Back in 2012 many Americans were horrified to learn that their ground beef contained "pink slime." It's in our burgers! They're feeding it to our kids! The public outcry led many retailers to drop the beef additive from its products. But today, pink slime is slowly making its way back into our cheeseburgers and tacos. And that's a good thing. Or, at the very least, it's not a thing worth freaking out over.
If you're wondering why pink slime is back on the rise, you can thank two factors: today's skyrocketing beef prices (up 27% in the past two years), and the fact that pink slime is and has always been harmless.
"It is a shame that pink slime has taken up so much of the intellectual energy around food safety issues," Sarah Klein at the Center for Science in the Public Interest told me over the phone. "Because on a continuum of actual serious threats to public health from food, pink slime doesn't register."
Klein works for a non-profit organization that fights for consumer health and safety. And she's absolutely right. The social media hype—in which this site took part—over pink slime two years ago was absurd. The use of pink slime in ground beef was not a threat to public health. And the media frenzy around it distracted from some very real problems in the way that food is produced and regulated in the United States.
Today we're taking a look at the entire pink slime mess, culled from interviews done over the past few days with pink slime producers like Cargill, food safety advocacy organizations like Center for Science in the Public Interest, food safety experts at colleges like Texas A&M, and the agency that regulates pink slime, the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
We'll talk about everything from what actually goes into making the product to why it became controversial in the first place to whether it should be labeled as an ingredient in ground beef. We'll even explore if such a thing as certified-organic pink slime could one day exist.
Pink slime is no filet mignon, but it wasn't designed to be. And with everything currently broken in our messy little world, it's probably the least scary of our many food dystopias.
What is "pink slime"?
Pink slime production is an effort to get more beef into ground beef, using technology that our ancestors who first domesticated cattle didn't have access to. It's certainly efficient, though arguably gross to think about—especially if you have a general aversion to literally hearing about how the sausage gets made.
There are two main producers of "pink slime" in the U.S.: Cargill and Beef Products, Inc. (BPI), both of whom have their own patented processes and names for what's essentially the same thing. Cargill calls its patented process "finely textured beef." BPI calls it "lean finely textured beef." The difference is semantic. Here's what both products actually are.
When a steer or heifer is butchered, some excess fat trimmings that would have normally gone to waste are heated and sent through a centrifuge to separate the fat from the muscle. It should be noted that I'm using the word "normally" within the context of early 20th century meat consumption here, because any food historian knows that the different parts of the animal that we consider edible has varied across time and culture. Ever had beef tongue? Personally, I think it's pretty gross when I can feel the texture of the cow's tastebuds. But that doesn't mean it's not perfectly safe; some might even consider it a delicacy.
After going through the centrifuge, the beef mixture is then treated with an anti-bacterial agent, because grinding up meat makes it more susceptible to contamination with dangerous stuff like E. Coli. This is why, as 21st century American kitchen wisdom dictates, a rare steak is safer to eat than a rare hamburger. To keep you from getting ferociously ill when you eat ground beef, Cargill treats its product with citric acid, and BPI uses a mist of ammonium hydroxide.
"It's a puff of ammonia that they provide into the product, and its purpose is actually to raise the pH, because ammonia has a very high pH," Dr. Gary Acuff, director of the Texas A&M Center for Food Safety explains to me about the food-grade additive that BPI uses.
"They do the same thing on carcasses during processing, except they usually try to lower the pH. So the difference is, on a carcass you might spray with a lactic acid spray—which is the same acid you would find in yogurt for example—or they might spray it with hot water."
In both of those cases, the goal is to make a hostile work environment for pathogens. But here's the important part: These anti-microbial processes have been deemed safe by the USDA, and there have been no reported cases of people becoming sick from these cleaning processes. Quite the opposite. People get sick when pathogens aren't killed.
And that leaves us with the question...
How did "pink slime" become so controversial?
The New York Times published a story about concerns over ammonia-treated beef products in 2009, but Jamie Oliver really got the pink slime-ball rolling with the April 12, 2011 episode of his TV show Food Revolution.
During the program, Oliver concocted a cartoonishly silly demonstration of how pink slime is made, tossing some beef trimmings into a household washing machine. He even acknowledged the absurdity of doing so on air. But this is TV, so you need to take a few liberties with reality for dramatic effect, right?
And then things got weird and downright misleading. Oliver grabbed a plate of some other beef from behind a counter in order to ostensibly demonstrate how ammonia is used to disinfect the processed meat.
"We're going to wash these lean bits of beef that we've spun around there in a water and ammonia solution," he says, pouring a bottle of ammonia into the plastic container filled with beef.
"I don't know how much," Oliver says about the ammonia he's using to douse the ground beef. "There's a specific ratio."
