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January 6, 2010

A Hearty Helping of Pink Slime

The NYT's latest ground beef revelation involves a substance that some in the meat industry refer to as "pink slime" and is a component in ground beef sold in supermarkets and at fast food restaurants like Burger King and McDonald's and fed to our children at school. At issue in the article is the question of safety. It appears that the disinfection process of injecting ammonia into the stuff in order to kill bacteria like salmonella and E coli isn't nearly as effective as claimed.

But that's not what jumped out at me. What jumped out at me was the description of what "pink slime" actually is:
[A] product made from beef that included fatty trimmings the industry once relegated to pet food and cooking oil.
So, it's meat that was previously not considered fit for human consumption. But now it's in every McDonald's hamburger (and most supermarket patties) sold in the US. What changed? Pink slime purveyor Beef Products' "innovative" ammonia treatment supposedly fully disinfected the meat and thus made it safe to eat.

But is that the only definition of what's fit for human consumption? I mean, by that definition we could disinfect all sorts of nasty manufacturing byproducts and stick it in our food. Keep in mind that we're not talking about hunks of meat that got chopped off a side of beef and ground up. This is a highly processed product. Before it can be sold in frozen blocks of beefy mash, it goes through a process of "liquefying the fat and extracting the protein from the trimmings in a centrifuge." Sounds delicious!

Tom Philpott has a nice piece on some of the implications of this story. In it, he points to an AP article where fast food companies including McDonald's and Burger King stand by their decision to continue the use of pink slime in their hamburgers (only "a small percentage" of it is in any given burger assures a Burger King spokeswoman).

But the AP reporter missed an opportunity to ask this fundamental question. Why does anyone think it's okay to put this stuff in burgers? I mean, where's the shame? And I'm not the only one who thinks this is gross. From the NYT piece:
Another [USDA] microbiologist, Gerald Zirnstein, called the processed beef "pink slime" in a 2002 e-mail message to colleagues and said, "I do not consider the stuff to be ground beef, and I consider allowing it in ground beef to be a form of fraudulent labeling."
Right on! People simply shouldn't be eating this ammonia-soaked, industrially manufactured beef-like mash -- and I can't imagine they would be happy to find out that brands they trust have been "secretly" feeding it to them in order to save a few bucks. But all this raised another question in my mind. What if no one cares? Put a different way, are there limits for Americans? I'm starting to wonder. People who learn about pink slime and then walk into a McDonald's and order up a Big Mac need to ask themselves what it is they think they're eating. Because I can tell you that pink slime may have fat, calories and protein in it. But that doesn't make it food.

Photo by ILoveButter used under a CC license

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Anonymous RPM said...

What is the "pink slime," apart from fatty trimmings? Why was it once relegated to pet food and cooking oil (because it was not fit for human consumption)? Why is it added to ground beef now? Presumably adding it to ground beef costs something, so what's the benefit? Is it adding flavor? Do they add enough of it that they save money on other cuts of meat? (Contra Burger King saying it's only a small percentage of any given burger.)

Anonymous Miami Scientist said...

Here's my issue: Given that we are fishing Atlantic tuna (and other wild animals) to extinction, extracting every last amino acid from sustainably farmed crops and animals seems like a positive strategy. Clearly, the way that we are raising many such farm products is nasty and in need of reform, but I'm not sure that I can condemn techniques that generate less waste in the system.

Blogger tlaskawy said...

But then, why eat real food at all? Let's just eat industrially processed, flavored yeast paste. I'm all for using as much of the animal as possible, but I bet we can find a better use for fatty trimmings than meat filler for low-end hamburger. How often, I wonder, do you eat supermarket patties or Big Macs? This ultimately becomes a class issue. The position you take pretty much "volunteers" working class folks to eat the leavings from the slaughterhouse floor while more affluent folks eat "real" meat...

Anonymous McKinney said...

According to Miami Scientist, we shouldn't be wasting dogs, cats, horses, hamsters, gerbils, goldfish, or snake amino acids?
Japan has made "meat" from human excreta. You'll be the only one in line.

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