The Lunch Tray, the Left, the Right and the Pink Slime Revolt

“The truth?  You can’t handle the truth!” Jack Nicholson as Col. Jessup in “A Few Good Men”

In July, 2010, a Houston Mom named Bettina Siegal wrote an article in her blog: One Burger, Please, Extra Ammonia and Hold the E. Coli, an expose on Finely Textured Beef, a.k.a. pink slime.  She followed up in early March 2012 with a petition requesting that Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack remove pink slime from school lunch menus: Let’s Put a Stop to “Pink Slime” on School Lunch Trays. Eight days later, she’d collected over 200,000 signatures, and things started to change.

Image source: http://inhabitat.com/join-the-effort-to-stop-disgusting-pink-slime-beef/

By mid March, the USDA announced schools could opt for ground beef without filler.  Supermarkets and fast food restaurants began to cancel orders, and a processing plant was threatened with closure.  Bettina’s life turned upside down. She was inundated with calls from the press, offers of interviews for national news and on T.V. She’d tapped into a monster of frustration that was ready to spring. She was as surprised as anyone.

Back on the ranch, meaning my house, friends and I ping-ponged over the Internet about this new hullaballoo.  The R’s wrote (I’m paraphrasing, actually quotes much more ahem colorful) there’s nothing wrong with pink slime, it’s treated beef, just like all the other beef we eat, and we have no right to keep people who want to eat it, mostly people who are poor who can’t afford Grade A, from eating it..  The D’s wrote this is a massive failure of the USDA regulation, which is dominated by corporate money.  

Who is correct?

A recap: pink slime starts with leftover trimmings (fat, cartilage, tendons and meat bits), and is usually contaminated with e coli and salmonella.  In the past these were relegated to scrap heaps or used for dog food.  In response to public demand for affordable hamburger, a researcher for a company called Beef Products, Inc. figured out a way to separate the beef bits and other things from the fat (heat and spinning in a centrifuge), and then decontaminate it with an infusion of ammonium hydroxide gas.  The name pink slime was coined by a Department of Agriculture scientist in an e-mail to a colleague, later leaked.

Yuck.  Sounds like the evil CAFO industry doing its work.

Image source: http://www.oklahomafarmreport.com/wire/news/2010/07/00358_COFJULY2010_143112.php

So are my R friends right? Ye-e-s…  So are the D’s.

Ammonium hydroxide is used to kill the pathogens in Finely Textured Beef.  It sounds awful, but ammonium hudroxide has a seal of approval not only from the USDA, but also from the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization (WHO).  It’s added to baked goods, cheeses, chocolates, caramel and puddings.  How much is too much? I don’t know, and can’t find an answer, but until then, have no grounds to argue with WHO.

Image source: chemistryland.com

How about the beef itself, infested with e coli and not too long ago considered fit only for dogs?

This “filler” has been around since the 1990’s, and if you buy ground beef, low fat hot dogs, pepperoni, lunch meats, frozen entrees, meatballs or canned foods, you’re eating it. Are you grossed out by pink slime?  Stop buying these products.

How good of a job does the ammonium hydroxide do in decontaminating?  Not so great.  A little too much ammonia and the product smells bad.  Too little and you don’t kill the e.coli and salmonella.  Beef Products, Inc. has had to recall batches: Safety of Beef Processing Method Is Questioned

Are USDA regulators overly influenced by industry?  Judge for yourself:  The USDA approval of Finely Textured Beef was pushed through in 1991 by G.W. Bush’s USDA undersecretary Joann Smith, reputedly known for this quote,”It’s pink, therefore it’s meat”.  She had a long and distinguished career in the beef products industry, which included a stint as the head of the National Cattlemen’s Association (pre-USDA) and as a member of the Board of Directors of none other than Beef Products, Inc after leaving the USDA.

Joann Smith, Image source:  http://www.florida-agriculture.com/agwoman/smith.htm

Should pink slime be out of school lunches?

Image source: Eric Langhorst/Flickr; Mother Jones online "Can Your Kids School Now Opt Out of Pink Slime?"

I think so (GO BETTINA), but we’ve whittled down school funding so much that filler-free beef might be out of reach for many school budgets.  Not necessarily bad if it means we ease kids away from burgers, but nobody is suggesting that, at least not on a large scale.  Schools that can’t afford 100% ground beef may well opt for the cheaper stuff with pink slime.

So where does this leave me?  All of us?  Are we having a moment of truth, a face to face with our agricultural industry?  Are we saying we don’t want cheap hamburger, pepperoni and low fat hot dogs? The next time we see that tempting package of ground beef on sale will we say wait! Let’s buy lentils instead?

Or are we just, temporarily, grossed out?

Either way, hats off, kudos and a huge thank you to Bettina for her dedication to kids and her willingness to put herself and her family in the spotlight.  She inspired me to do a lot of hard thinking and reading, and might just have sparked a revolution.  Disclaimer:  I’m no expert in the field, and appreciate the complexity.  Feel free to send corrections, additions and updates, and check out Bettina’s blog:  The Lunch Tray

Detroitnews.com, March 29, 2012, "Beef consumers urged to reconsider 'pink slime'"

5 comments

  • These activist need to see the real truth in anything they are near and it doesn’t need to be beef. We have been on this earth many years and can do many things without their help. If I don’t like some I don’t need someone else telling it’s bad for me. If people don’t think the same line that they make out to be a catch phase as there own, they make us out to be on the wrong side. Maybe if we had a news media that reported the news insead of making up the news, we could make up our own minds instead of having our minds made up by people with a agenda.

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  • Thanks for hitting such a timely and complex issues, Julia! Last week a petition signed by over one million went to the FDA in hopes of getting labels for all genetically-modified foods. Regardless of where one stands on GMOs, I think it’s important that our foods are labeled; then we at least have a choice.

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  • How right you are. We’re in unmapped territory when it comes to messing with the genes in food, and if we are going to be guinea pigs, we should do so knowingly.

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  • I’m not sure where I fall on the pink slime thing. It sounds gross. But then again, I’ve probably been eating it for years. I think it would be nice to be informed of what is in my food though. I agree with you and August labels are essential. Then I can make a choice. 😉

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  • Yeah, it’s a little bit funny how grossed out we get about eating animal snouts, then turn around and eat duck liver or bread made with L-cysteine—an amino acid made from dissolved human hair or duck feathers. Maybe sometimes ignorance is bliss.

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