Wednesday, June 11, 2008

You call this a Happy Meal?

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Preparing family meals can be tricky. Catering to the fickle food preferences of my children is always a challenge. It was the summer I became obsessed with food-borne illness, however,
when things got especially dicey around our table.

It began innocently enough when a cousin sent me a copy of Michael Pollan's article "This Steer's Life" (New York Times Magazine, March 31, 2002). Pollan bought a calf and followed it from farm to feedlot to the family dinner table. His article is loaded with observations and ruminations on modern cattle raising, slaughtering and processing methods. Disgusting as it was, I was hooked and hungry to learn more of the gristly truth.

Next, I devoured Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation and was a changed woman. Within weeks I'd binged on a series of related books including Nicols Fox's Spoiled: Why Our Food Is Making Us Sick and What We Can Do About It, Peter Lovenheim's Portrait of a Burger as a Young Calf, and Ruth Ozeki's compelling and amusing novel, My Year of Meats.

My ears perked up at mentions of massive meat recalls and widespread bouts of food poisoning. In addition I'd become a regular at the Web site of Safe Tables Our Priority (a resource and advocacy group on food safety and foodborne illnesses. I'd sob as I read heartbreaking stories of young victims of deadly bacteria.

With little fanfare, my husband stopped eating red meat. I also stopped, but I was loud-determined to save my loved ones from microscopic dangers such as the potentially fatal Listeria bacteria that could quietly multiply on the surface of their lunch meat even in a properly chilled refrigerator.

I'd ramble about the evils of crowded feedlots and unnatural animal diets.

I'd detail dramatic changes in meat processing operations that can lead to contaminated meat.

I'd cite statistics such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that food-borne diseases cause approximately 76 million illnesses and 5,000 deaths in the United States each year.

My kids not only picked up on my concerns, they were party to them. How many preschoolers can explain why it's foolish to eat cookie dough containing raw eggs? A fast-food dinner with extended family resulted in this conversation:

My 4-year-old son to my 3-year-old niece: "I'm glad you didn't get the chicken nuggets because they are really so bad for you."

Niece: "But my brother's eating them."

Son: "Oooh, that's bad."

Five-year-old nephew: "No, they're good for you. They've got protein. My mom says they help me grow."

Son: "Well, my mom says they make you sick."

My 63-year-old mother: "Kim, you're making your kids crazy!"

My husband: "You're not much fun to talk to these days."

He was right. I had developed a new kind of eating disorder: Fear of SCUM. That is, fear of food that's been Sitting out too long, Contaminated, Undercooked or Mishandled. For a couple of weeks, my food phobia resulted in a diet that left room for little else but, conveniently, chocolate.
Eventually I developed a convoluted set of food guidelines that my boys will one day struggle to explain to their therapists. For example, we buy costly organic eggs from hens on vegetarian diets except when there's an irresistible sale on the store brand. And we buy growth-hormone and antibiotic-free beef from veggie-fed cows to eat at home, but if we're out for, say, Chinese food, we'll order beef and broccoli.

It would be simpler to declare ourselves vegetarians, but there's no getting around the fact that my boys and I love a good steak. So we've settled for making (mostly) conscious choices and trying to live up to the expression "you are what you eat."

The other day at breakfast my 4-year-old announced he just ate the best egg ever! "What made it so tasty? My cooking?" I asked. No, he was sure it was because the egg came out of a cheerful chicken.

Interestingly, he'd just consumed one of Phil's Farm fresh eggs. According to the package, the cage-free hens that laid our eggs ate a diet of "high-quality, natural ingredients … no drugs or antibiotics." Farm fresh is more expensive and time-consuming than fast food, but ultimately it makes for a happy meal.

See the USDA website for more information on food safety.

This piece originally appeared in Chicago Parent magazine in August 2006.


laughingatchaos said...

We do much the same thing. We have a freezer full of "happy beef" and "happy pig," courtesy of our local ranchers. Our "happy veggies" start up through our CSA on Thursday. "Happy milk" and "happy eggs" come from the local dairy once a week. All that said, we eat "unhappy" food when out. I can only make a difference where I can. And it all works out.

Leeanthro said...

Great post!

I stopped eating meat after reading Mad Cowboy by Howard Lyman and then Fast Food Nation.

Though I have never had anything against organic meat and I keep saying that I will purchase some for our family. I just never seem to get around to it.

Lots of my friends swear that organic eggs taste better. I have also read that they have 1/3 to 1/2 the cholesterol and more Omega 3's.

Watch the video I have up today. I think you would appreciate it!