by Marion Nestle
Apr 1 2012

The dilemma of pink slime: cost or culture?

I devoted this month’s (first Sunday) Food Matters column in the San Francisco Chronicle to the current hot-button issue, pink slime.

Q: I keep hearing about pink slime being fed to school kids. How could anyone even think about putting something so disgusting in school lunches?

A: Pink slime is the pejorative term for “lean finely textured beef,” a product designed to recover useful bits from carcass trimmings. These are warmed, centrifuged to remove the fat, treated with ammonium hydroxide gas to kill pathogens and compressed into blocks that are frozen for later use.

The final product is pink; therefore, it’s meat – or so says the meat industry. And from a strictly nutritional standpoint, it is. But from any other standpoint, LFTB creates a dilemma.

For one thing, it solves an enormous problem for meat producers. Only about half the weight of the 34 million cattle slaughtered each year is considered fit for human consumption. The rest has to be burned, buried in landfills or sold cheaply for fertilizer or pet food.

LFTB recovers 10 to 12 pounds of edible lean beef from every animal and is said to save another 1.5 million animals from slaughter.

This is the same argument Mal Nesheim and I used in our book, “Feed Your Pet Right.” If American pets were not fed byproducts of human food production, they would need the equivalent of food for 42 million people.

Our readers did not buy this argument. They do not want their pets eating byproducts. They believe their pets deserve food of higher quality. Don’t kids?

A dilemma

Here’s the dilemma. LFTB solves a serious food safety problem. The meat trimmings that go into cheap hamburger are said to often be heavily contaminated with bacteria, some of them dangerous. The ammonia processing makes LFTB safe.

Since LFTB’s introduction, safety officials say they rarely find toxic E. coli in school hamburger.

LFTB’s leading manufacturer, Beef Products Inc., has just announced suspension of LFTB production at three of its four plants. This alarms some food safety advocates. They worry that if public pressure causes LFTB to be eliminated, bacteria-laden beef trimmings will go back into hamburger, just as they used to, and the meat will be much less safe.

Under public pressure, some fast food chains, grocery retailers and school districts say they will no longer mix LFTB with hamburger. Walmart will offer customers a choice, and so will the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Members of Congress have written the USDA, asking, “If fast food chains won’t serve pink slime, why should school cafeterias?”

Calling LFTB “pink slime” presents a massive public relations problem. Human culture determines what is socially acceptable to eat. Most of us don’t eat the parts of animals our culture considers inedible.

LFTB is not really slimy and it is reasonably safe and nutritious. But it violates cultural norms.

Chef Jamie Oliver proved this with schoolchildren. In one episode of his “Food Revolution,” he made the chicken version of pink slime (white slime?) from bird parts the kids found disgusting. When he formed the slurry into patties, the kids ate them anyway. They forgot about the patties’ origins.

But we are acculturated adults. Once we know how chicken nuggets are made, we might want to think twice before eating them. Now we know hamburger is mixed with LFTB. Do we still want to eat it?

Letter to USDA

School food advocate Bettina Siegel collected 230,000 signatures on a letter to the USDA to ban LFTB. She wrote, “It is simply wrong to feed our children connective tissues and beef scraps that were, in the past, destined for use in pet food and rendering, and were not considered fit for human consumption.” The USDA buys loads of LFTB for school hamburger because it is cheap. Districts that choose higher-quality meat will have to pay more for meat. Can they afford to?

Of course they can, says my go-to guru for all matters concerning school meals, Kate Adamick. Her new book “Lunch Money: Serving Healthy School Food in a Sick Economy” (cookforamerica.com/lunch-money) shows how schools can buy new equipment and better-quality food by creating strong breakfast programs and cooking meals from scratch.

This means that the acceptability of LFTB in supermarket hamburger or school meals boils down to a cultural choice. Even if LFTB is safe, nutritious and tastes like hamburger, it may not be culturally acceptable.

Do we want LFTB in our food? Or do we and our children deserve better? Serving healthy and delicious food is a way to show respect for our culture, food, children and schools, and to invest in the future of our nation.

Perhaps the best solution to the pink slime dilemma is simply to label LFTB as an ingredient. This would give individuals and schools the opportunity to decide for themselves whether culture or cost is the more important value in food choice.

An even better idea: Let’s produce safe meat in the first place.

  • http://www.twitter.com/greghirson Greg

    Thanks for sharing this article. It provides (me, at least) a different lens through which I can view the LFTB story.

  • http://www.beefisbeef.com justin giskie

    Once again i read anarticle that is not based on facts and that doesn’t give the facts but just byist opinions. This beef is safe and saves lives. everyone has eaten it for 20 years with no sickness being related to beef products inc. don’t be wastefull we as americans cant afford to be wastefull of our resources. also stop the pink slime myth and educate the truth and stop the false crusade against safe beef. if you dont like the label then stick to the organic it’s labeled just for you. you already get a choice don’t campaine to take away everyone elses choice. if you dont want your kids to eat it then send them with a sack lunch that you make. otherwise it must not matter that much and the false crusade must end now!

