shutterstock_96102875

Five Things I Will Not Eat

My partner eyed me sternly when I announced that my next book was going to be an investigative look at pork production. “Does this mean that I’ll have to give up eating bacon?” she asked.

Deadly outbreaks of E. coli and Salmonella in spinach and cantaloupes, antibiotic-resistant “superbugs” connected to pork and chicken production, potent drugs that are banned in the United States in imported shrimp and catfish: Nothing has the potential to destroy your appetite quite as thoroughly as writing about industrial food production or living with someone who does. Somehow, I have remained omnivorous, more or less. But there are only five things that I absolutely refuse to eat.

1. Supermarket Ground Beef

I lost my appetite for prepared ground beef in the late 1980s, when a friend’s three-year-old daughter died after eating a hamburger tainted with E. coli O157:H7, which lives in the intestines of healthy cattle and other animals, but can be found in water, food, soil, or on surfaces that have been contaminated with animal or human feces. She endured a painful, lingering death, beginning with a tummy ache, and over two weeks progressing to bloody diarrhea, convulsions, and seizures as the E. coli bacteria destroyed her kidneys.

It’s true that E. coli dies when hamburger is cooked to at least 160 degrees, by which point it is well-done. But even if you like dry, gray patties (I don’t), why take the risk? Every time you buy a package of supermarket ground beef, you’re playing culinary Russian roulette. E. coli comes from meat that has been contaminated with manure. A few E. coli cells can multiply into millions in a short time. Slaughterhouse scraps that go into ground beef come from the outside and undersides of carcasses, the areas most likely to come in contact with the hide and most prone to fecal contamination. Those parts can travel from several slaughterhouses to one facility to be ground and packaged.

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning article describing how a Minnesota woman was left paralyzed after eating E. coli-tainted hamburger, New York Times’ Michael Moss reported that the meat in the single prepared, frozen patty she ate had been shipped to a Wisconsin processor from facilities in Nebraska, Texas, South Dakota, and Uruguay.

The easiest way to avoid supermarket hamburger is to buy a whole cut like a chuck steak or sirloin and grind it yourself. A few pulses from a food processor does the trick nicely, if you don’t own a meat grinder. Or have a butcher grind it for you while you wait. You can also buy from a small producer. When I went to pick up my beef order last fall, the owner of the custom slaughterhouse was standing beside a stainless steel table holding a mountain of ground beef waiting for her to pack it into one-pound bags. “I can tell you exactly how many animals this hamburger came from,” she said. “One.”

2. Salad Greens in Plastic Bags or Clam-Shell Boxes

For starters, salad fixings bought whole and chopped in your kitchen are more nutritious than those from containers. Bagged and boxed greens are in for the long haul, and can stay “fresh” for as long as 17 days. But vegetables begin losing nutrients the second they are picked. Within eight hours, 10 percent of Vitamin C and  between three and four percent of beta-carotene are gone. Chopping and shredding increase oxidation, driving out more nutrients.  Even short stretches of time at room temperatures further lower nutrient levels.

Packaged greens are also vulnerable to bacterial contamination. In packing houses, crops from many fields are washed in the same water, which allows bacteria from one field to spread to greens from clean fields. E. coli and other bacteria can hide in cut edges, safe from wash water.  Allowed to become warm for even a short time, the containers become perfect incubators for bacteria. The result is that bagged greens have sickened or killed consumers in dozens of outbreaks over the last several years.

In a 2010 investigation, Consumer Reports found that bags and containers of greens contained levels of coliform bacteria (which doesn’t make you sick, but is a sign of unsanitary handling) that were 39 percent higher than what is considered acceptable.

Avoiding packaged greens is simple: Buy whole heads or bunches and chop them yourself. While working on an article for the New York Times Magazine in 2011, I bought a head of romaine lettuce, rinsed the leaves individually, and chopped them. It took me two minutes and 53 seconds. As a bonus, I saved myself 80 cents.

3. Bluefin Tuna

Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Ocean populations of Bluefin tuna are severely overfished. In the Atlantic, the species hovers on the brink of extinction. Some scientists say that it may have already passed the point of no return. In the Pacific, the population has been decimated by 96 percent. I liken eating bluefins to eating Bengal tigers. Both are beautiful, sleek predators. Bluefins can swim 60 miles per hour, dive to 4,000 feet, and migrate across oceans. Someone alive today could be the person who eats the last bluefin. I don’t want it to be me.

International organizations that are charged with setting catch limits for bluefins regularly set quotas far above what their own scientists recommend. And there has been a thriving market in illegally caught fish. If that’s not enough to put you off Bluefin, be warned, their flesh is extremely high in mercury.

4.  Out-of-Season Tomatoes

The first question is, why would you want to eat an out-of-season tomato? Most of the hard, pale orbs are pithy and tasteless, at best. Compared to their local, in-season cousins, they are bereft of nutrients. And varieties that do have a glimmer of tomato flavor are outrageously expensive.

