Meat Takes a Beating, Gets a Blessing on Larry King

Two cornerstones of American culture collided Monday night on CNN:
Larry King and cheap processed meat. Or should I say colluded? After all, they've got a lot in common: both smush together scraps of debatable value and dubious origin and extrude them as suitable fodder for our more credulous compatriots. And both have the potential to poison us, whether by tainting our food supply with pathogens or contaminating our national conversation with lackeys and lobbyists.

Cross-posted from The Green Fork.
The topic of King's show was the question "Does a healthy diet include meat?" It seemed strangely fitting to have the King of the MSM (mainstream media) explore the industry that gave us another MSM: mechanically separated meat, "a paste-like meat product produced by forcing beef, pork, turkey or chicken bones, with attached edible meat, under high pressure through a sieve or similar device to separate the bone from the edible meat tissue."

This method enabled meat processors to minimize waste, use less expensive ingredients and thereby offer us cheaper hot dogs and other processed meat products.

MSM was declared safe for human consumption in 1982. In 2004, the USDA decided that it wasn't, stating that "mechanically separated beef is considered inedible and is prohibited for use as human food."

Why the change? Three words: Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, aka BSE or mad cow disease. So, no more MSM in your ballpark frank. Now, you just have to worry about E.Coli in your ground beef, as Michael Moss's scathing New York Times exposé showed. Or do you?

King posed this question to a panel that included: Patrick Boyle, president and CEO of American Meat Institute; Bill Marler, the nation's leading foodborne illness attorney; bacon-loving celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain; and Jonathan Safran Foer, the acclaimed novelist who advocates vegetarianism in his soon-to-be published Eating Animals. King also brought on two nutrition professors, one pro-meat, one anti, a food safety advocate who lost her son to an E. Coli-tainted burger, and a mother whose 7 year-old daughter died after visiting her E. Coli-sickened grandpa in the hospital. Who knew that you could contract E. Coli by coming into contact with someone who's got it?

Anthony Bourdain defended meat eating on the grounds that we're designed to be carnivores:

Bourdain: ...we have eyes in the front of our head. We have fingernails. We have eye, teeth and long legs. We were designed from the get-go, we have evolved, so that we could chase down smaller, stupider creatures, kill them and eat them.

He noted, however, that we are not designed to "eat fecal choliform bacteria":

Bourdain: I think the standard practices of outfits like Cargill and some of the larger meat processors and grinders in this country are unconscionable and border on the criminal.

Jonathan Safran Foer, who gave us a taste of his upcoming book in last Sunday's New York Times Magazine, agreed with Bourdain's indictment of industrial meat production but took issue with Bourdain's assertion that it's natural to eat meat:

Foer: I'm not all that interested in what humans seem designed to eat or what is quote, unquote natural, because the entirety of human progress is defying what's natural. If we're so concerned with what was natural, we wouldn't be in this TV studio right now having this conversation.

The thing that's really important that Anthony said is that there's a certain kind of meat, which is produced on factory farms, that is in every single way unconscionable. It's unconscionable to feed to our children because of the health. It's unconscionable because it's the single worst thing we can to do to the environment by a long shot. And it's unconscionable because of what we're doing to animals who are raised on factory farms.

What Anthony didn't say, and I wish he had, is that upwards of 99 percent of the animals that are raised for meat in this country come from factory farms. When we're talking about meat, when we're talking about the meat they sell in grocery stores, when we're talking about the meat we order in restaurants, we are effectively talking about factory farms.

Bourdain conceded that the cheap ground beef that dominates the average American diet is the issue:

Bourdain: My major area of concern is the chopped meat.
You know, supermarket quality fast food quality, pre-chopped meat.
Those practices, if you read the Times article that came out recently on this most recent E. Coli outbreak, it's truly terrifying. The stuff they're putting in these burgers would not be recognized by any American as meat...

Patrick Boyle, the American Meat Institute CEO, gave the obligatory industry rebuttal:

Boyle: I think some of the comments have been grossly uninformed about the industry and our products. This industry, the member companies of the American Meat Institute, of which Cargill is one, have invested tens of millions of dollars over the last ten years in research programs to make our products safer....

...And hamburger is compromised of trim from more expensive pieces of meat like tenderloins and roasts. It's perfectly safe, perfectly wholesome. It's produced under the continuous inspection of the U.S.
Department of Agriculture.

One other comment if I might, Larry. The whole comment about factory farming, from my perspective, that's a negative reference to high volume, low cost, efficient meat and poultry processing facilities, that give Americans an abundant variety of safe and wholesome products at a very reasonable price. The lowest price in terms of disposable income spent in any developed country in the world.

Some nutrition professors might argue that a diet dominated by cheap beef and other animal products full of saturated fats is not such a great idea. In fact, King invited one such expert, Cornell University's Colin Campbell, author of the China Study, to share his view that meat-eating is unnecessary and undesirable:

Dr. Campbell: ...a whole foods plant-based diet really has all the nutrients that we actually need at optimum levels of intake.
And what we learned early in my career, that instead of protein, especially animal protein, being a good nutrient, so to speak, and creating good health, what we learned is that we could actually turn on cancer development by simply increasing the level of animal protein intake above the amount of protein that we really needed. We could turn it off by simply taking it away...

...the conclusion was that the closer we get to consuming a whole foods, plant-based diet the healthier we're going to be on all accounts.

But Dr. Nancy Rodriguez, a professor of nutritional sciences at the University of Connecticut, disputed Campbell's claims:

Dr. Rodriguez: I believe that when you're looking at living a long, healthful life, that certainly animal proteins, which are the foundation of life and what we do, can fit in that healthful approach. And some of the recent studies, again, from my lab and others, peer reviewed science, using whole foods that include beef, dairy, eggs in the diet, have shown that there is some benefits to the muscle, without any detriment to cholesterol levels, benefits, perhaps, to Diabetes management and high blood pressure.

That's right, eating meat, eggs and cheese doesn't necessarily raise your cholesterol, and may in fact be a useful tool in the management of diabetes and high blood pressure. Huh. That sounded wrong to me, but what do I know? I get my nutritional advice from folks like Marion Nestle and Joan Gussow, whereas Dr. Rodriguez has done all kinds of research that's been generously funded by such organizations as the National Dairy Council, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, and the Egg Nutrition Center.

Dr. Rodriguez warned that we should think twice about reducing our consumption of animal products:

Dr. Rodriguez: ...when you make a choice to eliminate those animal products from your diet, it becomes a challenge, particularly for certain vulnerable populations, such as infants and children, to get those nutrients in.

So, if you need reassurance that bacon cheeseburgers are an essential part of a heart-healthy diet, especially for kids, Dr. Rodriguez is your woman. She's looked into it--with the help of the meat, egg and dairy industries.