Is It Time to Embrace Pink Slime?

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.

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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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