Is that Beef or Horse Meat in Your Burger?

Is that Beef or Horse Meat in Your Burger?

For all those sitting back watching the horse meat scandal spread like fire across European countries thinking it couldn’t happen here in the US, consider this:

After weeks of adamant denials in the UK, Burger King finally fessed up and admitted they have been serving so called “beef” burgers containing horse meat to their British customers for nobody knows how long. A monster global chain, Burger King has zillions of restaurants around the world including just about every city and town in the USA.

After another global chain Aldi also announced between 30% to 100% horse meat had somehow found it’s way into their meat patties, lasagna and spaghetti bolognese, they banned the stuff from their stores in Ireland and the UK.  As it happens here in little old NY we also have an Aldi store not far from my apartment. In fact there are at least 1200 Aldis around our country. Their horse meat tainted products were sold under the Selfus brand. When I checked Aldi’s brand list here in America, Selfus was not listed either because all their products had already been removed from Aldis USA or they were never there in the first place.

Just because Burger King and Aldi are international corporations selling their food around the world, that doesn’t mean their products (including their dodgy horse meat meals) are interchangeable across borders. Different countries after all have different tastes, preferences, styles and ways of doing business. More universal foods, however, can easily jump borders with packaging altered to fit different country’s expectations.

One might be under the impression, given their experience and humungous budgets, these giant corporations conduct their business in highly streamlined ways no matter their location.  A quick glance at the available facts surrounding this horse meat scandal in Europe however instantly dispels that quaint notion.

The complex journey of the horse meat adulterated food is difficult to follow (on purpose?) and highly unsettling. According to Financial Times (paywall link): “The Findus products revealed to contain horsemeat … came from a Comigel factory in Luxembourg. Comigel in turn was supplied with meat from a company in southwestern France called Spanghero, whose parent [company] is called Poujol.” Benoît Hamon, France’s consumer affairs minister, said “that Poujol ‘acquired the frozen meat from a Cypriot trader, which had sub-contracted the order to a trader in the Netherlands. The latter was supplied from an abbatoir and butcher located in Romania.’”

If this isn’t a recipe for food disaster somewhere along the line, what is? And with a tangled difficult to trace trail like that, tacking the US onto this kind of shadowy, convoluted chain of horse meat manipulation wouldn’t be any more surprising than the rest of the story.

Over the Top – CVS’s Maybelline Lipstick Price

At first I thought the $9.99 price for Maybelline Colorsensational Lipstick at CVS was a mistake. I hadn’t bought that lipstick in a coon’s age or two, so I wouldn’t have been surprised to see the price take a bit of a jump, but not THAT high of a jump. When I found out the cost was indeed correct, it added to my growing sense that CVS’s prices have steadily been rising a lot more steeply than other discount stores.

Sure enough, a few days later I hit my local Rite Aid and the price for that exact same Maybelline Colorsensational Lipstick was $7.19. That’s 39% cheaper. Which meant CVS was making $2.80 above and BEYOND a normal mark-up. And they were making that off ME. And I would be losing $2.80, the price of a nice juicy melon or box of berries, every time I would be dumb enough to pay that higher price for a tube of lip color.

The story doesn’t end there. When I double-checked the oline lipstick prices at CVS, the price listed for that Maybelline lipstick suddenly turned out to be $8.79 – over a dollar cheaper than their in-store price.  It’s true some stores charge lower prices online than in-store but I couldn’t help wondering if that cheaper CVS online figure wasn’t conjured up more for the benefit of the Maybelline folks,who might not be exactly delighted with the exorbitant markup CVS was actually pulling in for their product.

It’s interesting though, that Rite Aid’s price for that Maybelline lipstick both online and in-store was the same $7.19. Which I think is always less confusing for customers.

If you’re wondering how CVS can get away with charging 39% more for a product than Rite Aid and why customers simply don’t desert them for the cheaper store, the answer may lie with their real estate. CVS stores are everywhere in New York and their locations are always prime spots near subway stops. The two nearest me are only blocks away, both on Lexington in the eighties, giving them a wide radius of buyers in every direction. Whereas the nearest Rite Aid is a bit of a hike much farther east. It’s a more out of the way location and  too much of a hike for customers pressed for time or unwilling to traipse those extra blocks.

Needless to say, it’s now my lipstick refill stop and, pending further research in price differential, my discount store for who knows how many more items.

Foods Containing Beaver Anal Glands: Don’t Ask!