What's the ratio? Oliver truly doesn't care. He just wanted to get great shots of horrified onlookers on video. His ammonia stunt was, quite obviously, intellectually dishonest. The ammonium hydroxide is a fine mist, not a bottle of household cleaning agent. It'd be like shoving an entire evergreen tree up your ass to prove that toilet paper is bad for your health.
But Oliver got the reaction shots he needed, creating a snowball effect in the media that first popped up in digital-only publications like The Daily (remember that failed Rupert Murdoch experiment?) [full disclosure: I freelanced for The Daily and argued then, as I do now, that pink slime was not a threat to public health] and then made its way to ABC News, where the panic went mainstream in March of 2012.
The ABC News report sensationalized it as a whistleblower situation, with Gerald Zirnstein, a former USDA scientist saying on camera that pink slime was not fresh ground beef.
"It's a substitute. It's a cheap substitute being added in..." Zirnstein told ABC News. The report went wide enough to anger most average beef consumers (which is to say, most Americans), who felt that they were being duped. And more importantly, that this pink slime was unfit for public consumption, barely better than dog food.
Flash forward two years, and ABC News currently faces a $1.2 billion defamation suit brought by BPI. It seems highly unlikely that the pink slime producer will win, given that the report wasn't factually incorrect. ABC was, at worst, simply sensationalizing a story. And if that were illegal, pretty much everybody in this industry would be out of a job. Strangely, the true scandal of the pink slime exposé (and a part that doesn't seem to be central to the lawsuit) is the fact that USDA regulators at the time could immediately go work for the very businesses they were regulating. There are now apparently more stringent rules about those transitions.
In a way, Zirnstein was right. Pink slime was and is an "inferior" product, much in the same way that eating a street cart hot dog in your cubicle is inferior to enjoying an artisanal venison sausage while gazing at a gorgeous sunset vista in Glacier National Park. But that doesn't make pink slime awful or dangerous.
The production and use of pink slime was developed as a way to make ground beef affordable for Americans ever since the widespread introduction of the process in the 1990s. The foundational patents for making it even date back to the 1960s.
There was no scandal. Americans weren't getting hoodwinked or risking negative health consequences, at least not outside of the already established dangers of eating red meat to excess. They were just buying an affordable product that, if anything, made them less likely to get ill.
What facts do the pink slime crusaders need to reconsider?
If you have a problem with the fact that pink slime is "processed," then you shouldn't be eating ground beef in the first place. The entire nature of ground beef (and its history on the American dinner table) is that of a byproduct. Historically, grinding beef is how the less desirable cuts of beef can be processed into a more palatable form. I'd love to eat a prime rib at Lawry's every time I was in the mood for cow flesh, but that's not only absurdly expensive, it's impractical and wasteful from just about every other conceivable angle.
If you have a problem with the fact that some pink slime is treated with antimicrobial agents like an ammonia mist then you should probably take a good hard look at the other processed foods you eat. Ammonia shows up in all kinds of foods like cheese, bread, and cookies, among a host of others. Ammonium hydroxide has been approved by the USDA as a way to rid pink slime of its potential dangers. And while I'm not arguing that the agency couldn't be reformed in any number of ways, there hasn't yet been evidence presented that the use of this ammonia-based product poses a public health risk.
And if you want to say that you only have a problem with the fact that the anti-microbial treatment is ammonium hydroxide, rather than say the more "natural" citric acid that Cargill uses, you had better be prepared for a much more uncomfortable fact: there's no discernible reason that organic ground beef couldn't contain "pink slime" as well.
Which leads us to perhaps the most interesting question....
Can you make certified organic pink slime?
I asked a Cargill representative if pink slime is used in any of the certified organic products marketed by companies that Cargill supplies. On its face, it may seem like a stupid question. But remember that we're talking about both an organic product (beef) and the fact that there are plenty of processed foods certified organic in this country. It's not like an Organic Kraft Macaroni & Cheese boxed dinner, or former Organic Batter Blaster™ pancake and waffle batter, are cut from whole cloth.
"The answer to that is a bit complicated, because we cannot talk about the specifications of our customers' products. We only produce products to our customers' specifications," Mike Martin from Cargill tells me over the phone. "You would have to ask them, because we can't talk about our customers' specifications."
So I reached out to Meyer Natural Foods, the largest natural and organic beef company in the country. They have a relationship with Cargill, described in 2010 as a "joint go-to-market" agreement. And Meyer said emphatically that it doesn't use pink slime or anything comparable in their organic beef. "We don't use finely textured beef or any variation of that type of process in our beef and never have," said Chris Anderson, Meyer's director of marketing.
But given the mainstream success of "organic" products, coupled with the rising prices of beef, it seems only logical that some company would employ pink slime in their organic wares. And why not?
