Tom Philpott - May 2012

How Your College Is Selling Out to Big Ag

| Wed May 9, 2012 3:01 AM EDT

Last week, the University of Illinois' College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES) in Champaign-Urbana made a momentous announcement: it has accepted a $250,000 grant from genetically modified seed/agrichemical giant Monsanto to create an endowed chair for the "Agricultural Communications Program" it runs with the College of Communications.

The university's press release quotes Monsanto's vice president of technology communications giving a taste of its vision for the investment:

With the population expecting to reach 9 billion by 2030, farmers from Illinois and beyond will be asked to produce more crops while using fewer resources. At Monsanto we are committed to bringing farmers advanced ag technologies to help them meet this challenge. Effectively communicating farmers’ efforts to feed, clothe and fuel a rapidly growing population is a major part of the solution.

A cynic might translate that statement this way: In order to maintain our highly profitable and hotly contested business model, we'll need a new generation of PR professionals to construct and disseminate our marketing message.

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Tom's Kitchen: Making a Hash of Breakfast

| Wed May 9, 2012 3:01 AM EDT
I made a hash of it—and it was really good.

I've been spending time in Austin this spring for family reasons. On a recent Saturday, I visited the remarkable Downtown Farmers' Market. I got there late, past noon, and almost all of the vendors had mostly sold out and begun packing up. One stand still had a look resembling bounty, despite the late hour and the blistering heat: Johnson's Backyard Garden.

I later learned from a friend that Johnson's still had produce not because of any lack of popularity, but because in addition to its original backyard garden, it has since 2006 been organically farming a 20-acre plot of land within Austin city limits—which produces enough volume to keep the bins replenished all day. (Remarkably, Johnson's is one of at least three highly productive farms within Austin, a group which includes the pioneering Boggy Creek Farm and Springdale Farm.)

Is "Meat Glue" As Gross As It Sounds?

| Mon May 7, 2012 6:00 AM EDT
Three strips of beef that have been bound together with "meat glue" and rolled into a log, in preparation for being sliced into steak-like pieces.

Update (Friday, June 8): Tom Philpott joined Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air to discuss "meat glue", "pink slime", and other issues affecting the meat industry. Listen to the interview here.

Broadcast news and social-media sites have been aflame with reports about something called "meat glue."

"If you were disturbed to hear about 'pink slime' in your burger, you'll want to know about 'meat glue,' because a fat, rare-cooked filet mignon may not be what it seems," ABC News' Bay Area affiliate gasped last week.

First reaction: Ooh, gross. Reaction upon a bit of reflection: Meat glue, an enzyme known as transglutaminase, is indeed a trick up the meat industry's sleeve, but a relatively minor one in the grand scheme.

A couple of weeks ago, I named four common industry practices that are "grosser than pink slime." (Pink slime itself is pretty gross.) Here's a fifth: Every year, dairy and beef cows are fed around 2 billion pounds of chicken litter—chicken shit, dead chickens, and leftover feeds, which contains cow protein. Cows being fed chicken shit is deeply gross; cows eating cow protein is downright scary.

But using transglutaminase to glue pieces of meat together? It can be a dodgy practice, but it doesn't make the cut.

Transglutaminase is an enzyme, naturally found in blood, that can bind proteins together. Food scientists figured out how to synthesize it from bacteria, and a Japanese company called Ajinomoto markets it in the United States under the brand name Activa.

As far as I can tell, there are no health problems associated with consuming transglutaminase itself. Environmental Working Group's "Skin Deep" cosmetics database lists it as an ingredient in six hair-care products and categorizes it as a "low hazard" substance.

The dodgy part lies in how the meat industry can put it to use. Meat purveyors can use it to bind together disparate scraps of meat that can be sliced into cuts that look shockingly like whole steaks—thus passing off cheap scraps as pricey cuts. The Ajinomoto site has an image, captioned "Sample Beef Application," that illustrates how four thin strands of beef can be bound together into a piece resembling a fat beef tenderloin, which can then be sliced into cuts that look a whole lot like pristine filet mignons.It's what's for dinner: "Sample Beef Application": Ajinomoto Food Ingredients LLCIt's what's for dinner: "Sample Beef Application." Ajinomoto Food Ingredients LLC

Beyond deception, there's a food safety angle here, too. I've written a lot about how US meat is routinely tainted with pathogens, often strains that are resistant to antibiotics. These bacteria appear only on the surface of meat; so when you sear a real steak on both sides, you're also killing those bacteria, even if the meat inside is cooked rare. (Ground meat, of course, is different—since surface area gets ground into the final product, you have to cook it all the way through to ensure that you're not risking illness.)

