Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Too Much Information at the Dinner Table

I guess I’m glad Performance Food Group of Richmond, Virginia, can trace the origins of my T-bone steak from the tip of the tines of my fork all the way back to the exact heifer that gave her all for my dining experience. It’s a good thing, right?

Yes, says PFG. It will pay off in multiple ways: DNA traceability of beef boosts consumer confidence. It ups the value of the meal.

Let’s just cast an eye on the details.

Restaurateurs commenting in the recent Associated Press article about DNA tracking of beef from kibbutz to kitchen, as the case may be, say the process is a “security factor” for the guest as well as the chef. Diners can indulge at the table with assurance that Bossy came from a happy home on a range pinpoint-able on Google maps.

Did Farmer Phil treat Bossy with kindness and feed her well? Did she win blue ribbons at the County Fair? We’ll know. Family photos? Well, probably not, but now it could happen.
This could convert a person to vegetarianism. Trace the filet at my lips back to the ranch and even the precise animal it came from? I don’t want to be that well acquainted with the origins of my meals.

My cousin Terry back in Oklahoma raised steers, showed them at the Tulsa State Fair, and then swallowed them medium rare with new potatoes. I followed instructions on my annual vacations in the country, never naming the big-eyed beasts. But I talked to them, communed with them, made psychic connections. And when the fair left town, I went hungry while Terry chomped on #42.

I know I’m a hypocrite in this. I can eat the steak but I can’t kill the cow. Chicken? Yummy. But gone are the days when I had to sit on an overturned bushel basket with a hen flopping around underneath after my sadistic uncle swung the bird by its neck. I’m not sure why that didn’t put me off poultry long ago.

When I was a kid my family lived in the Middle East for a while. We had a houseboy, Majid. I loved Majid. Among other things, he helped me care for my pet rabbit, Fluffy (of course). Fluffy had bunny babies, providing great fun for my brother and me.

But, next thing I knew, we sat the dinner table and I found out, mid-bite, mid-chew --- Hey this is pretty good what is it? Majid fileted and deep-fried Fluffy! But it didn’t put this Okie off eating rabbit. Just my rabbit. For me, DNA tracing runs the risk of bringing the donor too close to the donee.

The benefit of “upping the value” of a meal sounds like doublespeak for raising the price of dinner. And sure enough, part of the market research backing the implementation of DNA tracking showed consumers will pay $2 or $3 dollars more for the same cut of beef if the proprietor adds various “pleasers” to its descriptors on the menu.

What’s a “pleaser,” you ask? Words and graphics added to menus to draw diners’ attention to a higher quality of meat, for example. Yeah, we’ll pay for that. But I suggest going light on the graphics. What can you show us anyway, a dairy cow’s double helix?

Another pleaser - our waitperson can now educate us as to our bovine friend’s ante-mortem diet. Better intake equates to better output. Sure, we Okies can joke about Nebraska’s corn-fed beef, but that’s when we’re talking about their football team. This is serious. This is chow.

With DNA traceable beef, the chef’s assurances come in the form of the first wave of malpractice insurance for purveyors of fine food. Another “pleaser” for the menu at Buffalo Bob’s Barbeque and Waterin’ Hole: “Guaranteed: No mad cows in this joint!”

Which brings us to the true benefit of this newest of technologies: DNA tracing cuts the time needed to track recalled meats. If E-coli breaks out, in hours instead of days or weeks, DNA tracing can identify the multiple sources of meat used in a 10-pound box of ground beef, for example, which may include up to 1000 animals.

Too much detail? Yeah, for me too. But more and more we want and need to know the information is available to someone whose job it is to look out for us at Sizzlin’ Sirloin.

So you go, Performance Food Group! ‘Cause I don’t wanna know.