by Marion Nestle
Apr 2 2012

“Pink Slime:” Some questions about what’s really at stake

The “pink slime” furor gets curiouser and curiouser.  It’s hard to keep up (see yesterday’s post) 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 Time 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 USDA’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 [see Addition at the bottom of this post].

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 USDA Secretary going to bat for a private company well known for supporting Mitt Romney in particular and Republicans in general?

I can only speculate that it has something to do with Tom Vilsack’s wife, Christie, who is running for Iowa’s 4th Congressional District. In Iowa, BPI has bipartisan support, and Christie Vilsack says:

LFTB is safe…it is the women in our community who can put BPI back on it’s feet.

I think one of the biggest strengths in this audience today are all the women here, because we tend to be the ones who go to the grocery stores, and we’re the ones who choose the products that we bring home and feed to our families.

No concerns at all. It’s a safe product, and these are wonderful people who work there.

Who stands to benefit from the “pink slime” furor?

Wendy’s for one. I saw the company’s full-page ad in USA Today and the New York Times (March 30):

Where’s the pure beef? At Wendy’s that’s where! We use nothing but pure, 100% fresh, never-frozen North American beef.

We’ve never used fillers, additives, preservatives, flavor boosters, or ammonia treatments.

We’ve never used ‘pink slime,’ and we never will.

If LFTB is safe, isn’t it acceptable?

I’ve heard this argument before. It’s the same one used for GMOs. As I discuss in my book Safe Food, even if technological processes like this are safe, they are not necessarily acceptable—especially if they are not labeled and do not give consumers a choice.

What should BPI and other companies do when caught in a crisis like this?

Bill Marler has an explanation and some suggestions. This CEO:

  • Did not trust consumers with the truth.
  • Did not openly explain how the food product was made and what additives and ingredients it contained.
  • Ignored dissenting expert opinions in memos and emails.

To rebuild public trust and sales, Marler advises, do not:

  • Shoot the messenger.
  • Threaten legal action.
  • Play the political card.
  • Make political supporters eat your product or say how safe it is in front of the national media.

What should companies do? Simple:

  • Just tell the truth.
  • Tell consumers what they already know.
  • Tell the public how the product is made and what is in it.
  • Tell consumers the real benefits of the product.
  • Post test results online.
  • Invite the public, not politicians, to your plant for a tour and a taste test.
  • Bottom line: If you have nothing to hide, hide nothing.

My last questions for now:

  • Why are we allowing the school lunch program to be the dumping ground for cheap food?
  • Why don’t we have a food safety system in place that requires beef to be safe in the first place—so it doesn’t have to be treated with ammonia?

We should all be asking these questions and demand that our elected leaders ask them too—and insist on answers.

Addition: AFA, a competitor of BPI, filed for bankruptcy, because of reduced demand for all beef products.

  • Melissa

    Can’t they put it in pet food?

  • Whether the LFTB is used for pet food or not, the upshot is that between 500,000 to 1,500,000 (depending on who is estimating) more cows/bulls will need to be slaughtered to make up the difference for our finickiness over the use of ammonia. Ammonium hydroxide is already found/used in higher concentrations in cheese. It’s also used in other food products, including chocolate.

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  • What should companies do? Simple: APOLOGIZE to the American public for deceiving them.

    And NO! Do not put this glop into pet foods or, if you do, be prepared to label the dog or cat food as such. Do NOT lie to the American public again! Big mistake!

    I’m just happy my dogs and I have most likely not eaten this goop, as the three of us are vegan and will remain so. Shame on you, BPI!

  • Mike

    Your recent posts on this have had some good information, but I’m not sure why you feel the product is unacceptable.

    Of course consumers should know what they’re eating, and (like GMO foods) proper labeling should be a requirement.

    But the labeling and consumer information aspects seem irrelevant to your objection to its use — is your view that the product is unacceptable simply because it’s a processed food?

    It doesn’t seem any more processed than a bag of Fritos; it’s just we’re talking about animal processing rather than vegetable. I know you’re not a big fan of Fritos, either; but I haven’t seen 3 posts in a week on “yellow sludge”.

    I think in these debates we too often fall into “the perfect is the enemy of the good enough” trap. So far, I haven’t seen anything compelling to argue against the use of “pink slime” in low-cost food products. It *does* seem to be safe, it *is* lean protein, and it is recovered from parts of the animal that would otherwise be wasted. It seems more wasteful to me to throw away something that can be processed and used safely in the food supply.

    While it may seem gross to think about the process, I think this is just cultural bias and ignorance. Is it really significantly more disgusting than killing a docile, intelligent creature (a cow), draining it of blood, harvesting its muscle for sale as steaks/whole cuts, then grinding the leftovers for burgers and the like? Seems like “pink slime” is just a more technological way of making the most of the animals that are killed to (over)feed our bellies.

