Law For Food: The law affects what you eat. What you buy to eat affects the law.


Pasturization and School Lunches

New to me, but back in 2003, Maciej over at Idlewords.com compared a week’s worth of school lunches in the U.S. to a week’s worth of school lunches in France. His observations are twofold: 1) in France, all meals have cultural significance, and 2) pasturization has had the effect of lowering our standards as to what’s consumable by humans.

First, and briefly, the article notes that the French lunch is highly structured in a way that leads him to conclude that it is considered a part of the education. The U.S. lunch, on the other hand, is centered around a bread-and-meat entree (usually a hamburger, chicken fingers, or pizza) with optional (usually terrible, readers will recall) hot vegetables or salad. What is interesting is that school lunches prove to be a part of the U.S. education as well, but because teachers and administrators don’t think about it as education, we wind up sending all kinds of terrible messages about food:

Finally, notice how hard it is to eat a healthy diet at the American school. You would be relegated to a ghetto of garden salads, ‘soups of the day’, and whatever nutritious innards you could pull out of the breaded main dish. The message American kids get is that healthy food is second-rate and tastes bad, that they should eat lots of meat, cheese and potatoes, and that eating fast food every day is a normal diet.

(Emphasis added.)

The second observation is related to something I posted yesterday about pasteurization and accountability. Pasteurization, as you know, is a way of killing the bacteria that are on or in our food by heating the food to above 160° fahrenheit. Pasteurization can reduce our exposure to bacteria that will cause illness by reducing our exposure to bacteria period. However, the economics of commodity food production have turned pasteurization into a panacaea for any and all structural flaws in the production of food. Because they can cook the germs off, producers don’t take the same care with food. From the article:

The dirty fact about American school lunches is that they are a dumping ground for surplus and substandard beef, chicken and dairy products. Many of these foods cannot be served fresh because they would be too dangerous to eat. This is especially true for ground meat, which is at times so contaminated with bacteria that it would not be legal to sell it in a supermarket. A couple of hundred years ago, Louis Pasteur (a Frenchman, of course) discovered that you can kill bacteria in many foods by heating them to an elevated temperature for a certain period of time. Pasteur’s discovery was revolutionary. Pasteurized foods (like milk, honey, cider or wine) could be stored longer without going off. And of course pasteurization can render dubious foods safe. But the legacy of Pasteur’s invention, in this country, has been perverted. Instead of improving the quality of our food supply, we’ve used techniques like pasteurization and antibiotic prophylaxis to make it possible to create food on an industrial scale, artificially fighting back the disease and contamination that would otherwise make modern factory farming impossible.

The process shows no signs of slowing, either. The current push for irradiating meat (under the euphemism of ‘cold pasteurization’) is an attempt by the beef industry to make meat safer not by improving hygiene at the slaughterhouse, but by rendering contaminated meat harmless. Presumably, it doesn’t matter whether meat in school lunches has been in contact with cowshit, as long as it is no longer infectious.

I haven’t looked at the specifics, but I suspect that pasteurization is one of the reasons we have seen so many millions of pounds of meat recalled in the last few months. If that seems counterintuitive, just bear with me.

Pasteurization does not eliminate bacteria from food. What it does is yeild a logarythmic reduction bacteria counts. When you have an ordinary amount of bacteria, reducing them to a fraction of their number by pasteurization may render the food safe because your immune system can handle the bacteria in this smaller amount. However, since in 2002 the FDA approved the use of the term “cold pasteurization” to refer to irratiation of meat, meat producers have been able to rely on irradiating their meat as a means of killing bacteria. Meat packing is a highly competitive business, with ever-narrowing margins and faster production times. Because we can use cold pasteurization to kill bacteria at the end of the process, it is not worth the expense of introducing safeguards against bacteria throughout the process.

However, as noted above, pasteurization isn’t a catch-all. It doesn’t kill all the bacteria, only the vast majority of them. So, the more bacteria that the meat is exposed to before pasteurization, the more that will be there after pasteurization. Between this and the absense of colonisation effects discussed yesterday, I think we are looking at a cure that costs more than it benefits.

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[…] an old post at Idle Words, the Law for Food blogger discusses pasteurization and the American school […]

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