A while back I wrote about the presence of hair, beetles and beaver anal glands in the foods we eat. Of the three, beaver anal glands, a whiffy combo of glands and urine that beavers use to mark their territory, captured by far the biggest share of people’s attention. Since then numerous search queries have hit my blog seeking a list of specific foods containing these glands, which are ground up into a product known as castoreum used in raspberry, strawberry and, most often, in vanilla flavoring.

As it happens no up to date consumer list of specific foods containing castoreum exists anywhere. Why? Well to start out, would you buy a food product if you knew it contained beaver anal glands? These glands are not exactly anyone’s idea of a heavenly nosh. Anticipating this, the food industry managed to get castoreum added to foods under that innocuous, legal and sometimes not so innocent label: “natural flavoring”. So even if castoreum IS present in foods and beverages like ice cream, yogurt and soda, you and I will never know it. Nor will any food manufacture divulge this info if you contact them(why nix sales?). They will inform you that THEY never add castoreum to their foods and beverages. If pressed, they will probably add they can’t of course speak for their vendors, who supply them with flavorings containing ingredients that are proprietary information.

After Jamie Oliver, a British chef with a large following, appeared on the David Letterman Show last year and mentioned that vanilla ice cream was made with castoreum, the Vegetarian Resource Group (VRG) contacted 5 manufactures of vanilla flavoring to ask if there was any truth to this statement. All five manufacturers said no, that castoreum is not used today in any form of vanilla for human use.

On the other hand, Fenaroli’s handbook of flavor ingredients (a $340 industry eBook) published in 2005, provides a list of reported foods and beverages containing castoreum extract:

Reported Uses PPM (parts per million) (Fema* 1994):

Food CategoryUsualMax
Alcoholic Beverages79.5993.69
Baked Goods62.2868.47
Gelatins, Puddings43.5847.34
Soft Candy37.2844.10
Frozen Dairy24.3926.26
Nonalcoholic Beverages24.2129.77
Hard Candy24.1724.17
Chewing Gum18.6042.09

So what are we to believe? Are beaver anal glands still being used to flavor foods and beverages or not? And If so, how much and which foods? How about it, Food Industry?

*Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association

Hair, Beetles and Beaver Anal Glands in our Food

Hair, Beetles and Beaver Anal Glands in our Food

Doesn’t sound like very tasty eating, right? Well, according to Bruce Bradley, a former food executive, these questionable ingredients have been given more pleasant-sounding names and added to processed foods labeled “all natural”. So all those “natural” foods you’ve been eating lately under the assumption they’re purer and healthier can easily contain any of these three additives without you knowing they’re there.

  • Ever noticed any yogurts or beverages SO vibrantly red, they looked as though a scarlet neon wand had colored them. Their labels usually list Carmine, Crimson Lake or Natural Red #4 coloring. Which happen to be industry synonyms for a red food dye made of crushed cochineal beetles.
  • Speaking of beetles, the critters also make an appearance in sweets on ultra shiny candies and sprinkles. Produced from secretions of the female Lac bug, they can be spotted on food labels under the far homier-sounding “Confectioner’s Glaze”.
  • How could anyone, you wonder, intentionally add human hair and/or duck feathers (called Cystine in Process Food-land) to the food we eat. Especially considering how one little hair in food can freak us out. I give you the bread and baked foods industry that uses the ground up stuff to “improve” the texture of their products and because Cystine is considered a natural ingredient by the FDA, no one who buys baked foods will suspect it’s full of hair and feathers.  (This unsettling info is added to the equally unsettling recent news about wood pulp being added to bread, the long  respected staff of life that’s looking less respectable by the minute)
  • Last and certainly not least we get to those beaver anal glands, an odiferous combo of glands and urine that beavers use to mark their territory. The process food people instead use this charmer called Castoreum to spike up vanilla and raspberry flavoring in food and beverages. Surprise –you’ll never find those glands listed on any food label in any store. You will however find it legally buried under that familiar disguise called “Natural Flavoring”.

If you attempt to contact any food companies to inquire if Castoreum is present in a specific food, you will be informed — as Bradley was — that food processors don’t explicitly use Castoreum.  Because All their flavors are vendor supplied and proprietary information, the companies oh so conveniently can’t speak for their vendors.

If you sense food manufacturers in their quest for richer profits are putting up ever-higher barriers between the public and the truth about the foods they produce, Bradley would agree with you. And as a former food-marketing insider at multinational corporations, he should know.

So How Much Wood Pulp Did You Eat Today?

