An Unexpected Opinion on Processed Meat

I am a very food safety-conscious person. Since I know how misleading eat-by and other date labels are, I rely on my senses to check whether food is still safe to consume, and I scrutinize very closely before eating. So, when I go to weekend-long ultimate frisbee tournaments, I make sure I only have non-perishable foods in my bag, as it will be sitting outside in the sun for hours on end. Nuts, energy bars, breads, peanut butter, and pretzels are my favorites. Last weekend, though, a guy on our team brought lunch provisions for everyone: loaves of bread, two tortillas espanolas (potato frittatas), a bag of tomatoes, and several packages of sliced cheeses and meats. My initial reaction was no, I’m not going to eat meat, cheese, or egg-product that has been sweltering in a bag on the beach in 25ºC heat for four hours. Then I reconsidered: Well, chorizo and salami are often kept at room temperature anyway, and smelling the cheese and tortilla will immediately prove whether they’re still good. I allowed myself to have two sandwiches (not touching the tomatoes because they weren’t washed) and found that they tasted completely fine and gave me no trouble. The story is far from exciting, but it was a really important moment for me to realize the benefits of processed food.

process2Yes, processed food. The phrase has a pretty negative connotation due to all of the health concerns associated with artificial coloring, chemical additives, high sugar and fat content, lack of freshness, etc. It brings to mind images of potato chips, Twinkies, and frozen microwave meals. I am all about promoting fresh and local products and generally avoiding junk food, but, in the interest of preventing food waste, it is important to recognize the values of food preservation. After all, these methods were developed so that people could keep and use food longer before it goes bad.

Keep in mind that preserving doesn’t have to mean industrial/chemical processing. Some of the oldest and most basic techniques for preserving meat, for instance, are still used because of the distinct flavors they create. Prosciutto and corned beef are examples of products that have been rubbed with salt or submerged in salty brine (the latter method usually means it should then be cooked to neutralize the saltiness) because salt dehydrates the bacteria that cause meat to spoil. Lots of fish and deli meats like pastrami also undergo air-drying or wood-smoking, which, as stated by The Economist, involves “carcinogens, which inhibit microbial growth; phenolics, which retard fat oxidation; and an array of sugars, acids and particulates that colour and flavour the meat.” Obviously, those carcinogens aren’t healthy for humans either, which is part of the reason to limit consumption of smoked and cured meat.

All types of cured meatAnother reason for the persistence of these techniques is that the simplicity of the meat curing process subjects it to a lot of environmental factors that can influence its taste, producing noticeable differences in flavor based on origin. Hence, one distinction between seemingly similar products like prosciutto and jamon serrano. Since humans have always been concerned with making their food last while retaining taste, examples of the history of preserving meat come from all over the world. Incans probably salted and dried slices of meat and referred to it as charqui, the namesake of jerky; European settlers brought stores of salt pork that could last up to two years on their ships; and China’s salted, fermented, and dried anfu ham dates back to the Qin Dynasty.

Alright, my research on meat preservation led me on a bit of a tangent, but back to my original point: processing isn’t a needless evil of the modern food system. It makes sense to manufacture perishables in such a way that they will keep over long-ish periods of time, especially now that the world is producing more food than it knows what to do with. In addition to preventing waste, many preservation techniques are designed to protect human health, as discussed in my previous article about pasteurization. Of course I saw the World Health Organization’s report linking colon cancer to processed meat, so, once again, the key is moderation. Appreciate the fact that you can eat a ham and cheese sandwich that has been in your bag all day (make sure you sniff it first), but don’t make bacon a staple of your diet.

A belated happy Thanksgiving,


Nose to Tail Eating: Showing Appreciation and Preventing Waste

As my sister and I were strolling through a food and drink festival in Germany, we started talking about how weird it is that Westerners find it quite normal to eat some animals – pigs, cows, birds, sheep, deer, goats, fish – but not reptiles, insects, or mammals such as dogs or cats. This turned into a conversation about what parts of animals are most commonly eaten and what each of us would be willing to eat. Naturally, I ended up mentioning my support for nose-to-tail eating.

nosetail cutsNose-to-tail refers to the practice of eating as much of an animal as possible to minimize waste. Yes, that includes things like bones, genitalia, and heads. That may repulse some people, but the ethical implications are worth considering. If an animal is already going to die for the sole sake of human consumption, isn’t it only fair to use its body for all its worth, rather than cut out a few slabs and then dump the rest of the carcass? Not only is that a waste of a lot of potential food, but, in my opinion, it is extremely disrespectful to the animal.