  • http://www.beefisbeef.com justin giskie

    http://www.beefisbeef.com for the facts and the truth

  • Robert

    Justin, did you actually read the entire article? It basically agreed with you and said that LFTB is safe and won’t hurt kids. I think you need a read a little more closely before you get offended and call the article biased.

  • Christa Gallo

    I think the point of why LFTB is a misconception when we eat burgers and is offensive to so many people is being missed here.

    From a strictly gastronomical standpoint, when I order a 100% beef angus burger, I expect to eat ground beef, as in cuts from the cow that are traditionally used to make a burger. Of course there are nutritional qualities in beef trimmings, and you could use almost every part of the cow to create a dish…but I didn’t order any other dish, and I didn’t intentionally order a burger with filler in it…that results in a lower quality product. Its simply another example of deception within our food production system, so that companies can cut corners and costs.

    To take it a step further (a step that we are unfortunately not paying as much attention to as we should be), from a sustainability standpoint the concept of filler meat is ridiculous. The energy it takes to breakdown the trimmings and convert them into a product safe for human consumption is absurd and could be avoided if we localized our food systems. This would render the whole process unneccesary. Not only would the beef be safe to eat WITHOUT the need to break it down and add chemicals to kill off bad bacteria (e.coli), but the energy inputs required would be significantly reduced, the cows would be humanely raised (eating what they are meant to eat), and the beef would simply taste better.

    Wow what a concept.

    I do appreciate that this article is trying to step away from what all the hype is saying. But claiming that because the filler has nutritional qualities that it isn’t so bad, is sidestepping the point.
    That is the kind of reasoning that has worked its way in our legislative processes by big ag business and allowed for children to be fed such awful diets in school in the first place. Anyone can find some nutritional qualities in a french fry. But should it be a staple food for kids to be eating everyday at school?

  • http://www.rawlawyer.com Faye @ RawLawyer

    Super interesting. Thanks for the article.

  • John H

    If the meat industry takes offense to the term pink slime, they may refer instead to a more accurate term, such as “ammonited fat” with a slight hint of fecal matter that no one in their right mind would consider purchasing. That would be a more accurate description. Thus, it is quite natural for consumers to be offended by the clandestine use of this byproduct. It also illustrates BPI et al knew ahead of time consumers, if given a choice, would not have bought this byproduct.

    As for my household, we will never again buy ground meat nor eat any product made from it in a restaurant. They (the beef industry, politicians, and the USDA) slipped it into the food systems once, they WILL slip it in again in the future as soon as the public forgets. In fact, we’ve decided to go mostly vegetarian.in my family. The “Pink slime” debacle was a blessing in disguise.

  • FarmerJane

    Hi, John. I think labeling would help a lot. I know it would help us farmers who raise cattle the old fashioned way, on grasslands and then send to local “low process” slaughterhouses. In the Northeast, these are often the small family owned businesses who do not mix in additives or engage in “high process” meat extraction, processing or production typical of the huge enterprises. In my part of the state, we used to have a nice family run slaughterhouse a few miles from the farm. We would take cows there, just a short trip, no stress on the cow, to a family we knew handled the cows properly. Unfortunately, bedroom community people drove it out of town screaming that having a slaughterhouse in a growing bedroom community was “not appropriate”. Now, virtually all the cows in our area go on a 4 hour drive to one huge Cargill facility that practices “high process” to extract every last morsel out of the animal, while paying the farmer the least amount of money. (farmers testified about this in the antitrust hearings, to no avail).
    Labeling would help when we go to sell meat from our cows, that is something that our own family eats, from our own cows, nothing added, just basic good meat. In the past locals would SHRIEK at us, that they can get meat for half the price at WALMART or KMART. OK, well, labeling would let people know that there are differences in the meat and how it is processed.
    I thought that the highly processed food is part of American culture, isn’t it what people always wanted? Virtually every food ad on television pushes some highly processed food. Everything is highly processed now and companies maximize beyond belief what they can get out of a real piece of food. Take cheese. It used to be that 100 pounds of milk would yield 10 pounds of pure cheese. Now…with adding things like imported milk protein concentrates and caseins to the cheese vat…100 pounds of milk now yields 14 pounds of industrial cheese. The consumers don’t know that this process even exists (Food and Water Watch has written on the topic). Even beyond that, big companies hold patents on analog cheese slurry that enables them to really fake it up in dairy….again, the consumers have no idea.
    In the world of fish, I see that Journal of Food Safety had a big splash in January of 2012 announcing that new processes are being developed to recoup protein from fish surimi wash water. The process is touted as helpful to the environment since they can literally squeeze “protein” out of the fish wash water. Fake crab meat anyone?
    If you think being a vegetarian is going to be better, witness the hexane in soy controversy last year.
    Perhaps the best thing would be to eat food that is relatively unprocessed and push for more labeling. We dairy farmers are pushing for Country of Origin labeling on the imported junk that is not even GRAS recognized that goes into junk food. So for, we have been told this would be “too confusing” for consumers. The more consumers demand labeling, the better it is for all of us, farmers and consumers alike.

