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Apr 4, 2012 07:07 AM

mark bittman on pink slime

bittman has a thoughtful piece in today's ny times in which he places the "pink slime" controversy in its proper, which is to say larger, context.

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  1. I am a Bittman fan, but the real issue is eating too much beef, not the form of the beef. When all those people hollering eeewwww, ick stop eating hot dogs, then maybe we can talk. Until then it is all just mindless hysteria. The health and environmental effects of beef are well-known. We need to eat a whole lot less of it.

    9 Replies
    1. re: Just Visiting

      Per capita consumption has dropped considerably in the past decade, it's just that there are more of us, so production hasn't declined appreciably. Like it or not FTB is probably friendlier to the environment because we're using fewer cattle as a result. However, referring to it as "The Greener Beef" is likely as unmarketable as "Pink Slime."

      1. re: Just Visiting

        Now, now - that just doesn't make any sense. Eating "too much beef" has absolutely ZERO to do with the "pink slime" problem. You're talking apples & oranges here.

        Eating proper beef - lean, local, organic, grass-fed - isn't any more dangerous than any other food stuff.

        Do some homework.

        1. re: Just Visiting

          Exactly, because isn't that what all hot dogs are made of? I read this long ago, and haven't eaten a hot dog in probably 20 years. Not that I'd miss them, but really - what did folks think they are made of?

          They even look like pink slime.

          1. re: Just Visiting

            Just Visiting writes: "I am a Bittman fan, but the real issue is eating too much beef, not the form of the beef."

            This is nonsense. There is no prescribed amount of beef that people should eat. But there is plenty of data about what kind of beef is most healthy for people to eat. It has only been since the mid-twentieth century that man, most specifically man in the United States, has forced cattle to eat foods their stomachs and bodies are not designed to utilize as food that how much beef people eat has become a problem.

            Cattle that is forced to eat grain and corn MUST be fed antibiotics as well because their systems cannot handle the corn/grain diet. In order to digest these foreign foods, the cattle must greatly increase the amount of ecoli bacteria in their gut to simply digest the stuff. This makes the cattle sick, hence the antibiotics to keep them "healthy." As a result of this "convenient for cattleman, devestating for cattle" diet, the cattle develop serious cholesterol problems which are then passed on to the humans who eat their flesh. It's a rather vicious cycle that has been forced upon the American public for one and only one simple reason: More money for cattlemen. The hell with public health!

            Thank goodness the grass fed beef movement is growing. Grass fed beef has major health benefits that grain/corn fed beef cannot even approach. If more of the public would stop buying grain/corn fed beef, the grass fed beef movement would undoubtedly grow even faster. And that would be a truly good thing! The problem is NOT how much beef you eat. The problem is very much WHAT KIND of beef you eat. Grain/corn fed beef is a killer.

            1. re: Caroline1

              I know little about how cattle are raised for human consumption. Without going to great lengths, the best beef I have constant access to is Certified Angus Beef, sometimes their Natural, most times not. Here's their page describing their Natural line:


              They state that the cattle enjoy a diet of "top-quality grains, forages and essential nutrients," while at the same time declaring that these same cattle are never given antibiotics or hormones.

              Do cattle who eat *any* grain need antibiotics, or only some grains, like corn. I'm trying to follow how CAB can make these claims given what you've posted above without calling either you or them into question.

              (BTW, last night I had some top sirloin from Safeway, their 'Rancher's Reserve' branded beef, which I'm SURE is Select grade, but even so, it was great beef to me. That may only be an indication of my ability to compare it to other beef I'm able to access regularly.


              I'd like to buy and eat the best beef possible for myself, the cattle, and the environment—a pretty big ask, I know.

              1. re: RelishPDX

                Hi, Relish. Knowledge is power, and it's so good to see you arming yourself! It is rewarding!

                Most of the problems with our food supply today are the result of man trying to push nature in directions nature does not want to go. The outbreak of Mad Cow Disease (Creutzfeldt Jacob disease) is a direct result of such folly. Some guy thought,
                "Gee, look at all of the bones and brains and brawn we're throwing away after we slaughter cattle. We could turn that into meal and feed it back to the cattle. What a huge savings that would be!" And so they did with not one single thought to the fact that cattle are herbivores! Their stomachs lack the chemistry and chemical barriers that are required to keep certain pathogens from entering their system, and so cattle ate cattle and developed a serious brain disease in epidemic proportion. It was a needless disaster. But when there is an increase in profit to be had, caution and common sense are too often the first to be discarded. It makes a consumer's life extremely hazardous. Buyer beware takes on a much deeper meaning.

