Too many cooks not enough facts

by Joel Crews
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Never underestimate the power or influence of a “talking head” who enters the living rooms of millions of Americans 24 hours per day, 365 days a year…especially if that head is attached to a body draped in a chef coat and is carrying a spatula, or in this case, a meat cleaver. With the credibility bestowed unto them by earning some variety of culinary certification or training and a pinch of showmanship, the meat industry isn’t getting a fair shake by most of the celebrity chefs and foodies who have become mainstays on Cable TV and network programming.

As an example, during an episode of “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution” this past spring, the host took a break from fighting childhood obesity and improving the food offerings at public schools and instead, took a stab at explaining the science behind the production of beef trimmings that is treated using ammonium hydroxide. What transpired was a crude and inaccurate depiction of Jamie Oliver’s version of the truth behind this technology.

What he failed to mention during his demonstration – which included using a front-loading washing machine loaded with beef trimmings and added ammonia poured from a jug labeled with a skull and crossbones – was that the science-based use of ammonium hydroxide for food production was declared Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) by the Food and Drug Administration in 1974. Also, that in 2001 the technology was approved as a food-safety intervention by the Food Safety and Inspection Service. He also neglected to mention that ammonium hydroxide naturally occurs in meat and poultry products and a proprietary process used by Beef Products Inc. (BPI) merely increases these levels to increase the pH in beef trimmings to prevent pathogens from contaminating the products.

This type of negative publicity, in addition to an infamous 2008 New York Times story that perpetuated doubt about BPI’s technology along with controversial motion pictures like “Food Inc.”, all played a part in last month’s decision by several fast-food companies to demand that their beef suppliers no longer use beef treated with ammonium hydroxide.

Other celebrity chef types, including Paula Deen, have done their part to partner with processors like Smithfield Foods, but are relegated to promoting products as opposed to educating consumers about the work being done by these companies to ensure the safety of the meat and poultry supply chain. Indeed, Deen has hogged headlines when at least one of her charitable appearances on behalf of Smithfield went awry and then went viral.

What these prime-time culinary spokesmen and spokeswomen do much better than the processing industry is bringing showmanship to the process of educating (or in some cases, mis-educating). While Jamie Oliver’s method of parading livestock in front of gasping parents and their children and spray painting the value of the various cuts right onto the bovine might be a little extreme, it is attention getting, effective and unforgettable. Processors have a lot to learn from the modern-day Julia Childs popping up on the TVs, laptops and iPads of today’s consumers. I wrote a commentary in 2008 about the benefit of keeping the culinary “experts” in front of the cameras informed about the strides being made in food safety behind the scenes. I continue to suggest there are significant benefits to inviting these personalities into the industry’s processing plants and let the food safety story take center stage. Then, leave it to the guys and gals in the chef coats to make that story an entertaining one.

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