  • Rachel

    Thank you for this whole picture kind of article. The truth is, we as a society need to move away from this beef-everyday mentality. It’s not good for our health, the environment, the extra cows that would have to be killed to make up for the lack of LFTB . . . If beef was more of a once in a while food, we could afford to eat the parts that are actually meat, have it ground fresh, and our bodies would thank us for it.

  • http://ryantate.com Ryan Tate

    “Only about half the weight of the 34 million cattle slaughtered each year is considered fit for human consumption. The rest has to be burned, buried in landfills or sold cheaply for fertilizer or pet food.”

    This baffled me, Marion.

    Factory farming drives the cost of beef to ridiculous lows by sacrificing humane animal treatment, animal health, environmental standards for feedlots, and, frankly by all evidence, compliance with federal law.

    The life of a single cow becomes so cheap it is simply not worth the cost of human labor to properly butcher it. As a result the “choicest” cuts are culled and much of the rest literally blown off under high pressure water into a slurry, at least according to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstal’s River Cottage Meat Book.

    This slurry and its presence in ground beef has been at the root of any number of health scares. Now apparently they’ve taken to spraying it with ammonia.

    I was hoping you’d say the federal enforcement and standards should be raised, both in treatment and labeling, to the point where people paid more for beef and the animal was properly butchered, and people ate less red meat to boot. This would raise ethics in the meat industry to say nothing of national health. It would place more reverence on the life of the cow.

    Instead I find you accepting the seemingly wretched premise it is inevitable that animals must be wastefully slaughtered using factory techniques, and OH WELL AT LEAST THE PINK SLIME IS SPRAYED WITH AMMONIA unlike all the other slurry the factory farms have been turning out.

    Am I missing something here? Or could we not be gleaning many more actual cuts from the cow, and much less hose sprayed beef and slurry garbage, if beef prices were higher, if there were more respect for the cow?

    I am just speechless that a nutrients looks at the beef consumed in this country and says, “You know what? It’s awfully nice that it is so cheap and that there is so much of it. We should really consider the importance of this pink slurry in enabling our current diet, because our current diet should really be preserved!” Because, yes, what we need to be doing is eating more beef, for cheap. Even when it literally means eating noxious chemicals.

    You truly baffle me.

  • http://ryantate.com Ryan Tate

    *nutritionist not “nutrients”

  • http://ryantate.com Ryan Tate

    “This alarms some food safety advocates. They worry that if public pressure causes LFTB to be eliminated, bacteria-laden beef trimmings will go back into hamburger, just as they used to, and the meat will be much less safe.”

    Again, the complete fealty and toothlessness of our federal regulators  leaves observers in the ridiculous position of wondering if we should swallow our disgust out of fear of what worse terror the beef industry will unleash if we fail to do so.

    I would rewrite this sentence as “Some food-safety advocates worry that if consumers reject disgusting meat byproducts sprayed with ammonia, the meat industry will replace them with poisonous meat byproducts not sprayed with ammonia. And since the USDA is in the pocket of industry, no one will protect the public from the poisoned food, and people will die or be crippled.”

    Clearly, the problem here is touchy wimpy people who don’t want to eat ammonia, not the near-complete lack of consumer protection in this country. Way to highlight the real issue.

  • http://ryantate.com Ryan Tate

    One last comment that I hope crystalizes my point.

    This is not at heart a “dilemma.”

    It would have been a dilemma, perhaps, had people know what they were eating.

    It would have been a dilemma, perhaps, had people know what they were buying.

    It would have been a dilemma, perhaps, had federal regulations properly required disclosure of basic information on labels (such as the information people need to make “cultural” decisions).

    It would have been a dilemma, perhaps, had federal regulators had a record of properly and vigorously enforcing meat-safety laws.

    It would have been a cultural choice *if people had been making a choice*.

    But people did not know what they were eating. The lobbying power of the beef industry and large scale agribusiness saw to that, as did the limpness of politicians on this issue, as did the dereliction of duty by the USDA.

    You cannot make a cultural choice, Marion, if you do not have the information at your disposal. The vast majority of Americans did not. That is why it is so disheartening for me to see this presented as an academic chin-scratching dilemma.

    This is not about whether pink slime is good or bad. It is about the systemic denial of real information and thus real choices to millions of Americans. And I wish given your platform you had chosen to write about THAT.

