Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal carried two articles that were obviously prompted by our pet-food recall problems. The first is about an apparent widespread use of unsafe additives for local consumption on a routine basis across Asia.
Formaldehyde, which has been linked to cancer, has legitimate uses in adhesives and embalming. But in Indonesia, Sutikno, a 35-year-old tofu maker in south Jakarta who goes by one name, uses it to keep the tofu he sells fresh. "Formaldehyde is magic. There is no comparison," he said on a recent afternoon at the market. Last year, he switched briefly to a legal preservative, but his bean curd went bad in less than 24 hours. As for his customers, he doesn’t tell them he uses formaldehyde. "There is no complaint," Mr. Sutikno said. There’s more, and you can read it if you want to, but you probably don’t want to. Yeesh!
The second article, entitled "101 Brand Names, 1 Manufacturer" contains some inaccurate propositions. While it is certainly true that many foods are made in the same factory and just have different labels slapped on them, there are some misconceptions in the article. One of them is the suggestion that if the "crude analysis" appears equivalent on food labels, then the only difference is in the packaging and price. This label is the one that says things like "crude protein 10%", etc. What the WSJ writer doesn’t know is just how crude that crude analysis is. The numbers on that tag have nothing to do with how nutritious the food is. It’s not much better than incinerating the food and doing a chemical analysis on the smoke that comes off. So much nitrogen boiling off is plugged into a formula that will equal "crude protein". It could be steak, pig nose hair, or something that tastes like chicken. It’s all protein, but it doesn’t all have equal digestibility or nutritional value.
The crude analysis does figure into the recall thing. Some investigators have speculated that the melamine found in the imported wheat gluten was introduced deliberately, rather than being an accidental contaminant, as it could bump up the protein percentage in our friend, the "crude analysis". Ah, those inscrutable orientals.
Alas, I don’t think Asians have any monopoly on cheating for dollars. They just don’t have as much supervision and regulation as we do. I’m sure there were Americans who wished that they had thought of adding melamine to their products.
The Asians don’t have a monopoly on well-preserved and non-nutritious foods, either. Behold the Everlasting Bagel. Although its brown color and "Honey Wheat" label suggest it is made with whole wheat, it’s not. First ingredient on the label is "enriched wheat flour", which is the bleached white stuff that’s got most of the nutrients processed out of it. Yes, this is your basic white bread dolled up in healthy clothing by our friends at Sara Lee. ["Everybody doesn’t like something, but nobody doesn’t like Sara Lee."] My wife bought this package of bagels in September, 2006. The bag says, "best by 9/15/2006". Real whole-wheat bread and bagels have come and gone through the same bread-basket many times since then. More than a few have become moldy when they stayed around past a week. Not the Everlasting Bagel, though. It stayed soft and squishy until January. It’s not totally hard even now in May. No mold, I suspect, because the Everlasting Bagel contains nothing nutritious for it to live on. I shudder to think that I actually ate one of these. I’m not sure what happened to the rest of the package, but the dog is looking pretty well-preserved.