If you started your day with Aunt Jemima’s blueberry pancakes, chowed down on a McDonald’s fish patty for lunch, snacked on a Weight Watcher’s Ice Cream Sandwich, polished off a Kraft’s Macaroni & Cheese for dinner and sipped a beddie-bye cup of Nestle’s hot chocolate, chances are you ate a decent helping of wood pulp. Processed from that pulp into a food extender, cellulose (the white powder shown above) is being substituted for costlier ingredients in more and more of America’s processed foods. An industry insider estimates that food producers save as much as 30% using cellulose over more expensive extenders like oats and sugar cane fibers. The Street put out a partial list of manufacturers featuring cellulose in a surprising range of products.

While I’ve long noticed cellulose listed on various food ingredient labels, I only recently discovered the stuff was actually made out of gritty wood pulp. Which doesn’t sound like it would be too terrific for one’s digestion. Which in fact it isn’t. Cellulose is indigestible which makes it, according to food manufacturers, a great, cheap sugar substitute for low sugar items so popular with consumers.  Because it mimics fat so well, cellulose is also increasingly being shoveled onto the low-fat food bandwagon.

Beyond being used as an extender, cellulose also makes ice cream taste creamier, imparts a smooth mouthfeel and consistency to salad dressings, provides a firmer texture to baked goods and helps prevent clumping in shredded cheese.

Versatile as all get out, cellulose is also spun into vastly different products such as pet litter, automotive brake pads, glue, plastics, detergents, welding electrodes, construction materials, roof coating, asphalt and emulsion paints, among  other-um, interesting items.

But have no fear (as of today at least). The FDA has waved it’s “safe for human consumption” wand over cellulose in the food on America’s plates. And they have found no reason to limit the amounts that can be added to  food products. A director of research at J. Rettenmaier USA, a cellulose supplier, exclaimed that he had never dreamed a loaf of bread could now contain 18% of cellulose fiber. (Saving that bread manufacturer the cost of wheat for 18% of all the bread rolling down his line.)

All this may be fine by you. As for me, I can’t help feeling something’s not quite right about eating a piece of bread that contains 18% of processed wood pulp, a concoction also used to crank out asphalt, plastic, detergents and pet litter.

How do you feel about the growing use of cellulose in foods?

Murder Among the Geraniums

Murder Among the Geraniums

Last summer on my terrace, bugs murdered a lovely, overflowing plant of geraniums — don’t ask me how — only days after I brought it home. I suspect budworms were the culprits since they immediately attacked my next pot of geraniums, subjecting it to a much slower death. First they gobbled up all the tiny flower buds, stealthily destroying them from the inside out. Next they stuffed themselves silly decimating every single geranium blossom, while simultaneously chowing down on the plant leaves, leaving behind only a few pathetic, stripped leaf skeletons.

Surrounded by numerous tall apartment houses with MANY windows, I had no doubt numerous neighbors had witnessed my ineptitude in the plant kingdom. Not looking forward to being dubbed the neighborhood plant killer, I prepared a three pronged attack for dealing with the pests this summer.  Unfortunately my newest geranium purchase happened BEFORE my research, which informed me budworms had become such a raging scourge in the northeast, many gardeners have totally dispensed with growing the bug’s favorite targets — petunias and geraniums. Swell. Although the worms, which turn into large, fat green caterpillars, apparently also have the hots, though not so passionate, for plenty of other flower species too.

But this time when I purchased my new plant I had at least spoken to the grower about my pest problems. His solution? Beer. Works every time, he claimed. So following his advice, I placed a small shallow dish of beer in the planter on top of the soil. So far, at refilling time all I’ve seen in the dish are a dead fly, some unidentifiable fuzzy white things and small black streaks that could be either soil or extremely skinny budworm corpses.

If the beer fails to eradicate the budworms, my next move will be to concoct a “ruthless murder spray” of garlic, chili peppers, vegetable oil, detergent and water.

And if THAT odiferous brew fails to bring the budworms down, it will be on to Plan Three, which entails taking out my wallet and plunking down greenbacks for an organic pesticide called BT. As it happens, this product also has its tricky side. More than just whiffing the BT spray, the bugs must actually eat the stuff. So it must be applied early, before the budworms begin their drilling-and-disappearing-into-the-flower-buds routine.

And how’s your bug situation these days? Dealt with any troublesome critters of your own this summer?

When Does an Internship Become a Slave Ship?

Internships don’t usually come with position titles, so the ad on Craig’s List for an Intern – Gallery Photographer and PhotoShop Editor, caught my eye. The internship called for a student who owned and was an adept user of a DSLR camera with on-board flash. This pricey piece of equipment would have set any student back at least $600 to $3000 in the lower price range. Additionally, the job required good digital photo editing skills and the availability to work 8 to 12 hours a week for 8 weeks or more.

