The Evolution of Pink Slime

So-called pink slime has been all over the news lately. Friends have posted links and comments about it on Facebook, I have heard stories about it on NPR, and I’ve heard people talk about how they can’t believe our government would allow the meat industry to sell the stuff as food. Pink slime, known formally as lean, finely textured beef trimmings (LFTB), is certainly not a food product that is likely to provoke anticipatory salivation. The term pink slime is itself deliberately crafted to instead provoke a reaction of disgust. And, the associated news that the stuff is treated with ammonia to remove potentially harmful bacteria just adds insult to our collective sense of injury. But there’s a problem here: making decisions about what to eat based on a visceral reaction to something that has been uncritically dubbed with a description designed to elicit just that reaction is not a way to make choices about what we eat.

I find the whole uproar rather silly, myself. First let’s tackle the linguistic angle: the name pink slime. Some might argue that it’s misleading to relabel this edible meat substance with a name that does not reveal what it really is. The name “lean, finely textured beef trimmings” does not evoke the actual cow parts that are used to make it. The stuff is made by combining fatty trimmings and ligament material from the cow and spinning it in a centrifuge to separate the fats. It is pink and looks slimy; hence the media-friendly and consumer-alarming moniker “pink slime.” One thing to note is that this stuff is not sold as-is; it is combined with regular ground beef as a bulk additive, and can be up to 30% of the final ground beef product (whether raw, bulk meat or items such as hamburger patties). So we are not unwittingly consuming unadulterated pink slime; nor is it being fed as-is to kids in school. A second thing to note is that we use all manner of euphemisms to describe the things we eat, especially when it comes to meat products. Filet mignon sounds much more appetizing than “hunk of cow flank.” Bacon cheeseburger stimulates the appetite in a way that “salted fatty pig belly cheeseburger” does not. In fact, when raw, most meat is pretty slimy, so we might as well add that adjective to all our meats. The point is that these are subjective reactions. Call things what they really are and lots of people might think twice before eating them. It reminds me of the failed “toilet to tap” initiative that was proposed in San Diego several years ago. Once the descriptor “toilet to tap” caught on in the media, there was no way the public would abide this water treatment program, even though the reclaimed water from the sewer system was just as pure and clean as regular municipal tap water. The name killed it because people could not reconcile themselves to water that came from the toilet, no matter how much scientific evidence there was that the water was clean. I find this fascinating in light of the fact that municipal tap water is held in reservoirs before treatment, in which people drive boats, fish, and probably urinate, and which is filled with all sorts of animal and plant matter, both alive and decomposing.

My second issue with this uproar has to do with food supply in general. There are seven billion people on this planet. They all need to be fed. In many places people subsist on foods that we here in the US would find appalling, and not merely because of cultural differences, but because some people are so poor that they will eat whatever they can. Our objection to LFTB is a beautiful example of a first-world problem. I know many people are rethinking where their food comes from and signing on to local food and slow food movements, and that’s all well and good, but within a country like the US, that is (for the most part) an upper-middle class movement. Poor people in this country do not have the luxury to worry about where the food comes from, much less exactly what is in it. For a poor family, knowing the kids will at least get lunch at school is a bigger concern than whether or not that lunch may contain pink slime.

When agriculture arose 10,000 years ago, humanity began the evolutionary road towards pink slime. Agriculture allowed previously nomadic people to become sedentary. Sedentism led to expansions in technology and booms in population. Ultimately, agriculture allowed for centralized cities ruled by top-down leaders, supplanting the egalitarian cultures of hunting-gathering and small-scale agricultural groups. Technological innovations continued to abound and populations continued to boom, and to feed all those people, intensive, factory-driven, and mechanized industrial agriculture became necessary. Can we really turn back that process now, and all start growing our own gardens and raising and slaughtering our own livestock? I’m not talking a fancy herb garden, heirloom tomatoes, and hobby chickens; I’m talking feeding yourself and your entire family by the products of your own labor. We do not live in that world any more. We live in a world where a beef supplier will use every part of the cow. Our industrial food complex has grown so efficient that almost nothing goes to waste.

I’m not blind to the fact that the beef producer is also trying to turn as much profit as possible; this is capitalism, after all. But I have no objection to seeing otherwise wasted parts of the cow get turned into an edible substance. As for the ammonia gas issue, it is simply a way to make the stuff safe. A chemical like ammonia is certain to provoke another knee-jerk: it’s in glass cleaner! It’s a poison! Well, yes; but without understanding how the process works people somehow conjure a picture of the pink slime getting dipped in a bright-blue Windex bath, which is far from the case. I can see the other side of the coin if the stuff didn’t go through this process: how dare the government allow us to eat beef that has not been treated for bacterial contamination! (Which reminds me of another rant I have against what I see as a massively over-reacting food safety process in this country; I think it’s ludicrous to destroy thousands or even millions of pounds of a food because a few people got food poisoning – but that’s a rant for another day). In fact, much of our food goes through similar sanitizing processes to prevent illness. As far as I can tell, no one has ever died from eating ammonia-treated LFTB, but they have died from food poisoning caused by the very bacteria the ammonia treatment is designed to prevent.

I can understand, to a degree, the people who argue that we have a right to know what is in our food so we can make an informed decision about whether to consume it, and I don’t object to the idea of more comprehensive food labeling. However, I still think this is a first-world and middle-class problem. How many people actually read food labels? Yes, the information should be there, but then the consumer does have some responsibility to think critically about what they see on the label if they decide to read it. I would bet that many of the people upset about pink slime have never bothered to really research what is in the other foods they buy at the store. Some people make it a point to not buy food products with lots of chemical additives and unnatural ingredients, but that is a tiny minority. Most of us are happy with the “ignorance is bliss” approach; and I would argue that if we didn’t take that approach then we might be paralyzed with largely unnecessary worry. Does anybody ever really stop to think about how many other people’s mouths have been on the fork they use at a restaurant? Wow, that’s gross, isn’t it? Of course the dishes at the restaurant are cleaned between uses, but to me, pink slime is no more dangerous than using a cleaned fork that has been in 1,000 different mouths. It’s gross if you think about it – so, don’t think about it!

This controversy will fade as other things grab people’s attention, but what I fear is that whatever the next issue is, people will still have the same knee-jerk, uncritical reactions. Sometimes those reactions turn out to be completely justified, but that is irrelevant to the initial reaction. People need to come to conclusions that rely on more than a sound bite and an unappetizing label or picture that is designed to grab attention. Thinking critically means gathering facts and forming a provisional opinion that may be modified in light of future information. Being grossed out is not a good reason for objecting to a food product.

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