Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Christmas and Hunger

Last weekend I had an amazing experience. We drove 6 hours to Dallas to work in the Operation Christmas Child shoebox processing center. Operation Christmas Child is an arm of Samaritan’s Purse and collects personal, shoe-box sized gift boxes from Christians in the US (and other countries) and sends them to children in need in the developing world. We have participated in this program for 6 Christmases sending boxes, but this was our first opportunity to help process the boxes for OCC. In the 6 hours we worked, our team of about 9 or 10 people processed approximately 1300 boxes. We were one of at least 18 teams working, and a second shift went to work after we left. They expected to process over 600,000 boxes at that center this year and over 7 million boxes total.  It was such a rewarding experience.

Working at the Operation Christmas Child Processing
Center has been one of the highlights of my Christmas so far.
We even found some 4H stickers on some boxes.
Back to food…

With this season of giving and all the joy it brings, I can’t help but think of those who go without. Without food, without clothes, without enough money to buy gifts for their families. In Dallas this weekend, I saw several billboards about hunger and the people that suffer with hunger. I’ve been wanting to write a post about hunger for some time, I think God was telling me it was time.

Facts about hunger

The facts and figures on global hunger are staggering.

·         Hunger kills more people globally than AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis COMBINED

·         805 million people do not have enough food to live active healthy lives (That’s 1 in 9)

·         Poor nutrition causes nearly half (45%) of the deaths of children under 5.

·         In a world where 1 in 4 kids’ growth is stunted due to poor nutrition, adding one egg per day can increase a child’s height and weight by 50%.

But what I find even more amazing are the hunger statistics in developed countries like the US.

·         49 million Americans are food insecure

·         Almost 16 million children are food insecure nationally (about 1 in 5 US kids)

·         Arkansas tops the list in the percentage of food insecure households, followed by Mississippi, Texas, Tennessee, and North Carolina (hits a little too close to home, doesn’t it?)

·         In the US, 4.8 million seniors are food insecure (about 8%)




What can be done?

Obviously, you can give to your local food bank or food pantry. Kids have canned food drives all the time, and it’s really easy to send a few cans of green beans or corn. However, remember that the most expensive nutrient is protein. It may cost a little more to send canned chili or stew, meaty soups, tuna, pasta with meat balls, Vienna Sausages, or even peanut butter, but it will be much appreciated. Protein helps people fill fuller longer and helps kids learn.

Several lists of things food banks need have been making the rounds on social media, check out these from Second Harvest Food Bank, Buzz Feed, and KORD Radio. Of course, monetary donations can have a bigger impact than food because food banks can buy exactly what they need, and they can buy food at discounted prices.

Dairy farmers like my friend Carrie work with Feeding America to provide families local milk. You can donate to their cause with a simple text.

To combat global hunger, Heifer International gives people in developing countries livestock to raise for milk, eggs, and meat. For as little as $20 you can donate a flock of chickens or geese to a struggling community. One summer, our church raised enough money to purchase a heifer. Samaritan’s Purse has similar programs that give goats and other farm animals to families in need. This kind of giving empowers people to provide for themselves and stimulated the economy in the impoverished communities.

You can volunteer. Call the local food bank or food pantry to find out when they need helpers. Give time to the Salvation Army. Locally, we have Cobblestone Farm where food is grown to support hungry families in the community. Volunteers come throughout the year to plant, tend and harvest crops that given to local folks in need or sold to fund their other giving programs.

Don’t know where to look for volunteer opportunities? Try searching Volunteer Match.

The easiest way to help is to spread the word.
  • Talk about hunger.  
  • Share these statistics with you friends and family.  
  • Like and follow some of these groups on social media and share their message.

Awareness of the issue is the first step to starting to solve the problem.

I can’t imagine not having enough money to provide food for my kids, especially during Christmas. It just breaks my heart to think of people going through this joyous holiday season with the worry of not having enough to eat.

Think about ways you can help.

Share in the comments what you and your family do to combat hunger locally, nationally, and globally.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Packaging questions: Purge


It’s one of my most commonly-asked questions.