The intern’s job duties entailed photographing numerous antiques (with the intern’s OWN CAMERA), editing and retouching the photos, then uploading them to websites where the antiques were to be sold. Rather than assisting, the intern would essentially be doing the exact same work as a professional photographer, retoucher, editor and digital production team whose services could easily total many thousands of dollars for this kind of job. The intern, on the other hand, was to be paid the exultant sum of zip-zilch-nada. Actually it was more like MINUS zip-zilch-nada, since the employer made no mention of paying the intern’s expenses. Assuming the intern worked three days a week for 8 weeks, the transportation tab alone could total a minimum $120.00. Tack on the cost of camera batteries, memory cards and that intern was about to PAY up to $300 bucks for the privilege of saving that antique broker a huge hunk of money.

But hold on, you say, what about the professional experience the intern would receive? Along with the portfolio boost of published photos and online exposure to potential clients?  Yes, the ad also pointed out these advantages — along with words that are magic to a beginning photographer: “Full Photo Credit.” Curious, I visited the employer’s website and there — Among zillions of small, crowded photos of antiques — not a single photo credit was visible. Of course the employer hadn’t specified a “visible” photo credit, so a photo credit could certainly have been buried deep somewhere inside the text.

As to the style and quality of the photos — they appeared to be strictly low-end, catalog shots. The lighting in all the photos was identical and every antique was silhouetted against an identical white background. So not only would a photographer’s skill and style not be further developed on this job, they could easily be set back some.

Nor did any other of the usual advantages of internships — like networking and learning from experts in one’s field of interest — appear to apply here. Because the intern was going to be working pretty much alone, taking the photos and editing them (on a slow, cheap version of PhotoShop, it turned out, known to crash a lot), there would be few, if any, people to network with. And with no other photographer on the scene, let alone one with expert ability and experience, the intern would have no mentor to help sharpen photo skills.

From where I sit, it looked like this employer was taking advantage of a tight, super-competitive job and intern market. What do you think?

Delicious One Dish Meals for a Song!

Delicious One Dish Meals for a Song!
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I like to spend as little time in the kitchen as possible, so economical one dish meals are by far my favorite to cook. My ideal recipes contain three key ingredients: a protein, a carb and veggies. Also required is simplicity. I want to get that grub together in that pot one two three and I don’t want to run all over town searching for ingredients. I also want plenty left over to freeze for additional meals. The icing on the cake, of course, is ending up with only one main pot to clean.

Here are five recipes that hit my culinary spot. Their ingredients may be simple, but their combined textures and flavors are full bodied and heartily satisfying:

Beef and veggie stir-fry: Southern Living~ Featuring a colorful combo of veggies: asparagus, carrots, bell pepper, mushrooms and scallions and flavored with garlic, soy sauce, sesame oil, and hoisin sauce, this stir fry meal takes only minutes to cook. Served over rice, it’s also versatile. You can substitute your favorite veggies or even omit the meat if that’s your pleasure. Unlike restaurant take-out, you can be assured all the ingredients are of super quality and prepared with your own high standards of care and attention.

Lentil stew with butternut squash: Good Housekeeping ~ Around since Neolithic times (don’t ask me the date, but it sounds like forever), super economical and healthy, lentils are low in saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium.They’re also an excellent source of protein and dietary Fiber. This stew paired with butternut squash, another healthy heavyweight, packs a powerhouse nutritional punch. The only herb called for is 1/2 teaspoon of dried rosemary. While it does have Romano cheese shavings for zing, I’d sample it for flavor and if it seems a little too tame I’d add some additional favorite herbs — maybe thyme, basil or cumin — a bit at a time. Not having a slow cooker, I’d simmer this on the burner and start testing it for tenderness after about 30 or 40 minutes.

Potato, sausage and kale frittata: Food and Wine ~ This gem of a recipe can be put together, cooked and brought to the table in 30 breezy minutes. Bursting with the protein of both eggs and sausages, it also incorporates potatoes for stick to the ribs carbs along with kale for a gutsy veggie. Parmesan cheese adds a pop of flavor. This is one of those rare satisfying meals that seems both light and robust at the same time.

