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    Beyond Pink Slime

    As you have probably heard by now, the food scandal “du jour” has to do with “pink slime”, also known as mechanically-separated meat (or, when made by Beef Products Inc., “Boneless Beef Lean Trimmings”).

    This ammonia-treated scrap meat — the same one some fast food giants recently phased out  — has been widely used since the early 1990s, is reportedly present in 70 percent of all ground beef products, and is a staple in school cafeterias (seven million pounds (!) are expected to be served in school lunches across the country over the next few months).

    The story essentially writes itself. When fast food companies, infamous for cutting corners at any cost, turn their noses up at a questionably safe ingredient that ends up on the lunch trays of schoolchildren, headlines are to be expected — and rightfully so.

    The meat industry has responded via a new website: the awkwardly-titled Pink Slime Is A Myth (I have yet to comprehend how something real and tangible can be labeled a myth).

    While I do not dismiss the recent grassroots efforts that have gained significant strength via a petition to get pink slime out of school cafeterias, I worry that the focus on it detracts from bigger and more important food system issues, and provides the meat industry with a convenient distraction and an easily fixable problem that can effortlessly be spun into a public-relations success.

    At its core, the pink slime controversy is a case of “same script, different cast”. It is no different from ingredient obsessions that led to trans-fat free chips and sugar-loaded products “free of high fructose corn syrup”.

    Undoubtedly, phasing out trans fats is a formidable public health step. However, the absence of trans fats does not intrinsically make chips “more nutritious” or “healthy”, simply “less worse”.

    In the same way that soda made with cane sugar in lieu of high fructose corn syrup is not a healthful beverage, there needs to be a clear message that “slime-free” ground beef is by no means the golden standard, especially when an ever-growing body of research continues to highlight the harmful effects of red meat consumption (the latest: it “contributes substantially to premature death”).

    We can’t forget that the majority of ground beef in the United States, even if free of said “slime”, comes from animals (35 million beef cattle, to be exact) that are treated miserably, is processed by employees under horrible working conditions, and severely damages the environment. And, of course, there are also the rampant recalls and food safety concerns.

    It’s also important to remember that other important puzzle piece: agricultural policy that makes ground beef cheap and, therefore, ubiquitous. The United States is the number one exporter of beef, and the average American consumes 58 pounds of it each year (a figure that has been on a steady decline, but is nevertheless one of the highest in the world).

    I do not bemoan public interest in school lunch issues and sketchy additives, but it is crucial to not lose sight of the big picture — “pink slime” is one of many symptoms of a broken food system. Even if the meat industry were to announce the end of ammonia-treated beef, they should continue to be held accountable for a multitude of atrocious practices as well as a food product that poses various health risks.

    Slime or no slime, red meat should be a rarity in school cafeterias.

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    8 Comments

    1. Bettina at The Lunch Tray said on March 14th, 2012

      Andy:

      I agree with you to some extent, but as the originator of the Change.org petition against pink slime in school food, I did want to share my thoughts as well.

      The comparison of pink slime to an “ingredient obsession” is not quite apt. People aren’t engaging in mindless “nutritionism” here; rather they are rightly quite pissed off to learn that their hamburger (and could there be a more iconic, treasured food in this country?) contains undisclosed “pink slime,” and that the government, in deciding it didn’t need to be disclosed, sided against consumers’ interests and with a company that has earned hundreds of millions as a result.

      The reason that the petition is getting so much media attention — along with almost a quarter million signatures in a mere seven days – is that, for many Americans, this is their first real wake-up call about Big Food. You and I might be well aware of the interlocking, cozy relationship between the food industry and government, but for many less educated consumers, pink slime has done much to inform and outrage.

      So rather than having naively provided the beef industry with a “convenient distraction and an easily fixable problem that can effortlessly be spun into a public-relations success,” (and by the way, I sure hope this is an “easily fixable” problem but am not so optimistic), I feel quite proud to have contributed in my own small way to the national conversation about food this week.

      Bettina

    2. Michael said on March 14th, 2012

      I find school lunch programs to be a “black hole” of poor health choices. This is another example in a long line of decisions that really put our kids at higher risk for chronic illness and poor health. Before this it was Congress’ declaration that tomato sauce used on pizza should count as a serving of vegetables. And, don’t even get me started on vending machines in schools!

      It really comes back to parents. Until we take an active role in our kids’ health and demand healthy foods in our schools, nothing much will be done.

    3. Michelle said on March 15th, 2012

      This is essentially why I don’t eat meat anymore. I just don’t trust food corporations who only seem to have their best interest at heart and a complete lack of disregard for the general public who consume their products. I have heard far too many negative things, read too many negative things, and seen documentaries on the subject matter that has just repelled me fully.

    4. Robyn :) said on April 2nd, 2012

      I had just made a conscious decision to eat better overall and eat mostly vegetarian meals when I head about “pink slime” in fast food meat. Even though it was supposedly not being used anymore, the idea that they did and not knowing what other chemicals they might be using have pretty much turned me off of eating a fast food hamburger ever again! Or red meat school lunches (I work in an elementary school). I am reluctant to eat any red meat unless I know where it is coming from and what is going in it. I am also going to try to be more selective of chicken and fish. For me it was one of those things where as long as I did not know what was in it I was fine (like with hot dogs), but now that I do know it disgusts me and turns me off from eating that stuff.

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