Why You Should Learn to Love Pink Slime

Adam Ozimek -- blogger at Modeled Behavior and associate at Econsult Corporation

There have been a lot of complaints and outrage lately over the beef product known as "pink slime." Officially called Lean Finely Textured Beef (LFTB), these are beef additives made from processed trimmings of beef leftover from other cuts. It's worth considering some of the economic issues involved in pink slime.

Many seem to have the impression from the complaints that there is something unsafe or unhealthy LFTB. For instance, the following comes from the Change.org petition asking the USDA to ban pink slime from schools:

Two former government microbiologists claim that, for political reasons, pink slime was approved for human consumption by USDA over serious safety concerns...

Even apart from safety concerns, it is simply wrong to feed our children connective tissues and beef scraps that were, in the past, destined for use in pet food and rendering and were not considered fit for human consumption. 

Despite these complaints about safety and whether the meat is "fit for consumption," if you read the pink slime critics who are knowledgeable of such things, you'll see that these claims are false. For instance, Marion Nestle reports that it "is not really slimy and it is reasonably safe and nutritious". If safety and nutrition aren't a problem, then why shouldn't we eat it? Economist Robin Hanson has a saying that helps explain phenomenon like this. The short version is "politics isn't about policy", but it's really a general theory of human belief and behavior he summarizes using the following list:

  • Food isn't about Nutrition
  • Clothes aren't about Comfort
  • Bedrooms aren't about Sleep 
  • Marriage isn't about Romance 
  • Talk isn't about Info 
  • Laughter isn't about Jokes 
  • Charity isn't about Helping 
  • Church isn't about God 
  • Art isn't about Insight 
  • Medicine isn't about Health 
  • Consulting isn't about Advice 
  • School isn't about Learning 
  • Research isn't about Progress 
  • Politics isn't about Policy 

Instead, most of these things are about signaling something else about ourselves. If people's desire to regulate pink slime isn't about health, safety, or even taste, then what is it about? Robin would probably suggest that it is about signaling. Pink slime is seen as low status, and even though consuming it is not bad for our selves or our children, we would ban it to show that we care. This Hansonion hypothesis is borne out pretty clearly by a lot of pink slime complaints. Nestle herself makes it about as clear as possible that signaling is why she is critical of pink slime:

Even if LFTB is safe, nutritious, and tastes like hamburger, it may not be culturally acceptable. Do we want LFTB in our food? Or do we and our children deserve better? Serving healthy and delicious food is a way to show respect for our culture, food, children, and schools, and to invest in the future of our nation.

Our children deserve "better", but better in what way? Apparently not safety, nutrition, or taste. Many people aren't opposing pink slime because it's bad for us, but because doing so shows that we care.

Presented by

Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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