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

Part One --- Part Two --- Part Three --- Part Five For my two initial PS posts, see here and here

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So --- back to the “pink slime” controversy: Many critics object to the fact that package labels don’t say “this meat contains meat scraps extracted from a carcass and subjected to ammonia gas in order to elevate its pH levels and kill bacteria.”  

Others object to the fact that LFTB is being used in school lunch programs. In response to that particular point, I’ll just say this: We barely pay teachers a living wage for teaching. What makes anyone think the American taxpayers are willing to spend more of their tax dollars on school lunches? (As with our drinking culture, we get the educational system we want.)

But let’s not lose sight of the reason meatpackers developed techniques to utilize those scraps: They were trying to keep consumer prices down and still allow the owners/shareholders of packing/processing companies to earn a profit. Those scraps represented a way to achieve both goals. 

Which brings us to the last of the major objections:Critics object to the CONTENT; to the stuff that LFTB is made from.

Many people believe that the ingredients in LFTB aren't “real” meat; that the scraps are byproduct material suitable only for dog food.

That truly puzzled me. How, I wondered, could any sane person think this is non-edible food? I finally found the answer: In 2009, a New York Times reporter wrote a story about BPI, and in that report he describes LFTB as 

made from beef that included fatty trimmings the industry once relegated to pet food and cooking oil.

Aha! Apparently, that’s where the “dog food” critique came from. Let’s think this through, shall we? 

The fact that the packing industry “once relegated” those scraps to use in pet food doesn’t make it “dog food.” What it means is that packers couldn’t figure out how to use those scraps in a way that consumers would accept (because of the “bone” problem).

But that's not the same thing as saying the scraps were/are “dog food,” or that they were inedible or unsafe for human consumption. All it means is that, barring a better method of utilizing those scraps, they’d turned them to profit by selling them to manufacturers of dog food.

Why would they do that? Because here’s a little-known but immensely useful fact about meatpacking in general and beef processing in particular: It’s damn near impossible to make a profit from the MEAT itself.

Packers have always relied on byproducts, whether hides, bone, hoof, thyroid, or whatever, to subsidize the cost of making the actual meat. Prior to the 1940s, those byproducts brought in good money: Packers sold hides to shoemakers, for example, and various animal parts to drug makers.

But from the 1940s on, meat byproducts declined in value: shoemakers replaced leather with vinyl, especially the soles; synthetic pharmaceuticals replaced old-fashioned drugs; plastic replaced bone buttons. You get the picture.

The loss of income from these byproducts was devastating to the packing industry. Many packers went out of business, and the survivors survived because they built ultra-efficient plants where machines replace human labor. (Another fact that drives critics crazy.)

Packers don’t have a choice, not if they want to keep the price of meat low enough to satisfy consumers: By itself, the meat won’t pay the bills. Packers must come up with other ways to reduce costs.  

So if they had meat scraps that couldn’t be mixed with other “beef,” their best bet was to sell the stuff to someone who could use it, in this case pet food manufacturers. But once packers developed a bone-free method of utilizing the scraps, they could add it to other ground beef and use it themselves rather than selling it to Purina. Makes sense to me.

Next: Be careful what you read. Even here!