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PINK SLIME: grassroots crusades, corporate campaigns and an insatiable appetite for knowledge

Several months ago, nobody really knew anything about Gerald Zirnstein.  Times change.

Mr. Zirnstein is a microbiologist who previously worked for the United States Department of Agriculture, and he is largely credited with coining the term “pink slime.”  The phrase refers to a beef filler known as boneless lean beef trimmings or lean finely textured beef, which consists of fatty beef scraps and connective tissue that are removed from parts of cows that are exposed to significant amounts of feces and are highly susceptible to contamination.  The scraps need to be treated with ammonia hydroxide to remove pathogens such as Salmonella and E. coli before being heated and spun in a centrifuge to isolate protein and remove fat.  The concoction is thereby transformed into a gelatinous mass that almost radiates a shiny hue of pepto-bismol pink, which is used as a filler in commercial and retail meat products.

Not surprisingly, producers fill meat products with the compound because it’s cheap, efficient and positively impacts the bottom line.  Michael Moss, a reporter for The New York Times who won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for reporting about such practices, recently explained that

[i]n the meat industry, there’s something called least cost formulations… Companies will mix and match trimmings from different parts of the cow and different suppliers to achieve the perfect level of fatness. This material is … slightly less expensive

The widespread use of pink slime flew under the proverbial radar for years, even though Mr. Zirnstein estimated that around 70 percent of meat bought at grocery stores and other retailers contained the ammonia-washed filler.  It recently gained widespread attention, however, when Celebrity Chef Jamie Oliver began crusading against the use of pink slime.  Advocacy groups joined the conversation, the issue went viral and pink slime became a topic frequently debated through social media and on network newscasts.

The United States Department of Agriculture didn’t quite realize the significance of the public outrage – even though its actions had already been subject to criticism – but the agency eventually decided to change the federally subsidized lunch program so that schools will now be provided with the option of serving students with meat that does not contain pink slime.  In a somewhat surprising but related development, McDonald’s publicly declared that it would not rely on the pink slime to fill its meat products, and Taco Bell and Burger King discontinued its use.  A number of grocery stores still sell meat that contains pink slime, but many others no longer sell meat containing the filler.

Beef Products Inc., the largest supplier of pink slime in the country, has experienced a considerable decline in its operations due to these events.  The extensive media coverage, coupled with retailers refusing to stock meat that contains pink slime, has led to a significant decrease in demand for the filler.  As a result, Beef Products Inc. announced earlier this week that it would suspend operations at several facilities, including its plants in Garden City, Kansas, Amarillo, Texas and Waterloo, Iowa.  These sites collectively produced around 900,000 pounds per day, and their closure will result in the temporary layoff of 650 employees.

The company is now engaging in an aggressive public relations campaign designed to restore confidence in its products.  Industry groups and politicians are also rallying behind Beef Products Inc.  For example, Governor Terry Branstad of Iowa, home to one of the processing plants, has vowed that pink slime is lean, quality meat that costs less and is healthier than alternatives.  Governor Branstad will be joining Texas Governor Rick Perry and Kansas Governor Sam Brownback, whose states housed other processing plants, to demonstrate their support for Beef Products Inc. by touring its facility in South Sioux City, Nebraska, later this week.

Even United States Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has voiced his support of the use of pink slime.  Earlier this week, he said that “I can guarantee you that if we felt that this was unsafe, we wouldn’t allow it to be marketed and we wouldn’t make it part of our school lunch program.”  In other words, trust the government… just don’t listen to the government’s microbiologist who first voiced concerns about the use of pink slime, referred to it as an “adulterant” and recommended that it not be included in ground beef.  He’s shady, the rest of us are trustworthy.

For what’s it’s worth, I’m pretty sure that the campaign fails to address the heart of the issue by blaming the outrage exclusively on public disgust about the health risks associated with eating a visually unattractive beef filler.  I don’t really think that this is the case, because many Americans already choose to consume highly processed food made from the most disgusting scraps of animals – even though they realize that eating the highly processed food may well adversely affect their health.  As a culture, society has already accepted the risks associated the consumption of these products, and campaigning against this issue is almost akin to rallying against a straw man argument.

