New Hyvee has it all including “pink slime”

The opening of a HyVee grocery store in Springfield in May prompted the closest thing to hysteria this town has seen in a long time. The aisles were clogged with shoppers craning to see all the store has to offer. I doubt any of them noticed the tiny print running along the edge of tubes of Tyson ground beef: “Contains lean fine textured beef.”

Ring a bell? That’s the product known as pink slime that created such a stir two years ago when consumers learned it was in 70 percent of grocery store ground beef. The USDA did not require it to be listed on the label back then and it still doesn’t. But Hy-Vee was one of the few grocery chains that decided to continue carrying ground beef with lean finely textured beef, or LFTB–with labeling–as well as offering ground beef without it. Most groceries pulled LFTB from their shelves altogether.

Tubes of ground beef at Hy-Vee indicate they contain LFTB, commonly known as pink slime

Tubes of ground beef at Hy-Vee indicate they contain LFTB, commonly known as pink slime

In an investigative report on the meat available at groceries in Springfield, I compare the LFTB-laced ground beef from Hy-Vee with ground beef available at other Springfield groceries. Hopefully it will help readers make up their own minds about whether to eat LFTB. Although I became more convinced than ever that I will not eat it, I’ve got to hand it to Hy-Vee for being straight with its customers. In contrast, I received contradictory responses and stonewalling when I inquired about the ground beef at Walmart.

Read the report here:


What Meat to Eat?


As a consumer, I like to know as much as possible about the food I buy, so  I took it upon myself last year to investigate the meats available in grocery stores and shops in Springfield. I knew it wouldn’t be easy but I was unprepared for how hard it would be to get information on where the meat comes from and how it is produced. Although meat department employees were forthcoming when I asked questions as a consumer, some of them were unsure or confused about where the meat came from, partly because of our complicated system of food distribution. A food distributor called Supervalu owns the Shop ‘n Save stores, for instance, and also supplies County Market stores. A spokesman for Supervalu could not tell me what meats the company supplied a particular store. But I gathered from grocery employees that most of the beef and chicken in area grocery chains comes from Tyson.  Several employees told me their beef comes from IBP, Iowa Beef Processors, which was bought by Tyson in 2001.

Information about the origins of our foods should be available to everyone. But secrecy seems to be ingrained in meat producers, and the government enables it by allowing them to sell products without labeling, as in the case of lean finely textured beef (called pink slime by critics), an additive to ground beef. Consumers too allow it to happen because they’d rather keep the slaughter process out of sight, out of mind. If things are to change, consumers will not only have to pay attention to how meat is produced, but demand their right to know about it. We saw the power of consumers to affect change in the uproar over pink slime last year, but industry bucks defeated a California proposition last fall that would have given consumers the right to know whether foods are genetically modified. More and more consumers will have to join the fight before openness becomes the rule in the meat industry. If you want to know more about where your meat comes from, read my full report here (or here on Kindle).

