Fast Food Meat
October 11, 2010 1 Comment
Let’s get the basics out of the way. At some point in your life, you’ve eaten some form of fast food meat. In fact, you probably sneak a taco, roast beef, or bacon double cheeseburger every once in a while. But, there’s also been that point where you’ve questioned what exactly you are eating. I’ll come out and admit, I used to be a bottom-tier fast food junkie*(see below for details). In my undergrad days of college I’d have McDonalds breakfast at 4 a.m daily. Luckily, after I graduated I quit that habit and shy away from fast food. If I’m going to eat unhealthy food, I’d much rather do it at one of those places on Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives or unique to the city I’m in.
Before I go any further, let me say: this is not an attempt to turn you off from fast food. If you want to eat it, more power to you. In recent times, movies that attempt to exploit the fast food world and the occasional story documenting the ill health effects have been the craze. I’m just taking the simple approach of looking at the meat (to determine how much is actual meat), how they get their meat, and some regulations out there. Some of this stuff might be tough to digest (both literally and figuratively.)
First, fast food meat is legal and edible. For example rumors of Arby’s roast beef being liquid or gelatin are not true. The packaging the meat arrives in has a gelatin type broth/preservative that helps maintain freshness and flavor, causing confusion to those looking to take out the industry. These companies do stringent testing on the meats. Whether places like Mcdonalds and Burger King do so to avoid insane lawsuits or out of caring for their customer base is up for debate. The biggest problems, however, stem from animal care, production, and a low-grade quality product. These are the areas where things begin going downhill.
The question of “where does this meat come from?” is perhaps the most legitimate question surrounding these chains. And the truth is, they couldn’t tell you specifically. Fast food chains have their meat factories and suppliers they use, but in the ground beef they create dozens of different cows may be used. There aren’t farms used to produce the meats, these are in fact factories. Many are just feeding lots where the cows stay in one spot eating as much corn/grain mixed with antibiotics and hormones as possible. It sounds bad, and it probably is, but it still produces an acceptable quality of meat if the production methods go correctly.
Within the production is where the problems lie. Because these animals are essentially living in one solitary spot, and constantly eating, they can get quite dirty. A combination of food, fecal matter, and any other excess waste might end up on or around them. That’s where the debate begins when addressing poop making it into hamburgers. Does it happen? Yes. Very rarely and that’s when E.coli comes into play. Is it as common as some people like to make it seem? No. Check out these interviews from Frontline to see both sides of the safety argument.
The process of cleaning these animals and retrieving the meat can be very difficult and must be done thoroughly. In an industry that produces obscene tonnage of meat that is expected to be processed extremely fast, mistakes can be made. The fast food meat factories have to supply so many places around the world that almost 400 cattle an hour are slaughtered. The number itself is crazy, but to think workers must wash every animal, clean out intestines and other body parts, plus be careful enough not to hurt yourself with these machines and knives, it’s a difficult task. Since 1993, when there was a huge outbreak almost ending the Jack in the Box franchises, companies and the country are a little more strict in the way they go about the process before and after. Jack in the Box went bankrupt at the time and are just now expanding nationally, a plan that may have been set back by 20 years.
The company most attacked now for their process isn’t Mcdonalds or Burger King. The fast food chain: Kentucky Fried Chicken. Led by those crazy folks at PETA (just watch the video and you’ll see), a site called Kentucky Fried Cruelty has led undercover investigations to see how this company treats their chicken and the quality that comes after. While they tend to overdramatize some of the stuff, it has been found workers at these plants abuse these animals beyond their ultimate fate of slaughter. Chickens have been found in cages that are unsafe causing them to get stuck and break wings or legs. The chickens are also shocked, cut and dumped into boiling water. The chickens that are used have gained weight in double the amount of time of a normal life span.
So now that the processing is complete, how bout the meat itself? This is where things get interesting. In Europe, the meat is better quality. They have more restrictions and better regulations. It tastes better and smells better. In America most the meat used is commercial grade. It’s nothing spectacular, but it’s also not really graded. In fact, meat goes by 8 different categories: Prime, Choice, Select, Standard, Commercial, Utility, Cutter, and Canner. Within these categories, there can be grades of “1-5” placed on the meat. But this is not a requirement. Thus, majority of the commercial grade meat just makes it through USDA inspection so it won’t kill you and it goes from there. Once again, the meat itself is edible. Poultry uses different grades as well. For the whole grading scale and to learn more check out the whole grading scale and regulations of all meats and poultry.
So you’re thinking I didn’t really explain how the meat truly is. But, thanks to an article published last December in USA Today, fast-food standards for meat both safety and quality are actually better than those in the Educational system. Who said our country didn’t care? The truth is, commercial grade meat is exactly as it sounds. Of course, don’t be fooled by Angus Beef either. The newest trick for fast food restaurants has been the “Angus Beef” craze. It’s “higher quality” than other meats they serve. It’s juicy and has more to it. Certified Angus Beef brings on the illusion, as Joe’s Butcher Shop explains, that this means high quality. He also shows a solid comparison of what each meat grade means. While that is more based on steaks, it still helps show the difference.
Finally, once the actual meat must preserved to reach these places, this is where the true problem lies. If there was a way for McDonalds to constantly process cows in a magical basement of everyone of their restaurants, the quality of the meat might actually be better. Unfortunately, because of the amount there is and the distance each little strip of beef must travel to join with it’s little beef strip friends, stuff must be added. For many chicken products, sodium phosphate seems to be popular. Throw in some MSG, Oils, Disodium Guanylate and Disodium Inosinate, and you’re almost halfway to what they give you. For a great list of added chemicals to all foods, beyond meats click here.
So… I won’t deny, I’ll still eat fast food every once in a while. The process is bad and what they add after is bad. It’s even worse that the government isn’t as strict as they should be. That might be even more alarming than the fast food chains themselves. Some of them do it the right way. Five Guys, In-n-Out Burger, and so on have healthier operations. Even Chipotle, once owned by Mcdonalds, does it in a way that isn’t cruel and even a bit healthier. The prices might be a little bit more expensive, but there are at least options out there.
Don’t worry, I will soon be looking at fancier meats from high quality restaurants. As well as more parts of the body for you to enjoy. If you have any suggestions or comments, feel free as always…
*To make myself feel better in life, I have separated different styles of fast food into “tiers.” McDonalds, Taco Bell, Burger King, Arby’s, KFC, and so on in my mind are example of bottom-tier fast food. Restaurants like Pancheros, Potbellys, Five Guys, and Pei Wei are second-tier and thus acceptable in my world.