Looking at the USDA regulations that dictate how "organic" is defined, there doesn't appear to be anything (except perhaps a patent claim by Cargill or BPI) that would stop some organization from using a citrus or lactic-acid spray in their process and still getting organic certification.
If you work with organic certification regulations in any capacity and can think of any reason why Organic Pink Slime™ wouldn't be possible, I'd love to hear from you in the discussion below. Nobody I spoke with for this story could think of any reason why it wouldn't be at least possible, including the USDA.
"There are substances such as citric or lactic acid on the National List are allowed in organic processed products," Michelle Saghafi of the USDA food safety communications office wrote to me in an email. "Organic producers could use these acids in a meat product but we are not aware of the extent of the use of such acids in organic ground beef or their comparability against ammonium since ammonium hydroxide is not allowed under organic rules."
So why not just label pink slime?
"Transparency is kind of the best way for the beef industry to combat the outrage," says Klein, the consumer advocate. "[The industry needs] to say, this is the way that we use processes to both reduce waste on the carcass of the animal that you're eating and also to make your meal safer."
So why not label ground beef containing pink slime so consumers know what they're getting? For whatever it's worth, Cargill now supports voluntary labeling.
"One of the things that came through loud and clear with the consumer research we did, once consumers understand how the product is made and how it's used, they had no problem with it. But the caveat there was they did believe that even though it's beef, that it should be labeled," Mike Martin at Cargill told me.
Cargill's fresh beef produced under its own brand is now labeled when it contains pink slime; you'll see it on the label under the more appetite-friendly finely textured beef. But the USDA doesn't require such labeling, and despite Cargill doing so under its own brands, other brands (even those supplied by Cargill) don't seem too keen on the idea.
"The insistence on maintaining a veil of secrecy about how our food is produced is what leads to this distrust," Klein further explained. "The meat industry needs to take a good hard look at whether it makes more sense to inform consumers of the way that they get the delicious meals that they're interested in so that no one feels that they've been sold a bill of goods."
Labeling might be a pain in the ass for meatpackers, but it's literally the least they could do at this point, even if there's no public health threat from the product.
This is not the dystopian food of the future you're looking for
There are no utopian options here. American life is often about choosing the lesser of our possible dystopias, even at the dinner table.
"The American people are facing far more dangerous threats from food every single day that the USDA and the public are not nearly outraged enough about," Sarah Klein said. "For example, CSPI filed a lawsuit [just yesterday] against USDA for its failure to act to protect consumers from antibiotic-resistant pathogens in food. I am far more concerned about the specter of antibiotic-resistant Salmonella in my burger than pink slime in my burger."
Every choice we want to believe has a positive effect on the world has consequences. Hybrid cars are great for reducing carbon emissions, but the batteries in those things are absolutely toxic; a mess for disposal purposes, and it takes a tremendous amount of energy to produce them. Mandating that everybody buy health insurance might make premiums go down and ensure that everybody has at least some access to care, but the Affordable Care Act is essentially a regressive tax on the middle class, penalizing people who make enough not to qualify for government subsidy, but not enough that they don't have to cut back spending in other areas of their lives.
In the case of pink slime, the dystopian choices presented to us are either consuming a perfectly safe (though admittedly inferior) product or eating hamburgers and beef tacos that ultimately cost a lot more money.
If we choose pink slime, it means that less waste is produced, fewer cattle are slaughtered, and any number of positive environmental impacts are felt around the country. If we decide as a society (through boycott or legislation) that we don't want pink slime, it means more waste, more needlessly dead animals, and much more expensive beef. And as the effects of climate change only worsen our current cycle of drought conditions, prices will continue to go through the roof.
This would be a much easier choice if we lived in a more functional society, one where our regulatory bodies had fewer ties to the industries they regulate; where everybody made a living wage; where more people had access to some of the luxuries of modern culture, like guaranteed paid time off or paid maternity leave. Things taken for granted in other parts of the world.
But we don't. We live in America, a land of very fertile dystopias. And pink slime, as viewed within the context of everything broken in the world at the moment, is certainly among our more innocuous outcomes.
Image: 4-H Club boy with calf at baby beef auction, Central Iowa 4-H Club fair, Marshalltown, Iowa via Library of Congress; March 29, 2012 Associated Press file photo of pink slime; Screenshot of Jamie Oliver pouring ammonia in the April 12, 2011 episode of Food Revolution on ABC; Worker removes a bone on a conveyor belt at at BPI pink slime facility on March 29, 2012 via Associated Press; USDA Organic food label in 2002 via Getty Images; Cows graze on grass at the Stemple Creek Ranch on April 24, 2014 in Tomales, California via Getty Images Illustration of a food scientist with a test tube scanned from the November 14, 1965 edition of the Sunday comic strip Our New Age