Food fakery: The grill mark game

Continuing in the theme of all the bullshit food consumers will readily consume, Dan Mitchell of The New Food Economy writes a major American food company is planning a new, frozen sandwich product, the bread of which will sport fake grill marks, according to a person with knowledge of the matter who asked to remain anonymous and that neither the company nor the particular product be identified. “Gross,” this person concluded.

grill.machineWhen it hits the stores in the coming months, the product will join a long line of foodstuffs that have been gussied up to look like they’ve been cooked by traditional means, as opposed to being radically processed.

The most famous is probably the McRib sandwich, McDonald’s perennial attempt to alarm and dismay American diners, and to provide fodder to hacky comedians (and, sure, hacky food-business reporters). The McRib was designed to look not only as if it had been grilled, but also to look as if it were ribs. Actually, it’s just “restructured,” low-grade pig meat, processed and seasoned into arguable palatability and molded into a shape sort of resembling ribs. This fools people about as effectively as those goofy flame decals fool people into thinking the cars bearing them are speeding down the highway do.

Food fakery is everywhere. What might be somewhat surprising is that it continues despite the food industry’s fevered attempts to appeal to millennials, with their supposed preference for “authenticity” and revulsion for both processed foods and the giant corporations that make them.

chicken.thingies.raw“Char-marking is a big business,” Fast Company reported 10 years ago in an article describing how big poultry processors like Tyson and Pilgrim’s Pride create the appearance of grilled chicken for most of the major fast-food chains. Those companies and others run hundreds of huge production lines that, besides processing chicken beyond all recognition, incorporate large machines that add the grill marks. An executive for one of the companies that make those machines told Fast Company matter-of-factly that they create “the appearance that the product may have been cooked on a backyard grill.”

Sadly, the chicken sandwiches from Burger King, KFC, and Subway don’t come anywhere near tasting like they’d been cooked on a backyard grill. How could they, when the processing involves submerging chicken parts in something called a “tumble marinator,” where all kinds of non-chicken ingredients are added for preservation and flavor enhancement, and then baked with jets of hot air before having fake grill marks emblazoned onto them?

chicken.thingies.raw.cookThe equipment used for char-marking seems like it could be easily repurposed to produce drywall or ball bearings. The Stein CM II, made by JBT FoodTech, is an imposing piece of business, a hulking Industrial Age behemoth that the company promises works for “a variety of protein substrates.” (In other words, meats.)

A California company, Heat and Control, makes a product called the Rotary Brander that, among other features, allows operators to adjust the “branding color.” In 2011, reported that the company had rejiggered the Rotary Brander to work on tortillas as well as on meats and vegetables. A company executive boasted at the time that its offering would “help processors expand their product offerings beyond traditional tortillas and tap into new markets.” Heat and Control’s product line, he added, helps to “give products distinctive and appetizing surface finishes.”

raw.chicken.thingies.outbreakThe article ends there, but here’s where it should continue: Consumers have to read really, really close to figure out if those frozen thingies with the fake grill marks were fully cooked and then frozen, or if they are raw, frozen and need to be fully cooked, as verified by a tip-sensitive digital thermometer.

The U.S. has been taking baby steps at distinction for about a decade, but in Australia, a consumer would have no idea.

I pointed this out to one of the food safety types at the biggest supermarket in Australia years ago.

Nothing has changed.

There have been outbreaks.

And in interviews, the sick people said, I thought they were cooked.

Fakery has its price.