But the real problem with winter tomatoes is the abuses suffered by the farmworkers who harvest them. These men and women in the tomato fields are underpaid, ill-housed, and often sprayed with toxic pesticides. Abject slavery is not uncommon. (I care so much about this topic that I wrote a book about it.)

In recent years, working conditions in Florida, the source of most American-grown winter tomatoes, have improved dramatically. New varieties have been developed that actually taste tomato-y, and most Florida growers have signed onto a Fair Food Program that guarantees workers some basic labor rights and provides them with a one-penny-a-pound raise (it doesn’t sound like much but it’s the difference between $50 and $80 a day).

However that’s only if—and it’s a big if—the end buyer of the tomatoes signs onto the program as well and agrees to pay that extra penny directly to the workers. So far, most fast-food and food-service companies have come aboard. But aside from Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods Market, not a single supermarket chain has signed on. Until they do, they won’t get my business.

5. Farmed Salmon

A salmon farm, even a so-called organic one in Scottish waters, is nothing short of a floating feedlot. Excrement, uneaten food, and dead fish fall into the ocean, along with a witch’s brew of drugs and disease organisms that can kill wild salmon unlucky enough to swim in the vicinity of a farm’s net pens. Farmed salmon are susceptible to infectious salmon anaemia, aquaculture’s answer to highly contagious hoof-and-mouth disease. The “cure” is to eradicate entire farmed Stocks consisting of millions of fish. Captive salmon also spread sea lice to wild fish. The parasites feed on the mucous, blood, and skin and can kill young salmon.

Farmed salmon is also potentially harmful to humans who eat it. Studies have shown that farmed salmon contains significantly higher levels of chemicals known to cause everything from neurological damage to cancer than wild salmon.

As a way to produce protein, farming salmon is illogical. Although feed formulas have improved over the years, salmon still have to eat more pounds of fishmeal and oil than they put on as meat. That meal they are fed comes from stocks of small sardine-like fish that are already caught at maximum sustainable levels. It’s far better to raise fish like tilapia that can be fed a vegetarian diet. But that’s not where the money is.

Fortunately, there is a good alternative to farmed salmon. Wild salmon from Alaska is sustainable and its taste will remind you why you wanted to eat salmon in the first place.

So what about my partner? Will she feel obligated to forsake bacon? My pork research is still in the early stages, so I don’t have a final answer. But at very least, it’s looking like we’re going to want to become very selective about what goes in our frying pan.

Enjoy stories like this one? Got $25?  Help keep Civil Eats alive by supporting our Kickstarter Campaign before October 18.

Image: Tomato by Shutterstock

22 thoughts on “Five Things I Will Not Eat

  1. That depends, I guess, on whether your partner is eating Hormel, Oscar Meyer, or some other mainstream commercial brand of bacon/pork. If so then it would be fair to say they are playing every bit the russian roulette game as in commercial beef production. If, however, you are buying fresh and sustainabke raised small farm pork from a local farmer who cares about their animals I’d say you are doing worlds better. Mostly though it comes down to the slaughter houses. Current USDA rules do not allow us to process pork on our own farms for sale. So it is not always clear if all the farmer’s hard work was for nothing.

  2. I agree to some degree. But there are more things to our food than meets the eye.
    I used to think the same way about farmed salmon. Nowadays I prefer the farmed salmon to the wild one. The reason is this: Wild salmon is on the verge of population breakdown. Eating wild salmon bought in a supermarket is irresponsible. Just like the example with the tuna. But we need to eat something and I for one am not going to rely on stemcell meat from the petri dish. I analyse farmed salmon regularly here in our lab. The chemical residues found in the meat are in fact significantly lower than those found in wild salmon. This is specifically true for PCBs and dioxins.
    I do not agree with excess of pesticides tot reat the fish, but off shore farms could be a solution to combat the problems of slamon cages and reduce the risk they pose to the benthic ground and passing fish.
    Just my two cents. Good article though nevertheless. It is important to think about food, and to be informed.

  3. #3 besides mercury, every tuna tested from the Pacific was radioactive from the Fukushima fallout.

  4. We are so lucky that we have a few “approved” butchers in our province (British Columbia) who are authorized to go around to the small, independent farmers and humanely butcher their animals. We feel great about the bacon we eat!! =)

  5. Whole foods has these farmed Salmon, that they say are the only sustainable source of Farmed Salmon, and is ok for us to consume. The prices being the way they are with wild salmon, what is your take on this? Should I be trusting whole foods on this matter. Please help.

  6. Well, this is a pretty abstract list and lacks much detail as there is no blanket list that covers every scenario. For one, stating any leafy green in a plastic package. Take for example Local Garden’s Rooftop blend. It is placed in a plastic container, and can be purchased the same day that it was harvested, allowing the customer to taste all the good nutrients before they have “left the building”. I applaud where you are trying to go, just not how you are describing the way to get there!

  7. I am curious about organic beef, prepackaged lettuce and organic tomatoes – does the fact that they are organic change any of the above facts?

