As for butter versus margarine, I trust cows more than chemists. ~Joan Gussow

Beans AND Rice? Nah, I don’t have the time…

Yesterday I had the chance to attend a bit of the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) Conference. Chefs, food writers, food stylists, publishers, food historians, educators and more are attending the annual conference which is taking place this week at the Hilton hotel downtown here in Austin.

This morning I attended the session titled, “Meat: It’s Changing Place on the Plate.” The three panelists that lead the session and subsequent discussion were writer/author, Kim O’Donnel, Marissa Guggiana, President, Sonoma Direct Sustainable Meats and author of Primal Cuts: Cooking with America’s Best Butchers and Ralph Loglisci, Project Director,  Johns Hopkins Healthy Monday Project.

The basic premise of the session was that meat has changed its place on the dinner plate because of public health, animal welfare and environmental concerns. Furthermore, with the rise of farmers’ markets across the nation (there are now more than 6,000), more Americans are purchasing their meat directly from farmers, ranchers and/or neighborhood butchers. So not only are Americans looking to cut back on their meat consumption, but they are also looking to know the source of their meat. So what does the dinner plate look like now?

As of a recent poll, 50% of Americans have now heard of the Meatless Monday movement. Oprah has embraced it, as have large companies like Sodexo and school districts in Baltimore. Just yesterday, the First Lady and the USDA revealed the new “My Plate” which replaces the “My Pyramid.” And let me tell you, it consists of mostly plants and the protein section is labeled just that—protein, not “meat” as the 2005 My Pyramid was. The USDA also recently released the 2010 Dietary Guidelines, which specifically recommend that “half the plate should consist of fruits and vegetables.” That doesn’t leave that much room for a steak, folks. The times, they are, in fact, a-changin’.

During the Q and A section with the audience, a woman piped up from the back-row, wanting to address the questions of grass-fed labels and the decreased consumption of meat. To paraphrase what she said: “Now a lot of the meat that is being sold at farmers’ markets, well, their products are not inspected by the USDA, but instead fall under state regulations. And let me tell you, there are some pretty scary regulations. And 50 different states, so 50 different regulations. [None of which are as stringent as the USDA inspection process]. And by advocating for people to replace meat…you have to be careful for them not to replace it with things like cheese, because cheese has a huge amount of saturated fat.”

By this time, there was some whispering in the audience and it became clear that the woman was a representative of the pork board. She continued:

“And so you have to be careful that people get an adequate protein source [if they cut out meat]…”

And then more murmurs from the audience, this time the word “beans” and “lentils” were seeping out of various corners of the room. And she continued again:

“Sure you can eat beans…but then you’d have to cook rice with it for a complete protein. People aren’t going to do that. They don’t have time.”

Rice and beans are too hard to make because no one has time!? Really?! A couple more things I noticed:

(1)    She used the classic industry scare tactic: The 6,000+ farmers markets across the country that are bolstering local economies and fresh food are not safe because they are state run. This is completely false.

(2)    She perpetuated the myth that there is no such adequate protein replacement for meat. You’d have to be under a rock to not to know that plant-based proteins, if done right, can be more than adequate.

I think what struck me the most about this woman’s statements is how hard she came out swinging to an audience, that by and large was nowhere near vegetarian. I did not mention this yet, but as part of the opening, the Moderator, Kim O’Donnel said that none of the panelists were vegetarians (including her) nor were any of them advocating for vegetarianism. What they were exploring, however, was how meat consumption had changed over the course of the last decade, and probably for the better.

This certainly reminds me of NYU Nutrition Professor Marion Nestle’s book Food Politics when she describes the “behind the scenes” situations she was privy to when working on government nutrition standards and guidelines. The large food industry, be it the Salt Institute, the Beef Council, The Corn Refiners Association, etc. did NOT want the government to advocate eating less of anything. Period. What they lobbied for (and won), was for the government to advise to “eat in moderation” not to “cut back” or “eat less of.” To eat less of anything, they argued, would be bad for business.

So there you have it folks, food policy is alive and kicking in Austin, TX. I enjoyed my time at the conference as that is what conferences are supposed to do—make you think, get inspired. Upon returning to the office this afternoon and sharing this story, one of my co-workers asked if we could find out what hotel the woman was staying at—maybe buy her a rice cooker and deliver it to her room?

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