                With cattle, there are no studies that I'm aware of that establish a maximum amount of grain and corn that cattle can be fed without undesirable side effects. Most cattlemen that I'm aware of feel it is safer to err on the side of conservatism and feed NO grains or corn to their cattle than it is to risk a little when there is little or nothing to be gained. With the possible exception of a stomach ache for the beastie that eats it. When you stop and think of how a cow is built, it makes sense that corn and grain are not their intended food. They eat with their heads down grazing on the ground. Nature has spent millions and millions of years perfecting their systems for that diet. Corn grows high on the stalk, grain is too tall for comfortable grazing. Again, man is trying to push nature in directions nature doesn't want to be pushed when these "vegetables" are added to any cattle's diet.

                Which brings us to the point of another of your questions. I went to the website of the link you provided and looked it over fairly closely. WARNING! It is untrustworthy at best because they are playing word games. Word games that are meant to mislead. A "vegetarian" diet for cattle is NOT the same thing as a grass fed diet. Corn and grain are vegetables just as much as grass is. But they impact on the health and food quality of their flesh in very different ways. Don't trust any site that doesn't clearly define an issue.

                Unfortunately, there is a LOT of intentionally confusing language out there when it comes to beef. Well, there's a lot of intentionally confusing language out there about darn near everything! There are terms like "grass finished beef," "grass fed beef," "vegetable diet," "grain free diet" (yeah, well what about corn?), and all sorts of other terms that are confusing and some of which are intended to mislead. So it's very much a buyer beware and think hard world out there. Good luck in navigating it!

                When it comes to beef, as with most other things in life, people tend to like what they are familiar with. I am 78 years old (how the hell did I get here, and why did it happen so fast?) and I grew up in an era when there wasn't any other kind of beef besides grass fed. Well, with the single exception of Kobe/Wagyu beef in Japan, that was massaged and fed beer, but in my family, we didn't eat that. It was not until the mid-twentieth century that bottom liner profiteers began feeding cattle grain and corn and laughed all the way to the bank. I have no problem with people making money. I have a huge problem with it when they do it irresponsibly and without investigating the consequences. The bottom line here is that my beef preferences will probably be the opposite of someone half my age who has grown up on grain fed wet aged beef. For those generations, grain fed wet cured beef is home and family and comfort and security and what speaks to their souls. For me it is the opposite. But looking at the processes and what they do can give us some insight into what may be a better choice. If there really is a better choice.

                "Aging" the carcasses of cattle after slaughter is a way of tenderizing the meat and enhancing its flavor. My understanding is that the United States is the world's fussiest nation when it comes to insisting on aged beef. How the beef is aged is the rub. After a steer is slaughtered certain natural changes occur at the cellular level in the animal. One of the fortunate things that happens is that these changes modify the texture and flavor of the meat, making it more tender, and depending on how it is cured, more (or not so much more) flavorful.

                Dry aging is accomplished by hanging the steer carcass (after it is cleaned and dressed) in a controlled temperature environment for a specific length of time. As I recall, the temperature is something like 40 degrees Fahrenheit, which is cold enough to slow spoilage but not so cold as to stop it altogether. Steps are taken to ensure that no molds can grow. In the packing house my family used when I was growing up, the carcasses were wiped down daily with a clean sterile cloth dipped in a water/vinegar solution. Some packing houses shroud the carcass during aging to inhibit (but not stop) evaporation and shrinkage that takes place normally during the aging process. Others let the carcass hang openly and maximize the shrinkage by doing so. A hanging period of 21 days seems to be the "norm," if there is such a thing. And the longer the beef hangs, the more it will cost. Why? Because during this hanging process a carcass will lose from 20 to 30 percent of its original weight. So the original price the meat processor paid for the unaged beef, the weight loss that aging brings about, the cost of refrigeration and storage during the hanging period, labor costs and a whole bunch of other "incidentals" all go into establishing the price we will pay for a cut of dry aged beef in the marketplace. For me, it's money well spent because I strongly prefer the flavor!

                For wet aged beef, we come to that 20th century wonder of sealing things -- especially FOOD! -- in cryovac bags. And that is what is done in the wet cure process for aging beef. If nothing can evaporate, you won't have the weight loss that dry aging incurs. But you also won't have the full spectrum of natural chemistry that goes on with dry aging and produces such great flavor. In a way, it is similar to making beef stock in an open pot on top of the stove and in a pressure cooker. You can make a very tasty stock in a pressure cooker, but because the pressure cooker limits and all but prohibits evaporation, you cannot get the same flavor intensity that you will get from the stove top process. With wet aging beef, the difference between wet aged and dry aged beef is even more intense. Keeping all of those liquids inside the cryovac bag fails to allow the concentration and enhancement of flavors that dry aging promotes. But if you grew up eating wet aged beef, you may prefer it over dry aged. For me and my taste buds, wet cured/wet aged (they're both the same thing) beef is simply disappointment on a plate.