    Because frankly “should I eat ammonia sprayed beef byproduct or encourage the government to encourage children to do so” is not a particularly difficult decision for most of your readers.

  • Joie

    Amonia processes animal parts and fat is safe? Really? That’s like saying the amount of antibiotics pumped into meat and poultry isn’t contributing to a surge of antibiotic resistant superbugs! Wake up people!

  • phil

    Thank you Ryan for dotting the Is and crossing the Ts

  • http://none Mike Damon

    Hi – I love your Listings column. Does each link’s typesize correspond to the number of times it’s been selected?

    Thanks!

  • Brandon

    +1 for Christa and Ryan

  • anon

    I never cease to be amused by the claim that we never used to feed these parts to our kids. Maybe that was true during wasteful periods like the 50’s, but most families before WWII were willing to cook these parts is ways to make them palatable, including shaved beef, stews, and gelatins. If you want to go way back, colonial New Englanders considered cod heads to by a childrens’ snack.

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  • Dwight

    The pink slime issue would not have arisen if beef were humanely raised, not fattened on grain which they can’t digest without extensive use of antibiotics and other chemicals, and not kept in filthy crowded conditions in feedlots. Recovering and eating “useful bits from carcass trimmings” makes sense; I do it every time I cook a chicken. But the finishing and slaughtering methods used with commercial beef are so filthy that ammonia and mechanical processing must be used to make LFTB safe.

    I don’t see this just as something that “violates cultural norms,” but as a moral issue about how we treat the animals and plants that ultimately become our food. Processing of decent food should be minimal, like home canning and freezing, but processing has become an elaborate method of converting the unsanitary and inedible into the barely edible. Then we turn it over to the advertising industry to convince us that we might want to eat it, particularly because it is so cheap.

  • John H

    No doubt, the beef industry has lost large swaths of good will and consumer trust in this fiasco of label fraud and now political band standing. Blaming and pointing the finger at the consumer is absurd. The witch hunt / “heads will roll” attitude of the Utah gov is pathetic and reasserts my decision never to buy beef again. In fact, I will never again trust large scale agriculture nor the USDa again.

    To Mr. Ryan Tate, you were 100% spot on when you said…

    “But people did not know what they were eating. The lobbying power of the beef industry and large scale agribusiness saw to that, as did the limpness of politicians on this issue, as did the dereliction of duty by the USDA.

    You cannot make a cultural choice, Marion, if you do not have the information at your disposal. The vast majority of Americans did not. That is why it is so disheartening for me to see this presented as an academic chin-scratching dilemma.”

  • Marcos

    This counter-argument is weak, the pink slime is treated with ammonia, that’s why it’s disgusting and slimy! Children shouldn’t be eating ammonia, there’s no such thing as a “safe” level of ammonia a child can consume. The writer doesn’t address that issue conveniently because it’s indefensible.

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  • Dan

    “Children shouldn’t be eating ammonia, there’s no such thing as a ‘safe’ level of ammonia a child can consume.”

    Really? Ammonia is a natural byproduct of protein degradation, and there are many examples of preserved foods eaten all over the world than contain measurable amounts of ammonia in far greater concentration than what’s in LFTB.

    I don’t particularly want to eat LFTB either, but I also don’t enjoy watching other disseminate patently false information.

  • Tomc

    What we have all been exposed to with this “pink slime” coverage is a classic example of media sensationalism aimed at ratings and not based on facts. Now some clear facts here. The only differences between the trimmings used to make ground beef, as the consumer recognizes it, and the trimmings used to make LFTB is the lean beef to fat ratio. LFTB starts by using higher fat trimmings. To achieve the higher lean ground beef that we all desire economically, the lean is separated from the fat and the lean is added back into the ground beef. Nutritionally equal or even improved due to higher lean content. On to the subject of ammonia hydroxide. The association of ammonia used as a cleaning agent is very misleading. After the lean beef is separated from the high fat trimmings. Food grade ammonia gas, which is naturally occurring in many foods including beef, is used to slightly elevate the ph of the product. Elevating the ph of the beef creates an environment that is unfriendly to bacteria. So the intent here is truly food safety. Next, I have seen a lot of back and forth about labeling. This is a tough one. There are some questions that have been posed many times. Do you label it ground beef with lean beef added? Or, do you put on the label ammonia used to elevate the level of already existing ammonia? Contrary to what many might believe, this debate has been going on throughout for quite some time. The next thing we should be asking ourselves is, who’s going to suffer? Well, simple economics will tell us we, as consumers, will pay more at the meat counter due to the lose of quality lean beef in the market place. I would encourage that we all do some research for ourselves and not buy into the media hype. A well informed consumer now has the tools to, and will, make good choices.

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  • Alan

    Information is power.
    “We have been had, hoodwinked, bamboozled.” and it will continue.