In my experience, people typically prefer to eat animal flesh and fat over entrails and organs – known as offal in the culinary world – because that is what they have been raised to consider ‘acceptable’ meat. Of course, there are many logical reasons to be squeamish eating certain body parts. Mine is primarily a gastronomic concern: brains, eyeballs, and many other organs just seem like they would be a highly unpleasant texture to eat, regardless of their actual flavor. That might sound heartless, but it’s true. Hygiene can also be a large cause for worry when it comes to eating, say, bladders or kidneys, which have held bodily excretions. However, most people just find it gross or morally wrong to eat a creature’s hearts, brains, or eyes; perhaps because they represent the animal’s soul or the windows thereto.

meat grocery storeFor a subsistence farmer, I think trying to eat nose to tail would be a pretty logical decision solely for the economic reason of making the most of what you have. For the average grocery store shopper, though, it just depends on your personal comfort zone. Since we buy individual cuts of meat, not whole animals, we can afford to be selective. Still, as more butchers and chefs embrace the nose-to-tail idea to encourage sustainability, it is worth experimenting a little. After all, fewer animals would have to be killed if people were willing to substitute some traditional cuts of meat in their weekly diets with less-conventional parts. As a starting point for the inexperienced, oxtail, beef cheek, and pig’s ears are probably easier to swallow than, say, haggis, a traditional Scottish entrée that involves stuffing a sheep’s stomach with a mixture of offal, oatmeal, and suet, or Rocky Mountain Oysters, which, despite the name, consist of deep fried cattle or sheep testicles.

meat funnyDue to our society’s obsession with convenience, I doubt that buying a whole or half of an entire animal for food will ever be the norm. It requires a lot of time and culinary know-how to be able to prepare all the different kinds of flesh and offal that a beast has to offer. Still, hopefully the nose-to-tail movement will keep gaining ground and bringing us closer to a point where as little as possible from each animal is wasted.


PS: here is an excellent segment on meat and the nose-to-tail movement from National Public Radio’s Kojo Nnamdi Show.

The Meat of the Issue: No End in Sight?

Intensification, industrialization, and rising demand – I’ve tossed these concepts around in my last month of posts about the harms of modern meat production but haven’t fully explained their relevance. To conclude the Meat of the Issue series, I want to step back and identify what has led meat production and its consequences to be a significant global issue. The basics are these: the whole world is eating a whole lot more meat and taking a whole lot of risks (as discussed in the other posts) to do so.

Despite the prevalence of veganism in the foodie (first-)world, the last half-century or so has actually seen a global surge in popularity of meat. The WHO has predicted that, to satisfy the world’s appetite, annual meat production will reach 376 million tons by 2030, as compared to the 218 million tons of 1999. It’s the result of a constant, modernized supply-and-demand cycle: improvements in agricultural technology and methods have allowed humans to greatly increase the availability of meat, which has, in turn, spurred global demand for it, which, again, prompts further agricultural intensification efforts.

meat asian fast food

Abundance means lower prices, thus the last few decades have seen a rapid decline in meat prices that has allowed developing countries to embrace more Westernized diets – that is, greatly increase their animal protein consumption. However, worldwide demand increases can’t be attributed to the third world alone. In the United States, 10 billion animals are consumed annually, with the average four-person household accounting for 120 chickens, 4 pigs, and one cow per year. Meat constitutes 67% of the average American’s protein intake, nearly double the global average of 34%, and the most marked growth in demand is occurring in poultry. Urbanization has also played a key role, as it makes perishables easier to trade.

