Pink Slime: What's Really at Stake

As the furor over using lean finely textured beef in our pre-made hamburgers continues to heat up, Marion Nestle provides a summary of the debate and poses some new questions.

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The "pink slime" furor gets curiouser and curiouser. It's hard to keep up, but here's my summary of where we are with this for the moment.

WHAT IS THE FUROR ABOUT?

The best place to start is with Michael Moss's December 30, 2009, investigative report in The New York Times on the ammonia process used by Beef Products, Inc., to make LFTB (lean finely textured beef).

The article contains the first mention of the term "pink slime" as a pejorative for this product.

Moss provides confidential documents detailing the effects of the ammonia processing of LFTB, and revelations of the discrepancy between the United States Department of Agriculture's standards for beef safety and those of its school lunch program.

HOW MUCH LFTB IS USED IN GROUND BEEF?

According to a report in the Wall Street Journal (March 28), Cargill Inc. estimates about 850 million pounds per year.

WHAT IS THE PINK SLIME CRISIS GOING TO COST THE BEEF INDUSTRY?

According to the business press, meat packers are likely to lose a record $101 per head as a result of the pink slime crisis. Multiply that by the 34 million head of cattle slaughtered each year for food. And then there's the economy:

Margins for meat packers have been declining for several months as consumers began to push back against high prices at retail in order to cope with rising gas prices. In response, processors have reduced slaughter rates in an effort to maintain beef prices.

WHO SUPPORTS BPI AND WHY?

BPI is a strong supporter of the Republican party and its candidates. But it is also generous elsewhere.

See, for example, BPI's full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal, March 23, 2012. It quotes from "In defense of food safety leadership," by Nancy Donley. Donley is a founder of STOP (Safe Tables Our Priority), an organization of mothers whose children died from eating contaminated hamburger.

After what I personally experienced watching my son suffer and die, I am very skeptical and cynical about for-profit meat companies and their professed commitment to food safety. Not all companies 'walk their talk.' BPI does.

BPI is well known to be the donor of the anonymous gifts to STOP of $250,000 last year and $500,000 the year before (see the tax forms posted on STOP's website).

WHAT IS THE USDA'S POSITION ON LFTB AND BPI?

Obamafoodorama (March 29) reports on USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack's press conference in Iowa on March 28. He joined Governor Terry Bransted, a republican, in defense of LFTB.

Here's what Obamafoodorama says Secretary Vilsack said:

  • The product is crucial to fighting childhood obesity.
  • This product is safe.... There's no question about it. We've said that hundreds of times and we'll continue to say it.
  • It is a "leaner product" than regular ground beef, and crucial for the battle to end childhood obesity. That's one of the reasons we've made it a staple of the school lunch program.
  • We are ... concerned about obesity levels, and this is an opportunity for us to ensure that youngsters are receiving a product that is lean and contains less fat.
  • Historically the product is less expensive than other products.... For that reason it's been part of the school lunch program.
  • [It] doesn't have to be labeled when it is included in ground beef because "it is safe."

Obamafoodorama's report concludes:

Somewhat disappointingly, the Secretary's efforts to defend lean, finely textured beef did not include him digging into a plate of the product and eating it on camera.

WHY IS A DEMOCRATIC SECRETARY GOING TO BAT FOR A COMPANY KNOWN FOR SUPPORTING MITT ROMNEY AND REPUBLICANS?

Presented by

Marion Nestle is a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. She is the author of Food Politics, Safe Food, What to Eat, and Pet Food Politics. More

Nestle also holds appointments as Professor of Sociology at NYU and Visiting Professor of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell. She is the author of three prize-winning books: Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (revised edition, 2007), Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety (2003), and What to Eat (2006). Her most recent book is Feed Your Pet Right: The Authoritative Guide to Feeding Your Dog and Cat. She writes the Food Matters column for The San Francisco Chronicle and blogs almost daily at Food Politics.

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