Is It Time to Embrace Pink Slime?

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Lean Finely Trimmed Beef, which can be found in most of America's pre-made burger patties, has many vocal critics. But is it any worse than what's used to make other processed meats?

Beef Products, Inc.

If there's one thing America can agree on at the moment, it's that "pink slime" is scary. The hamburger filler made from processed beef trimmings has been in use for decades, but now, thanks to social media-fueled campaigns and traditional media coverage from Fox News to MSNBC, we're suddenly terrified of the stuff. Is pink slime really any worse than pink cylinders like hot dogs, or yellow nuggets of mechanically separated poultry? Probably not.

After having quietly infiltrated pre-made beef patties in the United States starting in the early 1990s, pink slime hit the mainstream in the 2008 documentary Food, Inc. An exec from Beef Products Inc. (BPI), which makes the pink product officially known as Lean Finely Trimmed Beef (LFTB) proudly welcomed cameras into his futuristic facility, and said that the product is in 70 percent of America's pre-made burger patties.

Then, a 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times expose that reported BPI had been lowering the levels of ammonium hydroxide used to treat LFTB, in response to complaints about the product's strong ammonia smell. These reductions in treatment caused several batches of burger destined for school lunches to test positive for E. coli and Salmonella.

Since the Times story, public outcry has forced several fast-food joints to quit using the stuff in burgers. When it broke on March 5 that the United States Department of Agriculture's National School Lunch Program had just purchased seven million pounds of LFTB to mix with ground beef, the anti-slime forces rallied again. This isn't the first time the USDA's school lunch program has bought LFTB, but judging by the pushback it might be the last. Campaigns and industry counter-campaigns have been waged, petitions circulated, and innumerable Twitter hashtags generated, all in the name of banning pink slime. Many supermarkets, including Safeway, Food Lion, and the SUPERVALU network of stores, have pledged to completely de-slime their meat product offerings. Others, like Walmart and Sam's Club, are adding products that don't contain LFTB.

Is slime worse than pink cylinders, yellow nuggets, brown breakfast sausage patties, or any number of mystery products? Probably not.

Nobody without a financial interest in Beef Products, Inc, could argue with a straight face that LFTB isn't kind of gross. But does that make it evil? Processed meats like hot dogs, baloney, and chicken nuggets seem, on the surface, no less icky than pink slime. But consider what goes into them.

Unlike LFTB, many nuggets and cylinders are made with mechanically separated meat. Chicken, turkey, and pork carcasses, already picked clean of presentable cuts, are pushed through filtering machinery under high pressure, removing every last scrap of tissue. The resulting fragments are used in chicken nuggets, turkey and pork sausage, and many other processed meats.

Mechanically separated beef, unlike chicken, turkey, and pork, is no longer approved for human consumption, because of concerns that bovine spinal cord fluid could spread mad cow disease. The final bits of beef are recovered via other methods that, while highly mechanized, are less traumatic to the carcass, minimizing spinal fluid leakage. So if you're averse to ingesting spinal fluid, beef-based pink slime is actually a better bet than chicken nuggets or hot dogs containing pork or poultry.

So far there is no known mad chicken, mad turkey, or mad pork disease: Human forms of Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathy, the broad category in which BSE fits, are not known to come from poultry, pork, or lamb. These diseases are caused by short proteins called prions, which are found in brain and spine fluid. Like zombies that keep coming, prions are resistant to many of the ways we have of killing pathogens, including heat and antibiotics. Recent research has shown that some prions are able to alter their form to fit in a new host. A variant of scrapies, a TSE that afflicts sheep, was found to change when introduced to a pig. Given how little we know about prions, avoiding spinal fluid seems a worthwhile approach. Sticking to sausages made from "prime" or "primal" cuts is an easy way to avoid unsavory prions.

Then there are the preservatives that are allowed in processed meats. LFTB, as everyone is by now aware, is dosed with ammonium hydroxide to raise the slime's pH high enough to kill bacteria. These ammonium levels are not close to being toxic, but they still smell and taste foul, tempting processors to go light on the treatment to make the product more palatable.

While LFTB is an ingredient for extending ground beef, the other forms of processed meat I've been comparing it to are finished products, stable at refrigerator temperatures, because they've been preserved by agents stronger than ammonium hydroxide. Some legal preservatives have been linked to cancer, and the World Cancer Research Fund has recommended that people avoid processed meats altogether.

While preservatives in processed meats are considered ingredients and thus require labeling, BPI has successfully argued that its ammonium hydroxide is a processing agent, not an ingredient, meaning it needn't be listed on the product label.

For something that isn't an ingredient, ammonium hydroxide has certainly made its presence felt. As the Times reported, blocks of LFTB had a heavy stench even when frozen, causing BPI to cut the treatment down to precariously low levels. To its credit, BPI has since improved its safety protocols and now leads the industry in testing for not just one, but all of the so-called Big Six strains of E. coli. Assuming BPI can control the bacteria in its product, what's left to hate?

Gerald Zirnstein, a microbiologist, coined the term "pink slime" in a 2002 email. But his chief complaint about the stuff, according to the Times story, isn't that it is dangerous, pink, or slimy, but that it is misidentified. "I do not consider the stuff to be ground beef," he told the Times, "and I consider allowing it in ground beef to be a form of fraudulent labeling."

This is hardly damning criticism -- it's like complaining that 2 percent milk is being labeled as whole milk. And LFTB is, in fact, pure beef, except for the ammonium hydroxide process.

Implicit in Zirnstein's comment is the assumption that the non-muscle beef tissue in LFTB is less nutritious than the muscle tissue in burger meat. But the tissues from which LFTB is made, including collagen, do in fact have nutritional value, as BPI rightly claims in its new website pinkslimeisamyth.com. Indeed, people pay a lot of money for collagen supplements in pill form.

So, is pink slime any worse than pink cylinders, yellow nuggets, brown breakfast sausage patties, or any number of mystery meat products? Probably not. And for what it's worth, it isn't even slimy.

But even if pink slime is no more dangerous than many other products meat products on the market, it's nonetheless a timely opportunity to discuss the problems and realities of our industrial meat system. Given the recent bevy of state "ag gag" bills -- already signed in Iowa and Utah, and proposed in Illinois -- it appears that battle lines are being drawn over the control of information concerning meat processing. These bills would make it illegal to secretly record what goes on in meat processing plants. The forces of anti-slime could provide a boost of energy in opposing these measures.

On March 15, ten days after the war on pink slime in schools began, the USDA announced it would "provide schools with a choice to order product either with or without Lean Finely Textured Beef." On the surface, this may seem like a decisive end to the war. But as Tom Philpott pointed out in a post for Mother Jones, the USDA only supplies about 20 percent of the food in public school cafeterias. And much of the rest must be purchased from suppliers that slime their taco filling, lunch meats, and other beef products. As with most kinds of slime, it's easier to mix in pink slime than it is to remove it.

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Ari LeVaux writes Flash in the Pan, a syndicated weekly food column that has appeared in more than 50 newspapers in 21 states. Learn more at flashinthepan.net.

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