A couple weeks ago, the lawsuit between BPI, the maker of lean finely textured beef (LFTB), aka "pink slime", and ABC news finally came to an end after the two parties agreed to an settlement for an undisclosed amount of money (here's one summary from CNN).

Here's another story from Inside Sources that touches on the economic impacts of the original ABC news coverage.  They reached out to me for comment and you can read a tad bit of what I had to say at the link above.  

Better yet, check out the chapter in my book 2016 Unnaturally Delicious entitled "Waste Not Want Not."  In that chapter, I talked about the history of BPI and it's founder Eldon Roth, the technology used in creating LFTB, some intriguing background on how BPI wound up in the documentary Food, Inc., and more.  Here are the law few paragraphs from that chapter.    

It’s a bit hard to know what to make of all that transpired. To be sure, much of what was said about BPI was sensationalized. BPI didn’t use organ meats or bones or hoofs or hides or
“dog food.” The company used slightly fattier versions of same beef cuts that usually become roasts or ground beef. In fact, the day I visited BPI’s South Dakota plant, which is adjacent to a
Tyson packing facility, I was amazed at the beef entering BPI’s facility. The meat traveled on a conveyer belt in a tunnel that connects BPI and Tyson. A steer or heifer enters one end of the
Tyson facility, and a few hours later beef trimmings emerge at BPI without ever seeing the light of day. The trimmings consist of some small cuts of beef but there are also huge hunks of meat that looked almost identical to the briskets that I love to barbeque for get-togethers with friends and family. Lean finely textured beef is beef. That’s all. I suppose that’s why the company created a website called No bone goes into the process. Big beef hunks go in one end and out the other end come three products: tallow, cartilage (which is the only waste), and lean finely textured beef.

I’ve visited a lot of food plants, and BPI’s was one of the most technologically advanced, safety-conscious plants I’ve seen. That a company that proactively invested millions in food safety measures found itself embroiled in controversy involving perceived (but unfounded) safety concerns is deeply ironic. What tarnished BPI’s reputation was no actual sickness or recall or outbreak; it was a series of TV shows and news stories.

But, given the information that consumers received, it is hard to fault them for their reaction. After all, best-selling authors and journalists have primed the public’s distrust of Big Food. In
an era when processed food has come to be seen as almost evil, “pink slime” struck a chord with consumers. Perhaps BPI should have required labeling of the beef that contained its products. Surely some of the public outcry arose from a feeling of having been deceived and of having no control over what is in our food. But from BPI’s perspective, what’s to label? “This product of ground-up beef parts contains more ground-up beef parts”? More fundamentally, BPI didn’t sell directly to consumers. Rather, the company sold to other processors, who sold to restaurants and grocery store chains. BPI was hardly in a position to force others to label products that contained lean finely textured beef.

So where does that leave us? Many shoppers, although I am not among them, no doubt want to avoid lean finely textured beef and are willing to pay a premium to purchase lean ground beef that does not contain it. There’s no harm in that.

But if we are really concerned about food waste, we probably need to change some of our narratives. We shouldn’t say we want companies to recycle and reuse and then turn around and vilify them for doing so.

The comedian Jon Stewart, who was more than willing to jump on the Big-Food-is-bad bandwagon, remarked that pink slime should instead be called “ammonia-soaked centrifuge-separated by-product paste.” He was working off a popular narrative. He could have instead featured the harm to a family owned business that was innovating to make food safer and more affordable by preventing food waste. But that’s not very funny.

Authentic Food?

Over at Bloomberg, Megan McCardle questions consumers' fascination with authentic (dare I say "natural") food.  The whole thing is well worth a read.  Here is an excerpt.

Too, we must remember that not everyone was a good cook. Cooking was a job, not an absorbing hobby, and as with any other job, many people did it badly. Every farm wife could produce enough calories to feed her family (at least, if the raw materials were available). Not all of them could produce anything you’d want to eat. Modern food-processing technology has relieved us of that most “authentic” culinary experience: boring ingredients processed by an indifferent cook into something that you’d only voluntarily consume if you were pretty hungry. Even the memory of these cooks has fallen away, though you’ll encounter a lot of them if you read old novels.

These facts help explain the great paradox at the heart of the authenticity obsession: If those authentic old foods were so great, how come our ancestors were so eager to switch to processed foods?

Is bigger safer?

The answer to the question in the title, at least in the context of consolidation and food safety, seems to be "no" according to this article by Anne Kim in Washington Monthly.

The subtitle of the article indicates:

A consolidated food industry brings you salad and chicken nuggets cheaper—and spreads deadly food-borne pathogens farther.

And later in the article:

In other words, the same hyperefficient distribution system that brings you convenient and affordable salad greens and all the chicken nuggets you can eat can just as efficiently deliver E. coli, salmonella, and other dangerous bugs to your plate. Moreover, today’s industrialized food production processes carry other public health risks.

The article contains several interesting stories and interviews, but lacks solid evidence supporting the article's main premise that a less consolidated food system would be a safer one.  Yes, there has been consolidation in agriculture.  Yes, when a large firm has a food safety event, it affects more people.  But, what we don't know is whether, overall, a food system with many smaller firms is safer than one with fewer larger firms.  Indeed, the author even acknowledges the following:

According to the CDC, no evidence suggests that smaller or larger producers have an inherent advantage on food safety. “It has to do more with your practices than your size,” says the CDC’s Matthew Wise.

