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Giving meat a bad name

Laws are like sausages — it is best not to see them being made.”

This quote has been widely but wrongly attributed to Otto Von Bismarck, the “Iron Chancellor” of Germany in the 19th century, which proves that misinformation was spreading long before the Internet.

However, the Internet is certainly a much more efficient way of spreading misinformation, as well as information of the more accurate variety.

For example, if you really do want to see how sausages are made, you can now go to YouTube and find out. Even better — or maybe worse — you can find out what most of us have always said before eating a hotdog: “I really don’t want to know how these things are made.”

If not, then don’t go to YouTube and check out the video on hotdogs from the Discovery Channel program “How things are made.” It might actually put you off hotdogs — for a while.

But who are we kidding? We always knew that hotdogs weren’t made from tenderloins and shoulder roasts. They’re made from “trimmings,” which doesn’t sound so bad.

“Lean, finely textured beef” sounds even better. That’s a term that U.S. beef-industry officials have been using following a storm of media reports about a product which can be added up to 15 per cent to ground beef, but under a somewhat less appetizing term — “pink slime.” That term has apparently been used for some time, perhaps as a bit of a joke, among those who use it, but it recently hit the mainstream when a food blogger in Texas started a petition against its use in school lunch programs. As of last week it was at 225,000 signatures and counting.

The product, whichever term you use, is trimmings heated to about 37 C and spun to remove most of the fat. The lean mix then is compressed into blocks, after it’s given what its proponents describe as “a puff of ammonium hydroxide gas” to kill bacteria such as E. coli and salmonella.

If you would like an earnest but somewhat dull defence of the product, check out the video on the U.S. National Cattlemen’s Beef Association website at beefusa.org. For a different but more entertaining take on the subject, go to YouTube and search for British celebrity chef, Jamie Oliver’s video on pink slime. His demonstration of how it’s manufactured involves a washing machine and a jug of household ammonia.

The meat industry is prone to defending itself against attack by claiming that its critics are closet if not overt vegetarians attempting to stop the use of animals for food, period. Oliver provides no such opportunity. He is an avid red meat lover, and his video begins with him leading a heifer with a cutting diagram on its hide into a butcher shop. A butcher takes down a carcass and holds the cuts up against the side of the animal to show the crowd exactly where they come from.

It would be instructive for cattle producers to look at the two videos and think a bit about who they’d prefer to be speaking on their behalf. A university animal scientist talking about how lean finely textured beef is high in protein and perfectly safe to eat, or a chef talking about the virtues of properly cooking the various cuts and how the residue should go to the rendering plant for pet food?

The pink slime controversy coincides with a new report linking health with red meat consumption, which was widely reported last week.

Headline writers had a field day — among the samples were “Red meat death study,” “Will red meat kill you?” and “Singing the blues about red meat.”

The press release study from the study’s source, the Harvard School for Public Health, was not quite so dramatic. It said that “one daily serving of unprocessed red meat (about the size of a deck of cards) was associated with a 13 per cent increased risk of mortality, and one daily serving of processed red meat (one hotdog or two slices of bacon) was associated with a 20 per cent increased risk.”

Beef and pork producers may cringe at all this, but the message isn’t all that bad — you shouldn’t eat too much and you shouldn’t eat it every day. That’s OK — farmers producing poultry, dairy and pulses need to be able to sell their products too.

And it’s apparent that the biggest health risk is not so much eating meat, but eating processed meat. This is the real dilemma for the industry. Packers like to be able to take the leftovers and earn extra revenue by turning them into wieners and salami and so on. That’s added value for the packer, and these products are an easy solution for the parents trying to prepare a quick lunch for the kids. But it’s the stuff that’s not good for you, and like pink slime, is giving meat a bad name.

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