What is the deal with that blood or water in my package of meat?
Beef steaks and purge
Photo courtesy Macc Rigdon

When you take your tasty cut of meat out of the package, there is a pinkish liquid that is left behind. Most of the time, there is even a little soaker pad in the package to soak it up.

What is that stuff?

Short answer:


It’s a combination of water, lactic acid, and meat pigments that seeped out of the meat.

Longer answer:


Soaker pad in a chicken tray
In science class, we all learned that our bodies are largely made up of water. The same is true for animals, and a high percentage of that water is held in the muscles and stays in the muscle when it’s converted to meat.

Water in the meat is what creates the juiciness we experience when we eat a juicy steak, a tender ham, or a succulent turkey (#tokenthanksgivingreference). Water helps give meat the texture and flavor we expect. Meat without water is jerky, dry and tough.

Think of the proteins in meat as a sponge. As the meat ages and the more it is handled (cut, shipped, packaged, etc.), the protein sponge loses its ability to hold onto water. So, the water seeps out of the meat over time.

When the water seeps out, the protein that gives meat its color (myoglobin) flows out with the water. That protein gives the purge its color. Although it’s similar to the protein that gives blood its color (hemoglobin), it is not blood.


Pork chops in a purge loss study
Meat scientists have lots of
creative ways to measure purge
Photo courtesy Macc Rigdon
The ability of the meat to hang on the water is dependent on several different things, including the species and age of the animal, the fatness and grade of the meat, the length of time since the animal was harvested, which muscle the cut of meat was from, and how the meat has been handled and processed. Meat scientists spend hours and hours trying to figure out purge and what causes it.

Sometimes meat processors will add a solution to meat cuts to make them more tender, flavorful and juicy. That solution can change the amount of purge in a package, but the presence of purge does not automatically mean that water or anything has been added to the meat. Most of the time, purge is just a natural result of water leaving the muscle.

Some of the water in meat will evaporate out when it’s cooked. That’s why cooked meat is lighter in weight than raw. As the meat is cooked, the myoglobin will denature and lose its red color. So the juice that runs out of a rare steak may still be pink or red, but the juice from a cooked steak is colorless.

So, the water in meat packages is just purge, water and a little myoglobin. Maybe we should give it a better name.
Vacuum packaged pork with purge
Photo courtesy Macc Rigdon 

 

Something I learned from writing this blog: When you ask your meat-scientist friends to send you pictures of purge, be prepared to get a whole lot of them! I wasn’t pleased with my own photos, and a whole community of meat scientists responded when I sent out a request for pictures on facebook. Thanks, friends!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

What’s in a food label? USDA


This week there has been a story circulating about a grocery store chain that was labeling their meat as USDA graded. My dad sent me a link to the story yesterday. You know you must write a post when your dad has a question, and I thought it fit into my labeling series.

According to the Washington Post story, the Giant supermarket chain was selling beef packages with the label “USDA Graded.” They were ordered to stop selling beef with that label, not because the claim was untrue, but because it was misleading.

What does USDA graded mean?

The USDA has two separate roles when it comes to evaluating the meat we buy in stores and restaurants.

1.       USDA Inspectors evaluate the animals before harvest and the carcasses and the meat afterwards for wholesomeness. I wrote a post about USDA Inspection last year. To be sold in interstate commerce, meat must be inspected by USDA. In my earlier post, I stated that when meat is inspected by USDA it either passes or fails. If it fails, it is discarded and not sold for human consumption.

2.       USDA Graders evaluate the meat for eating quality. They take into account the marbling in the ribeye, the color of the meat, and approximate the age of the animal and assign USDA grades, like Prime, Choice and Select, to the carcasses. Beef has another set of grades that indicates the lean meat to fat ratio of the carcass called Yield Grades, but it is rarely used in marketing to consumers.

 
USDA grading and inspection
USDA Inspectors and Graders both work for USDA, but their education and training is very different. Inspection is funded by the government, whereas meat processors pay a fee for grading.

According to USDA, over 75% of the meat that is inspected is also graded and assigned USDA grades of Prime, Choice, Select, etc. The packers can use these grades to market the carcasses according to their eating quality. Prime carcasses are worth more than Choice, Choice more than Select, and so on. 

