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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.
After all, BLBT represents an efficiency technique that turns waste meat into marketable protein. Many of the products we rely on for food and other conveniences of modern life have to be treated with chemicals in order to protect public safety. Why is it that BLBT has become the target of such intense scrutiny when it appears to represent just another facet of food technology?

A perfect storm of media attention and heightened consumer interest in food has ripped the lid off the pink slime debate. Should this stuff be in our meat in the first place? If it is, should we know about it and have a choice whether or not to eat it? Is it really safe or are we biding our time before an incident that costs lives?

There is nothing natural about most meat production to begin with. Pink slime represents just one proprietary chemical-fueled process employed by an industry that has long since abandoned natural processes in order to meet demand and price pressures. We might even say that the use of pink slime ranks low on the list of potential concerns and that consumers' energy might be better spent focusing on more insidious facts about the source of our meat.

The consumer debate seems to be rooted in equal parts surprise and irrational disgust. No doubt other routine elements of our meat production process would strike consumers as disgusting, from the way animals are slaughtered to the unnatural conditions found on commercial feedlots where not a blade of grass can be found and sick animals wallow in their own filth. In the case of beef, our supply largely comes from cows that have been engineered to digest corn instead of grass. Most of that corn is derived from genetically modified seed, raised on dead soil pumped full of anhydrous ammonia fertilizer and pesticides. We do not even understand the ecosystem-wide effects of the substances used in the supply chain, yet they are used with impunity and subsidized by American taxpayers every step of the way.

The question of sustainability

Reclaiming the tendons, bone pickings and other marginal meat scraps from a cow sounds like a good idea for food sustainability. The manufacturer says that without its BLBT product, an additional 1.5 million cows would have to be slaughtered annually to meet demand. The real sustainability question surrounding pink slime is not whether the product and process help make use of more of the animal. There is no question that it does. The issue is that this product was once only used in pet food and has been banned for human consumption in other countries. We need to ask why it is that pink slime is now a critical component of ground beef. The answer is demand. America demands a beef patty that costs the food vendor a dime. That's what it takes to turn a profit that satisfies shareholders when your product portfolio consists of meat treats that retail for under one dollar. A ten cent meat patty that can be marketed as fresh beef even though it is made possible only through a multi-step chemically intensive manufacturing process. Pure evil genius.

In the past year meat prices in the U.S. increased by single digit percentages while the price of input commodities such as oil-derived fertilizer and grains increased substantially. This means retailers are taking the hit for higher wholesale meat prices. A production method that redirects pink slime into the human meat supply chain allows beef producers to limit production output increases, a good business move in times of upward pressure on input costs.

Consumers must love the taste of pink slime...they'll eat the equivalent of 56 quarter pound burgers worth of pure pink slime this year

Products containing pink slime are everywhere. Marketing cheap meat is all about texture, juiciness and short term satiation. BLBT stacks up just fine when these are the sole priorities we demand from our food. A 2004 University study posted by BPI on their website shows that people gave higher ratings to meats containing BLBT on almost all dimensions of taste.

According to this GOOD Magazine infographic, per capital meat consumption in the U.S. is 275 pounds.
That's fifth highest in the world.  Click on the images for a larger view.  Image Source

Let's do some quick math to see how much pink slime people might be ingesting without knowing it. Americans eat more meat per capita than all but four nations worldwide. If the meat I eat this year matches up with typical U.S. consumption (275 pounds) and half of the meat I eat is beef, I will likely consume 14 pounds of pure BLBT. That's 14 pounds of ammonia-treated pink slime, assuming it is found in about 70 percent of ground beef in a 15 percent ratio. This is the equivalent of eating 56 quarter pound burgers made entirely from pink slime.  At these numbers, BLBT can be considered a major source of protein. Replacing it would have definite tradeoffs felt by both consumers and the environment if we continue to eat the amount of meat that we do today.

Consumers are remarkably willing to accept new definitions of what constitutes food if products are marketed cleverly and are introduced gradually.  Look at the patagonian toothfish, once unmarketable and now almost fished to extinction thanks to a snazzy re-brand that created the elegant name "chilean sea bass."  Hot dogs and sausages have always consisted of miscellany meat fillers jammed into intestines.  They are consumed by the billions at every cafeteria, ballpark and backyard barbecue in the nation. The pink slime hypocrisy is clear and at the same time it is so easy to get caught up in.  

Would pink slime labeling change anything?