  8. I have to stick up for Hormel regarding the previous comment. They make a line of completely natural lunch meat that all their research says tastes better. The problem is the American consumer thinks that natural = bad tasting so I believe it has been a bit of a slow go.

  9. If on your salary you can afford farm raised Salmon and not the wild, then, go without. That’s the only way I can see to live. I will have to find other ways to get nutrients. Eating healthy can be expensive.

  10. I agree with all of the above. Get to know your farmer and where you food comes from and what goes into raising it. You are what they eat, both plants and animals. Cross contamination is a huge cause of illness, sometimes fatal. Thank you for these thoughts.

  11. No matter where the hamburger comes from, take a good look at it when you bite into it- UGH!

  12. Michael Pollen spoke/wrote about this, especially the appalling beef manufacture in the US. In Malaysia, beef (imported) is proudly advertised as grain fed, which, as Mr. Pollen pointed out is both detrimental to the animal and requiring lots of antibiotics to overcome the digestive problems. Here in Australia there is a clear awareness among those of us who care, to enquire and source from either local, or next best, Australian producers. Organic is my choice, but it is still
    an expensive item for many.

  13. Would have been helpful if you had mentioned how to identify farmed salmon. how about input on tilapia?

  14. For the comment above regarding Hormel’s natural lunch meat: http://www.brucebradley.com/food/all-natural-%E2%80%A6-really-hormel-natural-choice-deli-meats/

    I’m more concerned with purchasing a hamburger dish in a restaurant than I am with buying it at Whole Foods and cooking it at home. I know how to check the temperature of the meat I am cooking, and I am very careful not to contaminate other foods or surfaces, so I feel our risk is dropped. However, I can never be so sure how safely it’s been prepared in a restaurant.

  15. Great and succinct explanations. Thanks. For your pork book, consider visiting Malama Farm on Maui. It’s a pig farm from heaven–offering a small scale but seriously sustainable alternative to what’s happening elsewhere. Plus you could write off a trip to Hawaii! If you come, look me up. I’m a former food editor and would be happy to show you around.

  16. Nils is sadly mistaken and is obviously a drone for the farmed salmon lobby. Alaska, which produces the vast majority of wild salmon in the U.S., just enjoyed the largest return of wild salmon in history this summer! There is nothing wrong with our salmon populations up here and they are all harvested cautiously in order to insure sustainability.
    Farmed fish on the other hand is fed wild fish that are dragged from all over the world with little over site and caught in unsustainable manners. So don’t think by eating a farmed salmon you are not affecting the oceans.

    Moitreyee, I don’t care what whole foods says. You should do your own research but I will tell you there is no farmed salmon that is in anyway ok to eat. They are all raised in the same unhealthy and unsustainable ways.

    If you think you cant afford wild salmon start looking for Pink, Chum or Keta salmon which are all good and affordable wild salmon options that are substantially cheaper then coho, silver, King, Copper River Red or Sockeye salmon. Remember there is nothing wrong with frozen fish. Modern flash freezing allows you to enjoy wild Alaskan salmon all year long so just because it is fresh is no reason to eat farmed salmon. Any frozen Alaskan salmon will taste better and is the healthier option for both you and the environment.

  17. Pingback: Make it or Break It: Our Future Depends on You | Civil Eats

  18. I agree with wildfish. Two of my sons are commercial fisherman here in a small town on the Oregon coast. One of them fishes salmon on a small boat small scale. The fishery here looks pretty healthy and the water is clean. I can’t imagine eating farmed fish but then we get a little spoiled having salmon, crab, snapper etc right off the boat.

  19. Buying a whole cut and asking your butcher to grind it while you wait is not a practical solution. Do you want to ask the butcher to soap wash and sanitize the grinder before grinding your whole cut? That would not happen at any price that I can imagine. You have to acknowledge that your meat is exposed to all the meat that has moved through the grinder on a given day.

    Fecal material on the exterior surfaces of a carcass can occur at any scale of production. Small is beautiful, but not invulnerable. Traceability is one potential advantage of a small scale meat system, but it’s balanced with other considerations.

  20. Consider citing sources with your claims.

    Like “…vegetables begin losing nutrients the second they are picked. Within eight hours, 10 percent of Vitamin C and between three and four percent of beta-carotene are gone. Chopping and shredding increase oxidation, driving out more nutrients.”

    While it turns out that is mostly true, I was immediately skeptical of the whole article because you did not cite evidence. I found this handy report while doing my own research: http://chge.med.harvard.edu/sites/default/files/resources/local_nutrition.pdf

  21. I am a vegan, I eat organic sustainable fruits & produce, organic beans, non-gmo grains, sustainable nuts, I am the healthiest I have been in my life. Stop looking for the “meat holy grail” there is not such a thing, the production or capture of ANY animals causes great environmental issues, interlaced with extreme cruelty, grass-fed beef? No slaughter is humane nor any sort of production sustainable… Just go vegan, the planet, you descendants, and your bidy will thank you!