Thursday, March 29, 2012

David, Goliath, and Pink Slime

The first time I heard the term, it was in an e-mail a few months back. I don’t even remember what organization it was that requested my signature on one of what became many petitions to stop the government from allowing “pink slime” to be used in school lunches. Little did I know it was the cusp of a beautiful story of David and Goliath.

Pink slime is a new term, but didn’t sound all that much different from the fillers described in the movie Food Inc from a few years back. Pink slime is a meat filler used in 70% of the ground beef sold in US Supermarkets, and of course, in most fast food restaurants. It’s made by gathering up all the leftover trimmings (Food Inc had graphic pictures of this process that would give you nightmares), essentially fat, muscle bits, and any other body parts leftover in the process of trimming the ugly stuff from steaks and roasts.

Now, the time was, these leftovers where used for dog food and the oil for cooking (gak!), but in the name of larger profits (the almighty driving force in the world today), these parts began being used to pump up the ground beef. Makes one wonder what is being used in the dog food now, doesn’t it?

Anyway, these random parts and oil are put through a centrifuge to separate the oil and then the sludge that is left is sprayed with ammonia gas to kill any bacteria. Now you have a beautiful pink substance that is easily mixed with burger to make the burger go further, kind of like adding water to soup to stretch it, only not so healthy.

Here’s the part about David and Goliath. David is us, the unknowing, naive public who navigate the drive-through on a weekly, or even daily basis. Goliath is the big meat processors like Cargill and Beef Products Inc. For years they have gotten away with stuffing every burger in the US, heck, the world, with pink slime and no one has dared question them. After all, they control the world’s beef supply (or so they and the government would have you believe).

But along came, Gerald Zirnstein, my hero. He’s a former USDA scientist who sounded the alarm about pink slime. Next came the internet petitions (which, truth be told, I’ve always been a bit skeptical about, but now I’m a believer). Then ABC News, the Washington Post, and other major media outlets started investigating why Zirnstein is out of work and grinds his own ground beef at home now.

And then just this past weekend, my newspaper had a front page story about the fact that our local supermarkets (Giant and Weis) will no longer buy beef from suppliers who use pink slime! And the internet is flowing with the news that many school districts (not mine at this point) are announcing that they will no longer serve beef containing pink slime!

Wow, you CAN be the change you wish to see in the world! Go world! I’m not saying it was my signature, per se, but there had to have been something that pushed this cart over the edge. After all, Jamie Oliver’s show blatantly covered the exact same process with chicken nuggets (white slime anyone?) several years ago and nothing happened.

I guess just one parent too many said, “Enough!” and look how we’ve changed our world. I’m hoping this is only the beginning of a new era of holding the FDA (who refused to make the beef industry label products containing pink slime over the objection of their own scientists!) and big industry accountable for how they treat and process the animals we eat. YEH World!

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Get It Started!

I’m late getting my seeds started this year. The basic problem is I’m thinking too much. This is a common problem for me. Too much thinking/dwelling/considering and not enough doing.

Initially, I was so ready to get going with the garden that at the first sign of spring (75 degree weather in the middle of February!), I went out in search of soil. The problem is that my local gardening place wasn’t open yet for the season and the only thing Home Depot had was “Organic Choice” by Scott’s Miracle Gro. In my zest, I bought it, carted it home, and left it on my porch. Where it still sits because a) I became extremely skeptical that anything made by the Miracle Gro people could possibly be organic and b) even if it is, the Scott’s company is responsible for law suits against organic competitors, not to mention the poisoning of more lawns and gardens in America than anyone else.

Everyday as I walked past the big yellow bag, I felt guiltier and guiltier. This past week I realized that I’d spent so much time wallowing in my guilt and indecision that it’s less than 8 weeks away from Tomato planting time and I have yet to start a single seed. So I went to my computer and googled “Organic Choice by Scott’s” and low and behold it is actually certified by OMRI (Organic Material Research Institute). OMRI is the non-profit organization responsible for certifying gardening materials for certified organic growers. They keep a database on all the products they certify.

The skeptic in me wonders how a non-profit agency that is funded by donations, grants, and the fees it charges for the certification process could possibly keep tabs on the tens of thousands of products out there, but the trusting soul in me figures there’s really no other option but to go with it. Still. Scott’s is a pretty lousy company. If their product is so superior why is it they have to wage legal and financial war on small organic companies to eliminate the competition? I haven’t opened the bag.

