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Is It Safe?

April 29, 2010

Yes, it’s safe.  It’s very safe.  It’s so safe you wouldn’t believe it.
No. It’s not safe, it’s…very dangerous, be careful.
– Thomas ‘Babe’ Levy, under duress

Recently James, began a comment with the following statement:
As usual, I will continue my crusade against unnecessary food paranoia here on the FLB.

I appreciate James and his comments on such subjects as GMOs, HFCS, and his further thoughts on soy processing.  I understand how someone can come to the FLB read a few posts and think that I was concerned with food safety.

The truth, as it usually is, is just a bit more nuanced.

My concerns are not driven by safety per se.  If I were concerned with food safety, I wouldn’t eat rare meat, runny eggs or raw shellfish.  I also wouldn’t be a proponent of young raw milk cheeses.  In fact, some of the things that bother me have to do with increasing food safety, such as irradiation and ultra-pasteurization.

I eat for pleasure.  I eat for flavor.
I don’t want safe food.  I want delicious food.

What bothers me is when companies start to mess around with the integrity of our food, especially when these machinations are invisible to the average consumer.

People have a series of unrealistic expectations about their food.  For example, they imagine the burger in front of them came from a cow that lived on a family farm, with a nice red barn.  And they may even imagine that cow got to walk around, chew some grass, and lay in the sun before it met its untimely end.

Some cows are raised like that, but they barely make a blip on the radar of the national domestic production figures.

I am willing to pay more for beef from a cow that is raised in what I consider to be an ethical manner.  In my world cows should eat grass and not corn. Cows as herbivores should not be fed any form of animal protein or other animal byproduct.  Sick cows should be taken out of the herd, and not consumed by human beings.

Now there are some people who will make the claim that meat from these kinds of cows is safer.  In some ways they may be right, but it is a tenuous claim at best.

E. coli O157:H7 can appear on meat from small local farms that practice sustainable agriculture, just as it can with meat from larger factory farms.  Excuse my bluntness, but the danger comes from poop getting on the meat.  It is just that when it happens in larger operations that headlines are made with giant mega deluxe recalls.

As far as I am concerned, the cleanliness of meat is a separate issue entirely from how it is raised.  I am looking for food that fits my expectations of what food should be.  And it extends beyond meat.

If you asked the average consumer about how they thought canola oil was extracted from canola seeds, I’m guessing it would be difficult to find someone who said “solvent.”  Most likely they wouldn’t know, but if pushed would probably default to some form of mechanical (versus chemical) process.

Even if you check out the CanolaInfo website, the callout in the sidebar reads:
Canola oil is made from canola. Canola oil is pressed from tiny canola seeds produced by beautiful yellow flowering plants of the Brassica family.

Saying it is “pressed” is very misleading.  In fact you have to scroll down well below where most readers would likely stop before there is any mention of a solvent extraction.  Which, they do say, is used in the bulk of canola oil production.

I assert that the reason it is so far down, is that if consumers were aware of how their food was being produced, they wouldn’t find it as appealing.

For the sake of increased profits food companies turn to things like antibiotic laced livestock feed, solvent extraction, and high fructose corn syrup.  They save money and help the bottom line.  And the list of corporate shenanigans just seems to keep growing.

I’m not saying it isn’t safe.  Maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t.  I am hardly qualified to provide an expert opinion on the matter.

I’m just saying that I’m not buying it.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. April 29, 2010 9:47 am

    I am basically with you on this – our food is hugely over-processed and I seek-out alternatives where I can.

    Having said that, as an Oxford University-educated chemist I have to point out that just because something uses a chemical process does not make it bad or even fake. The flavor in gin comes from extracting chemicals from juniper berries using a solvent – and all forms of cooking and marinading are basically badly-controlled chemical reactions.

    Most bulk-food processing is just an improved version of something you would do in any case. Of course the ‘improvement’ is in the direction of greater yield and, ultimately, larger profits for the mega-corps and not in the direction of flavorful or healthy food…oh we’re back to why I prefer little- or un-processed foods again.

  2. wendalicious permalink
    April 29, 2010 11:31 am

    I am a Siena College-educated chemist, and I while my American degree is not as lofty as the_exile’s, I agree with his assertion that chemicals and chemical processes in food production are not always bad.

    But, they are bad (a subjective term here) in certain instances: vanilla extract (vanillin) taken from paper-pulp byproducts; petroleum-based food dyes; sugar-substitutes; high-fructose corn syrup; vinegar manufactured from ethyl alcohol synthesized from natural gas or petroleum derivatives.

    I’m sure there are lots more, but these are the ones I know a bit about.

  3. StanfordSteph permalink
    April 29, 2010 3:01 pm

    I don’t have an issue with irradiated beef. I actually think it’s a great idea because you can have your burgers rarer. I suppose if the flavor is affected, that might change my attitude. I haven’t had the occasion to get any, but I know Wegmans sells it.

  4. Ellen Whitby permalink
    April 30, 2010 2:16 pm

    I wonder if this is a real and growing movement among concerned American eaters or if it is a trendy “cause of the month.” On a recent cross-Atlantic flight I had the opportunity to choose from 30-40 different feature films (in addition to about 20 tv shows, plus music, video games and other miscellaneous video entertainment). One of them, called “The Informant”, featured Matt Damon as an executive at an agri-business that processed food and fixed prices. The point of the movie was how he conspired against his employer (Archer Daniels Midland to talk about the price fixing with the FBI) but there were also scenes about how they manipulated the results of safety checks to hide any problems there might be with distributing the product which would eventually get into the food supply.

    I have never been a great consumer of processed foods. I’ve always done a fair amount of cooking from scratch but now I find myself reading ingredient labels and being disgusted with what’s on them. It’s very difficult to get anything without those ingredients that aren’t really food. And the stuff that’s “real” food, is increasingly more expensive.

    What I’ve always found ironic is that to get “healthy” food, you have to go to a “health” food store. What does that mean for what you call the other category of food.

    And if you compare the machine that is the human body to a machine like a car, would you imagine putting high fructose corn syrup in your gas tank? Never. It would be in interesting (and probably unfortunate) experiment.

    So no, Fussy, it’s not about safety. It’s about health, and attitudes towards self-preservation – lots of which have been lost along the way.

  5. James permalink
    May 3, 2010 11:06 am

    I had no idea there were so many chemists that read the FLB. Anyway, I will agree that all I am looking for are the most delicious things I can get my hands on. But, I believe it is important to think about just what kind of monkey business went on with my food before it got to me. Outbreaks of E. coli and salmonella are dangerous and they are scary. Even I will not buy meat that looks improperly packaged (this includes the grass-fed stuff at the farmers markets) because bacteria are bad news.
    The improper handling of food and live animals is the cause of most of the food-related illness in this country and very very few are causeed by the addition or use of chemicals. In reality, many of these chemicals are very good natural mimics and are processed and cleared from our body or they are completely foriegn and pass through unnoticed. When commenting on previous posts, I just wanted to make sure people are aware that not all chemicals are bad. In retrospect, I probably should have thought about that previous opening statement a little more and changed it to reflect my opinion better.

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