If you’ve ever doubted that the tendency of what passes for journalism in the U.S. in the 21st century – hysterical hair-trigger over-hyping, by and large – has ever done anyone any good, it may have just gotten a mark in its favor when it comes to food safety.
Anyone who eats ground beef in schools or restaurants, or buys it from the traditional supermarket meat counter, has consumed what the meat industry calls “lean beef trimmings” or “lean, finely textured beef (LFTB).” While it sounds innocuous enough, it has a nickname: “pink slime.” What it is is processed beef trimmings, a byproduct created from high-fat beef trimmings and connective tissue, treated with ammonia gas to kill bacteria. Why is the ammonia gas necessary? Because the trimmings can quite literally be scraped from work surfaces and meat plant machinery with a squeegee and be reused. In its untreated form, it contains enough lethal bacteria to kill, hence the need for the ammonia gas wash.
The process, which is approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), involves taking the trimmings and scraps, using both heat and a centrifuge to separate the fat from the meat, forcing it through a narrow tube and exposing it to the ammonia gas. This process lowers the acidity of the meat and kills dangerous unwanted passengers such as E. coli and Salmonella. It’s then mixed back into regular ground beef and can be sold as “100 percent beef.” A 2008 report by the Washington Post found that as much as 25 percent of prepared beef patties sold in supermarkets and via wholesale in the U.S. was comprised of the ammonia-treated trimmings.
And we’ve been eating it. It’s enough to make you admire vegans with new respect and vow to hit the veggie burger section of the supermarket freezers more often.
The phrase “Pink Slime” was first used in 2002 by former USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service microbiologist Gerald Zirnstein in an internal department e-mail that found its way to the public, much to the USDA’s dismay, after the New York Times demanded it under the Freedom of Information Act. It wasn’t until ABC News picked up the story in March of this year and ran with it, followed by every news agency in the nation, that the country realized in horror what it had been eating all this time. Social media went into hyperdrive.
Thanks to the outcry, a number of meat retailers, fast food restaurants and school districts have vowed to eliminate the material from the meat
they serve or sell. (Which could be tricky, as there is no requirement to specially label beef containing the trimmings, as they are not considered an “additive.”) Many have gone so far as to create signs informing customers that “we don’t sell pink slime.” The Associated Press reported that one food chain, Fresh & Easy, actually set up a “pink slime swap” that allowed customers to bring in another store’s beef containing the additive and exchange it for Fresh & Easy’s “slime-free” ground beef.
Shortly after the news media went into gleeful 24-hour overload with the information, the company responsible for producing most of the stuff, Beef Products, Inc. (BPI), suspended operations at all but one plant, admitting that public uproar had begun to cost it some serious business. BPI didn’t say exactly how big a financial hit it had taken, but it acknowledged that public disgust, which was spreading across social media like wildfire — as were petitions signed by hundreds of thousands of people — was the cause.
Also in response to public pressure, the USDA said it was considering ceasing the purchase of beef containing the trimmings for school districts. (Of the 111.5 million pounds of ground beef the USDA has contracted to purchase this year for the National School Lunch Program, about 7 million pounds of it would have come from BPI.)
Ultimately, the head of the USDA, Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, was compelled to blog about the substance, proclaiming it safe but acknowledging the public’s concern.
This doesn’t mean the issue is over. Despite having discontinued some processing of the product due to public outcry, BPI says it feels both badly used by the press and misunderstood.
Craig Letch, director of food quality and assurance for BPI, told the Washington Post, “We feel like when people can start to understand the truth and reality, then our business will come back. It’s 100 percent beef.”
The U.S. beef industry also heartily defended the product, suggesting that eliminating it from ground beef would push up already high food costs for consumers.
“At a time when so many Americans struggle to put a healthy, nutritious meal on their family’s dinner table, the unfounded mischaracterization of Lean Finely Textured Beef as ‘pink slime’ is unconscionable,” said Barry Carpenter, CEO of the National Meat Association. “I am sure the public is not aware of how widespread and potentially devastating the consequences of allowing public misperception to trump sound nutritional science are.”
Several defenders of the practice of using ammonia-treated trimmings also popped up in the news, vehemently accusing ABC News of “smearing” a family-owned company with “scare tactics.”
“ABC is out to destroy a family-owned business to push the agenda of a couple of ‘whistleblowers’ who don’t like the company’s beef,” wrote Dan Gainor, Boone Pickens Fellow and Media Research Center VP for Fox News. “One of these whistleblowers, whom ABC has relied on heavily in its reporting, has dubbed it ‘pink slime.’ That, editors will tell you, is headline material. Slimy journalists might add that it’s the path to winning journalistic awards – facts be damned.”
What are these facts, according to Gainor? First, that most U.S. meat eaters have been eating ammonia-treated beef trimmings for years. Two, that they won’t kill us. While both of those are likely true statements, that doesn’t mean the public is keen on continuing to eat it…and it’s hard to argue that consumers don’t have a right to reject ground beef that contains the stuff.