When this store labeled its beef as ‘USDA graded’, all it means is that a USDA grader looked at the beef gave it a grade, but it doesn’t indicate what grade it was assigned. It’s kind of like a teacher grading your test. The teacher gave you a grade. It may be a good grade or a bad grade, but it wouldn’t make much sense to go around bragging that your test had been graded if you weren’t willing to share the grade with other people.

I'm not going to speculate why the store chose to label their beef as merely 'USDA graded.' Other stores use the label ‘USDA inspected,’ which I think is just as misleading. If meat is being sold, it is either USDA inspected or its state inspected. Otherwise, it would be against the law to sell it. Saying that meat is inspected is almost as pointless as saying it was graded.

I hope this clears up some of the confusion with this story.

Would you be interested to learn more about USDA grades?

Thursday, September 4, 2014

What’s in a food label? Antibiotic free

This summer I started a blog series on food labels. I’ve covered labels you see on meat products like Organic, Natural, Grass-fed, and Raised without Hormones.

Another claim you commonly see with ‘Raised without Hormones’ is ‘Raised without Antibiotics,’ ‘No Antibiotics Added’ or ‘Antibiotic Free.’


Big Island Beef

About two years ago I wrote a blog post about why antibiotics are used and Antibiotic Residues and Antibiotic Resistance. I’m not going to get into those topics in this post, just stick to the labels.

First, let me address Antibiotic Free.

Just like the similar label concerning hormones, the ‘Antibiotic Free’ claim is misleading and shouldn’t be found on a meat label. You may see it on some marketing claims that are not regulated by USDA, though.

All of the meat you buy in the US should be Antibiotic Free. Even if the farmer used antibiotics, those antibiotics shouldn’t be in the meat because the FDA regulates how antibiotics are administered to animals. The time when the farmer must stop using antibiotics before the animal is harvested is known as the withdrawal time. Those times differ between types of antibiotics and the species of animal, and they are explained on the antibiotic label.

Withdrawal times allow the animal to metabolize the antibiotic and eliminate it from the body so that no residues will be left in the meat. Therefore, all meat should be free of antibiotics.

Back to the Label

When a meat company uses the ‘No antibiotic added’ or ‘Raised without Antibiotics’ label, they must be able to prove to the USDA that no antibiotics were used to raise that animal.

Basically, that’s it. If the animal has never been given antibiotics, the meat company can use that label.

This has probably been the simplest of the labels in my labeling series.

Have you seen any other labels that you have questions about?

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Ten things you didn’t know about ground beef

Ground beef is one of our favorite cuts of meat in the US, but I’ll bet that you have lots of questions about it. The USDA dictates what can and cannot be labeled as ground beef and that information is published in the Code of Federal Regulations. They call those rules ‘standards of identity’ and they apply to labels of ‘chopped beef’ and ‘hamburger’ as well as ground beef.

Here are a few things that you may not have known about ground beef:

1.       Ground beef must be from cattle. Any other animal would be considered misbranded and would be illegal.


2.       Ground beef is made from only muscle. It must be skeletal muscle. No organs, eyes, skin, guts or anything but muscle that used to be attached to bones.


3.       Ground beef must be at least 70% lean. No more than 30% fat. It is usually leaner than that, though.


4.       Ground beef is not made from ‘leftovers’ or ‘scraps off the floor’. The fact is, not every cut of beef is equal. Some make great steaks on the grill. Others make great roasts in the oven. Some pieces of the beef carcass are either the wrong size or too tough to be tasty as whole muscle cuts. So, to get maximum use out of the entire animal, butchers collect those pieces in clean containers called lugs and grind them up into ground beef.

5.       Ground beef is the most popular cut of beef. In the US, we enjoy lots of ground beef. In fact, we like it so much that butchers are now grinding up cuts that used to be sold as steaks and roasts. In a large processing plant, the decisions on what to grind up and what to leave whole are made based on price and demand.


6.       Ground beef may not contain any added water. Beef itself contains water, but processors are not permitted to add water to the ground beef.


7.       Ground beef may not contain any phosphates, binders or extenders. Some processed meat products use non-meat fillers such as texturized vegetable protein to stretch the protein portion of a processed meat. If these ingredients are added, it cannot be labeled ground beef.