But in a "steak" made up of several pieces bound by meat glue, surface meat (and any pathogens like salmonella clinging to it) ends up inside the final cut—so searing on both sides won't do the trick. A rare real steak can be a pleasure to eat; rare meat-glued "steak" presents a potential health hazard.

Happily, the USDA's meat inspection service decreed in 2001 that cuts that have been cobbled together with transglutaminase have to add a label indicating "that it has been formed from pieces of whole muscle meat, or that it has been reformed from a single cut." Such a labeling requirement, while important, doesn't warn consumers that the cuts should be cooked all the way through, though.

And anyway, such labels only inform consumers when they're shopping at the supermarket. But according to ABC News' reporting, consumers are more likely to encounter transglutaminase-bound cuts when eating outside the home.

Pinning down who is using transglutaminase isn't easy. One meat company owner told KGO-TV that gluing meat is common practice, and the most glued product by far is filet mignon destined for the food service industry. An industry trade group also said meat glue is most often used where filet mignon is served in bulk—at a restaurant, banquet, cafeteria or hotel.

God forbid, if I ever find myself at some cursed banquet where they're serving "filet mignon," I'll eat around the entree—whether or not it's cooked to the leather stage to kill pathogens. But honestly, I'll probably be thinking more about the cow's awful life and deplorable diet than I am about the meat glue.

Now, the other way consumers might find themselves eating glued meat is at a very different kind of meal: at a high-end restaurant run by a creative chef. The standard bearer for such chefs in the United States, Wylie Dufresne of Manhattan's WD-50, loves the stuff. According to Meat Paper, he has "concocted all manner of playful and bizarre food products with meat glue, including shrimp spaghetti, which he made by mixing salt, cayenne, deveined shrimp, and meat glue in a blender."

Would I eat Dufresne's famous "shrimp spaghetti" if confronted with a plate of it?

Honestly, yes. I trust chefs on Dufresne's level to use top-quality raw materials and cook them properly—even if I can rarely afford to eat their food. I guess, in the end, it's not the glue itself I find particularly gross; it's when it's used to bind together industrial meat that that it gets me.

Revenge of the Lunch Ladies

| Fri May 4, 2012 6:00 AM EDT
Chicago's cafeteria workers took to the streets—and won.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about how our public school lunch program has been systematically starved of both money and time—to the point that kids now get a median of 25 minutes, and often quite a bit less, to wolf down lunch.

If they're lucky, the meal they're being forced to inhale as quickly as possible will have been prepared by actual cooks working with fresh ingredients. More likely, though, they're getting reheated prefab fare. Fewer than half US schools operate working kitchens, The New Yorker reported in 2006—and the Great Recession and the resulting pullback in public spending has only accelerated the trend toward school cafeterias as reheating centers for industrially made food. Last summer, for example, the city of Philadelphia shuttered 26 school kitchens in a budget-cutting move.

The city of Chicago, steered for years by privatization-happy Democrats Richard Daley and now Rahm Emanuel, has been heading down a similar path. Of the 11 new schools the city has built under a $1 billion program since 2006, 9 have no kitchen facilities and serve food based on what the Unite Here union, which organizes Chicago's cafeteria workers, calls the "frozen food model."

Time to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love Industrial Agriculture?

| Wed May 2, 2012 6:00 AM EDT
At a grain elevator in Illinois, corn is loaded into trucks, on the way to being turned into meat, ethanol, or corn syrup.

Like a good buffet, Nature's recent meta-analysis comparing the productivity of industrial and organic agriculture offered something for every taste.

For enthusiasts of large-scale, chemical-intensive agriculture, there was this headline finding: Yields on organic farming—the amount of crop produced per acre—are on average 25 percent lower than those of industrial farming.

And for biodiversity fans like me, the study had a caveat: Most of organic's so-called yield penalty lies in grain crops like wheat; for fruit and some vegetables, organic ag is nearly (but not quite) as productive as its chemical-laced counterpart.