Editorial: Food isn't any safer without 'pink slime'

  • Updated: April 9, 2012 - 3:12 PM

Debate was rushed, reflecting a lack of trust in beef industry.


Photo: Jim Cole, Associated Press

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There wouldn't be many takers at Twins games if vendors moved between ballpark seats offering up "extruded meat byproducts" or "fermented grain fluid." But call both by their common names -- hotdogs and beer -- and fans generally clamor for this classic game-day fare.

There's a similar cautionary lesson about the power of labeling -- particularly in this age of social media -- to be drawn from the flash-fire controversy over "pink slime" beef. Ground-up scraps of meat known by the industry as "lean finely textured beef" has long been safely added to hamburger sold in grocery stores and served to schoolchildren.

But after celebrity chef Jamie Oliver dissed the meat, and after critics repeatedly dubbed it "pink slime" on the Internet and in the media, hysteria ensued. Fast-food companies and grocery chains raced to announce that they would no longer use the product. As demand cratered, some meat-processing plants suspended operations; one firm declared bankruptcy.

All of this occurred, it could be argued, faster than meat actually contaminated with a pathogen could be withdrawn so completely from the food supply through conventional mechanisms. A newly connected public made its wishes known with unprecedented speed and force.

A meat product that hasn't been linked to outbreaks, and that is probably safer than the burger it is added to, has now been deemed unacceptable. Beef-state governors recently launched a too-little, too-late public relations repair campaign. Even if they had come up with smarter slogan than "Dude, it's beef" -- who got paid to come up with that? -- this product's reputation is beyond salvage.

That ought to prompt some serious questions about how quickly we as a society make judgments about food safety and other critical issues. The viral campaign against pink slime was won not on facts, but by playing on people's emotions and their disconnect from how food is made today.

Often lost in this debate is that pink slime hasn't been proven to be a health problem. Instead, the main issue seems to be its "ick factor" -- something it has in common with a lot of other foods (hot dogs, bratwurst, bologna) whose origins would likely repel people bothering to look.

Workers cut cow carcasses into steaks, roasts and other products. Hamburger gets made from some of the leftover fat and muscle. The same is true for "lean finely textured beef,'' which is made from scraps of lean meat recovered from previously unusable leftover trim; a centrifuge separates out the lean meat.

The scraps are then processed and treated to kill pathogens such as the deadly bacteria E. coli O157. This involves exposing them to an ammonium hydroxide gas or citric acid (found in lemon juice). Both substances are on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's "generally recognized as safe" list and are used in the production of many other foods.

Pink slime's de facto ban from burger is not a food-safety victory. People will still eat hamburger, and they may be more likely to become ill from regular burger since it doesn't undergo the same extra step to kill E. coli and other pathogens. In addition, to make up for lost volume, beef will likely have to be imported from other countries with less reliable slaughter inspection processes.

These consequences didn't get a thorough airing during the public's rapid-fire verdict on pink slime. While the beef industry tried to point this out, the unfortunate reality is that the industry's credibility has been shredded by previous outbreaks, its big-buck political contributions and its usual lack of enthusiasm for safety reforms.

The pink-slime brouhaha is as much a rejection of meat companies as it is of this ground-beef product. The industry should be shaken by the speed with which the product's reputation has been destroyed. It needs to move quickly to improve transparency and restore consumer trust before its critics come up with the next catchy label.


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    "This is a good opportunity for the media to go back and look at food-safety coverage and technology, and determine the facts, not rumor or fear-mongering.''

    -Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota

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