As Walker et al. note in their paper Public Health Implications of Meat Production and Consumption, “although meat is not an essential component of the human diet, for the millions of people who are threatened with malnutrition, improving access to nutrient-rich animal source foods is an easy way to improve nutritional status.” In much of the developing world, meat is a convenient means of supplementing diets with protein, fats, and vitamins. This brings me back to a point that I’ve mentioned time and time again: I’m no vegetarian, and I have no problems with the principle of consuming animal products. Nonetheless, as previous posts have discussed, eating too much meat – especially red meat – can be unhealthy, and its intensified production has immense consequences.

meat market

So, why am I saying all of this? It’s not like I’m about to run through the streets as the world’s biggest hypocrite by persuading people to become vegetarian. No, I just want to spread awareness so that people can make the decision for themselves. I’ll applaud vegetarians and vegans and suggest moderation for those unwilling to completely relinquish meat and dairy. Mostly, though, I advocate supporting reputable, smaller animal farmers (I hesitate to say ‘local’ only because it depends on where you live) who raise their animals well, use the environment responsibly, and pay attention to the safety and cleanliness of their products. Buy less from massive corporations so as to discourage large-scale intensification. It’s all about the little things that everyone can do to make a big impact: decreasing meat demand.


The Meat of the Issue: Animal Abuse (It Hurts Us, Too) following our ‘Meat of the Issue’ series has probably been waiting for this topic to pop up. Most people are at least mildly aware of animal cruelty in the meat industry, but that doesn’t make it any less worth discussing. After all, I seem to discover new forms of mistreatment every time I hear about this issue. For those unmoved by sympathy for animals, though, there exists an anthropocentric argument to be made over how improperly raising animals can yield tainted meat. However, I would hope that anyone who learns about these animals’ suffering wouldn’t need that second argument – the appalling abuse should speak for itself. Frankly, there is no way I could cover every single form of animal mistreatment in the meat industry, so I’ll just share some ‘highlights.’

The most obvious consequence of agricultural intensification is crowding, since fewer farms means more animals per farm. Even in 1997, 60% of America’s pork came from the country’s largest 3% of farms, while 2% of feedlots generated more than 40% of America’s beef. Hundreds if not thousands of cows, pigs, chickens, etc. get packed into windowless enclosures that allow little to no mobility, which tends to generate aggression. For instance, a chicken with as little as 0.6 square feet of space might start pecking at or even eating other birds in its pen, which is why they are often preemptively debeaked by farmers. Close quarters also make a fertile breeding ground for disease pathogens, such as the notorious swine and avian flus, which spread through the clustered animals with astonishing speed due to the great amount of bodily contact. Many of the pathogens, including salmonella (which is harmful to humans but not animals), spread from waste, since the animals are often surrounded by their defecations. As mentioned in the previous post, animals kept in close proximity to their waste also develop other health issues like pneumonia or respiratory infections. form of animal cruelty that many people are oblivious to is forced cannibalism. Over the century, farmers have increasingly integrated their cattle feed with offal: the organs and entrails of, usually, sheep or cows. The offal is meant to serve as a protein additive to increase the animals’ meaty muscle. As revolting as the practice is, there were no real ‘problems’ with it until the 1980s, when it was positively linked to the emergence of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) aka Mad Cow Disease. Humans who consume meat of an animal infected with the neurodegenerative disease are liable to develop variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD), a fatal disease that causes dementia, memory loss, personality changes, and hallucinations. According to CNN, 229 cases of vCJD were reported in a dozen countries 1996-2014, predominantly in the UK (177 cases), and ‘random’ reports of cows being identified with BSE continue to surface from various countries.

There’s been a lot of discussion of human disease in these meat posts, so, in parting, I’d like to refocus on the animals and the brutal manifestations of our society’s demand for meat (and dairy):

  • Calves are raised in chains to restrict their movement for the purpose of keeping their muscles underdeveloped and tender. They are also deliberately deprived of iron so that their flesh pales to the market-desired shade of pink
  • Male pigs and cows are castrated to alter their meat’s taste, smell, and fat ratio. Castration is typically performed without anesthesia and can involve chemical scrotal injections or cutting off circulation via metal clamps. According to the ASPCA, 100% of piglets and 88% of calves are castrated in the US
  • Pigs develop deformities in their legs and feet due to being forced to live on concrete or slatted floors
  • As mentioned in an earlier post, animals are fed antibiotics and growth hormones to rapidly gain weight. The combination of a fattening diet and virtually no exercise (due to lack of space) leads to obesity and associated diseases like fatty liver syndrome
  • Ducks and geese have pipes shoved down their esophagi as a means of force-feeding excessive quantities of corn mash, so as to swell their livers for foie gras
  • Chickens typically have their wings clipped to prevent flight

Some animals eat other animals – that’s the food chain, and humans are part of it. But why are we the only animal that ‘needs’ to chain up and mutilate its prey in order to eat it?