My usual practice is to mix sphagnum peat moss and vermiculite with potting soil to start my seeds, but now that my potting soil is giving me such mental fits, I decided to try something different.

Seed starter is exactly what it says it is – a medium for starting seeds. Typically, it has very little nutrients in it because seeds don’t need nutrients to germinate. Once they have their first true leaves, however, they need some food. So that’s when it’s recommended that you transplant them to potting soil. I’m a lazy gardener in a hurry, so I combine the seed starter and the soil to begin with and skip the whole transplanting step, except for my tomatoes, the royalty of the garden. I do transplant my tomatoes to bigger pots somewhere along the line.

I searched OMRI for commercial seed starting mixtures that are certified, and found only one brand which isn’t available at my gardening store. I turned to OrganicGardening Magazine’s website (highly recommend this site to anyone with gardening questions or anyone just starting out gardening – super helpful articles). They recommended a home-made seed starter recipe of screened compost, vermiculite, perlite, and sphagnum peat moss. Their potting soil recipe was simply compost and vermiculite. I decided to split the difference and create something that has all four ingredients, but is heavy on the vermiculite and compost. We shall see.

In the interest of my own completely non-scientific research, I’m also going to mix vermiculite, compost and my own garden soil for some of the seeds.

It’s also time to start the peas. Because my hens are not completely finished tilling the garden for me, I decided to try germinating the peas myself in wet paper towels. This will give the girls a couple extra days, but keep my peas on schedule. I’ve never tried this, but have heard from old-timers that it works great.

Stay tuned for the Seedling Update and the Pea Report next month!

Have you started any plants yourself? The ground is warm enough for lettuce, spinach, and carrots, so scatter a few seeds. It’s also safe to put in your broccoli plants and cabbages. You don’t need a designated vegetable garden, just find an open piece of soil in one of your flower beds and have at it. No excuses for no garden. Plant something!

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

What's All the Fuss?

I took my youngest child to see the Lorax over the weekend. I wanted to see what all the hype was about. I keep running in to angry bloggers, columnists, and their commenters who have their panties in a wad about this film. Having read the book (something I’m not sure some of this outraged people have done), I was familiar with the message headed my way – if we don’t start doing something different in terms of caring for the environment nothing is ever going to get better. In other words, if we keep up our horrible behavior – no more truffala trees.

I’m not a fan of animated movies. And I’m certainly not a fan of animated movies that attempt to drag out an 1800 word beloved book in to two hours. Plus, the popcorn always makes me sick. Add to that the fact that it was 60 degrees and sunny (in March!), and I was definitely in a bad mood as I settled in to my theater seat next to my son who was ruining his teeth with Swedish fish and soda. (Yes, I’m that kind of mother!)

I do like Danny Devito, the voice of the Lorax, though, and my daughter had told me to listen for Taylor Swift, the voice of Audrey. Who’s Audrey? She wasn’t in the book. The movie quickly establishes a Suessland reminiscent of the one created at Universal Studios amusement park in Orlando. Bright colors, overly rounded and gravitationally-challenged buildings, and assorted people with big eyes and tiny noses. Sneedville is a plastic town – everything is plastic, even the trees. The villain of the movie, the obscenely wealthy Mr. O’Hare, sells fresh air to the people living in this perfect, plastic, polluted town. When the hero begs the town to grow a “real” tree, Mr. O’Hare asks, “Why would you want a tree? They’re dirty, poisonous; they’ll hurt your children!”

He’s convinced the town they are better off with a manufactured world, even as the children glow after swimming in the stream. It’s been so long since the Truffala trees were chopped down by the Onceler, that the people don’t know any different.

I was disappointed that the Lorax wasn’t recited in full, only a few lines are butchered by Danny Devito. Still, the movie does a good job of portraying the Onceler as a well-meaning guy just setting out to make his fortune. He’s kind-hearted and he doesn’t mean to destroy the earth, it’s just that his product is a success and the only way to satisfy demand is to work faster and use up more trees. He doesn’t learn until it’s too late.

So the blatant message of the movie is that UNLESS we do something about it, our apathy and big business' greed will destroy our earth. That’s what’s upsetting all these bloggers and columnists – this movie is brainwashing kids in to thinking that big business is responsible for destroying the earth. And maybe they're feeling a bit guilty themselves. I’m thinking that the kids watching this movie, are really just seeing a short, evil guy with really bad hair battle it out with the kid on the segway who is only trying to win the girl.

