Meat Processing, Pandemics and the Kitchen

Stew is both a comfort food and a safer food right now. Photo by Naim Benjelloun from Pexels

This is a time when some common sense changes in behavior are worth doing, especially for those whose gut is more sensitive than the norm. Meat is going through a shortage, and it's a naturally gluten free food, absolutely essential for recovering from Celiac disease. We also finally have some official lists of cleaning products that can destroy SARS-CoV2, aka the Coronavirus responsible for the disease, Covid-19. This article is targeted toward people whose gut system is tender and warrants extra consideration during this crisis. There's no harm in anyone adopting these behaviors temporarily, though. 

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In a pandemic, even the richest countries with the fewest food related pathogens may need to take extra precautions.  I feel that it's my responsibility to speak up when I don't hear the official sources empowering us enough. In the human experience, risky food and water are a common problem.  And just as it doesn't help to deny a pandemic is happening, it doesn't help to pretend that all food and water in the US is always universally safe.

For one thing, I wish more information would be shared about the EPA's official list of cleaning agents that work against Coronaviruses.   Also the CDC's instructions for cleaning.   Instead, news agencies just harp on washing hands and agonize about whether or not you should make a cloth mask.  But in these times, we still are bringing food into the house, food that may be contaminated with a virus that may sicken or kill a person.  We can't stop eating, that's obvious.  But we're also not helpless to protect ourselves. And it wouldn't be wrong to share the information we have on disinfection and current risks (like the struggles of meat packing plants).

Here are a couple of very detailed documents talking about disinfection in general, but not specifically about Coronavirus,  from reliable sources. 

For instance, did you know, that according to the EPA document above, peroxide, bleach, and ammonia all destroy the Coronavirus? They say quaternary ammonia, and that's sometimes found in shampoo (some people reading this certainly thought "quats", so I thought I'd better mention it).  However, the levels in shampoo aren't high enough, they're lower than the quats ammonias found in industrial cleaning supplies.  If your supply of ammonia is fresh, then I'd expect that to be effective as well, but it's just my opinion. They started using quats because they don't weaken over time.

I know you've probably heard this before, but never mix bleach and ammonia.  It causes chlorine gas to be released and that's the last thing you need.  In fact, I never make combination cleaning agents, if I'm using bleach, that's what I use, and the only other additive is soap. That should be a safety rule  everyone is following.

Even citric acid is effective to destroy Coronavirus.  However, I wasn't able to find anything reliable on its household use.  What concentration should a person use?  How long should the solution be in contact with the surface to be cleaned?  These questions were not answered anywhere, so unless you're using a commercial product, I'd avoid this one.  I have some in the house because I need it to use my dishwasher which simply doesn't work right unless I use it.

One exception would be if you have a family member who has severe allergies and you must use green cleaning techniques. Citric acid is a common green cleaning ingredient.  In that case, do your best to use a high concentration and leave it on for at least 5 min, and wear gloves. You might want to avoid spraying it in the air too.  Use a bowl and sponge, and remember to keep the sponge clean.

About convenience, we tend to focus on cleaning wipes because they're so convenient, but this is a good time to learn about using a sponge and a bowl with a properly mixed cleaning solution.  That was my mother's way of cleaning.  And even I consider cleaning wipes to be wasteful and unnecessary.  At least temporarily I think we should stick to the "right" way to clean, not rely on wipes that leave a film and may give a false sense of security.

Meat Packing Companies are Closing

In today's stressful news, meat packing companies are severely affected by Coronavirus outbreaks. To me this is really scary.  There's no way for me to be healthy without meat. While healthy people who simply choose to be vegan will not be affected, people like me, with gut illness will be much more affected.  But I've developed a plan (next section).

I don't have a video without ads in it.  This video is about meat packing.  It starts with ads, but I'm grateful to the news for covering this and allowing people to embed it.  

