“Pink slime” may sound like the villain of a 1950’s B-movie, but in fact it’s the pejorative nickname for a gelatinous substance used in much of the nation’s ground beef. Until recently, it was even in your Big Mac. It’s made up of slaughterhouse leftovers that are blended into a sludge-like consistency and then, because the raw materials tend to be high in E. coli and salmonella, sterilized with ammonium hydroxide. For those with strong stomachs, it looks like this.
There’s been a wave of uproars over pink slime in the last few years and now the goo is in the news again, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture is preparing to ship out seven million pounds of the stuff to public schools across the country. Outraged parents and school officials have taken to the media, opening larger debates about public health, obesity rates and the collusion of government institutions and Big Food. Of course, food fights are by no means a new item at the table of American politics—the dishiest cuisine controversies in our history may have you reconsidering your dinner plans.
A Novelist’s Beef With the Meatpacking Industry
Though Upton Sinclair’s 1906 book “The Jungle” is a technically work of fiction, its depiction of the turn-of-the-century immigrant experience—grueling labor, managerial corruption, revolting factory conditions and an almost complete absence of health codes in the meatpacking industry—sparked a national outrage. Public pressure led President Theodore Roosevelt to commission inspections of meatpacking plants. And while some of Sinclair’s narrative flourishes remained unverified—the anecdote, for instance, about a worker who falls into a processing vat and is left to be turned into lard—inspectors did find that Sinclair’s tale was rooted in harsh truth. In response to the findings, the Roosevelt administration passed the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act in 1906.
Death by Small Fry
When “Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal” hit shelves in 2002 (followed by a 2005 film adaptation), it opened a nationwide discussion about the health and safety of large-scale food production, skyrocketing obesity rates, and how little we really know about where our food comes from. Schlosser looks at all sides of the story, visiting farms and slaughterhouses (where conditions are unsettlingly similar to those described in “The Jungle”) and even sitting down with the McDonald brothers. The book contains enough gross-out factoids to make you shield your eyes from those golden arches for years. And really, who cares about pink slime when, as Schlosser concludes, there is almost certainly poop in your burger?
A Cake’s Progress
Look at the ingredient list on a Twinkie wrapper and you’ll be confronted with a list of unpronounceable chemicals. Read Steve Ettinger’s “Twinkie, Deconstructed: My Journey to Discover How the Ingredients Found in Processed Food Are Grown, Mined (Yes, Mined), and Manipulated into What America Eats,” and you’ll learn what they are, where they’re found and how they come together to form the iconic cake snack. Ettinger devotes a chapter to each ingredient, and his investigation takes him all over the world, from eastern Pennsylvania to Minnesota to Madagascar. Among the Twinkie’s ingredients? An iron compound that can double as a weed killer.
A Swan Song for Simpler Times
Our food production system is unrecognizably removed from natural agriculture, says Joel Salatin in “Folks, This Ain’t Normal,” and it’s time we turn our focus away from speed and profit toward health and sustainability. Salatin is a proponent of organic farming and the Slow Food movement, and has been called “Virginia’s most multifaceted agrarian since Thomas Jefferson” by the New York Times. His plan for a healthier America is a back-to-basics vision in which people understand how and where their food is produced, and learn embrace their geographical and seasonal constraints.
A Mother’s Crusade Against Big Food
Big Money and Big Food are in cahoots, says Robyn O’Brien in “The Unhealthy Truth: One Mother’s Shocking Investigation into the Dangers of America’s Food Supply—and What Every Family Can Do to Protect Itself,” and that alliance has led to the presence of dangerous toxins in the food we eat every day. Inspired to write the book after her youngest daughter suffered a severe allergic reaction to store-bought eggs, O’Brien takes on a corrupt, profit-driven food production system. According to O’Brien, toxins in our food have led to spikes in allergies, ADHD, asthma and cancer, while convenient corporate partnerships (Kraft, for instance, funds the nation’s largest allergy non-profit) buy goodwill, and silence.
The Road from Farm to Supermarket is Winding
No staple of the American food scene escapes Michael Pollan in “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” He traces McDonald’s meals, Twinkies, frozen dinners and even artisanal Whole Foods offerings back to their surprising origins. Does the prevalence of corn in the American diet (more than a quarter of supermarket goods contain it) explain our obesity rates? Is everything organic really better for you? Pollan has become a leading figure in the debate over food safety, and his passion for healthy, informed eating comes through loud and clear.