The internet is not happy about the use of the now-notorious, ammonia-filled “pink slime” beef product that, while McDonald’s recently decided to stop using, is still being served in the form of hamburgers in school lunches. Petitions are springing up, Twitter users are swearing off burgers for good, and people are generally surprised that ground beef–one of the meat products that is both historically the least safe and most packed with byproducts–may not be made entirely of pure, prime cuts. But here’s the thing about the “pink slime”: it’s not that different from other cheap ground beef, contains protein, and, in many cases, may actually be safer. Maybe we should focus less on how gross “pink slime,” and more on how much crappy, unsafe ground beef (and other food products) we’re eating–and feeding our kids.
Consumers are right to be indignant that the food they’re eating isn’t being honestly labeled, and that often, it’s just not regulated enough to ensure safety; up until last year, as many as six strains of e.Coli were still permitted to be present in ground beef products. But the outcry over the product also known as “select lean beef trimmings” or “Lean Finely Textured Beef” (LFTB)–both technically correct names for the goo, which is made from stray pieces of beef and treated with ammonium hydroxide–has been surprising…mostly because, since the days of Upton Sinclair, and, more recently, Taco Bell, it seemed that ground “beef”‘s dubious nature was common knowledge. So why is everyone so surprised?
Apparently, when it was only a gross thing that adults could choose to partake in when eating at McDonald’s, the “pink slime” was just Internet fodder, shared on Facebook and generally shrugged off. But when the USDA admitted that they’d be shipping 7 million pounds of the stuff to schools for use in (often free or reduced) lunches, parents officially became angry, and for good reason–the goop is gross, and, more seriously, the ammonia isn’t listed anywhere.
Both the meat industry in the U.S. is notoriously shady. They’ve lobbied to do things like allow “downed” animals to be used for consumption, tried to serve up heaping doses of antibiotic-filled horse meat, and have ensured that many ew-inducing products that are banned in other countries are given the green line here at home. But, as long as consumers are never made privy to exactly how gross the food is that’s being served to themselves and their kids, it’s often ignored. And, weirdly, “pink slime” is one of the least unhealthy products that’s gotten attention, lately–it’s just gross, so people care.
LFTB isn’t being made where slaughtering and initial meat processing is occurring, it is indicative of the climate of secrecy that surrounds much of our commercially-made foods–which will soon grow even murkier, in the wake of so-called “ag-gag” bills, which will make it more difficult for animal activists and consumer safety watchdogs to gain access and document unsafe (and unsavory) production practices. Count the restrictive bills among the ways that consumers are kept out of the loop when it comes to what they eat–and what their kids eat.
“Pink slime,” then, isn’t the main problem–and focusing too much on it might be the biggest mistake of them all. Instead, it should be seen as a sort of microcosm for everything else that’s broken about our food safety system, both for adults and children. LFTB isn’t being used because no one loves our elementary school kids, it’s being used because it’s safer than a lot of inexpensive low-grade beef (that added ammonia is an anti-microbial) that schools and the USDA can afford, and that is still deemed safe for consumption, due in large part to the role that food lobbyists (which represent companies like Beef Products, Inc., one of the producers of “pink slime”) play in decided that is and isn’t edible, nutritious, and safe.
If “pink slime” is what it takes for consumers to begin seeking out and demanding higher-quality and safer beef products, both for themselves and their kids, then maybe all of this controversy needs to be examined not for the ick-factor, but for the questions it raises about where our food comes from. Consumers aren’t overreacting when they’re disgusted with unlabeled additives and food items that, if they knew how they were made, they wouldn’t choose to consumer. But the “pink slime” is only a fraction of the problem–particularly when it comes to the meat industry and the lunchroom lobby. Here’s hoping the outrage leads to something more than viral videos and a few people abstaining from beef.
Update: The USDA wants you to know that LFTB is still totally safe, but schools can opt to serve other forms of ground beef, if school administrators so choose.
Image: Wikimedia Commons and KSDK-TV