A grand lady speaks her mind

Temple Grandin is a firebrand in more ways than one. A professor of animal sciences at Colorado State University, she’s been a crusader for change in the beef industry, bringing about the more humane treatment of cattle even when they are being led to slaughter. When she talks, she periodically blazes with passion and humor on any number of topics. She’s not afraid to walk straight into controversy, calling out animal rights activists with as much fervor as the beef industry when she disagrees with them. In a conversation I had with her about a week ago for an upcoming article on the origins of supermarket meats in Springfield, her answers to my questions constantly surprised me.
Grandin recently posted a video on YouTube that was controversial in the beef industry because it shows cattle being slaughtered in a working plant. She decided to do it after an animal rights group posted a video showing cattle still kicking after slaughter, giving the impression that they were still alive when they were hung on the line to be cut up. Her video, made at a plant that adopted her innovations, explains what is happening at each stage of the slaughter process. “When you take the head off, they are still going to kick, because the spinal cord does not die right away,” she told me. She believes the industry should be more open in general about how they do things.
Referring to a video of workers using electric prods on cattle that could hardly walk to get them to slaughter, Grandin blamed dairy farmers for selling cows for meat when they’re old and “half dead.” Clearly outraged, she said, “The dairy industry needs to take some responsibility for the condition of the cows when they sell them. Because when it comes to having bad cows showing up at packing plants, the dairy industry has three times as many skinny emaciated bone racks as the beef industry does.”
But she had a few choice words for the beef industry when the subject turned to the hormones, antibiotics, and other drugs that are given to cattle to make them grow faster. “If you just go for max max max production, and you fill them up full of drugs and hormones, you will have poor quality meat,” she said. In the 1970s when huge cattle breeds were the rage, she recalled, “They had a rib-eye that would cover up the plate–and the meat was terrible. And that was purely genetics. We went through that whole fad. Now we seem to be repeating that mistake, but doing it with hormones and drugs rather than with genetics.”
She traces the rise in “big bad E. coli” in part to the poor quality of cattle feed. In particular, she mentioned the recent trend toward feeding them distillers grains, a byproduct of the corn-based ethanol process. “The ethanol plants get the good stuff and the beef industry gets the leftovers,” she said. “It’s not very good feed. A lot of the goodness has been taken out of it.”
But while she acknowledges that grass-fed cattle have less E. coli than grain-fed, she doesn’t buy the argument that grain is unsuitable feed for cows. Being ruminants, they can eat all kinds of vegetable matter, she said. “I remember a place that was feeding stale Twinkies and things like that to cattle.”
Grandin added that she’d rather eat pork raised inside a confinement building than pasture-raised pork, citing three people who recently got trichinosis from eating it. Trichinosis used to be more prevalent, she explained, because pigs can get it from eating rodents. “When you bring them inside, pigs can’t do really disgusting things like eat rodents. When they’re outside, pigs’ll eat all kinds of nasty things.” Then came a riff on hogs’ predilection for meat. “When you give hogs a choice, they will eat a McDonald’s hamburger first. They’ll gobble it up and then their second choice is a jelly donut. They like apples and things like that, and then they’ll eat ground up, corned pig’s feet last.”
She scours science magazines for information, reading them like tea leaves to divine the future of the industry. More than once, she fretted that some day there won’t be enough water to grow corn. “Oh boy, I was out in Nebraska, looking at all the dead corn. Scary,” she said. “What will probably happen when corn gets to the point where we don’t we have enough–when there are no longer surpluses–cows will go out on pasture and you’ll have less of them. Because another thing people got to remember is that half the agricultural land in the world is rangeland. You cannot crop it. If you want food off that land, the only way you can get food off that land is cattle, sheep, goats, or bison, or elk—ruminant animals that can graze. You can’t grow pigs or chickens on that land.”
After a conversation with Temple Grandin, it becomes clear why HBO made an Emmy-award-winning movie about her life and her triumph over autism.
See her video of humane slaughter at

Sky-high flagpole

Elmer Kneale's flagpole

Elmer Kneale’s flagpole still stands behind his former home in Springfield.

Who was the Springfield man Nabokov wrote about?

Elmer Kneale. Could anyone ask for a better name to go with Vladimir Nabokov’s comic portrait of a flagpole lover? The Russian author of Lolita wrote about him in a letter to his wife from Springfield in 1942, which was excerpted in The New Yorker magazine last year in its June 13 issue. He didn’t name the man who fingered the Lincoln tomb flagpole, “looking up anxiously” for fear it might rival his own flagpole in height, but some research in the public library led me to the identity of Nabokov’s “club secretary.” I proceeded to find one too-funny-to-be-true item after another about Kneale.

Much of it was included in an article I wrote for the Illinois Times, but there were some bits I couldn’t fit in. His 1944 Illinois State Journal obituary called him “the quiet voice of Springfield, summoning alike the leaders and the masses of the world to the tomb of Abraham Lincoln, placing the name of his city before the dignitaries of politics, statesmanship, and religion.” Such grandiose language was no doubt more common back then, but it is in such contrast to Nabokov’s portrait as to be laughable.

The same article remarked on how Kneale, as secretary of the Mid-Day Luncheon Club, was able to convince celebrity speakers to come to Springfield. “His habits made him unique in Springfield. He depended upon the New York Times for the arrival or prospective arrival in this country of men and women of prominence in other countries. Immediately he got in touch with them. How he did this so successfully was more or less of a secret with him. Through other channels he contacted leaders in other lands, asking them to make special journeys to this city. Often he was successful.”