What is not mentioned is that large size can sometimes lower the average (or per unit) cost of investing in certain food safety technologies.  

I touched on this issue in my book, Unnaturally Delicious, when talking to Frank Yiannas, the Vice President of food safety at Walmart.  Here's an excerpt:

More than 120 million Americans (more than a third of the U.S. population) shop at Walmart every week. Does the sheer scale of the operation make the U.S. food system riskier? If Walmart has an outbreak, multitudes would be sickened. Yiannas replied: “One out of every four dollars spent on food are spent at a Walmart. We can make a big difference. Large organizations like Walmart result in a safer food system.” He points out that when Walmart makes a change, it affects the whole system. Sure, smaller companies might have outbreaks that affect fewer people, but when lots of small companies are having lots of small outbreaks, the problem is more widespread. A downside to small companies, said Yiannas, is that they can’t easily invest in improving the system as a whole. While Walmart often attracts negative attention because of its size and scale (e.g., Do they pay workers fairly? Do they hurt local mom-and-pop businesses?), at least in the world of food safety, their size has significant benefits for its customers, and as I’ll soon discuss, even for non-customers.

Yiannas went on to talk about the value of protecting Walmart's brand, the fact that their internal safety standards far exceed government minimums, and he presented evidence that the food safety initiatives that they've implemented have improved safety for the whole country (because of their size). You'll have to read the book for all the details.  

I'll also point out research by Marc Bellemare (here's his piece on the topic in the New York Times) showing a relationship between food safety outbreaks and the prevalence of farmers markets (you know, those places with many small farms and processors).  

I'm not saying that larger IS unilaterally safer, but I am saying there is no solid evidence to support the broad premise behind the Washington Monthly article.  There are a lot things to like about small producers and we ought to think about ways of lowering barriers to entry that are sometimes created by food safety regulations, but doesn't mean we should cast undue fear about our present food system, which is among the safest in the world.  

The Atlantic on Agricultural Fertilizer

Over at the Atlantic, Alex Fitzsimmons has an article on a vastly under-appreciated technology: synthetic fertilizer.   Fitzsimmons notes concerns about excess fertilizer application and reliance on fossil fuels, but he also weights that against the fact that we have forestalled the dire Malthusian concerns.

Fitzsimmons quotes me as saying:

Pessimists like Malthus and Ehrlich consider people a self-destructive drain on nature, but as Lusk, the Oklahoma State University agricultural economist sees it, “they underestimated the ability of humans to adapt and innovate and make productive use of the resources we have available.”

Its nice to see some attention paid to this subject in the popular press. In any event, you can read the whole thing here.

Philosophical Soylent Haters

David Sax has a recent article in the New Yorker where he decries everything wrong with the new food, Soylent and other tech-derived foods.  He comes to his conclusions despite admitting he's never tried Soylent.  Rather, it seems he's philosophically opposed to the idea.  Sax writes:   

The problem with all this food-2.0 stuff isn’t that it sometimes tastes horrible but that it misses the mark on how our eating is evolving. The tech world approaches food from the perspective of engineering: a defined problem to be solved, with the right equations, formulas, compounds, and brainpower. Soylent was developed by its creator, Rob Rhinehart, to compress all the nutrition the human body needs to live into one single, easily digestible formula, like the twenty-first-century version of manna. But that is fundamentally the opposite of the way we increasingly want to eat in America and in much of the developed world.

But, what is it that people "really want" when they eat?  My research consistently shows it's, healthy, affordable, safe, tasty food; whether it is natural or "fair" or from a particular origin matters far less.  I believe Sax is also mistaking what people say they want which what they actually choose.  As I previously discussed via USDA statistics, the amount of farmland in organic, for example, represents a very small share of all agricultural acreage.  

I don't deny that there is increasing demand for organic, "clean", etc., but I think Sax is mistaking what people want for the method of how it's provided.  The theme of my book Unnaturally Delicious is that if we really want to tackle many of our most pressing problems in agriculture it will require exactly the sort of stuff (like math, science, engineering) that Sax says he wants to keep away from food.  

Sax concludes:

Most humans are happy to eat real food, and crave it in its most natural form. A strawberry picked at the height of summer. Fish pulled from a river and grilled over wood coals. Sourdough bread made from a twenty-year-old starter, and kneaded by hand. Wine grown on knobby vines, and aged in a dark cellar. Why would you disrupt that?

I can think of a lot of reasons why you'd want to "disrupt that."  Because, for examples, his vision is too expensive, unavailable but for the most wealthy, too time consuming, and would use too many of our natural resources if everyone ate this way.  No one I know is trying to keep these "natural" alternatives from consumers, and it is a testament to our vibrant food economy that the market provides these "natural" foods for consumers who are willing to pay for them.  But, that doesn't mean we can't have Solyent too.   

Let me state things differently.  Modern food and agricultural technologies are providing us more affordable food than at any time in our history, reducing hunger all over the world, while at the same time reducing the amount of land we need to bring into production.  We're adopting new technological approaches to keep food safe, quite literally saving lives, and using science to understand how to make a more nutritious, affordable food supply even for people in some of the most impoverished places on the planet.  Scientists are using math, chemistry, engineering and the like to reduce the number of animal we need to produce meat and milk, thereby reducing our carbon impacts. Why would you want to stop all of that?