In 2010, for example, consumers spent more than $1.6 billion on hot dogs, which generally consist of meat trimmings, fat, flavorings and preservatives that are mixed in vats, forced into tubs and stuffed into natural or synthetic casings.  The United States Food and Drug Administration specifically recognizes that hot dogs can contain any amount of mechanically separated poultry and up to 20% of mechanically separated pork, which the agency describes as

a paste-like and batter-like poultry [or pork] product produced by forcing bones, with attached edible tissue, through a sieve or similar device under high pressure to separate bone from the edible tissue.

That’s visually unappealing and raunchy, yet the process has done little to deter many consumers.  People know that hot dogs may well be prepared using a reprehensible processes, that the processed food contains may well contain many foul animal byproducts and that their consumption correlates with many known health risks.  Regardless, the same people still knowingly decide to eat the food.

Where’s the outrage?  What aren’t people attacking the hot dog industry?   They’re not, arguably because the risks have been disclosed, the process is transparent and neither the government nor the industry are perceived as disempowering Main Street America.

And that’s what this comes down to: choice.  It’s the heart of the problem, and a considerable amount of the outrage is likely derived from the fact that consumers are only now learning of the reality of pink slime.  We’ve been eating it for years, but its existence wasn’t readily disclosed and we therefore have been unable to make an informed decision about whether we should consume the product.

And, of course, many activists blame the United States Department of Agriculture of the concealment of information.  The agency allows distributors and retailers to label pink slime as meat.  The product is not listed on nutritional labels, and therefore even the most diligent consumer was unable to chose between purchasing meat containing the filler and meat not containing the ingredient.  Incidentally, Undersecretary of Agriculture Joann Smith was heavily involved in the decision-making process, and she was appointed to the Board of Directors of Beef Products Inc. once she left the agency.

Bettina Elias Siegel, a face of this grassroots movement and author of the popular petition on change.org, recently summarized the manner in which the lack of information – or the concealment of information – led to the present situation.  She’s eloquent and objective, so I’m simply going reproduce part of her recent posting:

But clearly something else arose out of my petition and the media coverage associated with it.  Consumers learned — many for the first time — that USDA allows [lean finely textured beef, or LFTB] to be mixed into the nation’s ground beef supply, up to 15%, without any labeling to disclose that fact.  Reportedly, 70% of beef in this country now contains LFTB.

And as it turns out, consumers are quite unhappy about this fact.

Some people are concerned about food safety, given the pathogenic nature of the raw material used by [Beef Products, Inc., or BPI] to make the product.   Its safety record, though now admirable, was somewhat more troubling between 2005 and 2009 when E. coli and salmonella were repeatedly found in its product, as reported by the New York Times.   Some consumers – rightly or wrongly — worry about the use of ammonium hydroxide in the processing of their food.  Some people consider the inclusion of an unlabeled filler to be a form of economic adulteration, in that their package labeled 100% ground beef might only be  85% ground chuck or ground round and the rest a gelatinous meat filler.  And others claim there are aesthetic differences between beef with LFTB and pure ground beef.

Whether any or all of these concerns are valid is almost beside the point.  Our free market is founded on informed consumer choice, but in this case USDA deprived consumers of the ability to make that choice when it made the controversial decision to treat LFTB as “ground beef,” no different from ground chuck or ground round.

Now that the truth about LFTB is coming to light, BPI’s business may be suffering.  But this consumer reaction should not come as much of a surprise to the company;  why else did BPI, according to the Times, lobby USDA back in 2001 to exempt their product from labeling?

Of course, that was always Mr. Zirnstein’s contention.  The USDA microbiologist-turned-whistleblower has simply explained that “[t]he public’s not aware of it, hasn’t been for years. It’s not their fault. Nobody told them.”

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