“Excuse me waiter, there are chemicals in my soup.”

Beef mince

(Photo credit: jkblacker)

My latest article for the Lake County Record-Bee Green Scene page:

Regular readers of the Timberati blog or the Green Chain column know that I am not chemo-phobic. In fact, I enjoy eating chemicals because all foods are chemicals.

To be afraid of chemicals is to fear our world. We cannot escape chemicals; they surround us. After all, water is a chemical, carbohydrates are chemicals, lipids and proteins are chemicals, amino acids are chemicals, and vitamins are chemicals. In a (chemical) nutshell, without chemicals there is no life. We are made of chemicals, and the chemical reactions in our bodies’ cells turn food into energy so that we may function.

As Deborah Blum, a Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer, said about what people mean when they say “chemical-free,” “They mean a product free — so far as they know — of industrial or synthetic chemical compounds. It’s a concept invented by a marketing genius to sell products…”

We chemically fuel ourselves in the morning. You probably start the day with coffee, as I do; it’s a veritable witches’ brew of 2,000 chemical compounds, including: benzo(a)pyrene, benzaldehyde, benzene, benzofuran, caffeic acid, catechol, 1,2,5,6-dibenz(a)anthracene, ethyl benzene, furan, furfural, hydrogen peroxide, hydroquinone, d-limonene, and 4-methylcatechol. Tea is not much better. In fact, all food is naturally loaded with chemical poisons, toxins, carcinogens and mutagens because Nature put it there.

Consider any potato, organically grown or conventionally grown matters not a whit. It provides three times the calories per acre of rye or wheat and it is easy to grow. It is not sexy but it is filling and nutritious. Yet, “the potato is a regular Chernobyl among vegetables,” writes P. J. O’Rourke in his 1994 book, All the Trouble in the World, “Within the dread spud we find solanine, chaconine, amylase inhibitors, and isonavones —which, respectively, cause gastrointestinal-tract irritation, harm your nervous system, interfere with digestive enzymes, and mimic female sex-hormone activity. An extra helping of au gratin and you’re a toilet-bound neurasthenic hermaphrodite with gas. If you live that long. Potatoes also contain arsenic.”

Potatoes and coffee are but two examples, the point is the presence of natural poisons, toxins, carcinogens and mutagens applies to virtually all foods.

The ‘chemicals are bad’ mantra begins, as Deborah Blum points out, when food producers intentionally put chemicals, synthetic chemicals especially (usually for preserving and extending shelf life), in our food. Never mind that people have practiced food preservation using chemicals for several millennia. For instance they have used sodium chloride (salt), dihydrogen monoxide (water) and acetic acid (vinegar) to preserve various vegetables by pickling them to have them through the winter.

Which brings us to the use of ammonia (NH3) and boneless lean beef trimmings (BLBT) or what detractors, such as U.S. Department of Agriculture whistleblower, Gerald Zirnstein, and celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, sneeringly call ‘Pink Slime.’

On March 7, ABC News ran a story titled, “70 Percent of Ground Beef at Supermarkets Contains ‘Pink Slime’” The story contends that at some time between 1989 and 1993 former undersecretary of agriculture, Joann Smith okayed the use of BLBT over the objections of some USDA scientists, and upon leaving the USDA, was rewarded with an appointment to a board of directors for one of Beef Products, Incorporated’s (BPI) suppliers.

BPI uses centrifuges to separate bits of meat from fat to make BLBT. According to a 2008 story in the Washington Post, around 1998 Eldon Roth and his engineers at BPI, the makers of BLBT, “began working with ammonium hydroxide, a food additive already approved by federal regulators for use in processing cheese, chocolate and soda. It also exists naturally in beef.” Because pathogens such as E.coli O157:H7 are used to the acidic conditions in the intestinal tract, Roth hoped that lowering the pH would “create less hospitable conditions for bacteria.” It did.

