“Pink slime,” or “lean finely textured beef,” is the food that just won’t go away—in the media or from our plates, in a lot of places. But should we really be upset? Some don’t think so—and they’re not just the “Beefstate Governors” that Stephen Colbert mocked earlier this week. Many are defending the processed meat product as completely safe and reasonably nutritious; others are mostly arguing that, well, it’s gross. But despite some fairly salient arguments in favor of keeping the slime (or “LFTB”) in our food system (that it’s a more efficient use of resources, giving the environment and our economy a boost), I don’t think that opponents are just being “snooty” and ignoring facts. Because there’s still reason to be concerned about putting this stuff in our bodies.
Megan McArdle, senior editor for The Atlantic, wrote a surprisingly convincing article today about why we should learn to love pink slime. She wrote that the most well-informed critics admit that their main arguments have more to do with culture than any real concerns over safety or nutrition. She cites Marion Nestle, a demi-god of nutrition and public policy (and regular contributor to The Atlantic), who has said that pink slime “is not really slimy and it is reasonably safe and nutritious,” so, according to McArdle, bases her argument around “signaling” certain cultural values, rather than any real facts about the product.
McArdle also points out that banning pink slime (or just lowering demand for it) would actually do bad things for our economy and the environment. Jacking up the demand for LFTB-free ground beef would also jack up the number of cows that need to be slaughtered to meet the demand, lead to lower profits and a bigger environmental load (because cattle require considerable resources to raise and produce large amounts of methane gas)—and all for the sake of appeasing snooty, squeamish customers:
While the environmental impacts of getting rid of pink slime aren’t certain, intuitively we should not find it too surprising if it turns out getting less food out of each cow is bad for the environment. With no health or nutrition gains to be had, I don’t see how the pink slime critics claim the moral high ground here. This is another example of society engaging in potentially costly signaling just to show each other that we care.
For a moment, McArdle’s argument made me feel embarassed about my aguments against pink slime: As if I’d been called out as a priveleged, Whole Foods customer sheepishly couriering groceries to my sedan while wearing a 99% pin. But I don’t think that Marion Nestle—or Stephen Colbert for that matter—are criticizing pink slime in some vain effort to show each other that we care. I think many of us are upset for good reason: Because any food system in which pink slime is an economic and environmental hero, is a food system that seriously needs some help.
The answer to cutting pink slime out of school lunches and family meals isn’t to slaughter more cows so that we can have more of another kind of beef; it’s to re-think the standard diet, which involves far too much processed food, and not nearly enough fresh, plant-based nutrition. The beef industry would like us to believe that ousting pink slime would hurt our economy and put tons of people out of work—but that doesn’t mean we can’t create jobs in other industries if we raise demand for fresh fruits and vegetables as a result.
And while I think critics are grappling to find hard evidence that LFTB is unsafe or nutritionally deficient, I think common sense tells us a lot more than the technicalities: Processed foods are linked to several health problems. Eating red meat regularly is linked to higher risk of death. Eating a plant-based diet is linked to several health benefits. So, while large-scale studies proving the isolated risks of LFTB may be decades to come, all you need to do is look around—at diabetes rates, childhood and adult obesity rates, heart disease, and a myriad of other chronic diseases—to see that our food system isn’t working. And if “pink slime” is one way for people to get serious about wanting that to change, then I think it’s a good place to start.