09/11/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

A Darker Shade of Green

It's been a bang-up week in the increasingly green world we food professionals inhabit. To start, New York Times contributor Alessandra Staley brilliantly covered Emeril Lagasse's apparent conversion to mindful eating and his subsequent hosting of a new show, Emeril Green, on the Discovery Network's channel, Planet Green. During the odd episode (which I must confess I don't watch, mostly because I know exactly what's going to happen and I want to save myself the migraine), the big guy trolls the aisles of uber-green grocer, Whole Foods, on a search for ingredients from which he will create dishes that are, according to the article, "easy to prepare, eco-friendly, and nutritious." He goes on, of course, to make dishes like chocolate souffle (this counts as "green" because of the cage free eggs, I guess. Where it falls on the easy-to-prepare, nutrition continuum is another thing entirely); "fried, breaded eggplant topped with shrimp/crab bechamel" (perhaps the eggplant was organic? maybe the shrimp were local?); and a hamburger topped with an slice of tomato, served on a brioche bun. (Was the tomato a German Pink?). Shocking, yes? Well, no. Not so much.

"Green eating"--eating local produce or meat processed without benefit of hormones, chemicals, or antibiotics, and produced with as little environmental impact as possble--never, ever promised to be particularly healthy. Healthful eating is not the primary goal of green eating. In fact, it's entirely possible--and even probable--that if you eat "green" food, you will likely (unless you are a vegetarian, or a vegan) not be eating anything remotely claiming to be low-fat (low fat products tend to be packed with chemicals to replace flavor); you'll shelve the margarine (thank goodness) and instead prudently swipe a small teaspoon of locally churned sweet butter across your whole grain toast every morning; you'll forgo canola oil cooking spray unless you can be sure that the oil wasn't pressed from genetically altered seeds produced by Monsanto; you'll eat rich and luxurious chevre that came from a goat called Mildred, who frolicks her days away in a nearby pasture. You might even spend outrageous sums to buy "natural" meat at your local green grocery emporium--like Emeril must have done on that shopping trip, above -- and have a rich, juicy hamburger to show for it. Assuming it doesn't kill you in the process.

As if on cue, a few days after Ms. Staley's piece hit the pages of the Times, another, more familiar story on "green eating's" potential deadliness emerged, and it had nothing to do with saturated fat or the number of free range eggs going into the souffle: Whole Foods, expensive purveyor of all that is good, green, and safe, had inadvertently sold recalled ground Coleman "natural" beef, which had been "processed" by Nebraska Beef Ltd., a privately-owned, Omaha-based meatpacker with, according to an article in the Washington Post, a long history of food safety and other violations. According to the piece, From September 2002 to February 2003, USDA shut down the plant three times for problems such as feces on carcasses, water dripping off pipes onto meat, paint peeling onto equipment and plugged-up meat wash sinks, according to agency records. It went on, "In 2004 and early 2005, Nebraska Beef ran afoul of new regulations aimed at keeping animal parts that may be infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease, out of the meat supply. Meat processors are required to remove certain high-risk parts, such as brains and spinal cords. Between July 2004 and February 2005, federal meat inspectors wrote up Nebraska Beef at least five times for not removing spinal cords and heads, according to USDA records obtained by Food and Water Watch, a Washington advocacy group. The company corrected the problems. In August 2006, federal meat inspectors threatened to suspend operations at the packing house for not following requirements for controlling E. coli. The company corrected the problem a week later, USDA records show. That year, Minnesota health officials blamed Nebraska Beef for sickening 17 people who ate meatballs at a church potluck in rural Minnesota. Several victims filed lawsuits against Nebraska Beef, including the family of a woman who died. The company last fall sued the church, arguing that the volunteer cooks did not cook the meatballs properly."

Of course they didn't.
(The fact that Coleman "Natural" Beef was purchased in 2002 by Booth Creek Management, which would, with another firm, buy a majority stake in ConAgra Beef--the company's meatpacking division that would be at the center of a massive July 2002 19 million pound beef recall--is mostly beside the point. Mostly. Its relationship to Nebraska Beef, Ltd. is under scrutiny.)

The issue here isn't whether or not Whole Foods is to blame; I believe they aren't, although I'm mystified at their quality control given the posting of internal Farm Animal and Meat Quality Standards on their corporate website. That said, this posting actually points not to what happens during the "processing" of the meat; it only covers what happens to the poor beasts when they're still actually cows. Coleman"s website offers the same sort of information: it lists its animal raising practices; the ingredients iin their feed; and the company's sustainability measures. It offers no mention, guarantees, or protections about what happens when the animal goes off to meet its maker at a processing plant like Nebraska Beef Ltd, or Coleman's close cousin, ConAgra Beef Meatpacking (now known as Swift and Company).

And this is exactly where the problem lies: if a premium "natural" meat producer, like Coleman cannot be sure (or simply doesn't care) what happens to the animal when it gets to the plant, it has lost complete qualitative control of the entire process. The upshot? Absolutely all the supposed consideration that has gone into the animal's "front" life--for which the consumer pays top price and trusts will result in a healthier, safer, more ethical product--is for naught.

On my Huffington Post page several months back, after images of downer cows being forklifted to the slaughter floor hit the news, I talked about a local, natural beef purveyor a few miles down the road from me in bucolic Connecticut; when I went on their website, I stopped when I read the line "our beef is processed in a USDA-approved plant." And what would make that plant different from the one that fork-lifted downer cows in those now-infamous news reports last winter? What would make it different from the USDA-approved plant that processed Coleman "natural" meat for sale in Whole Foods, and that would eventually prove deadly? Nothing.

What's the lesson here? If a major, national brand--like Coleman or Emeril--wraps itself in a banner of green, purports to maintain an expected standard, and then fails miserably to deliver on its promise, it is doing more than just a disservice to the trend-craving public; it is perpetrating what old-time journalists would have gently called a full-throttle hornswaggle. Caught in the throes of green consumerist fad, America is turning an actual global need into a fashion of the sort that finds pop singers wearing blood diamond-encrusted peace signs, or publicity-hungry eco-gurus quietly destroying 75 acres of undeveloped land to put in a swimming pool, or goosefat-drenched celebrity chefs representing sustainability, health, nutrition, and ethics. The message has become the fashion. We ultimately cannot expect any different from the people who mass-produce our food, and who claim that they are green simply because they say they are.