Perhaps an incubator for Kneale’s talent for buttonholing the prominent was a journal article he wrote for The Forum a few years before the Mid-Day Luncheon Club formed. He wrote letters to “the greatest intellects” in science and religion in “the principal countries of the world” asking their views of Darwin’s teachings. (If only Nabokov had gotten an inkling of this intellectual side of Kneale!) Those surveyed included the educator Booker T. Washington, Mormon founder Joseph Smith, and Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan. The article was titled “Darwin, Science, and the Church: The Last Word of Science and the Church on the Teachings of Darwin.” The consensus was pro-Darwin, but as we all know, it wasn’t the last word at all. The Scopes Trial, in which Bryan argued against evolution, was more than ten years in the future.

Online searches flushed out other letters he’d written to “the famous of the earth,” (as ISJ put it) including Winston Churchill, whom he invited to speak to the Mid-Day Luncheon Club in 1929 (not successfully). He also invited the Duke of Windsor in 1937, according to a tiny item in The Daily Independent of Murphysboro, Ill. It ended with, “Kneale admitted the club members did not expect the duke to come, but said, ‘It doesn’t hurt to ask.’ ”

One guest Kneale may have wished had declined his invitation in 1936 was Eugene Talmadge, Governor of Georgia. Even though he was an avowed racist and an opponent of FDR’s New Deal, Talmadge was asked to speak at the annual Lincoln birthday dinner with FDR’s Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes. Ickes was a target of Talmadge’s attacks, according to the Danville Bee. Some Illinois Democrats resigned from the Mid-Day Luncheon Club in protest over Talmadge’s invitation, and the Springfield branch of the NAACP adopted a resolution calling it “an insult to every colored citizen who cherishes the name of Lincoln.” Illinois Governor Henry Horner refused to let him stay in the Governor’s Mansion, according to the Saturday Evening Post, which also reported that Talmadge and Ickes exchanged barbs and glares during their speeches.

Ida Tarbell, the muckraking journalist and Lincoln biographer, was at least one guest speaker who appreciated Kneale. In a letter begging off his invitation for a return visit in 1928 because of a prior commitment, she wrote, “I recall vividly my experience with you six years ago–how interesting I found your organization and how kindly you greeted me.” She ended with “At any rate, my dear Mr. Kneale, you know that I appreciate your wanting me.” (Could it be, Mr. Nabokov, that Ms. Tarbell was actually flirting with the little man?)

Nabokov called Kneale “the little man” in a letter to literary critic Edmund Wilson printed in Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya. This letter, more bluntly derisive, perhaps even contemptuous, of Kneale than the letter to his wife, says, “Blurts out some obvious question (‘how long have you been in this country?’) in a ventriloquist’s voice and then is dismally silent again. Profession: secretary of several clubs. Bachelor. Sexual life either limited to a poor little solo once in a while, or non-existent.” Nabokov put Kneale at number two on his list of “aberrations of homo saps and homo sapiens” he encountered on his lecture tour through the U.S. in fall 1942.

Still, it’s hard to feel sorry for Kneale when you learn that he provided much of the copy for the newspaper coverage of the club activities. “He prepared all the advance publicity for every meeting of the club and turned it into the newspaper offices, giving each one a fair division of the fresh, spot news regarding the club and its activities,” says his ISJ obit. In one article, the newspaper printed his entire report of the club’s past year highlights verbatim. It probably didn’t hurt that he worked in the Illinois State Register business office as a bill collector. This article and others about the club harp incessantly on the increasing numbers of members and speakers, including endless lists of speakers who have appeared and those tentatively scheduled–the more famous the better. This kind of puffery hardly fits the meek, self-effacing image the newspapers ascribe to Kneale.

In any case, if Nabokov unjustly belittled poor Elmer Kneale, Springfield may have paid him back with a case of indigestion. He complained to his wife in the letter to appear in the forthcoming book Letters to Vera (edited by Olga Voronina and Brian Boyd) that he’d had an attack of fever and pain between the ribs. Well, who’s the sap now, Mr. Nabokov?