Want A Little History With That Pink Slime?

UPDATE: For those of you just tuning in, I wrote a second PS blog entry. You can read it here. Also, a kind reader, Travis Arp, corrected a mistake I made in this entry. You can read that in the first comment below. “Pink Slime” made the headlines of my local newspaper this morning (said paper being the Des Moines Register, that’s not surprising; the Register, even in its current scaled-down version, still covers news of interest to agriculture).

The point of the story, versions of which appeared in most major newspapers, is that pink slime’s days are apparently numbered. Food activists have succeeded in forcing grocery stores and restaurants to stop selling the stuff. As a result, beef prices will likely rise.

Whereever does this historian begin in making sense of the Pink Slime Propaganda campaign? (Maybe the better question is: Where should I end this rant?? There’s so much I can say . . . .)

First a word about PS: It’s beef, people. Plain ol’ beef. It’s created by using a deboning process that removes every last morsel of flesh from beef carcasses. During the cutting, slivers and bits of bone end up with the beef, but those are reduced to mush in the processing that follows.

Second, a bit of history. The Wikipedia entry for PS and most newspaper reports create the impression that PS dates to the 1980s. Wrong.

In the BEEF industry, its use dates back to the mid-1970s, although poultry and fish processors were already using the technique. Beef packers began using in the in mid-seventies because, at the time, all meat prices, but especially beef, were in the stratosphere. A host of factors pushed those prices up (you can read all about this in Chapter Five of my forthcoming --- 2013 --- book Meat: An American History), including a global food famine, inflation, rising fuel costs, unemployment, etc. 

Meatpackers were having a tough time turning out meat products at a price consumers would pay. Consumers were outraged; they organized boycotts; the White House imposed price controls. Etc. (Five years of research for this new book taught me one thing: American consumers demand cheap food, and especially cheap meat, and when they don’t get it, there’s hell to pay.)

So pushed by consumers on one side, and soaring costs on the other, meatpackers asked for, and got, permission from the USDA to use a “mechanical deboning” process that allowed them scrape meat off carcasses so that what had been waste could be eaten. (*1)

I gather from the Wiki entry and other reports that in the 1990s, a guy named Eldon Roth, who also founded Beef Products, Inc., the nasty, evil company that makes the stuff (yes, I’m being sarcastic) developed a method of sterilizing deboned beef. I’m assuming the timing was not a coincidence: In 1993, there was an outbreak of e. coli-related illnesses (and a few deaths) caused by eating fast food burgers. (*2)

Food activists object to PS on two grounds (no pun intended):

First, they argue that this is not real beef but is being passed off as such. They’re wrong. It’s beef. If you’ve eaten a hamburger in the U. S. at anytime since the mid-1970s, you’ve eaten PS.

Second, they object to the use of ammonia to sterilize the meat.

In the words of a couple of critics:

According to Marion Nestle:

“If this is acceptable to people, it essentially means it’s OK to eat the kind of stuff we put into pet food,” she said. “Culturally we don’t eat byproducts of human food production. It’s not in our culture. Other cultures do. We don’t.”

And Jamie Oliver:

“I hope the U.S. government is also listening because it’s partly responsible for lying to the public for allowing this cheap, low-quality meat filler to be used for so long without having to legally state its presence on packaging”. (*3)

I’m all for food safety, but in this case, the reaction is irrational. If PS were unsafe, we’d have learned that, oh, about 35 years ago. Really. There’s nothing unsafe about this. The reaction is also simply wrong. This is meat. It’s not “byproduct.” It’s BEEF.

The real problem, as near as I can tell, is that many food activists simply don’t understand how meat is manufactured; don’t understand  how demanding average consumers are (see above about boycotts, etc.), and how difficult it is for meatpackers to make a profit on beef in particular. 

The only reason companies like IBP or Tyson or Cargill earn a profit on beef is that they control the materials from farm to grocery store; they run highly efficient packing plants; they produce in huge volume; and they subsidize FRESH beef by also making “value added” products. (Think microwavable pizzas with beef, or cans of chili con carne.) It’s incredibly difficult to make a profit on FRESH meat in general and beef in particular.

You get my point: Pink Slime isn’t unsafe. You may not like its appearance, but unsafeness (is that a word) does not follow from unpleasant appearance. (LOTS of things in life are unpleasant to look at, but it doesn’t follow that they’re unsafe. Think, oh, I dunno: giving birth? Slaughtering an animal?)

What I find most interesting about the PS uproar is how much, alas, it resembles the prohibitionist movement of a century ago: Fear-mongering. Half truths. Appeals to emotion rather than fact and reason. 

Don’t get me wrong: I agree with the food activists on many points. Many. What I object to is the, how shall I put it? --- tone of hysteria attached to their work. The self-righteous “we don’t like it and therefore it’s bad and screw the truth and facts” tone of their approach. 

Again, I side with the pro-food group more than I don’t. But in this case, they’re engaged in a witch hunt, creating unnecessary fear and alarm, doing an industry a great disservice, and, yes, if the deboning process is banned, beef prices will like go up. It’ll be the equivalent of culling a hell of a lot of cattle from the nation’s herd. 

They sound so much like prohibitionists that it scares the hell out of me. Where, I wonder, will their fear-mongering and disregard for fact and reason lead?


*1. At the time, Ralph Nader and Michael Jacobsen of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (if you’ve read my beer book, you KNOW what a fan I am of MJ and the CSPI...) objected to the process, filing complaints with the USDA and FDA. (I’m being sarcastic about MJ and the CSPI. I do NOT like scolds, food or otherwise.)

*2. The e. coli episode was caused by meat that had not been cooked at a temperature high enough to kill bacteria. The outbreak began when people ate hamburgers from Jack In the Box, a fast food chain in the northwest, and then expanded when primary carriers made contact with others. Sadly, many of the infected were kids, and when they went to daycare, they infected other kids. If I remember right, one child died.

*3. Both quotes from "Pink Slime Maker Suspends Some Plant Operations."