Changes needed in meat processing industry

Oct 14th, 2009 | By | Category: Blogs, Opinions

by Mike Courson

As a watcher of news, and one who frequently regurgitates such, it is convenient when I sometimes stumble across a few items that tie some thoughts together. Monday’s “Larry King Live,” and an article by Daniel Lyons in last week’s Newsweek did just that.

King’s show featured a discussion about the safety of eating meat. At the beginning, several families affected by meat-related illnesses such as e. Coli were highlighted.Larry King

The back half of the show featured several panelists in a debate-like structure. On one hand, Dr. Colin Campbell, a Cornell professor, argued that humans need to revert to a plant-based diet. Campbell quotes several studies that show adverse health effects due to heavy meat consumption. University of Connecticut professor Dr. Nancy Rodriguez, an expert in nutrition, countered that a meat diet can be healthy.

At this point, both experts seem to be about on equal ground. Campbell brings a scientific background, and scientific studies to support his side. Rodriguez brings common sense about a topic she has studied extensively. From there, it goes downhill.

King next brings on Anthony Bourdain, chef, author, and host of Travel Channel’s “No Reservations.” Jonathan Safran Foer, author of “Eating Animals,” also joins the panel.

Bourdain is one of my favorite television personalities. In general, he seems to appeal to my logical way of thinking, and has experience the world over. Foer, through research for his book, also seemed knowledgeable.

Bourdain opens by saying humans are obviously designed to be hunters, and that includes eating meat, but we are not designed to consume bacteria. He also says, “I think the standard practices of outfits like Cargill and some of the larger meat processors and grinders in this country are unconscionable and border on the criminal.”

Foer agreed for the most part, adding, “What Anthony didn’t say, and I wish he had, is that 99 percent — upwards of 99 percent of the animals that are raised for meat in this country come from factory farms.”

At this time, the panel seems to heading in the right direction. Bourdain and Foer have offered no real expertise, but what they say rings true. Then it goes back to Campbell, who again says humans need a plant-based diet, and a plant-based food industry could replace the present animal-based industry.

This is where things go a little haywire. Campbell is obviously a smart man. Perhaps his research indicates meat is bad. So what? Science has long said cigarettes and alcohol are bad, yet humans continue to use these products. This is precisely why Bourdain answers, “People eat meat because it’s delicious. Let’s not forget the pleasure aspect of this argument. People eat meat because they like it. It tastes good. It smells good when it’s cooking. I think to — people are going to disagree along those lines alone, regardless of the health aspects.”

King then asks Rodriguez if it is true that many e. Coli outbreaks have started with vegetables. She answers that this is true.

Foer then says, “Nancy, surely you know the CDC has said all of those, the primary source was animal agriculture. It may be true that the vehicle was spinach. But if we’re wondering where e. Coli — we know where e. Coli comes from, right? It comes from poop. It’s not coming from the spinach. It’s coming from run off from factory farms.”

Rodriguez answers that her area of expertise is nutrition, and she cannot comment on Foer’s charge.

This is where my expertise comes in. Keep in mind I have none, but I can throw together an argument. Campbell and Rodriguez, though they hate to admit it, are on the same line of thinking. Meat is probably not the healthiest, but in small quantities, probably is beneficial to humans.

Bourdain’s common sense approach is right on. Humans are not designed to maximize health. We take risks daily. On matters of diet, health is rarely the top consideration. Of course people will continue to eat meat, probably in large quantity.

Not one panelist raised this issue to the degree it should have been emphasized: it is not necessarily the meat that is unhealthy, but the way in which it is produced for consumption. Crowded farms, antibiotics, pesticides, hormones, etc, etc. Not one panelist fully put together the idea that, yes, people may be designed to eat meat, but the American corporation has corrupted even this with its need to produce something that generates profit. The most practical solution is not to cut meat consumption, but to improve the way it is processed.

To cap things off, King brings back Patrick Boyle, president and CEO of the American Meat Institute. Boyle does his normal public relations work: Cargill is part of the AMI, and the industry has spent tens of millions of dollars to keep food safe. Boyle also adds, “And hamburger is compromised of trim from more expensive pieces of meat like tenderloins and roasts. It’s perfectly safe, perfectly wholesome.”

Yes, Mr. Boyle, this is obviously why one has to heat hamburger to a certain temperature. Whereas steaks can be enjoyed pink, hamburger must be fully cooked due to risk of contamination. Only in a PR world could we believe, and have aired on a major news network, that hamburger is perfectly safe.

And that’s how Lyons’ “Newsweek” article ties everything together. Lyons writes about director of the White House Office of Science, John Holdren, an MIT undergrad and Ph.D from Stanford. Holdren has won several awards for his scientific studies in areas of energy use.

“But now he must sell his ideas to people who couldn’t pass high-school algebra–and who believe they know more than he does,” Lyons writes.

On King’s show, one credible scientist didn’t have the sense to incorporate human desire into his equation. One credible nutritionist could not admit that e. Coli outbreaks tied to plants originated with animals. Only when a celebrity chef and author joined was there any semblance of balanced reason.

Unfortunately, they were all trumped by a public relations wizard who just happened to have the last word. Is Boyle an expert in his field? Maybe. But he’s also out for profit.

All arguments are not created equal. It took a few experts losing to a chef and author to prove that Monday night.

Click here read the full transcript of the episode of Larry King Live.

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  1. Mike,

    I’d just like to mention that your opinion piece is inaccurate on a number of issues in this article, and I’d like to elaborate on one point in particular. Hamburger meat: Ground beef has to be cooked at a specific temperature due to the way the meat is processed, not due to the quality of the overall meat. Because the meat is ground up, bacteria from the outside of the meat is churned together allowing the bacteria to spread throughout the entire portion of ground beef. Bacteria can form on any meat, regardless of quality and quantity. The same cooking methods hold true for preparation of a Kobe beef hamburger as they do for preparation of a burger cooked at Wendy’s. Different types of meat require different preparation.

    Big opinions, little knowledge