If you are even remotely squeamish about what you eat, you should immediately commit to never turning on the internet or television again. Otherwise, you might inconveniently learn that you while you were enjoying a tasty burger and vanilla milkshake, you may have been gobbling down ammonia-soaked cow scraps and beaver butt secretions. The idea that people put icky things into their bodies is not a shocking or outrageous revelation; after all, at this very moment, someone in the world is voluntarily eating roaches, smoking cigarettes, or dating Jesse James. What should be concerning is the way many of these eyebrow-raising ingredients are not disclosed to us in a reasonable manner.
Recently, there has been renewed publicity over “pink slime”, aka a concoction of miscellaneous cow scraps zapped with ammonia. Euphemistically referred to as “lean finely textured beef,” these juicy morsels have apparently been mixed in fair amounts into our ground beef supply and enjoyed in schools and households throughout the land. As gnarly as this “pink slime” (a term originally coined by a USDA scientist in an internal memo) sounds and looks, the squirm-inducing ingredients are not the main problem.
For instance, anyone who has researched what goes into a hot dog knows all about fatty meat scraps and chemical preservatives. As for ammonia, the fact is beef already contains a small amount of ammonia naturally. One may point out that ammonia is commonly used as a household cleaner; well so is vinegar, and yet I still comfortably enjoy my hot and sour soup. No, the main problem with the whole pink slime controversy is how it was initially completely undisclosed to the consuming public. When the New York Times conducted an investigation into the matter for a 2009 article, it reported that “(The) processed beef…is used in a majority of the hamburger sold nationwide. But it has remained little known outside industry and government circles. Federal officials agreed to the company’s request that the ammonia be classified as a ‘processing agent’ and not an ingredient that would be listed on labels.”
In fact, Georgia officials in 2003 tried to return 7,000 pounds of meat to the manufacturer when cooks planning a delicious meatloaf meal for state prisoners detected a distinctly strong ammonia smell. Since they had no idea the stuff was treated with ammonia (as it wasn’t on the label), the officials assumed an accidental contamination and even notified the USDA. As the NY Times reported, “In their complaint, the officials noted that the level of ammonia in the beef was similar to levels found in contamination incidents involving chicken and milk that had sickened schoolchildren.” So, while the “lean finely textured beef” manufacturers and their supporters are making the rounds maintaining that their product is in actuality quite safe to eat (because the ammonia kills nasty salmonella and E. coli, you see), we should recognize this is beside the point. The pertinent point is there should have been adequate disclosure from day one, so that we as an American people could make an educated decision as to whether or not we ingest this less expensive pink-hued ammonia-infused meat alternative thingy.
By the same token, if you had tuned into the David Letterman show with guest celebrity chef Jamie Oliver last April, you would have heard that your vanilla ice cream may have been flavored by the secretion from the anal glands of a beaver. Wait, what? Do a bit of research, and you’ll see that castoreum is an FDA-approved food additive (see FDA’s official “Food Additive Status list” here), and although some industry advocates claim that they no longer use castoreum as a vanilla flavoring additive, it still may be and definitely once was. So what is castoreum? From the Webster-Online Dictionary: “Castoreum is the yellowish secretion of the castor sac in combination with the beaver’s urine, used during scent marking of territory. Both male and female beavers possess a pair of castor sacs and a pair of anal glands located in two cavities under the skin between the pelvis and the base of the tail.” Although it doesn’t come directly from the anus, castoreum does originate in the poor beaver’s butt area, so for simplicity’s sake let’s just call it beaver butt juice. Once again, the point isn’t that people are ingesting this stuff. This is a carnivorous free country, and if people want to dine on secretions from a cute furry rodent’s ass region, more power to them. The point is that if you look at the ingredients of any food package containing castoreum, you likely wouldn’t know it’s there. Why? Because it, among other similar ingredients, falls under the more general title of “natural flavorings.” When you think about it, this isn’t false: Butt juice from a beaver is indeed perfectly natural. But is this misleading? Call me old-fashioned, but if I am about to ingest a material that comes from the nether-regions of any mammal, I want to know about it.
Now let’s say you’re a fun-loving vegan who occasionally enjoys a historically vegan-friendly Strawberry Frappuccino from Starbucks after a long day of hugging trees. So one morning you’re in your Prius sipping one of these bad boys, and you hear on the radio that Starbucks had, without your knowledge, changed the origin of your Frap’s red dye from artificial colors to the crushed bodies of the female cochineal beetles indigenous to Mexico and South America. You’d be mad enough to stomp on a snail. That’s exactly what happened to our vegan friends when it was learned earlier this year that Starbucks surreptitiously made this very change in January 2012. To be fair to our corporate master, Starbucks did this for a purely “green” reason: To eliminate artificial ingredients from its products. But once again, it’s the lack of disclosure that causes alarm and the company major PR problems. Now, not only are vegans giving the stink-eye to the several dozen Starbucks stores they pass while walking around the block, multitudes of non-vegan customers are similarly peeved that the company secretly put squished bugs into their favorite beverage (it’s enough to, dare I say, make them see red).
In summary, when it comes to our food supply, the biggest concern for both consumers and companies alike should be adequate disclosure. The consuming public should know each esoteric component of their food choices, no matter how spine-cringing the knowledge. As for companies, they should realize that in this age of widespread internet and social media, the truth about any questionable ingredients will come out sooner or later. As playfully frisky politicians have known for ages, it’s the cover-up that causes the most trouble. Companies also might be surprised to discover just how accommodating many humans are in terms of eating the nastiest of items, so long as there’s the slightest compelling reason (Nice taste? Valuable coupon? A commercial suggesting chicks really dig guys who ingest said items?).
Finally, the government regulatory agencies we the people hold responsible for ensuring that we all live full and immensely wonderful lives should do their part to enforce this disclosure. Many American do still depend on the FDA, USDA, and their agency brethren to help ensure that what we eat is safe, doesn’t contain gross animal extremities we don’t know about, and won’t unknowingly cost us significantly more years of purgatory. We demand the right to know every gory detail of the crap we put into our mouths and systems!