Do you really want to open this can of worms*? I sure hope you’ve eaten already.
After the recent European horse meat scandal, I’m not surprised you’re asking. Although the news didn’t really explode until last week, it was more than a month ago—on January 15—that a routine DNA test in Ireland showed that meat labelled as beef contained horse meat. More testing in countries all over the E.U. has found horse meat in frozen burgers and packaged lasagna, among other places. Businesses in at least eight European countries have been implicated, from factories in Luxembourg to abattoirs in Romania to food companies in France. They’ve found other meats masquerading as beef too, though pork in beef meatballs haven’t seized the media’s imagination as much as the “horse meat crisis” or “fears of horse meat contamination“. After all, pork isn’t so bad – unless you happen to be muslim, or Jewish, or Ethiopian Orthodox for that matter.
Or maybe you’re asking because of last year’s “pink slime” debacle. ABC News reported that up to 70 percent of the ground beef sold in U.S. supermarkets contained beef trimmings processed with ammonium hydroxide. The result—lean connective tissue and other bits previously relegated to cat food—actually reduced the fat content of ground beef, but some complained that even frozen, the product still smelled… like ammonia. In fact, Beef Products Inc, the manufacturer of the product known as “Lean Finely Textured Beef”, had earlier experimented with reducing the amount of ammonium hydroxide in the processing to cut the odour. But the ammonia processing is meant to kill germs. Without it, several batches of the product tested positive for E. coli and Salmonella. After the public outcry, McDonald’s, Burger King and Taco Bell all announced in the U.S. that they were going to stop using BPI products in their food.
Or perhaps you’re curious because of the XL Foods mess. 1,500 meat products were recalled last year from across Canada, 40 states in the U.S. and Puerto Rico because of possible E. coli contamination at an Albertan processing plant.
Or maybe you’re asking because you’ve heard of all the strange things that make it into hot dogs, including lips, snouts, rodent droppings, spider legs, eye of newt and unicorn tears. Well, okay, maybe not those last two.
So yes: What is in our meat?
Well, there’s good news and bad news. The good news is that in Canada our beef is, actually, beef. This month, University of Guelph researchers randomly tested 15 samples of hamburger meat from fast food chains and supermarkets and found that they all contained 100% beef DNA.
More good news: Canada hasn’t had a pink slime scandal because we don’t allow meat processing by ammonium hydroxide. So when McDonald’s Canada posts a feel-good
Blackberry commercial informational video like this, they’re not lying. (Although some food scientists argue ammonia is not all that bad.) And if something in the butcher section of your supermarket is labelled ground beef (or pork, or turkey, or any other meat), it can’t contain any preservative, filler, seasoning, or “mechanically separated meat” (which produces something similar to the meat product in pink slime).
Also, if your hot dog package lists beef but not the word “by-product” in its ingredients, it does not contain lips, scalps, ears or snouts.
That’s not to say that nothing at your supermarket contains any of those things. In addition to meat by-products, there are meat extenders. And lots of preservatives. Take a look at this analysis of the ingredients in a package of cooked ham by the CBC.
As a rule, the less processed your food is, the better—and that applies to non-meat products too. (The CBC’s breakdown of Tropicana orange juice is even more shocking.) Kind of makes you want to squeeze the oranges yourself. Heck, even the machines that tenderize meat can push E. coli to the center of the cut if it’s already on the surface.
But what about spider legs? In the States, the FDA regulates food defect allowances, and meat isn’t the only offender. Find out how many fly eggs are allowed in your pizza sauce and more in this delightful little gallery.
There’s more bad news, Canada. Those same University of Guelph researchers who found that our hamburgers contained only beef? It’s our fish and seafood we have to worry about. Dr. Paul Herbert warns that anywhere in North America “25 to 30 percent of the products you’re buying aren’t what they’re labelled as.” He’s found endangered shark at a supermarket. A breaking study in the U.S. warns consumers that sushi restaurants are the worst offenders. Spicy tuna indeed.
Kind of makes you want to go catch your fish yourself, doesn’t it? It’s the best argument yet for this whole farm-to-table movement—well, other than flavour.