8.       Ground beef is not all the same. Some dishes work best with really lean ground beef, whereas other are tastier with fattier ground beef. Generally, the more lean the ground beef, the more costly it is. Just like people, not all animals are the same in fatness, and just like people, different parts of the animal have different amounts of fat. Think about how your thigh compares to your abdomen. (mine are different, if yours are not, congratulations) When formulating ground beef, the processors mix some of the leaner cuts (like leg muscles) in with some of the fattier cuts (like abdominal cuts) to get their target fat content.


9.       Ground sirloin, ground round, ground chuck are also ground beef, with more requirements. Those labels not only let the customer know from where on the carcass their ground meat comes, they also give the consumer the percent fat. Ground sirloin and ground round are usually labeled as 15% fat and ground chuck is usually 20% fat. You can look for the fat percentage on the label.   Special ground meats like these must be at least 50% from the source specified. (For example, ground sirloin must be made from at least 50% sirloin cuts.)


10.   Ground beef should always be cooked to 160°F. Because ground beef is ground and mixed, bacteria may be found anywhere within the patty (not just on the surface like in a steak or roast). To make sure all those bacteria are killed, you need to cook your burger to 160°F and check the temperature with a meat thermometer! Checking the temperature will also keep you from over-cooking your burgers so they will be juicy and flavorful!

I hope you have learned something about ground beef and that you enjoy your burger this summer.

 

Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Reciprocal Meats Conference


Anyone who follows me on any type of social media knows that I have been traveling in the past few weeks and that my travels largely involved meat and food production. For me, the third week in June is like a family reunion, a science fair, and the state fair all rolled into one. The third week in June is time for the Reciprocal Meats Conference!

In 1948 a group of meat scientists met in Chicago to discuss their industry and ways to improve meat production, and began meeting together annually for the Reciprocal Meats Conference. But it was in Madison, WI in 1964 that they decided to form an association for people interested in meat science, the American Meat Science Association. This year we celebrated 50 years of the AMSA.

A photo from the 1964 RMC when they started the AMSA.
We are definitely a different looking crowd today.


The whole concept behind the RMC is to share information about meat science and the meat industry with other meat scientists. People that attend RMC may be from academia like me, from meat companies like my husband, from governmental agencies like USDA, or from industry trade groups like the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association or the American Meat Institute. Of the 850+ people that attended RMC this year, about 1/3 were students.

We reciprocate ideas about the food we produce. People that have attended RMC are responsible for making our meat supply safe and wholesome. One of the great things about the food industry in the US is that food safety issues are non-competitive. At meetings like the RMC, companies and universities are open to sharing the ways they make food safe.

I thought I would share a few thoughts and photos from RMC. If you have attended an RMC, this year or in years past, please share in the comments below or on my facebook page. Let people know who you are, what you do, and especially the things you love about RMC. Be sure to include your blog or twitter handles for people to follow!

The first AMSA Board of Directors.
Giants in the world of meat science.


I am honored to say that I worked with Dr. Kropf (far left) on a meat color project when I was a PhD student. Because it was the 50 year anniversary of the AMSA, our first session was a history of the organization and all the challenges we have faced in the meat industry over the past 50 years.

Some of the other topics of discussion throughout the week included:

·         Diet and Health – Analysis of Current Nutrition Policy

·         Myoglobin chemistry and meat color

·         Antibiotic resistance

·         Food safety and E. coli

·         Natural curing of meat

·         Genetics and meat quality

·         How is social media changing our business

·         Environmental sustainability and meat production

Several of the talks ran against one another. I was so thankful that they were ALL recorded this year so I can go see them online later this summer.

The technical sessions at RMC are great, but the most valuable thing at RMC is the networking opportunities. The professional members (non-students/ old guys) have a networking mentality when they come to RMC. They make it a point to meet new people, and to learn what the students are doing at their respective universities. This mindset has been ingrained in the meeting from the first one.  I encourage my students to get out of their comfort zones and meet new people. Some of the older professors have been known to require their students to write reports on the people they meet.