The fact that products marketed as fresh all-natural ground beef contain pink slime demonstrates a failure in common sense labeling requirements and underscores the weakness of labeling in general.  Pink slime is in our meat because it's long been acceptable for factory farmed meat to contain unnatural substances.  Chalk this up to the power of the meat industry, ignorance of consumers and a bit of tradition.

Meat is a product that requires the death of a living being in order to produce. It can kill us if not properly butchered, packed and handled at every step of production.  You would think that labeling requirements for a product like beef would be relatively strong.  Instead, other products are subject to much more detailed labeling requirements by the USDA when it comes to listing purity, processing and origin.  Just look at most supermarket meat packaging -- it's minimal.  Weight, price, name of the cut and USDA grade.  Then compare the label to orange juice for example.  Orange juice is just one of many products already subject to labeling requirements in order to address specific quality and sourcing concerns. The USDA requires juice makers to substantiate the percentage of pure juice within their products and most makers are now printing country of origin on labels as well.

This orange juice label indicates 100% pure juice content. 
The country of origin (U.S. and Brazil) is also listed. 
Labeling may be part of the solution to the outrage over pink slime in our meat but it is not the solution to why pink slime is in our meat to begin with.  Food product labeling is complicated by a maze of regulations and in the end these labels do not improve the sustainability of our food system or impact consumer decision-making.  No label can compete with a juicy ad campaign or the allure of beautiful grill marks and that wonderful hiss of a beef patty hitting a hot grill.  When people eat products that typically contain BLBT they don't pay attention to the calorie count or sodium content let alone what is in the meat.  As long as it is safe and regulated, BLBT cannot live up to the evil that this month's media portrayals have incubated.

Stores that serve a clientele specifically sensitive to information about the origins of food should take action as they deem appropriate.  Many stores have taken a position on pink slime since the debate erupted.  It's likely that once things settle down, this technology meat will end up back in products again even if vendors and grocers pull back initially.  What we do not need is another general food label that no one reads.  This would serve only to add additional expense and complexity, thereby encouraging vendors to cut even more corners in production to meet demand for low prices.

Outrage is better than complacency but we've been down this road before

Consumer outrage over pink slime is encouraging. It shows that we may be able to pull back the curtain on dozens of similar gross facts about how our industrialized food system manages to meet the demand for America's supersized meat appetite. But don't be too encouraged. The pink slime debate is reminiscent of the climate in place around the time of Upton Sinclair's groundbreaking novel "The Jungle."  Sinclair's book precipitated the creation of the FDA by shedding light on sanitary atrocities at Chicago meat packing plants.  The book is credited with revolutionizing meat inspection practices and also had a hand in improving working conditions. "The Jungle" was first published in 1905.

Since then, food safety science and meat inspection practices have no doubt improved. Far fewer people get sick or die from tainted products.  But outbreaks of food-borne illness do happen with frightening frequency and on a massive scale due to the homogeneity of the food system and its centralized structure.  Mass-produced frankenfood technology is spurred onward by consumer preferences.  Cost pressure from rising commodity prices pressures the industry to be increasingly creative in its definition of what constitutes acceptable human food.  Historically, shedding light on even the most grotesque facets of the meat production business is not enough to change consumer preferences for long.  Today as we peer into the future at a world with 9 billion mouths to feed, it is increasingly likely that technologies that recover every bit of edible protein will become the norm.

Avoiding a world where pink slime is the norm

If you're outraged by pink slime, you're not alone.  It is a patently repulsive product hiding in plain sight.  However, we should all be more outraged that we need a slimy ammonia-treated meat substance in our food system in the first place. The best way to to break the cycle of nasty, environmentally catastrophic food production once and for all is to eat food that can be traced back to its source, preferably a local one. Too expensive you say? Eat less of the stuff overall and profit from improved health and financial savings.

We can all do our part to reduce America's 275 pound per year per capita meat consumption to a more sustainable number.  When we stop viewing meat as a principal entree and start consuming it in portion sizes that show respect for its hidden impacts we can eat higher quality products while avoiding the total cost downside.  Cutting out highly processed meats is a logical place to start.  For additional motivation beyond simply avoiding slime, consider that fact that people in India consume just 12 pounds of meat per person, per year.  India's middle class now rivals the size of the entire U.S. population.

If we don't direct our scrutiny away from individual products to focus on the food system at large, it will only be a matter of time before the next expos√© on a food additive that we wish we could live without.  Engineered meat is certain to fill a gross but important niche in the food supply chain.  For now, consuming pink slime is a less than "USDA Prime" example of the hidden price we pay for 99-cent hamburgers, cheap "nutritious" school lunches and other meaty creations oozing their way through our daily lives.

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