Featurettes

Pink Slime: Why the Meat Industry is Freaking Out

In an exclusive for VegNews, food politics expert Michele Simon tells us why it’s time to pull the curtain back even further.

In case you’ve been hiding in a meat-free bubble over the past month, a perfect storm of mainstream media coverage, social media, and consumer outrage has exposed a particularly distasteful component in America’s ground beef supply.

Pink slime began as the brainchild of Eldon Roth, the head of a company called Beef Products, Inc. Roth took one look at fatty waste trimmings being relegated to dog food and saw potential for more. After several years of experimentation followed by concerted arm twisting of federal regulators, Roth had the solution: a high-tech process of heating, centrifuging, and ammonia treatment, needed to deal with pesky bugs like E. coli and salmonella. The result is what industry euphemistically calls lean finely textured beef, what a former US Department of Agriculture whistleblower coined pink slime, and what I call cheap filler.

The reason the meat industry was happy to incorporate this newfangled substance into its ground beef is simple: to save money by extending supply. It wasn’t for sustainability to use the whole animal, or as a safety measure, or to make beef leaner, to name a few altruistic excuses the meat lobby has been tossing around lately. Pink slime has a singular purpose: to increase profits.

According to meatingplace.com, the economic fall-out over pink slime “is costing packers as much as $40 per head, pushing already negative margins to a loss of nearly $100 per head.” Translation: the meat industry is losing money. No wonder they are so freaked out by the consumer backlash.

This also explains why Beef Products and its powerful allies have been cashing in its political chips in a desperate attempt to resuscitate the product. An impressive array of state governors and federal government officials has come to the defense of pink slime. Instead of taking the side of consumers who’d rather not eat the questionable filler (what happened to the free market?), Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad is calling for a congressional hearing into the “smear campaign” that led to the public outcry. Classic misdirect known as shooting the messenger. (I am sure Eldon Roth’s campaign donations to the governor—to the tune of $152,000 in 2010 alone—are just a coincidence.) On Tuesday, a press event in Iowa hosted by Branstad was met with opposition from family farmers.

The meat industry and its political puppets are pulling out all the stops not only because of the economic threat of this particular outcry. What’s at stake in the long term is far, far greater. From video exposés of animal abuses, to major fast food chains bowing to public pressure on animal treatment, to increasing popularity of campaigns like Meatless Mondays, the awakening of the American consciousness to the grim realities of meat production, with a turn toward healthier and more sustainable alternatives, can only continue.

Meanwhile, many questions remain regarding pink slime. I highly recommend reading the 2009 New York Times story by Michael Moss, which raises important safety questions that don’t appear to be resolved. For example, how did the ammoniating process win approval from the USDA in the first place, and why is the product still allowed in school lunches?

Also, why did Beef Products, Inc. sue to stop the release of test results that the USDA relied on for evidence of safety? And why does the USDA continue to vehemently defend the product now?

Of course, pink slime is just part of a bigger problem. What other ways is ground beef processed that the industry rather you not know about? Why is meat so susceptible to contamination that we have to clean it up with chemicals? What other additives are we eating that don’t have to be labeled? (Here’s a long and scary list from the USDA for starters.) Aren’t there saner alternatives to this system?

These are just some of the questions we (especially the media) should all be asking. With our political system broken, people are directing their anger directly at those responsible for feeding us. The public outrage sparked by pink slime should force more transparency. If we let this moment pass, the meat industry will just go back to business as usual. But we can’t let that happen.

Michele Simon is a public health attorney, author of Appetite for Profit, and president of Eat Drink Politics, an industry watchdog consulting group. You can follow her on Twitter.

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