Thursday, May 19, 2011

I'll have a Hamburger with a Side of Skepticism....

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The nature of science is rooted in skepticism. We often get frustrated that 'science is always changing it's mind' - and yet this constant reflection, rejection, and adoption of theories is the very evolutionary process that allows us to advance as a society.

Meat is constantly the subject of intense scientific and emotional debate. If you browse through my previous blog posts here, it is clear that I have a 'bias' towards what we might call 'sustainable meats'. I put bias in quotes - because sustainability as a social goal can hardly be called such. Yet I am biased - but it's not in my dedication towards improving the sustainability of our meat supply - it's in my assumptions of how we get there....and indeed I am far from the only one guilty of this crime against scientific reasoning.

Where I work in Chester County Pennsylvania, we produce Grass-Fed Beef - feeding no grains, no added hormones, etc., etc. - you've heard the rap - we produce 'good beef' from 'happy cows' in a way that is 'better for the environment' - something very few in the US would second guess. Ironically though - the ones who do second guess this narrative are among the most credentialed in the meat sciences.

Recently, the American Meat Institute launched a new website and social media campaign - (not to be confused with our own I'll get to that in a minute) Myth Crushers has the noble intention of bringing science to the consumer to de-bunk the "myths" that are plaguing the modern protein industry. Check out their website, but some of what they call "myths" are directly in opposition to everything I hold dear- for example they claim that:

  • Added growth hormones in beef are not a concern for human health
  • Antibiotic use in livestock is not a concern for human health
  • Grass-fed beef is neither safer nor healthier than grain-fed beef
  • Feeding cattle corn is completely "natural"
To their credit - they do clear up two long-held truths that I fully endorse:
  • Nitrites in cured meats are not a health concern
  • Pork and Poultry do not receive any added growth hormones - ever
The project is all about bringing science into the discussion - and clearing up the muddled minds of consumers awash in a sea of biased anti-meat media coverage. It is a noble cause for sure, and I applaud the effort - yet I am most certainly not ready to say that their claims are completely correct.

In my beef files, I have tons of peer-reviewed journal articles that potentially 'de-bunk' much of the more shocking claims they make - but it's not as simple as "my science vs. yours" - these are often incredibly complex questions and this is the point. 
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The approach that the industry and Myth Crushers has taken runs under a paradigm of maximum efficiency. Too often in the 'sustainable food' media - this efficiency is unfairly portrayed as simply soul-less corporate greed....and while I'm not prepared to say that Cargill or Tyson do have souls - what Myth Crushers does convey is the industry commitment to sustainability - as measured by very selective indicators of efficiency. And therein lies the problem (...I think ;) 

Over the next months I've made it my academic job to throughly review the science behind the more important of the Myth Crushers claims. Some may pan out as the meat scientists claim (I really hate to say it, but added growth hormones in beef isn't looking like it should be a health concern for consumers). But whether I prove them wrong, or have my mind radically changed - is almost beside the point.

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There is big difference between Meat Myth Crushers and Mythic Meats - and it can be found in the common language. Certainly a "myth" can be an untrue story that is commonly believed - but Mythic Meats uses the term more in the Joseph Campbell sense - the idea of guiding stories that shape our values and understandings of the world. In this context, as we struggle to understand the mythic goal of sustainability as it relates to meat production - we perhaps need to step back and ask bigger questions as a society about what we want from our meats. Is beef just a free-market commodity, or does it have a web of complex threads connecting multiple aspects of our rural and urban communities that can only be understood from a more holistic perspective? 

I'll come back to the science behind Myth Crushers in the months to come - but in the mean time - let's all try to approach science and sustainability with the humble, apolitical respect that it's complexity demands.

(One practical way to do this is to "Like" both and MeatMythCrushers on Facebook ;)

1 comment:

  1. I think one of the most interesting parts of MythCrushers is the information they seem to leave out. Unscientifically, I'd say that 90-95% of the meat I eat is raised by me or a farmer that I purchase from directly. The reasons for this (for me) are environmental and social.

    I think just being a Cornish Cross chicken is kinda of gross. I think the corn industry - with subsidies and environmental impact is creepy. I think the cost of our commercial meat is way higher than the price we actually pay for the meat. I think a lot of people who work in meat factories are treated poorly.

    And, I think my homegrown, heritage breed chicken tastes WAY BETTER than anything I can get in a store - even if I have to pluck it myself.

    If you look at the total environmental impact of the chickens raised down the street from me in the big buildings - where the food is grown and trucked in...and all the other inputs needed to keep the chickens alive (they seem to have big fans?) - versus the impact of my chickens that peck and roam in the sun, I wonder what the difference is per chicken.

    These issues seem absent from MythCrushers.