Pink Slime: (More) History and A Dollop of Sermonizing. Part One

Part 2 --- Part 3 --- Part 4 --- Part 5 Also see my initial posts about Pink Slime here and here.

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This is the first of five blog entries aimed at adding background to the “pink slime” controversy. I spent a couple of days digging around for more information, and what I learned may (or, hey!, may not) be worth knowing. As always, my aim is to make your reading easy, so I’ve broken this into several, bite-sized (no pun intended) parts.

Part of my goal is to correct a MAJOR mistake I made in my first “pink slime” post: I wrongly equated the method used to make “lean finely textured beef” (LFTB), aka Pink Slime, with “mechanically separated” or “mechanically deboned” meat. I apologize for that mistake. (*1) Haste does indeed make waste and error, too. In this case, happily, my error does not affect my conclusion. (Yes, all this will make sense in a moment.)

For the sake of simplicity, I’ll use abbreviations: LFTB for the “pink slime” process, and MSM for the “mechanically separated” process. They’re not the same thing; LFTB is the grandchild of MSM. 

As I noted in my initial PS blog entry, beef and pork packers started using MSM in the mid-1970s, when they were trying to keep meat prices low at a time of extraordinary economic turmoil. The process allowed them to utilize meat scraps that were otherwise going to waste.

The problem with MSM was the “deboning.” Packers used blades/machinery to scrape carcasses clean of meat scrap. They “salvaged” lots of otherwise unused protein, but bits of bone got into the mix. Those bits were crushed when the scraps were mushed together and pressed through sieves.

These bone fragments hardly deserve the name of either “bone” or “fragment”: They were the size, texture, and consistency of pepper flakes, the kind that comes out of a shaker. Translation: not dangerous to anyone.

Unfortunately, others didn’t see it that way. Originally, the USDA insisted that any labels for the stuff contain the words “ground bone.” Packers balked; the USDA backed down; and in 1982 established new rules that allowed them package and sell the stuff without mentioning the word bone.

Then consumer advocates objected and took the USDA to court. At the time, consumer advocates were less worried about bone fragments than they were about the mineral content of the bone, arguing that people with some diseases have to monitor their intake of minerals, especially calcium, and so the product needed to be labeled accordingly. In late 1984, a US Court of Appeals ruled that the USDA’s new rules could stand. (Historical tidbit: Antonin Scalia wrote the opinion.)

Next: The search for an alternative

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*1. As anyone who knows me, or who has read my books or this blog, knows, when it comes to accuracy, I’m obsessive to the point of being anal. This time, however, I was in a hurry, and too tired to think, and, yes, I screwed up. I apologize.