A number of U.S. governors, largely in cattle states, also rode to the aid of BPI and the beef industry. Texas Governor Rick Perry, Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback, Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman and South Dakota Lt. Gov. Matt Michels issued a joint statement:
“Our states proudly produce food for the country and the world – and we do so with the highest commitment toward product safety. Lean, finely textured beef is a safe, nutritious product that is backed by sound science. It is unfortunate when inaccurate information causes an unnecessary panic among consumers. By taking this safe product out of the market, grocery retailers and consumers are allowing media inaccuracies to trump sound science. This is a disservice to the beef industry, hundreds of workers who make their livings producing this safe product and consumers as a whole. Ultimately, it will be the consumer who pays for taking this safe product out of the market.”
While BPI, the beef industry, the cattle-state governors and the USDA may be outraged by the “mischaracterization” of the substance, it’s unlikely that this will have a significant impact on Americans’ collective disgust. (As Todd Dorman of Cedar Rapids, Iowa’s Gazette put it, “’Pink slime’ is trending negatively among many key demographic groups, including humans with money.”) A number of consumer groups and food safety advocates are asking questions such as, “Why do we need it, if we’re one of the wealthiest nations in the world? Don’t Americans have a right to buy ground beef that contains neither ammonia nor pathogens? Can’t it be used for pet food instead?”
The guy who invented the phrase “pink slime” has asked the same questions. Microbiologist Gerald Zirnstein told ABC News that nearly 70 percent of ground beef sold in the U.S. today contains the treated trimmings. Fellow USDA scientist, Carl Custer, has also spoken out against the practice. Both scientists formally objected to the use of the additive, but were overruled by USDA authorities, whom Custer and Zirnstein suggest have overly cozy links with the meat industry. Zirnstein proclaims the practice deceptive to consumers.
“It’s economic fraud,” Zirnstein told ABC News. “It’s not fresh ground beef. … It’s a cheap substitute being added in.” (He also added that he grinds his own beef at home, which is telling, since the guy is a microbiologist.)
This leads to one of the most deeply embarrassing elements of the “pink slime” brouhaha. When former Undersecretary of Agriculture Joann Smith approved the use of the treated beef trimmings in 1993 — against the advice of microbiologists like Zirnstein and Custer — that decision led to a huge boost in government contracts and profits — hundreds of millions of dollars — for BPI. Upon departing from her position at the Department of Agriculture, Smith took a job with the principal supplier for BPI, where she earned “at least $1.2 million over her 17 year tenure,” reported ABC News.
So, now to the question: Is it really bad for you? While the resulting meat is relatively lean, and therefore better from a cholesterol standpoint, let’s not forget that it contains ammonium hydroxide.
According to a report in The Atlantic, using enough ammonium hydroxide to be sure the end product contains no dangerous microorganisms often leads to a distinct and unpleasant ammonia smell in the beef (yum!). Consumer complaints about the smell led to BPI using less of it. The result? Several batches of product prepared with lower levels of ammonium hydroxide and sold to schools tested positive for dangerous E. coli and Salmonella.
This leaves consumers with a choice: ammonia-smelling burgers or an increased risk of infection?
Whatever your opinion of the safety of the process, it seems clear that consumers have a right to have neither an unpleasant smell or a bout of illness served alongside their burgers. Many consumer advocates are now demanding that meat containing the trimmings be labeled as such. And while the beef industry may be crying out that the product is safe for consumption, it has been banned for sale in Europe for years. That continent, after witnessing two high-profile meat industry scares in the past two decades — hoof and mouth disease and bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), commonly known as “mad cow disease” – isn’t taking any chances. It’s hard not to wonder why we in the U.S. need to, as well, if not simply to drive up the meat industry’s profits.
Other meats, of course, aren’t off the hook. Chicken, turkey and pork carcasses, once the pricier cuts have been removed, are subjected to a process called “mechanical separation” that essentially takes the carcass and pushes it through a filtering machine at high pressure, blasting off every last bit of the animal that isn’t bone, fur, claws, teeth, beak or feather. The flesh is then washed with a similar chemical to kill germs before it’s “formed” into other things: chicken nuggets, cold cuts, hot dogs, sausages, patties or ground meat. (It’s against the law to put beef through this mechanical separation process, lest brain and spinal cord matter, the means by which “mad cow disease” is spread, enter the meat.) While BSE is not known to occur in poultry or pigs, we’ve been surprised before by variant diseases — scrapie, which occurs in sheep and goats is an example — jumping the species barrier.
The message here is that if you’re easily grossed out when it comes to meat, don’t buy processed or ground meat products. Still love burgers but want to make absolutely certain that your ground beef contains no “lean beef trimmings”? Investing in a meat grinder, either manual or mechanical, is a good step. No time to grind your own beef? Buy certified organic beef, which cannot contain the trimmings.
And you may want to stay far, far away from the processed chicken nuggets, too. Just a tip.