Skillet lasagna: Food Network ~ This dish appeals to me for 2 big reasons. I adore lasagna, but rarely use my oven (it’s a pain taking out and replacing all my pots and pans every time I use it) so employing a skillet to cook lasagna on top of the stove has my name written all over it. I see the recipe calls for fresh tomatoes which might be a little tricky in the winter, so if it were me I might substitute canned tomatoes or (let me whisper here) prepared tomato sauce. Because the ingredients are all yummy to begin with, I can’t imagine even a neophyte cook messing up this one.

Short ribs, carrots, leeks and rice with lime: Robin Miller ~ If you’re looking for a perfect winter night meal, this hearty dish of slow-cooked braised ribs, carrots and leeks simmered with sherry, honey, garlic and ginger over brown rice is the ticket. Cooking can be done either in a crock pot or if your kitchen is bereft of that appliance, in a dutch oven on top of the stove which will take about half the time — three or four hours. The brown rice calls for the painless instant variety and the lime zest is a snappy flavor addition.

20 Lowest Sales Taxes in USA

Before exploring the country’s lowest sales taxes, I always assumed New York was the primary sales tax monster, hitting us up for 8.875% sales tax* every time we New Yawkas made a purchase. But lo and behold, another state turns out to be an even bigger tax biter: the gentle state of Tennessee charges its southern citizens a whopping 9.41% combined state and local sales tax, the highest in the country.

Of the 20 lowest sales taxes in the U.S., the residents of five states are fortunate enough to be charged zero state sales tax. But of those five states, two charge local sales tax which leaves only three, Montana, New Hampshire and Oregon, with a combined state and local sales tax of absolutely zero. If you live in any of these three states and decide to purchase some new furniture for $3,000 bucks you will not have to tack on a penny for sales tax. But if you buy that same furniture in pricey Tennessee, you’ll have to cough up a whopping $282.30 to cover the sales tax bill. Quite a difference, especially if you’re on a super-tight budget, retired or thinking of furnishing an entire new home.

One reason why Alaska has a zero state sales tax rate (though it charges a local 2.15% sales tax) is Oil. Companies happily enrich the state coffers for the privilege of drilling for the stuff.

Combined State and Local Sales Tax Rates from Tax Foundation (September 2009)

  1. 0%       Montana
  2. 0%       New Hampshire
  3. 0%       Oregon
  4. 1.13%  Alaska
  5. 1.92%  Delaware
  6. 4.38%  Hawaii
  7. 5.00%  Maine
  8. 5.00%  Virginia
  9. 5.38%  Wyoming
  10. 5.42%  Wisconsin
  11. 5.52%  South Dakota
  12. 6.00%  Connecticut
  13. 6.00%  Idaho
  14. 6.00%  Kentucky
  15. 6.00%  Maryland
  16. 6.00%  Michigan
  17. 6.00%  North Dakota
  18. 6.00%  Vermont
  19. 6.00%  West Virginia
  20. 6.15%  Alabama

Check out Tax Foundation for the ranking of every state’s combined state and local sales tax rates.

* Includes 3/8% for the benefit of the Metropolitan Commuter Transportation District.

Phooey to New Year’s Resolutions and Goals

Phooey to New Year’s Resolutions and Goals

I’m not keen on celebrating New Year’s Eve in public places with raucous crowds, revelers determined to have a BIG night, dining room prices jacked up to the ceiling and food poorly prepared thanks to over-worked, over-steamed chefs. To this, add wobbly merrymakers weaving through the city on their way to getting blotto and it’s definitely not my idea of a fun way to start the New Year.

As for the New Year’s Resolution Bandwagon, I’ll give it a pass. I’m less than thrilled at being informed NOW is the time to sum up the past year. NOW is the time to set goals for the New Year. Who says? To me New Years Day and the next day are interchangeable. As are Valentine’s Day and Halloween and Ground Hog Day. The only difference between them is a date written on a calendar. So why make resolutions at the exact same time every year just because the community at large and a bunch of articles are saying it’s the time to do so. Why can’t resolutions be made any old time of the year?  If you’re living and thinking at your fullest every day, you’re probably making resolutions and setting goals left and right all along. Ideally I am.

Still, as we wave Sayonara to 2010, I happily sense positive vibrations rolling our way. For months the economy and the stock market have been bubbling northward, something we haven’t seen for quite awhile. Hopefully 2010 washed away the last of bad feelings about bleak, black 2008. We’re finally past all those tankers of red ink and sinking financial ships.  We’ve started peeking over the barricades, looking to see what’s coming up the road and maybe even thinking about loosening up our purse strings.

So bring on 2011. Don’t know about you, but after austerity’s extended gray stay with us, I’m ready to rumble. Aren’t you?