From the NYT today, another Tyson plant has closed for the same reasons.  I don't know if that article is directly linkable, its title, in case you have to search for it is:  Tyson will close another meat processing plant.

NPR on April 7th offers some background.

Meat packing & Coronavirus problems are worse than we thought.

Pork farmers are considering euthanizing pigs because they can't schedule them at the slaughterhouses.

There's more background on the pork industry here. For reasons beyond the scope of this article, ethanol production is also tied to conventional pork production, and there's a 50% drop in ethanol production, which, in short, means there is 50% less byproduct to feed conventional pigs with.  The shockwave from this hasn't reached stores yet, but it surely will. 

North American Meat Institute doesn't give out much information, but what is accessible is found here. There's a PDF here showing they don't require all workers to wear masks. To me, that says I have to take extra precautions with meat after I get it home.

I also hope that this event will lead to better working conditions for meat workers.  I extend my deepest gratitude to them for their work.  I think Google needs to include them in the doodle and they stand in my estimation with the health workers of the world, as heroes.

I remember from last year seeing that meat packing line speeds were increased as recently as last September.  This is surely part of the problem.  I call for new temporary guidelines to slow the production lines and give each worker sufficient space  so they are 6 feet apart.  Plus appropriate PPE, due to the emergency.  Line speed can be re-evaluated later after the emergency has passed.

💖 Thank you, meat workers, from the bottom of my heart! 💖

People don't like to think about meat packing and slaughter.  It's understandable, they're fairly difficult jobs with a definite yuck factor.  Some get so disgusted by our mass consumption of meat that they become vegans.  All this basically leaves the meat workers without many advocates.  It's fair to say it's thankless work, and I hope this pandemic turns that around.

People read something in the news, they wince when they think about animals living only to die and feed us, and then they move on to the next news article.  But there have always been good alternatives to our cruel meat production system.  And it's an absolutely essential enterprise of untold value to us.  Untold because the conversation around it becomes emotionally charged very quickly, and this dampens the desire for scientific study.

But I think the best attitude toward meat and its production is that humans have always eaten meat, our earliest cave drawings are of people hunting for meat.  Meat will always be with us, so we should do our best to respect it, and the people who prepare it for us to buy in stores.

A Common Sense Action Plan

It's reasonable to think that we're at risk of being in contact with Coronavirus via the food system.  First of all, we already know that contaminated chicken causes UTIs.  It's simple common sense that if the meat packers are closing down due to a risk of spreading disease, that we should have a reasonable concern that an essential product might be contaminated.

That doesn't mean panic.  It means taking reasonable precautions at home.   For instance, this is not a good time to indulge your preference for under-cooked meat or eggs.  You'll  be able to have that again, but for now, why not give it a break?

Here are some more ideas for those who have gut problems and can't take ordinary risks with food.  Remember these precautions are temporary and designed for people who have gut issues especially.  I'm not saying everyone should do this forever.

  •  Buy whole chicken, not parts.  You can bake the chicken and use it over the next few days.  Once baked it's easy to pick apart.  There's no need to get messy with a raw whole chicken and a knife. Whole chicken has been processed less by meat workers.  At the moment, with meat processing plants being under stress, it might be better to keep to the less cut-up meats.
  • Boil your food.  Even if it's just for two minutes to kill surface germs.  Most surface germs are harmless, however, right now, it's too much risk.  Do this as much as possible. If you feel strange without fresh salads, then wash them well in water that has a bit of lemon juice, or vinegar in it, before preparing the salad.
  • Bake meat for longer than usual.  Soak it in salty water for a few hours, then bake for 2 hours.  It won't be dry because the brining will keep it moist.  And the 2 hours (350F) bake time will ensure that no blood remains red in the joint areas.  For beef, consider making a pot roast, but a bit more well done than usual.
  • Make lots of stews.  This is a great time to brush up on your chili or beef stew making.  You might even try an elegant Chicken Paprikash, which has a deceptively simple recipe.  And you can make it from previously baked chicken, it just reduces the cooking time. Just remember to keep the drippings from the baking pan, and add them to the broth, or the flavor will not be the same. By the way, Chicken Paprikash never has flour added to it, at least not traditionally.  The sour cream thickens it.  If you want a stronger non traditional thickening effect, you can melt some cream cheese with some of the broth and fully stir it in before adding to the dish.