1. American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) – Farm Animal Cruelty Glossary
2. Horrigan, Leo; Lawrence, Robert S.; and Walker, Polly – How Sustainable Agriculture Can Address the Environmental and Human Health Harms of Industrial Agriculture
3. Nickelsburg, Monica (The Week) – 5 modern diseases grown by factory farming

The Meat of the Issue: Waste of another Kind, a big concern on this website is food waste: food that goes uneaten and gets unsustainably disposed of due to negligence. However, as part of the ongoing series on the consequences of the meat industry (here are posts one and two), this post is going to focus on livestock waste. This type of waste includes all discards and excrement generated by animal agriculture, including: manure, urine, carcasses, feed remnants, bedding, and feathers. In addition to being merely unpleasant, the mishandling and sheer quantity of these outputs causes a lot of dangerous contamination.

In 1999, the General Accounting Office reported that livestock generated 130 times as much waste as humans in the US. The amount of waste produced on farms greatly exceeds that which can be used to fertilize the fields, so much of the excess is transported – with great difficulty, risking spillage – to open, man-made pits known as lagoons. in these lagoons, the liquid manure can leak into surface water and groundwater directly or via run-off. While the fecal matter itself can be hazardous, manure also carries many heavy metals, such as arsenic and antibiotics, and pesticides present in animal feed. These adversely impact soil and water quality with excess nutrients, especially nitrogen and phosphorous. Manure also emits the three primary greenhouse gases, CO2, methane, and nitrous oxide, as well as the hazardous gas ammonia. With over 70 billion farm animals being raised each year, the cumulative impact of their excrement is quite problematic. Steinfeld et al. calculated that livestock farming (including more than just waste, admittedly) accounted for 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2006, surpassing those of the transportation sector. course, the effects of contamination don’t stop with the soil, water, and air themselves. High nitrate concentrations can turn drinking water toxic to infants, while high heavy metal content has been known to cause cancer, circulatory complications, and organ and nervous system damage. Meanwhile, compounds like ammonia in manure gases can hurt animals’ lungs and increase their risk of developing pneumonia when stored in improperly ventilated areas. Farm workers are at similar risks through prolonged exposure to the hazardous gases and odors of animal waste, and up to 30% develop asthma or bronchitis. Finally, the waste often carries pathogens that can cause diseases like salmonella – but I think I’ll save those for next week.

Lower demand for meat, fewer animals raised as livestock, less waste, healthier planet – is this enough to convince people to eat less meat? Or should we focus on dealing with our waste better, rather than just letting it sit around? Given the evidence, I think we need a dual strategy.


Additional Sources:
Horrigan, Leo; Lawrence, Robert S.; and Walker, Polly – How Sustainable Agriculture Can Address the Environmental and Human Health Harms of Industrial Agriculture

Walker, Polly et al.– Invited Paper: Public Health Implications of Meat Production and Consumption

The Meat of the Issue: Karma and Disease

While many of the health complications associated with eating red meat stem from naturally-occurring causes, there are many other risks that all industrially-produced meat pose to us because of how we treat animals. As a result of farmers’ efforts to maximize efficiency of meat production, animals get pumped full of chemicals that are passed into the humans that eat them. In other words, we developed animal agriculture in such a way that seems to actually be threatening us. Well done, society. addition to energy-depleting grains, animals are fed growth hormones and antibiotics to induce rapid weight gain. The reasoning is this: the larger the animal, the more meat there is that can be sold for profit. While there is no conclusive evidence that consuming hormones via meat (or dairy) is harmful to humans, it has been linked to premature puberty in girls as well as increased risks of breast and prostate cancer. More evidence exists, however, showing a direct relationship between ingestion of antibiotics via animal products and bacterial resistance in humans. Antibiotics are given to animals to prevent diseases such as E. Coli, of course, but they are also used for sub-therapeutic purposes: to make the animals gain weight. In any case, while the animal may be kept safe from a disease, the human that eats it could very well become more susceptible.