Because of this friendly, family-like atmosphere, there is an immeasurable amount of collaboration that takes place at RMC. I would bet that more advances in the meat industry have been a result of conversations between the sessions than from those during the sessions. There are lots of opportunities for this extra Reciprocation, like the family picnic and the golf tournament. This year we had some extra reciprocation in the basement late at night during a tornado warning.

A tweet from David during our tornado reciprocation session.
Just about everyone in the basement was from RMC.


This year, we really worked to have a strong presence on social media. We added these little flags to our name tags so people would know to watch for our tweets.

 
The flags on my name tag.
(The Twitter one was new this year)

We used the hashtag #AMSARMC. You can check out some of the great tweets from this year’s meeting.

 
Just a few of the tweets from #AMSARMC. Even with 850+ attendees,
we try to get hands-on in our sessions

 All in all, I think RMC was a great success. It continues to be the place to be during the third week in June for us meatheads (we call ourselves meatheads). I hope to have many in my future.
Don't forget to comment on your RMC experience!
 

Every year on our way to RMC, I take my students on tours of meat plants and farms in the area. Next week, I’ll post about our trip to Wisconsin.

Monday, June 9, 2014

What’s in a food label? Raised without hormones

I’ve been writing a series of posts about food labeling. My previous posts have been about labels that involve the whole system of raising animals, like Organic, Naturally-raised or Grass-fed. Some labels are more specific and address one particular technology used for raising animals like hormones or antibiotics. Today I’m going to address the labels concerning hormones in meat.

First let me address “Hormone Free”

A big joke in the livestock industry is when we see a food, especially meat milk or eggs, advertised as “Hormone Free.”

All animals have hormones and need them to grow and produce meat, milk, eggs, babies, or whatever. All food has hormones. Nothing can actually be ‘hormone-free.’ Saying that beef is “hormone free” is about as pointless as talking about a boneless chicken ranch (you know, all the chickens just lay there.)


But, we all know that they really mean that the animals were raised without the use of added hormones.

Technically, you cannot label a meat product as hormone free. You see it on signs and menus, but it shouldn’t be on a label.

You CAN label a meat product as “Raised without hormones” to let the consumer know that no extra hormones were administered to the animal. Now, that means different things depending on which species the label is on.

What does that mean for Pork and Poultry?

In the US, it is against federal regulations to use hormones to raise pork and poultry.


Yep, its true.
 
Wait… what?

That’s right, no pork or poultry in the US is raised with hormones (other than the ones they make in their own bodies).

But you see it on pork and poultry labels?
Yep, meat companies are allowed to label their pork and poultry with a “No hormones administered” label. All pork and poultry in the US is eligible for the label. When they choose to use that label, they have to also write that “Federal Regulations prohibit the use of hormones in pork/ poultry.”


Some examples of pork and poultry labels that say that hormones are not allowed to be used.
 
So, what about beef?

In beef, it is legal to administer hormones to the cattle. They are similar to the hormones the cattle produce naturally and they allow them to grow larger, leaner, and more efficiently. They help the cattle grow more beef using fewer natural resources.

These hormones are actually administered in what we call an Implant in their ear, not usually fed to them. There are several different options available, and they are usually applied in the feedlot or finishing phase of the animal’s life (the last few months) before harvest.

Just like anything given to the cattle, the FDA and USDA have rules and regulations that the farmers must follow concerning the implants. These rules will involve how long they can be administered and how long before harvest.


Back to the label. When the implants are not used, the beef company may say so on the label.  

Big Island Beef was really popular in Hawaii
It is raised without the use of hormones.


Very often the ‘raised without the use of hormones’ label will accompany another claim like Natural, Grass-fed, or Organic.

How much does it really matter?  

When beef raised without hormones was compared to that from cattle that was given hormones, the level of hormones in the beef was slightly different. In an 8-oz steak, the amount of estrogen found in steak from the implanted steer was 5.1 nanograms and that found in a non-implanted calf was 3.5 nanograms.



How big is a nanogram? One nanogram is one billionth of a gram. That 8 oz steak is a little over 226 grams.

 
This has been an awfully long post to answer a simple question, but people that know me expect that. I hope this helps to understand another meat label. Please let me know if you have any more questions.