While this emergency lasts, remember there are local butcher shops, and even farms which make deliveries. You might find that you prefer local meat anyway.

  • Maybe consider temporarily eating nothing raw.  Macrobiotic cooking already directs us to do that.  And in a moment like this, it's welcome advice. The books on Macrobiotic that I have from Aveline Kushi pretty much make this point, also found on many blogs related to the diet. If you're interested in Macrobiotic (a sort of eating philosophy that comes from Japan), this is a good time to read up on it, since it dovetails with preventing food contamination and contains no gluten (traditionally). 

For a while, fully cook your meats.

  •  The only living germs that should be in your food are those in fermented foods.  Don't get rid of the yogurt/kefir/sauerkraut, and because they're self sustaining bacterial cultures, they aren't a big risk. Just use caution if they seem "off" to you. Better waste than sorry.  This is probably not the best time to adopt the attitude that "our environment is too clean."  Perhaps, debate that one next year.
  • Revive the boiled dinner tradition if your family has lost it.   It's delicious, and you can vary it to suit your taste.  Other simple recipes that involve boiling are of course buttered pasta with thawed and parboiled veggies, perhaps with a side of baked chicken from yesterday's dinner. 
  • A boiled breakfast might be some potatoes and eggs, with a parboiled bit of carrots or green peppers.  You can remove the eggs once they're hardboiled (10 min) and let the potatoes boil another 10-15 min, then just drop in the carrots  and leave them for 2 minutes.  Wonderful simply with butter and salt, but add some toast if it feels "too strange" without it. 
You don't need to do this for every meal, but each meal eaten in this high-safety fashion will remove one risky event from your life.  
  • If you are inclined to hunt or fish, this may be a good time to revive the hobby.  Although hunting should not be done alone, fishing is often a solitary activity.  Check with local officials about how to comply with stay at home orders and check for closings before going. It might be a reasonable way to relieve a little pressure from the meat packing industry, and get some fresh air without putting others at risk.

  •  If you have reason to suspect that your water has been contaminated, there's no harm in drawing a stockpot full of water, boiling it, covering it, and using that for drinking water, and for cleaning vegetables while cooking.
  •  If you can, install a UV light in your water system.  In my water system, I have a sediment filter and the next thing down the line is a UV light which is replaced every two years.  This simple precaution will protect against temporary water treatment mistakes or "too much rain" effects.  Since I have a gut illness, it made sense to install one.  You should know, however, that some germs can survive this treatment and are merely stunned by it.  They can reactivate later.  So it's not a panacea, and you can't use it to avoid bacteria tests in your water.  It's just an additional layer of protection. 
  • Switch to a bowl and sponge method of cleaning.  Just make a solution each evening, and clean up in the kitchen after starting the dishwasher.  Do this once every 4 days for the bathroom (twice a week), and go around cleaning each of the doorknobs and light switches.  Be careful around electrical switches and wring out the sponge often and well.  (Note that using a wet wipe to clean light switches isn't any safer, and in my experience those things leave a film.)

So to repeat and emphasize, this advice is for people who are at high risk of Covid-19, and especially those who have a gut illness.  These are good precautions in some other situations, not only in a pandemic.  If you travel someplace with uncertain sanitation, for instance.   Is it paranoid of me to take these precautions?  Maybe.  But I don't think it's any more paranoid than coming to a full stop at a stop sign, even though there's nobody around.

Update 7/2020 -- Europe is not immune to these problems.  DW Documentary about the working conditions of Germany's meat processing workers. 


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