  When are you free?”  To paraphrase Renée Zellweger’s character in Jerry Maguire, “You had me at beef noodle.”

Sukhumvit Soi 16 is this stubby little street near the intersection of Sukhumvit and Asoke Ratchadapisek Roads.  It branches off Asoke about 100 meters down from the main intersection and then forms the back exit for all of the office buildings and condominiums that line Asoke Ratchadapisek Road, overlooking the beautiful Benjakiti Park next to the Queen Sirikit Convention Center.

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Lining both sides of the soi at regular intervals are these street vendor stalls, the classic types of Thai street food that hug the street and, where one exists, generally push pedestrians off the footpaths.  Across from the street vendor pictured above, on an unpaved shoulder lined with a masonry wall, we found our beef noodles.

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The tables were overflowing and since we had arrived about 1:00, the tail end of the lunch rush, the wizened old uncle who runs the stall told us that he was out of everything but the thin rice noodles and the stewed brisket and beef balls.  We ordered one bowl apiece and one of the other people working there – a relative, no doubt – found us a spot as a table of office workers finished up the last drops of broth in their bowls.

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A few minutes later our order arrived: a simple bowl of thin rice noodles swimming in deliciously rich cardamom-flavored broth, with slices of brisket, beef balls, green onions, and bean sprouts.  As we were eating, the uncle came over and apologized that the brisket wasn’t as tender as normal – the meat vendor had arrived late this morning so it hadn’t stewed as long as he would have liked.  We assured him it was not a problem – and it wasn’t – especially as we enjoyed the wonderful broth.

After finishing our noodles and paying – including weak tea we paid something like 28 baht (US$ 1) each.  Chatting with the uncle after the lunchtime rush, he explained that he’s been in business at that location for 40 years, gaining his reputation during the Vietnam War with American servicemen who were stationed nearby.

He explained how one building just down the soi, which is now the home of a nice brunch restaurant called Kuppa, was the headquarters for the American FBI.  They found this out when one day a stray soi dog was clipped by a vehicle and was lying in the street, howling in pain.  After a while, an American came out of that building, pulled out a gun, and put the dog out of its misery.  And that, uncle explained, is how they found out the FBI worked there.  Never mind that the FBI was a domestic agency and probably wasn’t here in Thailand during the Vietnam War, it was an interesting story that provided a spicy not to the end of our lunchtime adventure.