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18 March 2012

Outrage over "pink slime" beef substance symptomatic of food sustainability crisis

A supermarket sausage display in the shape of a pig symbolizes the current debate surrounding the Pink Slime beef product.
Grist.org reacts to Pink Slime and the
unsustainable pace of meat consumption
in America. 
Over the past few weeks the term "pink slime" has metastasized across the airwaves turning both heads and stomachs. U.S. consumers are learning they have been glomming down normally inedible beef byproducts masquerading as fresh ground beef. Despite all of the labeling requirements and food safety measures in place, Americans are eating chemically treated, mechanically separated animal waste products previously only used for pet food and for rendering down into oil. According to ABC News, the low-cost pink slime substance has found its way into roughly 70 percent of the ground beef sold in grocery stores. The debate gained momentum this week after reports that pink slime is widely purchased by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a filler material in school lunches for children.
When you boil down the pink slime debate to its individual gooey pieces, a simple fact emerges: we demand too much low-cost beef to expect that the beef we eat would not employ technology that pushes the boundaries of what is fit for human consumption.
First, the facts about the controversial product. Pink slime is a catchy moniker for the sci-fi-esque beef product "boneless lean beef trimmings" (BLBT) produced by Beef Products Inc. (BPI). It can be found in much of the beef that Americans consume from hamburgers to taco filling. According to the maker's website, BLBT typically makes up 5-15 percent of a ground beef product mixture. The gross term "pink slime" was hatched by Gerald Zimstein, a former USDA scientist. BLBT is not a new product and has not been linked to any health problems. It has gained USDA approval. The basic process is commonly used to convert other marginal meats into safe, edible consumer food products such as chicken nuggets.

Making BLBT starts with recovery of meat scraps consisting of connective tissue and other parts that are not normally marketable for human consumption. The beef used may be questionable due to increased risk of fecal contamination or a consistency that is not right for making the finished product. Scraps are heated and spun out in a centrifuge to separate fats from lean meat material. Then the beef is treated with ammonia gas to inhibit bacterial growth. The gas treatment increases the pH of the meat, making it a less hospitable environment for dangerous bacteria to propagate and potentially make people sick. The company BPI, subject of the current pink slime scrutiny, uses a hold and test process to ensure food safety. Every batch of BLBT is screened for pathogens before it can be sold.

This rigorous chemical treatment and testing process underscores the fact that BLBT is a product of food science that operates at the margin of acceptability. Without these chemical safeguards, the meat that is used would just be too risky for sale to consumers.

Internet hype or justified outrage?

BLBT is drawing fire from a huge assortment of consumer groups ranging from Parent Teacher Associations to AARP and celebrity chefs including Jaime Oliver. Meat industry insiders probably feel like they can't get a break.