People will ingest some surprising things without changing their eating habits. Or even flinching.
The hamburger is an intriguing example. From cow poop (which is why public health officials urge you to cook your burgers well) to pink slime (which is what it sounds like, only worse), the contents of the lowly burger have been under a microscope recently in a series of stomach-turning revelations. And then there are the salt, fat and calories that help make burgers appealing to taste buds, but also put them on the list of foods that should be avoided or eaten sparingly.
And yet fast-food burger sales, according to U.S. industry figures, are booming.
So what does it take to put people off their food?
Maybe this. The discovery of horsemeat in what were supposed to be beef products in the U.K. and Europe has shaken consumers there and led to questions here about North American beef products (which appear to be horse-free). The scandal has even spread to South Africa, where ostrich and springbok burgers were found to contain horsemeat.
Never mind that horsemeat is likely more wholesome than many things people willingly eat, or are wilfully blind to, it seems to be the line many will not cross when it comes to food.
It might not make sense, but it is not a bad thing, because species-switching in food is a symptom of bigger problems.
If you have to do a DNA test on your lunch before you eat it to figure out which animal it used to be, you should be worried. Not just about what that burger is actually made of, but about what else you don’t know about your food.
Horsemeat is not likely to turn up in burgers in North America, as it has in Europe where it is, after all, in the food chain. Horses are slaughtered in Canada for food, but shipped to market in Europe where, especially in France, it is enjoyed by many.
Horsemeat, I am told, tastes like a cross between beef and venison. It is usually leaner than beef and its nutritional value is similar to beef. It is, no doubt, healthier than the “pink slime” that some companies add to their hamburger, in part, to reduce the fat content.
Pink slime, made from finely textured beef trimmings, was originally used in pet food and cooking oil. It has since been approved for public consumption and has been used as a filler in ground beef. The product is “exposed to” ammonia gas or citric acid to kill bacteria.
Stories about its existence have been in the news in recent months. Some manufacturers say they have stopped using it. Meanwhile, the fast-food burger industry is predicting a four per cent sales increase in 2013.
Beef was in the news in Canada last year after people were sickened from eating E. coli-tainted beef from a plant in Alberta. One of the concerns raised was that a tenderizing process for steaks can actually move bacteria from the surface of beef into the meat, raising the risk of it making consumers sick.
The Canada Food Inspection Agency came under fire for its handling of the E. coli outbreak and beef recall at XL Foods in Brooks, Alta. Canadian consumers were not warned until nearly two weeks after it was first detected by Canadian inspectors and U.S. border inspectors.
During the controversy, Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz defended CFIA’s safety record against claims that meat for export to other countries is more rigorously inspected than meat for domestic consumption. The plant was briefly closed, but has since been given a green light by the CFIA.
There may be no horsemeat scandal in Canada, but the CFIA does routine “species sampling” in meat plants, according to an official. It has also done DNA testing on seafood, working with a world-renowned DNA bar-coding lab at the University of Guelph and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
And while horsemeat has grabbed the headlines, DNA tests of seafood regularly turn up unlabelled substitutions. A U.S. study found that 33 per cent of seafood sold there was mislabelled.
Which should put people off their food. If you can’t trust that your food is labelled correctly, how can you trust anything about it? And how can you make an informed decision about what you are eating?
The answer is not just more testing. A better way to reduce unpleasant food surprises is to eat less, or no, meat, to shorten your food chain by buying more local products and to try, when possible, to buy food that you can identify from people you know and trust.
© Copyright 2013