This is a pair of words you’ve probably heard a good deal about in recent weeks; most likely since March 7, when ABC News seized on the story of pink slime and made an, um, meal of it. Pink slime, perhaps the epitome of that uncertain class of more-or-less edibles known as “food products,” has a lot of names: as marketed by companies like Beef Products Inc., the South Dakota firm that makes most of it, it’s “boneless lean beef trimmings”; if you saw it described on a label (which you probably won’t, because it’s not legally required), it would probably be called “lean finely textured beef.”
Pink slime, on the other hand, was how this ground meat made from otherwise unusable bits of leftover cow was christened by a former U.S. Department of Agriculture scientist named Gerald Zirnstein in a 2003 department email. Zirnstein has been trying to get people to listen to him about pink slime ever since; yet although the product has been around for several decades, it’s only relatively recently that alarms have been raised about its widespread use. And widespread it is: by some estimates some percentage of it may be in as much as 70 percent of supermarket ground beef. The question is, why are we only caring about it now?
Interviewed on WNYC radio’s Brian Lehrer Show last week, Eric Schlosser, author of the muckraking bestseller Fast Food Nation and one of the reporters featured in the 2009 investigative documentary Food Inc., said that an accurate description of pink slime would be something along the lines of “centrifuge-separated, ammonia-treated, reconstituted beef.” Schlosser also pointed out that many people besides himself have tried to draw the public’s attention to the issue over the years; one of them, as a matter of fact, is the chef and real-food advocate Jamie Oliver, who did a vivid segment of one of his 2011 Food Revolution TV episodes—about the state of the food served in one West Virginia town’s public schools—on pink slime; where it comes from and how it’s made. And yet no real dent was made in public opinion on the matter until last month.
It’s just sort of disgusting
So how did pink slime begin? The meat that goes into making this “pink paste molded into frozen bricks” (Schlosser’s description) comes from small, fatty bits left over from other cuts, stuff that at one time would at best have been made into dogfood, not fed to humans. At BPI (which has several plants, all in the Midwest), the bits are heated and put in a centrifuge (Jamie Oliver did his demo with a washing machine) to separate the fat from the meat, which is then treated with ammonia to kill bacteria and shaped into those pink frozen bricks. Interestingly, part of the impetus behind BPI’s development of this technology—and technology it is; the plants are futuristic, “bizarre facilities,” says Schlosser—was to combat the problems the meatpacking industry had in the 1980s and early 1990s with various infected hamburger meat scandals. A 2008 piece by Annys Shin in the Washington Post, “Engineering a Safer Burger,” rather worshipfully describes BPI’s founder Eldon Roth’s crusade to deal with the problem of food-borne pathogens by separating the fat from meat and adding ammonia. His success has been the American dream: allowing “a small, family-owned business to not only produce safer meat but also make money doing it,” as Shin says.
The trouble with this inspiring story is that the industry’s victory over pathogens has come at the expense of the food it is making safe for us to eat. As Schlosser put it, pink slime is “not necessarily a dangerous thing; it’s just sort of disgusting.” The ABC News story made it clear that not only was the stuff mixed into a lot of supermarket ground beef, it was a staple of the National School Lunch Program. Bettina Siegel, whose blog, thelunchtray.com, discusses all kinds of issues around children and food, started a petition to get rid of pink slime in school lunches and got nearly 300,000 signatures in a few days; the USDA has already announced that starting this fall, school districts can opt out of pink slime if they want to, and many are already rushing for the exits.
So why now? The life of an epithet is a strange thing; it can flare up and be gone in a few weeks or months, or it can sit quietly and suddenly be given new life, as has happened with pink slime. No doubt the growing real-food movement and the continuing raising of awareness about Big Agribusiness (and the conflict of interests represented by agencies such as the USDA, which is supposed to simultaneously promote these industries and regulate them as well) have had a cumulative effect on public opinion; similarly, the kinds of runaway malpractice among banks and other businesses that the financial crisis of the last few years exposed has surely made us readier to see the meat-packing industry’s business practices and marketing schemes as part of a larger pattern of the corporate takeover of so much of our lives today—and to rebel against it. To quote Eric Schlosser once more, “These things have their own life; it just reached a critical mass.”—TAMARA GLENNY