Where does your "pink slime" come from?

A beef grinding operation. Photo by USDA/Wikimedia

by Audrey Gyr

In the past few weeks, the controversy surrounding “Lean Finely Textured Beef,” otherwise known by its colorful moniker “pink slime,” has raised many questions about the state of our food system. Created by Beef Products Inc., this product was invented ten years ago to turn fatty beef trimmings, which are highly susceptible to contamination by E. coli or Salmonella, into a product safe for human consumption.  Previously these trimmings had only been fit for pet food and cooking oil. However, by liquefying the trimmings and using a centrifuge to separate the fat and sinews from the meat and then spraying it with gaseous ammonia they could be safely mixed with regular hamburger meat and sold to an unsuspecting public.

You probably have heard Lean Finely Textured Beef referred to as “pink slime” in the news. The term was coined by a USDA microbiologist in 2002 in an email sent to colleagues, who went on to say “I do not consider the stuff to be ground beef, and I consider allowing it in ground beef to be a form of fraudulent labeling.” Nevertheless, it continued to be sold to school lunch programs, prisons, grocery stores, and restaurants across the country. In fact, some studies estimate that over 70 percent of all hamburgers sold contain “pink slime.”

Consumers have been outraged to find out that this ingredient and the ammonia used to produce it was never labeled on the food they were eating. The USDA says that “Lean Finely Textured Beef” did not have to be included on food labels because the ammonia used was classified as a processing agent. However, over the years there were many complaints about products that contained “Lean Finely Textured Beef.” Complaints mainly centered around the sometimes strong ammonia smell which could make the product unpalatable. In response, the company began reducing the amount of ammonia used in production. As a result, several batches which were intended for school lunches tested positive for salmonella in 2008. (You can find more details about this in an investigative piece written by Michael
Moss in 2009.)

Because of intense public pressure over the past few weeks, major fast food outlets such as McDonalds, Burger King, and Taco Bell no longer carry beef containing “pink slime” and grocery stores are frantically trying to find suppliers who don’t use it. Consumers are demonstrating their power and influencing what goes in the food they eat. I think this is a very encouraging step.

Several questions still remain. Why did we ever use “pink slime”?  Some people support the use of pink slime because it reduces waste. Efficiency and cost cutting is key in the food industry because profit margins are incredibly small and saving even a few cents per pound of beef can make a large difference for businesses. If the substance is taken out of our food system then we can expect beef prices to increase. Additionally, we would have to slaughter an estimated 1.5 million more cattle every year to maintain the quantities of hamburger sold in the United States. With the environmental cost of raising livestock in factory farm conditions becoming more evident, can we really afford to be raising millions more cattle?  It is also important to think about the economic impact that Beef Product Inc. has. Factories in Kansas, Texas and Iowa have halted production as a result of all the media coverage and social backlash. It is estimated that 300 jobs have already been lost in Kansas.

While all of these are good points in support of Lean Finely Textured Beef, I personally find several things alarming about the circumstances surrounding this case. The industry is blaming journalists and the media for raising hysteria and spreading hearsay about their product just to boost viewership. They believe the average consumer doesn’t need to take an interest in what they are putting in their bodies and that experts should be trusted blindly. However, one can’t ignore the fact that “experts” are closely linked with the industries they are supposed to be regulating. For example, the Undersecretary of Agriculture, Joann Smith, was the first to approve the use of pink slime in beef products. Interestingly enough, she was appointed to the board of directors at Beef Products Inc., after stepping down from the USDA. Political leaders have also become involved in the “pink slime” debacle. Govorner Terry Branstad of Iowa recently organized a barbeque and publicity tour at a Beef Products Inc. factory. He also received 150,000 dollars in campaign donations from the founders of the business in 2010.

Overall, the “pink slime” scandal has increased awareness of many pertinent issues and raised important questions about our food system. It is clear that consumers want and deserve to know what is in the food that they eat. The system that is producing our food is not transparent, and in many cases the businesses and organizations involved benefit from the general public’s ignorance of how their food is produced.


CBN: Pink Slime Waste Added to Grocery Hamburger Meat
NPR: The Economic Impact of Killing Pink Slime
New York Times: Mark Bittman: Thoughts from the Cutting Room Floor
US Dept of Agriculture Food Safety & Inspection Service: Safe and Suitable Ingredients Used in the Production of Meat, Poultry, and Egg Products
Food Safety News: BPI and Pink Slime: A Timeline