There you have it. Around 14 years ago, BPI developed a way to treat bits of meat with a USDA approved anti-microbial food additive that is used in sodas, cheeses and chocolates. In other words, we have been eating ‘Pink Slime’ without complaining for over a decade and swallowing ammonium hydroxide even longer.

No one is accusing BPI of creating an unsafe product, only one that sounds icky.

This is a first-world problem friends, worrying about icky-sounding food. “Until comparatively recently,” Rob Lyons writes in Panic on Plate, “there was only one question that the majority of people needed to ask in relation to food: how will we get enough?”

BPI’s produces safer ground beef, reduces waste and keeps down food costs. Shame on them!

“Waiter, may I have some more chemicals, please?”

Update (3/26/2012):

J. Patrick Boyle of the American Meat Institute has issued a statement about ABC News’ report:

Congratulations, ABC World News. Your relentless coverage and uninformed criticism of a safe and wholesome beef product has now delivered a hook for yet another nightly news broadcast.

Today, a three-week war waged on a beef product called lean finely textured beef came to a painful head as hundreds of people lost their jobs when one of the primary processors shuttered three plants. While lean finely texture beef was given a catchy and clever nickname in ‘pink slime,’ the impact of alarming broadcasts about this safe and wholesome beef product by Jamie Oliver, ABC News and others are no joke to those families that are now out of work.

Lean finely textured beef has been processed for two decades, blended into ground beef at very low levels to enhance the leanness of ground beef and safely consumed. But the frenzy of misinformation that has swirled during the last several weeks gives new meaning to Winston Churchill’s great quote, ‘A lie gets half way around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.’


“70 Percent of Ground Beef at Supermarkets Contains ‘Pink Slime’” ABC News By Jim Avila, Mar 7, 2012 7:52pm http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/headlines/2012/03/70-percent-of-ground-beef-at-supermarkets-contains-pink-slime/ (accessed March 19, 2012)

All the Trouble in the World: The Lighter Side of Overpopulation, Famine, Ecological Disaster, Ethnic Hatred, Plague, and Poverty” by P. J. O’Rourke, 1994

“Ammonium Hydroxide.” Beef Products Inc. http://beefproducts.com/ammonium_hydroxide.php (accessed March 19, 2012)

“BPI Ground Beef Gets Support From Food Safety Leaders” Food Safety News by Dan Flynn Mar 09, 2012

“Chemical-Free Nonsense” Los Angeles Times By Deborah Blum, January 22, 2012. http://articles.latimes.com/2012/jan/22/opinion/la-oe-blum-chemicals-20120122 (accessed March 19, 2012).

“Eating ‘Pink Slime’: Why It’s NBD (No Big Deal).” JetLagged Magazine. http://jetlaggedmagazine.com/snobby-scholar/eating-pink-slime (accessed March 22, 2012).

“Engineering a Safer Burger” Washington Post by Annys Shin, June 12, 2008. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/06/11/AR2008061103656.html?sid=ST2008061200002 (accessed March 19, 2012)

“Lies, damned lies and ‘pink slime’.” Panic on a Plate blog by Rob Lyons. http://www.paniconaplate.com/index.php/site/article/liesdamnedliesandpink_slime/ (accessed March 22, 2012)

“Panic on a Plate: How Society Developed An Eating Disorder” by Rob Lyons, 2011

“Q&A with Elisabeth Hagen, Part II: Poultry, ‘Pink Slime’ and Labeling. ” Food Safety News http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2012/03/qa-with-elisabeth-hagen-part-ii-poultry-pink-slime-and-labeling/ (accessed March 22, 2012)

“Questions and Answers about Ammonium Hydroxide Use in Food Production.” Food Insight. http://www.foodinsight.org/Resources/Detail.aspx?topic=QuestionsandAnswersaboutAmmoniumHydroxideUseinFood_Production (accessed March 19, 2012)

“Thanksgiving dinner hazard.” American Council on Science and Health. http://www.wnd.com/2002/11/16035/ (accessed March 20, 2012).

