A Romp in Foodland, My Personal Experiences

Some of my personal experiences in the food processing industry shine a light on how awful it can be and some of the reasons. This is not to say that all food processing plants engage in bad practices. I worked at a number of smaller plants, medium sized plants and even a few large plants that were conscientious in their food production. I have even seen plant officials throw away food that the USDA would pass but they considered it to not be up to their standards. Here we go on a trip down my memory lane.

I worked in a plant that made TV dinners. My first job was working on the line where the trays were filled with the product. I had some differences with the foreman there and was transferred to meat prep which I worked for some time. My job for a couple of months was to work in the cold room that stamped out Salisbury steaks. I would move these huge machines with a hopper full of meat to the opening in the stamping machine and use the augur built into it to grind meat into the hopper where it was pressed into Salisbury steaks and dropped on a metal belt that went through a slit in the wall to a fryer.

One day, as I was working the augur, I noticed something pink coming through. It was slightly off color of the meat and easy to pick out which I did and discovered that the pink I was seeing were rubber pieces that looked like the eraser end of a pencil and were about that size or slightly larger. Immediately I stopped the line and called in the supervisor. He ordered me to restart the line and they would deal with it later. The USDA inspector did a walk-through later, so I told him about it and showed him the rubber pieces. He stopped the line and ordered all of the product on the line to be examined. Much of it was full of melted rubber. The inspector ordered that the product had to be held after running. We ran most of a day’s worth of product. The inspector then required that we take apart all of the cooked Salisbury steaks by hand and remove the rubber, which we did. The meat, hopefully sans all the rubber, processed this way was sent back to the kitchen and used in what they call “remix.” At that time, about 3% of new grind product was allowed to be used as remix. They never found out where the rubber came from.

Another incident occurred when another worker and I were sent to the defrost room, a refrigerated room where baskets of frozen meat were sent to thaw before being turned into a product put on the TV dinner tray, to bring out some tubed turkey. We found the specified lot and notice two things: the tag indicated that the turkey had been thawing for more than two months and the plastic tubes that the chunks of breast meat were in had inflated like balloons. We popped one of these balloons and the most horrible smell burst out into the room.

Of course, we alerted the foreman who went to his boss and the two came to take a look. Their conclusion was that the meat was still good to use. We surreptitously told the USDA inspector about it and he sniffed the meat and told us the smell would go away with some exposure to the air. As it was, we were ordered to deliver this turkey breast to the line where several people sliced it into slices for a nice turkey dinner. The people doing the slicing were a little slow as they had to use one hand to hold their nose to be able to stand the smell while the other hand worked the slicer. They didn’t have automatic slicers back in 1975.

The smelly meat was put on TV dinner trays and 40,000 dinners were run until Quality Control pulled a sample off the line and found them to be unacceptable. The trays were run again to remove the stinky turkey slices and then run again to put on fresh slices. The gravy, which had been squirted on the first turkey slices, was shaken back into the divider when they removed the smelly turkey and reused for the new meat slices. Doesn’t that just make you want to go out and buy a turkey TV dinner?

I put in for and got a cook job. It paid a bit more than I was making, so it seemed to be a good choice. However, this job would have some powerful and positive changes to my life.

My specific job was to cook beans and franks or Swiss steak. The Swiss steak was a winner with everyone. No one was supposed to eat any of the product, but when it came out of the retort, there was usually a line waiting with paper towels to use as plates. It’s a wonder any of it made it onto the TV dinner trays.

The other product, beans and franks, gave me pause. I had to climb up a skinny ladder with sacks of ingredients on my shoulder. The retort, an extra-large pressure cooker, was about 20 feet above the main floor. One day, I carried all the ingredients up the ladder and had them laid out and ready to put into the retort. I noticed that there were several bags that contained salt or a kind of sugar. It seemed excessive to me to have three types of sugar and two of salt and so much of it in these five bags. I went to the head cook and asked him why so much salt and sugar. He paused for a long minute as if wondering if he should answer the question, then he told me, “Sugar is cheap, and salt is cheap. Both are heavy. The product is sold by weight. If you add the salt and sugar in the correct proportion, the tongue won’t know the difference.”

That was the day I began reading labels. That was also the day I started avoiding highly processed foods. It is no wonder to me why this country has had such an explosion in obesity. In any case, my life improved by avoiding highly processed foods. Yours can, too.

This is the first of several articles I am writing based on my experience in the food industry. I have worked all parts of it from the fields to being an inspector in charge of as many as 9 plants. I will try to keep it short and interesting as well as informative. Please leave a comment if you would like more of these or if you have any questions either about the article or about food production. Please like and share and enjoy this trip into “What’s for Dinner?”

2 Comments

  1. Sue on July 8, 2024 at 9:18 am

    Thank you! Great information for the masses. I also don’t eat processed foods. Really unhealthy. )

    • Ira White on July 8, 2024 at 9:44 am

      Thank you for your comment. Yes, highly processed food should have a skull and crossbones on the package. I grow some of my own food, buy from a Farmer’s Market and local farmers not at the market as well as raise chickens for my own eggs. The quality, safety, and nutritional value of the food I eat far surpasses that in the store. I do have more stories and will be posting them. Not all of them are about negative practices. Some food processors actually care about the people they serve. This is mostly found in small plants dealing locally.



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