Switcharoo

It was seven years ago this month: March 2012.  ABC news set the beef world ablaze with reports of a widely used product sneaking its way into consumers’ hamburgers and hot dogs.  After eleven segments aired, outrage in the meats aisle was palpable and accusations were making more trips around the Web than airplanes make to Vegas.  Everyone knew the name: Pink Slime.

Ironically, Pink Slime (also known as Lean, Finely Textured Beef (LFTB), the not-so-mouthwatering nomenclature quickly assigned to the pasty product by NCBA and their Beef Council counterparts) is a result of overriding consumer desires to be more efficient (the extrusion process is able to capture beef bits from previously un-useable trimmings, therefore utilizing more of each beef animal), to avoid fat at all costs (heating the fat to render it into liquid, then centrifuging it away from the muscle created a very lean product), and to cheap out on the stuff we purchase for sustenance (surprise, $0.99/lb ground beef isn’t made from prime filet tenders that came from a happy family raised steer).  This combined trifecta of what people ‘want’ opened a window for processed food manufacturer BPI to invent the lean beef salvage and sell it.

Of course, once the news spread and people started freaking out, nobody wanted to eat anything that looked like beef paste.  Lots of people wanted to make it illegal, lots of people used the story as leverage to promote vegetarianism, lots of people talked and shouted and reacted and lobbied and apologized and then another news story erupted and we all completely forgot about pulverized beef (Think: when was the last time you heard the term ‘Pink Slime’?  It’s been a while, huh?)

With nobody looking, the window of opportunity opened once again and some negotiating has apparently been taking place to get such important products as Lean Finely Textured Beef back into the hands of consumers who desperately want it (Sarcasm, I’ve learned, does not transmit well via written language.  If you missed it, re-read the end of that last sentence, but add a dash of satire.)  I was breezing through a magazine heavily influenced by the opinion of Big Beef when I caught the headline: ‘Lean Finely Textured Beef Reclassified as Ground Beef’.

It turns out that, once a certain scale of production is reached, all one needs to do when faced with a situation involving widespread rejection of a crappy food product you’re engineering is let everyone forget about you, then buddy up with your friendly national beef organization who will turn their lobbyists loose on their strategically funded political counterparts who will examine the ‘law’ and allow you to change the name of said crappy product into something more acceptable to the sheep.  I mean people.

Do you follow?  In other words, because people aren’t too keen on eating LFTB, they changed the name so people won’t notice.  That’s it.  I can picture the meetings: ‘Golly, guys, we’ve got a problem.  People don’t like our product.  Let’s have it reclassified so we can sell the same thing without changing a thing!  Jolly good, jolly good.’

I don’t think people realize how much we’re all being played.  The food system has become so huge and so centralized that it and the government regulatory systems designed to oversee what we eat are basically the same thing.  One scratches the back of another.  It’s a problem for local food, because laws don’t offer any give-and-take: what applies to the biggest applies to the smallest.  It’s hard for mom and pop to jump through the same hoops as Cargill.  I love Joel Salatin’s insight on the matter: every time he hears one of his customers say ‘I can’t believe they (the food industry) can do that!  It should be illegal!’ he tells them they’re really putting another nail in the coffin of small farms and direct food sales.  As the BPI case suggests, food giants can change the rules to fit their reality.  Small farms can’t; they simply get crushed out of existence. 

When we get mad and try to make more laws to get what we want, we’re not restricting the giants.  We’re killing the small producers who we’re trying to help.  The government loves consolidation because it’s easier to keep an eye on one big thing than it is to keep an eye on a million little things; they’ll talk about healthy food and local economies while keeping avenues open to maintain grocery store pseudo-organic owned by the major food companies. 

Friends, we need to take the politics out of our food; it’s a fight we’ll never win.  Interestingly, a Mother Earth News survey recently revealed that their followers are almost evenly split between identifying as extremely conservative and extremely liberal.  Isn’t that neat?  Food can bring two opposites together for a similar cause.  In this stupidly polarized age we live in, a little togetherness sounds pretty darn good.

My advice with food is to take a break from the news, because what you see and what actually happens are often two different things. Stop trying to control an out-of control food system. Select what you want by using personal discernment: buy from people who sell what they grow, and if you see the guy scratching his butt before bagging your rhubarb, find another vendor. That’s all it takes. Move on. Don’t make a law about butt-scratching at the farmer’s market. I think if we can sidestep the government and their army of inspectors we’ll find that the rest of us get along pretty well. When we all get along, we all get what we want.