“The Truth About Jamie Oliver’s ‘Pink Slime’” Huffington Post – UK. http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/rob-lyons/jamie-olivers-pink-slimeb1240983.html (Accessed February 2, 2012)

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New Year’s Resolution: Eat Healthier. Does that mean organic food?

Labeling for products that meet the USDA-NOP s...

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Perhaps you have decided to toast the New Year with organic champagne or an organically produced high-gravity craft beer because organic is better, not just for you but for the planet. After all, you have made a New Year’s resolution to eat better and healthier while caring for the environment.

So, is organic superior to conventionally raised food? Well, some of my friends say there is. Such extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and so far, there is not only little extraordinary evidence, there is zero extraordinary evidence that organically grown food is any better for you than conventionally grown food. Nor is there solid evidence that it tastes better.

According to the Mayo Clinic:

No conclusive evidence shows that organic food is more nutritious than is conventionally grown food. And the USDA — even though it certifies organic food — doesn’t claim that these products are safer or more nutritious.

The United States Food and Drug Administration and Mayo Clinic are not alone. An article published in the American Journal for Clinical Nutrition, on the basis of a systematic review of studies, says:

[T]here is no evidence of a difference in nutrient quality between organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs.

A major independent research project released 30 July 2009 and conducted by the Nutrition and Public Health Intervention Research Unit at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine on behalf of the UK Government’s Food Standards Agency, concluded that organic food is no better for health than food produced by more advanced agricultural techniques. The study was the biggest of its kind ever conducted, reviewing all data collected on the topic over the past 50 years. In its conclusion the report says:

No evidence of a difference in content of nutrients and other substances between organically and conventionally produced crops and livestock products was detected for the majority of nutrients assessed in this review suggesting that organically and conventionally produced crops and livestock products are broadly comparable in their nutrient content.

The differences detected in content of nutrients and other substances between organically and conventionally produced crops and livestock products are biologically plausible and most likely relate to differences in crop or animal management, and soil quality.

There is no good evidence that increased dietary intake of the nutrients identified in this review which are present in larger amounts in organically than in conventionally produced crops and livestock products, would be of benefit to individuals consuming a normal varied diet, and it is therefore unlikely that these differences in nutrient content are relevant to consumer health.

For a copy of the UK government’s Nutrition and Public Health Intervention Research Unit report (pdf) click here.

In addition to its own research, Great Britain’s Food Standards Agency cite studies by the French Food Safety Agency and another by the Swedish National Food Administration:

In our view the current scientific evidence does not show that organic food is any safer or more nutritious than conventionally produced food. Nor are we alone in this assessment. For instance, the French Food Safety Agency (AFSSA) has recently published a comprehensive 128-page review which concludes that there is no difference in terms of food safety and nutrition. Also, the Swedish National Food Administration’s recent research report finds no nutritional benefits of organic food.

Findings published in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition say much the same:

Studies comparing foods derived from organic and conventional growing systems were assessed for three key areas: nutritional value, sensory quality, and food safety. It is evident from this assessment that there are few well-controlled studies that are capable of making a valid comparison. With the possible exception of nitrate content, there is no strong evidence that organic and conventional foods differ in concentrations of various nutrients… While there are reports indicating that organic and conventional fruits and vegetables may differ on a variety of sensory qualities, the findings are inconsistent…There is no evidence that organic foods may be more susceptible to microbiological contamination than conventional foods. While it is likely that organically grown foods are lower in pesticide residues, there has been very little documentation of residue levels.

Conclusion, toast to the New Year in with anything you wish. But, if your resolution is to eat healthier by making better choices, grab a vegetable or fruit instead of a bag a chips for a snack.

What about organic being better for the environment? Surely, the earth is better for organically raising food and fiber without artificial pesticides and fertilizers? We will look at that tomorrow.

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