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A time for pink slime

by Ari LeVaux

If there’s one thing America can agree on, it’s that “pink slime” is scary. The hamburger filler made from processed beef trimmings has been in use for decades, but now, thanks to social media-fueled campaigns and traditional media coverage from Fox News to MSNBC, we’re suddenly terrified of the stuff. But is pink slime really any worse than pink cylinders like hot dogs, or yellow nuggets of mechanically separated poultry? Probably not. But it seems to represent a discussion that’s time has come.

After having quietly graced pre-made beef patties in the U.S. since the early 1990s, pink slime hit the mainstream in the 2008 documentary “Food Inc.” An exec from Beef Products Inc. (BPI), which makes the pink product officially known as Lean Finely Trimmed Beef (LFTB), proudly welcomed the cameras into his futuristic facility and said the product is in 70 percent of America’s pre-made burger patties.

Then, a 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times expose reported that BPI had been lowering the levels of ammonium hydroxide used to treat LFTB, in response to complaints about the product’s strong ammonia smell. These reductions in treatment caused several batches of burger destined for school lunches to test positive for E. coli and Salmonella.

Since the Times story, public outcry has forced several fast food joints to quit using the stuff in burgers, and supermarkets are dropping products that contain LFTB. When it broke March 5 that USDA’s National School Lunch Program had just purchased 7 million pounds of LFTB to mix with ground beef, the anti-slime forces rallied. This isn’t the first time USDA’s school lunch program has purchased LFTB, but judging by the pushback, it might be the last. Campaigns and industry counter-campaigns have been waged, petitions circulated, and innumerable Twitter hashtags generated, all in the name of pink slime.

Nobody without a financial interest in Beef Products Inc. could argue with a straight face that LFTB isn’t kind of gross. But does that make it evil? Processed meats like hot dogs, baloney and chicken nuggets seem, on the surface, no less icky than pink slime.

Unlike LFTB, many nuggets and cylinders are made with mechanically separated meat. Chicken, turkey and pork carcasses, already picked clean of presentable cuts, are pushed through filtering machinery under high pressure, removing every last scrap of tissue. The resulting fragments are used in chicken nuggets, turkey and pork sausage, and many other processed meats.

Mechanically separated beef, on the other hand, is no longer approved for human consumption due to concerns that bovine spinal cord fluid could spread mad cow disease. The final bits of beef are recovered via other methods that, while highly mechanized, are less traumatic to the carcass, minimizing spinal fluid leakage.

So if you’re averse to ingesting spinal fluid, beef-based pink slime is actually a better bet than chicken nuggets or hot dogs containing pork or poultry.

The biggest difference between LFTB and most other processed meats lies in how they are preserved. LFTB is dosed with ammonium hydroxide to raise the slime’s pH high enough to kill bacteria. These ammonium levels are not close to being toxic, but they still smell and taste foul, tempting processors to go light on the treatment to make the product more palatable.

While LFTB is an ingredient for extending ground beef, the other forms of processed meat I’ve been referring to are finished products, stable at refrigerator temperatures because they’ve been preserved by agents stronger than ammonium hydroxide. Some legal preservatives have been linked to cancer, and the World Cancer Research Fund has recommended that people avoid processed meats altogether.

While preservatives in processed meats are considered ingredients and thus require labeling, BPI has successfully argued that its ammonium hydroxide is a processing agent, not an ingredient, meaning it needn’t be listed on the product label.

For something that isn’t an ingredient, ammonium hydroxide has certainly made its presence felt. As the Times reported, blocks of LFTB had a heavy stench even when frozen, causing BPI to cut the treatment down to precariously low levels. To its credit, BPI has since improved its safety protocols and now leads the industry in testing for not just one, but all of the so-called “Big Six” strains of E. coli. Assuming BPI can control the bacteria in its product, what’s left to hate?

Gerald Zirnstein, a former USDA inspector, coined the term “pink slime” in a 2002 e-mail. But his chief complaint about the stuff, according to the Times story, isn’t that it’s dangerous, pink or slimy, but that it’s misidentified. “I do not consider the stuff to be ground beef,” he told the Times, “and I consider allowing it in ground beef to be a form of fraudulent labeling.”

This is hardly damning criticism – it’s like complaining that 2 percent milk is being labeled as whole milk. And LFTB is, in fact, pure beef, except for the ammonium hydroxide processing agent. So it kind of is ground beef, arguably.

Implicit in Zirnstein’s comment is the assumption that the non-muscle beef tissue in LFTB is less nutritious than the muscle tissue in burger meat. But the tissues from which LFTB is made, including collagen, do in fact have nutritional value, as BPI rightly claims in its new website Indeed, people pay a lot of money for collagen supplements in pill form.

So, is pink slime any worse than any number of mystery meat products? Probably not. And for what it’s worth, it isn’t even slimy.

Given that nuggets and dogs contain preservatives that are more dangerous than the ammonium hydroxide in pink slime, pink slime could pose less of a threat than other processed meats. And for what it’s worth, the non-beef, mechanically separated meat products present the added bonus of spinal fluid, which, if there were such thing as mad chicken or mad pig disease, would be a problem.

Even if pink slime is no more dangerous than a bunch of other products out there, it’s nonetheless a timely opportunity to discuss the problems and realities of our industrial meat system. Given the recent bevy of state “ag-gag” bills – already signed in Iowa, and proposed in Utah and Illinois – it appears battle lines are being drawn over meat processing. These ag-gag bills would make it illegal to secretly record what goes on in meat processors.

The forces of anti-slime could provide a boost of energy in opposing these measures.

Indeed, on March 15, the USDA announced it would “provide schools with a choice to order product either with or without Lean Finely Textured Beef.”

On the surface, this may seem like a decisive end to the war. But as Tom Philpott pointed out in a post for Mother Jones, USDA only supplies about 20 percent of the food in public school cafeterias. And much of the rest must be purchased from suppliers that slime their taco filling, lunch meats and other beef products. And as with most kinds of slime, it’s easier to mix in pink slime than it is to remove it.