My question is this: What did you expect the Lorax to be about? The message from Dr. Suess was unequivocally clear when the book was first published. Not all that much has changed. Big business is still destroying the earth in the name of increased profit margins. The public is still being confused and manipulated in to allowing it to happen. We all think we need a sneed (water in plastic bottles, new cell phones each year, appliances to make s’mores and deep-fried twinkies).

So UNLESS we start thinking for ourselves and asking what is the true cost of this lifestyle, nothing will change. Just saying. I am the Lorax, I speak for the trees.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Me, Me, Me

This week I’m going to shamelessly plug my own interests. Feel free to roll your eyes and skip this post, but if you manage to slog through my posts on a regular basis, let me tell you about some opportunities for even more of my musings, rantings, and ideas.

First, if you are new to this blog or don’t really remember anything I said way back at the start, you’re in luck. Instead of looking up the old posts from three years ago, you can read the condensed and much better edited versions of those posts in the e-column I now write for Central Penn Parent online. My column comes out every Thursday and you can have the e-newsletter sent directly to your inbox. I’ve started back at the beginning and am reducing each post down to 300 words or less. The online editor then takes his mouse to it and slashes it even more, rearranging it, and making me sound much more professional.

The second opportunity is for locals. I’ll be giving a workshop entitled, “How to Eat Organic on a Budget” at The Mason Dixon Library in Stewartstown at 6:30pm on Wednesday March 14. In addition to spouting off on all kinds of ideas for eating better without breaking the bank, I’ll also bring books, resources, and samples of my own peanut butter, bread, and cookies. I’d love to see you there.

I have one other opportunity I will sheepishly offer. I have been working on a non-fiction publishing project that has nothing to do with organic life, although I can’t really say that because everything I do is colored by my organic life. In a few weeks, I’ll be looking for some objective readers who are willing to take a look at the manuscript and give me honest feedback. This project is called “True’s Tale” and is the story of an unbroken horse that was given to me two years ago. It’s basically a journal of our time together, my attempt to “break” him, and the things I learned about horses, kids, and life in the process. It’s not a lengthy read and I’m really hoping that you don’t need to know (or even like) horses to get something out of it. If you’d be interested in being one of my early readers for this project, shoot me an e-mail. I’m probably still several weeks away from the big read, but I’d like to get my ducks lined up (not that you’re a duck or in any danger of being shot).

And lastly, dear reader, I can’t thank you enough for the gift of your time each week. This blog has always been a labor of love for me and I write it in the hopes that I’m helping you, not just to eat and live more organically, but to lift you up and celebrate the connection we all have with each to other as we do the best we can with what we know each day on this fragile, spinning sphere.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Eating the 1%

I have two bird carcasses in my freezer. Well, actually, they don’t have feathers or heads anymore. They are the result of my husband and I attempting to put our knife where our mouths are and be responsible for the food we eat. I’ve said time and again that if we eat meat, we ought to not only know where it comes from but be prepared to kill it ourselves. Most people shudder at the thought. I do too. But it is the very fact that we are shielded from the actual killing of the animals we eat that makes it so easy to turn our heads at the atrocities that are going on this very second in the meat industry.

The beef you eat comes from cows that are spending their abnormally short lifetimes standing in their own manure, eating food that their bodies were never meant to eat, and being pumped full of antibiotics to keep them from getting sick from that very food and those conditions. Makes NO sense. Cows are meant to eat grass, wander in herds, and yes, be eaten eventually.

Chicken in a pot (on the porch)
The chicken and eggs you eat come from chickens that are living in near darkness, crowded in to spaces so close they can’t turn around, let alone spread their wings, take dirt baths, or peck the ground for grubs. I love watching the antics of my own chickens. Watching them streaking (in their own waddly way) from tree to bush to barn as if they are under fire amuses me to no end. The grand chase and battles that ensue when one pulls up an earthworm from the garden are an animal reenactment of my kids with the last cookie in the jar. They curiously peck anything new, like the football abandoned in the yard or the freshly carved jack-o-lantern on the porch. These are chickens in a “natural” habitat. While they may be exceedingly dumb animals, I do believe they are smart enough to know they are miserable in a typical industry chicken house.

The bacon you eat comes from pigs that must have their trademark curly tails “docked” so they won’t be bitten off by the other pigs crowded together with them in their holding pens for their brief time on earth (the industry has “progressed” to be able to get a piglet from birth to slaughter in just 4 months). They never have the opportunity to root or wander or play.

