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“Pink Slime” is Controversial, for More Reasons Than You Might Expect

Treated Ground Beef Filler Raises Troubling Questions about Cultural Norms and Ethical Food Consumption

Photo by Ernesto Andrade The long-standing controversy over the ground beef filler came to a head last month after it was reveal-
ed that the USDA was going to keep buying the product for use in the National School Lunch Program.

I’m not a pure vegetarian. I do eat meat (organic, grass-fed, if that’s any excuse) a few times a year. So I’ve been following with great interest all the brouhaha this past month over the ground beef filler “pink slime” or “lean finely textured beef,” (LFTB) as the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) calls it.

The “lean” trimmings comprise ground connective tissue from cows and scrap meat (that would otherwise make its way into dog food) all mashed together, treated with ammonium hydroxide gas, and pressed into blocks that can be added to regular ground beef. The chemical treatment kills pathogens such as salmonella and E. coli and makes the meat “safe” to eat. Only, it doesn’t always work that way, as a 2009 New York Times report revealed.

The long-standing controversy over the use of this product came to the fore again after McDonald’s announced in February that it would not use LFBT in its burgers, followed by reports in March about how the USDA was going to keep buying the product for use in the National School Lunch Program.

My kneejerk reaction to the information was: “Slime = Ew!” Just like most people who’ve been reading about the product.

Such has been the public outrage that many fast food chains, supermarkets, and school districts have announced that they will no longer use the filler in their ground beef. Others, like Walmart, have decided to offer customers a choice of hamburger meat with or without the filler. The fallout for industry has been swift. One of the companies that manufacture the product, Beef Products Inc. temporarily suspended production at three of its four plants last week, and another, AFA Foods, filed for bankruptcy on Monday (April 2), apparently because of a dramatic drop in demand for the meat filler.

Attempts to ally public fear about the product by the USDA, which put out a statement saying the filler meets “the highest standard for food safety,” and politicians don’t seem to have made much of a difference. The spectacle of three governors, including presidential candidate Rick Perry, rah-rahing for Beef Products Inc. at an event in South Sioux City, Nebraska, last Thursday and displaying a “Dude, It’s Beef” t-shirt only served as juicy grist for the political humor mill. Petitions to USDA demanding a recall of the product are still circulating on the Web.

In the mean time though, some thoughtful, measured commentary from nutrition and public health advocates is making me rethink my “ew” position on the issue. Noted nutrition and public health expert Marion Nestle who blogs at foodpolitics.com, for instance, says LFTB is “reasonably safe and nutritious” but it does pose a dilemma. Some excerpts from her blog about the issue:

 

“Only about half the weight of the 34 million cattle slaughtered each year is considered fit for human consumption. The rest has to be burned, buried in landfills or sold cheaply for fertilizer or pet food.

“LFTB recovers 10 to 12 pounds of edible lean beef from every animal and is said to save another 1.5 million animals from slaughter …

“Calling LFTB ‘pink slime’ presents a massive public relations problem. Human culture determines what is socially acceptable to eat. Most of us don’t eat the parts of animals our culture considers inedible.”

 

So true. In the not too distant past, nose-to-tail eating was common in Western culture. Think oxtail soup, beef tongue sandwiches, and tripe. It’s still prevalent in most parts of the world. In Italian meat markets, for instance, you can find calves’ feet, cooked nose and trotters and tails. In Chinese cuisine, chicken feet are a speciality, and in Bengal, fish heads are used in elaborate dishes with lentils and cabbage. But here in the US, we throw away half of the animal that we kill for food (of course, there are pockets of exception, especially within the organic and slow food movement).

Nose-to-tail, or “total body” eating, is the most ethical way to consume meat, if at all. But in the LFTB case it still leaves the troubling question of chemical additives like ammonia (and of factory farmed meat, by extension). As Nestle asks:  “Why don’t we have a food safety system in place that requires beef to be safe in the first place — so it doesn’t have to be treated with ammonia?”

Meanwhile, if this whole mess weren’t enough, there are now two new studies showing that factory farmed chicken are fed caffeine and a cocktail of chemicals including banned antibiotics, active ingredients in medicines like Tylenol and Benadryl, and even arsenic.

The case for small organic farms and for reducing meat consumption (or not eating it all) has never been stronger.

Maureen Nandini Mitra, Managing Editor, Earth Island Journal.Maureen Nandini Mitra photo
In addition to her work at the Journal, Maureen writes for several other magazines and online publications in the US and India. A journalism graduate from Columbia University, her work has appeared in the San Francisco Public Press, The New Internationalist, Sueddeutsche Zeitung, The Caravan and Down to Earth.

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