Pesticides are another synthetic material that ends up in our bodies via consumed food. Most attention is paid to their presence on produce, since chemicals are more or less directly applied to growing crops, but these crops are also fed to animals we eat. The consequences of indirectly consuming pesticides are still debated, but it is recommended that pregnant women and babies avoid pesticide-grown food due to concerns about its effects on a developing brain and links to cancer. production is an example of manufacture that generates dioxins, persistent organic pollutants (POPs) that are by-products of industrial processes such as bleaching as well as natural events like volcanic eruptions. These pollutants contaminate soils and grain feed and are then consumed by animals and stored in their fat. As roughly 11 billion pounds of animal fat are recycled into animal feed every year, dioxin bioaccumulates in more and more animals. When humans eat products containing animal fat, they are ingesting these compounds – which are carcinogenic and damaging to the immune, reproductive, and developing nervous systems.

Many of these potential problems require further research, but what does that mean for us? I don’t fear modernization per se, but seeing these connections between serious health concerns and the increasingly synthetic and industrial aspects of our meat supply worries me. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I still eat meat, and I acknowledge my personal hypocrisy. I just wish there wasn’t such a high global demand for meat, so that people wouldn’t feel compelled to produce it en masse by potentially hazardous means.

There’s plenty more where that came from, and you can expect to see it next week.


The Meat of the Issue: Energy week, I described the health risks associated with eating red meat based solely on its nutrient content and only briefly alluded to its environmental impacts. Fact is, the modern meat industry – including poultry, not just red meat – wreaks havoc on our land, air, and water quality; depletes copious amounts of energy; and threatens human health through the additives we feed our animals. As the idea of sustainable eating becomes increasingly popular, it’s important to identify what exactly makes meat so unsustainable. Since there is a lot to cover, I’m just going to start with energy consumption and discuss other aspects in subsequent posts. Keep in mind, however, that most of these consequences stem from large-scale, industrialized agriculture; even if it’s inherently the least sustainable food type, meat could be produced by more Eco-friendly means. agriculture, like any form of food production, requires energy, most of which is attained through fossil fuel combustion. Grain to feed livestock is grown with petroleum-based agrochemicals and then harvested with gas-burning combines. According to the WorldWatch Institute, at least 70% of American grain is grown solely to serve as livestock feed, and “it takes the equivalent of a gallon of gasoline to produce a pound of grain-fed beef” – which requires more grain to produce than any other kind of meat – in the United States. Feed production accounts for more than half of the energy used in intensive meat production (Koneswaran et al.). feed is transported, typically via truck or train, to the livestock ranch, after which even more energy costs are incurred in transporting the animals to slaughter, their carcasses to processing plants, the processed meat to markets, and, finally, from the market to consumers’ homes. Since meat is very sensitive in terms of perishability, storing and transporting it also requires a lot of refrigeration, further drawing on fossil fuels and releasing CO2. Similarly, cooking the meat uses electricity and/or gas, and the plastic packaging that it typically comes in is the result of fossil fuel-intensive manufacture. As Emory University succinctly states, “meat is the least fuel-efficient food we have.”

If you’re a meat-eater, try to find grass-fed, rather than grain-fed meats, which have far lower energy costs associated with its feeding. Additionally, as with any food, try buying local, as this means that the meat doesn’t have to be transported as far or stored as long. And be on the lookout next Tuesday for another meaty article!


More goat meat?

Baby_goats_jan_2007_cropDo you know what is the most consumed red meat in the world? Answer: Goat meat makes up 70% of global red meat consumption! Want another interesting fact? According to Mother Nature Network, this number will most likely increase. The helpful combination of global warming, with the goat’s natural instinct to survive even in harsh places…oh say, like a rocky mountain with little vegetation…means more goats on our plates and in our world.

To give you a better idea of how this might feel and sound, we share with you this video.