“Pink Slime” showcased in the 2008 documentary Food, Inc. and recently on Jaime Oliver’s Food Revolution has created an uproar including a petition to get pink slime out of school cafeterias, and various website pro and against “pink slime“. But aren’t we really talking about a by-product not of beef but a by-product of a broken system?
What is “Pink Slime”?
Also know as mechanically-separated meat, Lean Finely Textured Beef, or Boneless Beef Lean Trimmings, credit for coining the term “Pink Slime” seems to go to former microbiologist Gerald Zirnstein at the Food Safety Inspection Service after touring a Beef Products Inc. production facility in 2002. Zirnstein said he did not “consider the stuff to be ground beef”. This is because ”pink slime” is made by using the scraps that have been trimmed away when the beef is cut into steaks and roasts, heated and spun to separate the fat and beef, ground, and treated with ammonium hydroxide or ammonia gas (anhydrous ammonia) to kill bacteria. “Pink slime” is then added to other ground beef, up to 15% is allowed by the USDA, to extend the amount of beef. It is reportedly present in 70% of all ground beef products and seven million pounds are expected to be served in school lunches across the country in the next few months.
Because the ammonia is considered by the FDA and USDA to be a processing aid rather than an ingredient, it is not required to be labeled.
To better understand the process I recommend viewing the video from Food, Inc. where you can listen to Beef Products International’s founder Eldon Roth describe the process.
“From a food safety standpoint, we’re ahead of everybody,” he states regarding the ammonia process.
Is “Pink Slime” Safe?
An investigative report from the New York Times’ Michael Moss concluded “no”. The original concept was that pink slime contained enough ammonia that it could be mixed with other ground beef and effectively sterilize the entire blend. Moss revealed that to be false. In tests conducted by the National School Lunch Program between 2005 and 2009, “pink slime” tested positive for salmonella at a rate four times higher than the conventional burger mix it was supposed to sterilize.
So Why is “Pink Slime” Still Being Used?
According to Moss, it’s cheaper than pure ground beef. He reported, “School lunch officials said they ultimately agreed to use the treated meat because it shaved about 3 cents off the cost of making a pound of ground beef”.
Plus, as USDA officials reported to Tom Philpott, writing for Mother Jones the sole role of the food inspection service is to determine the overall safety of the nation’s food supply, not to make judgments on a products’ relative merits.
So, in my opinion, it’s about yield and money. Trying to slaughter approximately 400 heads of cattle per hour doesn’t allow for intricate carving and trim will be left on the bone. My small town butcher gives this to me to feed to my dogs. But a large corporation sees waste going out the door. Waste equals lowered profits. “Pink slime” is industry trying to get the most out of their raw material.
What I haven’t found an answer to is why does this spun beef require additional treatment to make it “safe” if the original cuts didn’t require treatment? Why is “pink slime” cheaper than regular ground beef if it’s gone through additional, costly steps? Maybe through this debate I’ll find those answers.
Why Are We Even Discussing “Pink Slime”?
I see “pink slime” a little bit like asking a toddler if they want to wear the blue sweatshirt or the red sweatshirt. There is no other option given and I get a sweatshirt on the kid. “Pink slime” or “pink slime free” aren’t the only two choices!
I appreciate that people are actively discussing the topic and concerned about what is in their food. This is a great leap!
But, the whole system is wrong. If we didn’t feed cattle corn, they won’t be getting E. coli. If you take feed lot cattle off corn and feed them grass for five days they will shed 80% of the E. coli in their gut (see Food, Inc.). If we allowed cattle to graze freely they wouldn’t be standing in their own manure. But we are buying into an industry that doesn’t look at what is wrong with the system but creates high-tech solutions to allow the system to survive.
We can’t have it all, people. If you want cheap meat, you’re going to eat “pink slime” from factory farmed cattle. If you want grass-fed high quality pure ground beef, you have to pay for it. In factories where efficiency is measured in fractions of a penny they are going to use every part of the cow that they can. Jamie Oliver stated on The Daily “the only way you can use ground beef is by watching the butcher grind it in front of us; which they will do but that’s a real pain in the backside”. I disagree. I know my butcher – talked to him this morning about “pink slime” in fact. I know the family that raises my cow. I trust them to feed me and my family with nutrient dense unadulterated food raised by sustainable practices. Food doesn’t have to be a “real pain in the backside” but it does need to be REAL.