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Shifting baselines

By Dave Moe, Food Processing Consultant – The unthinkable has happened. I now happily will pay more than $6 per pound for hotdogs. I have rediscovered hotdogs that contain pork as well as beef and non-vegetable nitrite that are stuffed in natural casings. I don’t know if my newly found hotdogs are as good as I remember, but they are pretty good. Price is not a concern as I consider hotdogs a gourmet treat and not a daily staple. My baseline for great hotdogs has evolved over time and is now back to where it was in the past. What does this mean?

By Dave Moe, Food Processing Consultant

The unthinkable has happened. I now happily will pay more than $6 per pound for hotdogs. I have rediscovered hotdogs that contain pork as well as beef and non-vegetable nitrite that are stuffed in natural casings. I don’t know if my newly found hotdogs are as good as I remember, but they are pretty good. Price is not a concern as I consider hotdogs a gourmet treat and not a daily staple. My baseline for great hotdogs has evolved over time and is now back to where it was in the past. What does this mean?

In an April 23, 2017, New York Times Magazine article, I ran across the term shifting baseline syndrome. This term was used by Daniel Pauly, a University of British Columbia fisheries scientist, to describe the “creeping disappearance” of large fish stock and shift to smaller fish without recognizing the basepoint has changed or is considered inappropriate.

Shifting baseline syndrome can be used to partially explain my rediscovery of “real” hotdogs by choosing flavor, texture and nostalgia over value. In general, the baseline for hotdogs has moved toward poultry or beef ingredients and/or toward value.  And now, the baseline has moved toward the exclusion of specific ingredients to facilitate clean labels and changing consumer perceptions that go beyond hotdogs.

Another example is milk. The baseline has shifted from raw to pasteurized milk and now some people think they want raw again. Later, cream on the top was normal before homogenized milk was available. I think there are numerous baselines for what is considered milk today. It might be regular milk in many varieties or milk sourced from non-animal ingredients including soy, almonds, coconut or something else that result in a beverage that may look like or taste somewhat like milk.

The ever-changing food systems remind me of global warming; there are deniers (what problem?), believers (so now what?) and enablers (no problem, let’s push on). We have shifted from old normal {yesterday} to the new normal {today} as we transition to the future normal {tomorrow}. Remember, the present represents somebody else’s future, and the future also represents somebody else’s present.

Peter Kahn, a University of Washington professor, defined environmental generational amnesia as “each generation can recognize only the ecological changes its members witness during their lifetime.” This could just as well be called food generational amnesia as people tend to think short range. Few remember “unpasteurized” or “cream on the top” milk, but most people are familiar with alternative milk products.

Food thought, consumption and processing continues to change. Certain products and ingredients continue to shift between good and bad and vice versa. In most cases, “for you” follows the good and bad with a side of confusion. Some examples of this kind of food include eggs, butter, margarine, coffee, chocolate, some meat products and fruit juices. Components of food that flip-flop include fat, specific fats, carbohydrates, specific carbohydrates, calories and now protein.

Sugar from various sources is now thought by many to be the greatest edible villain of all time. The exception being when used to make gummy vitamins edible. At the same time, the belief that a calorie is a calorie, regardless of the source lingers on. Today the term empty calorie is used to define the less useful ones. A calorie from most any source is now promoted as more useful than one from sugar. Establishing a new scientific baseline for sugar is evolving, and I hardly can wait until sugar becomes a newly discovered quick energy source.

When I first read “The Jungle,” I had more empathy for the characters in the book and less for the working conditions and food safety message. For a long time, food safety could be summarized as just cook it and most micro and analytical testing was done to confirm quality and yield. This is not the case anymore. Food safety is a dynamic, ever-changing system where failure is no longer an option for food processors.

The food safety baseline was jolted following the Jack in the Box Escherichia coli 0157:H7 outbreak reported in 1993, which resulted in more than 600 illnesses and the death of four children. This accelerated the shift from reactive-based food safety systems to prevention-based systems. The hero is David Theno, who set up systems to test, monitor and prevent pathogens. Credit also goes to Jack in the Box management for giving him the authority and tools to do it.

The baseline shift continued in 1994 when the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced “raw ground beef that is contaminated with E. coli 0157:H7 is adulterated within the Federal Meat Inspection Act.” In 1996, the agency established the Pathogen Reduction Act or Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points. What was traumatic at the time is now considered a normal baseline for doing business. Currently, the Food Safety Modernization Act is being implemented to expand prevention-based food safety systems. After some additional kicking and screaming, this too will become a normal part of the food safety process. Food safety is an ever-changing process.

A process is generally considered a series of actions or steps taken to achieve a particular end. If food is processed, it undergoes a special treatment or procedure to change it from its original state. If the opposite of process is unfinished, then food that has not been processed could be considered to be unfinished food. Food gets closer to finished food as it is planted, grown, harvested, sorted, packaged, transported, stored, marketed, combined with other products, served and consumed. A food that goes through these steps can still be labeled as fresh or even natural depending upon the steps taken in the process. Most all food is processed in some way as it goes through a series of processes from farm to table. Unfinished food can continue through further processing steps to become finished food products. What sounds better – finished food or processed food?

Fresh is becoming a requirement for great food with little explanation of the benefits. Adding the term – never frozen to fresh may sound good for fast food burgers, chicken and some processed meals. However, fresh can become “unfresh” in a short period of time even with precise handling and monitoring. I have observed fresh-never frozen prepackaged raw fish in the fresh meat case with at least eight days left on the sell-by date. Although interventions were used to prolong shelf life, it appears to be a stretch to call this fresh fish unless temperature is the only consideration. One of author Michael Pollan’s food rules is – “Eat only foods that will eventually rot.” Shelf-life baselines continue to be pushed.

The notion that all processed food is bad, unhealthy or not true food should be thrown under the bus. I recently ate at the True Food Kitchen restaurant, and the food appeared to be processed (even if done in house) in some way by the time it landed on my plate. They demonstrated that good food can be made by excluding certain anti-inflammatory or other ingredients. However, it was evident the major food groups (salt, sugar and fat) still could be detected.

The baseline for marketing hype is not expected to fade away. A major restaurant chain describes its food as “it’s a process, never processed.” I guess the bottom line is what we all know; food processing is just another name for recipe. Food becomes finished food when it hits the plate or mouth no matter what the process was for getting there.

Baselines continue to shift on how food is perceived by food consumers and processors. The use of the term natural continues to expand, even without a definition. Some labels are being challenged if natural is not perceived to be natural enough. Large companies continue to purchase small emerging and growing niche brands to expand their market. Home-delivered food kits continue to grow in sales, and any food that can be delivered is delivered. Value continues to be added without adding ingredients. For example, broccoli slaw, cauliflower rice and everything coconut. Meat analogs have become “beyond meat,” and “cell-cultured meat” is getting closer to reality. I am looking forward to “beyond hotdogs” and resetting my baseline to a new normal for hotdogs.