I suppose it comes down to how you perceive animals. Do you think they are people in furry suits, or are they unintelligent creatures whose only purpose on earth is to provide food for us? I’m somewhere in the middle of that equation. Why is it we eat pigs, but not dogs? Pigs are supposed to be more intelligent and, at least when they are little, they are equally cute. Pot Belly pigs aren’t eaten, but I assume they make excellent bacon.

I’m a horse owner and have provided foster care for horses that have been saved from slaughter by a local horse rescue. I’m kind of ambivalent about my feelings on this. Certainly, once these horses come to live with me I’m horrified that they almost ended up on someone’s dinner table. But in context, I suppose I don’t have a huge issue with the slaughter of horses for meat and whatever else it is they do with them AS LONG AS they are treated kindly during the process. Heartless, I know. I have horsey friends who will probably challenge me on this.

I do believe animals are intelligent (some more than others, my dog Gracie is just about the dumbest dog I’ve encountered and I’ve yet to meet an animal dumber than a chicken). So the idea that animals don’t really mind the harsh conditions prior to slaughter seems misguided. Raising animals in cruel conditions in order improve profit margins is a crime and I don’t buy meat that has been produced in those conditions.

But…… what about meat that has been produced in happy, healthy conditions? My chickens, for instance. The three roosters we butchered last fall spent the summer digging up grubs, chasing the hens, and lounging in the shade. For a chicken headed for slaughter they were in the 1%. But when it came time to kill them, it was so emotionally stressful that we let the fourth rooster go (ironically he was eaten that night by a fox) rather than put ourselves through it.

I don’t know how many emotions an animal “feels”, but I’m certain they feel pain and they experience fear (as the knowledge that they are about to feel pain). We tried to make it as quick and painless as possible, and in our fumbling efforts we were not as quick as we might have been if we had more experience. So these three roosters lived a good, short life and were killed quickly and humanely. And still two carcasses sit in my freezer. This is because I cooked the first one while he was still fresh and made him in to chicken and cheese enchiladas. And then choked on every bite.

I have to wonder if the people who live in slaughter houses ever eat meat. Maybe they can disassociate themselves from their work. Maybe they put on the blinders, much as the rest of us do, and buy the valu-pack at Wal-Mart without a second thought.

I still think that if you eat meat, you ought to be able to hunt and/or butcher the animal. We owe the animal that much. We need to respect the life that was given for us. And we should respect it enough to demand that it is treated humanely before it becomes our dinner.

The meat producers would have us believe that the only way to provide enough meat for the growing appetite of this country is to raise it nose-to-tail in a stockyard and feed it corn. But that is a lie. Raising animals in mass production only ensures that the prices stay low, the meat companies make lots of money, immense amounts of oil are wasted (growing and transporting corn), and the pharmaceutical companies get rich selling their antibiotics. If we took all the land that we use to raise feed corn and plow it under for grass, there would be plenty of space to raise enough meat. It might require a little more effort and sure, it might cost a little more (although I’d like to do the cost-analysis when you compare the real cost of growing corn and making the chemicals and antibiotics versus just turning a cow loose on grass). Heck, a change like that might bring back the cowboys (I’m all for cowboys).

Chickens don’t need nearly the amount of space as a cow, so changing that industry is even simpler. But again, it might raise the cost of your mcnuggets and reduce the profit margins of then poultry manufacturers.

Because I’m rambling, I won’t even go in to the difference in the nutrient value of meat raised on the diet it was designed to eat. But there’s that too.

I’m working up the nerve to cook another one of our chickens. I’m hoping enough time has passed that the images of the actual killing will have receded far enough in my mind to keep my throat from closing up.

Before you ask, yes, I’m well aware of the hypocrisy surrounding my choice to eat meat. Believe me, it weighs on my heart. I just wish it weighed on the hearts of the rest of the people with the power to bring change.

There is hope. McDonald’s, which purchases over 21 billion dollars worth of pork each year, recently informed suppliers that they will have to remove the “crates” they use tocontain pregnant sows. These crates keep the sows from ever even turning around in their lifetime of producing mass quantities of piglets. I would think confinement like this of such an intelligent animal would lead to mad pig disease. At any rate, this move will affect the entire industry. Finally McDonald’s does something we can be proud of. Let’s hope they take a look at the beef and poultry industries next – now that could change the world.