    I would argue there are far larger problems with the beef industry; pink slime seems almost like a “tilting at windmills” diversion from the real issues.

  • Julie

    Mrs. Vilsack is Christie, not Cathy.

  • Melissa

    Also, I wonder how much they will really lose? Are they (and the commenter above who says that it will increase the number of cattle slaughtered) taking into account the fact that removing pink slime will reduce the supply, which will normally increase price? The supply of cattle is already kind of tight because of drought at this point.

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  • Gosh, when I read things like this, I’m glad I live in NZ where pink slime isn’t on the menu (Well not that I know about!) Totally agree that there should be a food safety system in place that requires beef to be safe in the first place—so it doesn’t have to be treated with ammonia? Food politics – it’s a crazy world out there!

  • Janet Weeks

    They will put it in cat food -their crap regularly kills our cats

  • Nik

    -even if technological processes like this are safe, they are not necessarily acceptable-

    That is ridiculous. The majority of objection is on the basis of perceived safety and fear.

    There are far more important issues about ingredients we consume that have demonstrated dangers to health and environment, that receive far less attention.

  • Suzanne

    I wonder whether the supportive comments for FTB slime are coming from industry pros? I also wonder whether those same people commenting would be willing to eat the product in their home or in a restaurant if they were informed they were eating the product.

  • We could consider eating fewer hamburgers. Not only will this save the cows, it will be healthier for all of us.

    I read something interesting this week. Most of our beef imports are imports of beef trimmings from grassfed beef. The trim is 90% lean, and is known as 90s.

    We import beef trimmings because of the amount of hamburger we eat. Enough isn’t produced in this country.

    The USDA had to do a study specifically on the safety of imported beef trimming, because the types of pathogens differ in each country. It had to make sure the monitoring procedures were effective with such disparate points of origin.

    So much for the whining about what to do with the trim…

  • I have said this before and I will repeat myself again. If you don’t want to eat “pink slime” or you don’t want your kids eating it in school then DON’T. You have a choice to eat beef or not and you certainly have the choice to allow your kids to eat the school lunch or make lunch for them at home. I can’t imagine that the people who complain about beef processing are the ones who are letting their children buy school lunch in the first place. I inherently agree – I want my food to be as “clean” as possible. I fantasize about getting all my food from the local farmer down the street, but that is just not possible. The people who complain are the people who are naive to the consequences and who will be complaining when their hamburger meat in the grocery store rises to $20/pound

  • Heather, we can’t make a choice if the beef in the store isn’t labeled.

  • technological processes like this are safe.If you don’t want to eat “pink slime” or you don’t want your kids eating it in school then DON’T. You have a choice to eat beef or not and you certainly have the choice to allow your kids to eat the school lunch or make lunch for them at home.

  • Michael

    Heather/”Recipes of Bangladesh:” first, while the “pink slime” rendering procedure as originally approved by USDA might in principle be safe, processors are in practice drastically lowering the amount of ammonium chloride because of the unpleasant smell of the stuff, with the result that the assurance of microbial safety has been shot. Samples tested in an independent lab by the NYT had TEN TIMES less ammonium chloride than they were supposed to. Indeed,

    “government and industry records obtained by The New York Times show that in testing for the school lunch program, E. coli and salmonella pathogens have been found dozens of times in Beef Products meat, challenging claims by the company and the U.S.D.A. about the effectiveness of the treatment. Since 2005, E. coli has been found 3 times and salmonella 48 times, including back-to-back incidents in August in which two 27,000-pound batches were found to be contaminated. The meat was caught before reaching lunch-rooms trays.”

    Also, in suggesting that parents can simply choose to make lunches at home instead of letting their kids eat school lunches, you’re forgetting how much school lunch is a program of nutritional support for hungry or neglected children. This isn’t just about consumer choice: it’s about how we’re caring for the most vulnerable, and how safe the system as a whole is rather than what niche food markets we carve out.

    On the other hand: Marion, when you ask “Why don’t we have a food safety system in place that requires beef to be safe in the first place—so it doesn’t have to be treated with ammonia?”, part of the answer is that (if there were enough ammonia applied — see above) this IS part of the system that makes food safe ‘in the first place.’ You can’t mess with cow blood and guts and not address pathogens. The parts of the cow that are used to make “pink slime” are much higher-risk materials than steak, being mostly leftovers from the outer surfaces of the carcass and-or scraped from the factory machinery, and thus has more exposure to fecal matter and larger microbiological populations. It does have to be sanitized SOMEHOW, or left to add to our already shameful burden of food waste.

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