                And then you mention the Black Angus/Angus breed of cattle. Beef, like everything else in life, has cycles of popularity. There are LOTS of different breeds of beef, some of which are drop dead fantastic, others maybe don't quite reach that high note. Personal preference is the key to what works for you. To put it another way, a person can live a long and happy life without ever tasting a black winter Perigord truffle from France, BUT life is a lot more fun and delicious if you do! And so it goes with beef.

                At the present time I am buying ALL of my beef on line, and reintroducing myself (after many decades!) to the flavors of different breeds of cattle. At the moment, I have grass fed organic Black Angus, Charolaise, and Piedmontese beef in my freezer. I already knew Angus is not my favorite, but hey, it was on sale. In the not too distant future, I plan to try Texas Longhorn and Wagyu. How soon I get to the Wagyu will depend on budget and maybe a few birthday hints? When I was a kid, "white face cattle" (Herefords) were the beef of choice over and above Angus. Maybe it was because they were more "picturesque" in cowboy movies? After all, they do have horns, and they're more cattle shaped than he hornless compact Angus. Angus cattle are a favorite of cattlemen because they have compact bodies (easier to handle in a meat packing house), they don't have horns so they can't gore each other or YOU, and their calves are appreciably smaller than other breeds at birth, hence fewer cow/calf deaths, and the calves gain weight quickly and catch up with other breeds. What's not to love from a cattleman's viewpoint? From a consumer viewpoint, it's a matter of taste. I prefer other breeds. You may love Angus.

                A final interesting tale to top off this overlong post. It was during the 1960s that cholesterol and the dangers of beef and butter were drummed into the public consciousness. Eat margarine, NOT butter! Watch out for your cholesterol! All sorts of dire warnings. And then "scientists" found an isolated population group living on a group of islands off of England who all ate beef for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, drank copious amounts of whole milk and cream and didn't have a single cholesterol problem in a carload of the population! Scientists immediately concluded that these people had to be genetically different than the rest of us! Nope. They just ate grass fed beef. I only wish that grass fed milk and butter was as easy to find as grass fed beef is becoming. It's really great to be able to chose butter OR olive oil, knowing they both have excellent health benefits.

                I prefer to eat less really good beef than a whole lot of bad beef. My original intent was to include several excellent URLs that discussed the benefits of grass fed beef in depth. Unfortunately, they have been taken down. Sorry. But read, read, read. And keep a whole lot of skepticism in your pocket at all times. It's the ONLY way to fly! '-)

                  1. re: Caroline1

                    Great post, thank you for the investment of your time in such a thorough answer! My guess is that the bottom line for me personally will become research, portion control, frequency and taste testing within budget considerations, for what I finally settle on.

                    Don't know if it's true or not, but I heard something on the radio not long ago that the avg. percentage of household income devoted to food and clothing combined has dropped from the mid-40% range around 1960 to the high teens today (I believe the figures were 45% and 17%). When I moved out on my own in the late 70s, a full 20% of my income went to food alone. I'd be tossing prime steaks and lobster tails out the window without despair if I did the same today, so there's probably some validity behind those numbers—even so, I balk at spending $15 for one serving of meat at home on a weeknight for myself, while that might seem cheap for the meat tab to feed a family.

                    Outside of profits for the cattle industry, it's becoming my belief that the rise of products such as pink slime have partially come about to satisfy our ever shrinking total spending on food as we become accustomed to seeing 2 cheeseburgers for 99¢ on banners at fast food joints, while non-food items continue to rise in price. That sets a value in our minds for what food should cost, regardless of its nutritional content or quality, with industry developing products to fit those budgets.

                    I wish this was easier! I'll have to look at what options there are for buying beef online. I'll think about it while I chow down on my 99¢ per pound shank of ham that's widely available this week in the stores. ;)

            2. Good article. Thanks for sharing.

              1. I'm glad that Bittman focuses the end of his column on the issue of prophylactic antibiotic use in farm animals and its potential to create antibiotic-resistant strains of common pathogens. This is a MUCH more serious and dangerous issue than 'pink slime,' and it doesn't get anywhere near enough press.

                1 Reply
                1. re: cowboyardee

                  Yes. I agree. He seems to 'get' 'the problem--the problem the pink slime was created to solve. Thereby, creating another problem--unpalatable meat.

                2. The secondary article bittman references is an eye opener as well - They want you to think they have an air tight method that turns unuseable meat scraps into perfectly good, safe, infact safer, meat product.

                  Don't mind that smell of ammonia, it will dissipate as you mix and cook. Yuck.