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July 01, 2007

You Call This a Happy Meal?

Cow_2 The current Veggie Booty recall got me thinking about my earlier bouts of food paranoia. In fact, my essay on this very topic appeared in the print issue of Chicago Parent exactly one year ago. Coincidence? You decide.

Preparing family meals can be tricky. Catering to the fickle food preferences of my children is always a challenge. But I must also factor in restrictions such as my eldest son’s severe food allergies and consider that my husband is lactose intolerant, avoiding carbs and loves spicy food, while I am spice intolerant, crave carbs and love cheese. However, it was the summer I became obsessed with foodborne illness 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 detailed 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. Additionally, I’d become a regular at the website of Safe Tables Our Priority (http://www.stop-usa.org) a resource and advocacy group on food safety/foodborne illness. 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 like the potentially fatal Listeria bacteria that could quietly multiply on the surface of their lunchmeat even in a properly chilled refrigerator.

My childhood tendency to sneak a spoonful of raw ground beef as it defrosted on the kitchen counter was merely a gross habit in the 70s; now it could be a deadly one. “This is not your mother’s ground beef,” I cautioned an aunt with a penchant for burgers so rare they practically moo. 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 like, the Centers for Disease Control estimates that foodborne 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: Ooooh, 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!

“You’re not much fun to talk to these days,” my husband warned. 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 www.fsis.usda.gov for more information on food safety.

Kim writes about other happy meals for Chicago families at Scrambled CAKE. She also blogs at Hormone-colored Days.

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