It Came From the Media: What Prompted the Ruckus About “Pink Slime”? And Is It Unhealthy?

By Guest Blogger | March 23, 2012 9:34 am

By Deborah Blum, a Pulitzer-prize winning science writer and professor of journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison since 1997. It originally appeared on the Knight Science Journalism Tracker.

What I’ve been trying to figure out, since the processed beef “pink slime” story broke this month is this: Are we just reacting to what Benjamin Radford at Discovery News calls “the ick factor”? Or does pink slime (which the industry understandably prefers to call “lean finely textured beef“) actually pose a health risk? And does anything in the flurry of recent coverage help us sort that out?

It’s worth looking at the coverage that began in early March with a story in The Daily by David Knowles and an ABC News segment by Jim Avila. As noted in The Huffington Post by Michael Hill, in a matter of days the issue went “from simmer to boil.”

Let’s stipulate that some of this response derives from the very term “pink slime,” which tends to stimulate the “ugh” response. “Pink”—not so bad. But “slime”? Have you ever heard anyone use that word in a positive, how-attractive-your-slime-covered-dinner-is kind of way?

The term was reportedly coined by Gerald Zimstein, the former USDA scientist who brought the process to the public’s attention. Zimstein is not—surprise—a fan of the product. He also objected to a USDA decision allowing its use to be concealed from the American public and has made a point of calling it out. You’ll find him in the ABC News story reporting that some 70 percent of ground beef products in grocery stores contain pink slime.

So what is pink slime, or, um, finely textured beef?

It comes from a rather commercially clever use of scraps—fat and meat removed from standard meat cuts. These remnants are spun through a centrifuge to separate the beef bits from the fat. The rather soupy meat mixture is then squeezed through a thin tube and exposed to a puff of ammonia gas. The gas reacts with water in the meat to form a trace amount of ammonium hydroxide. This reduces acidity and kills (fairly reliably) any pathogenic bacteria lurking in the beef.

The separation process was invented in the 1980s; ammonia treatment was added in the 1990s for food safety reasons. And the company that started it all, Beef Products Inc., of North Dakota now has a website dedicated to defending trimmings as a healthy food source. It needs it, too, because Google tells us that the last couple weeks have seen more than 2,000 stories on the subject, many including the word “gross” in the headlines.

Consider this one from J.M. Hirsch at AP, featured in the e-version of the Auburn (AL) Citizen: “Pink Slime Sounds Gross – But How Does it Taste?” The intrepid reporter manages to track down ground beef packages with and without added slime. (It is really hard to find the right word here. Trimmings? Ooze? Pink product? Filler?) Anyway, not surprisingly, Hirsch likes the ooze-free hamburger better. The same tidal wave of revulsion has swamped the food industry as well, with everyone from McDonalds to Safeway announcing that they’ll no longer use the product, South Carolina legislators proposing a state-wide ban, and the USDA reversing a long-standing policy and deciding that school lunch programs can opt out of pink-slime beef as part of the menu. (Note that the original story in The Daily referred to the agriculture department as “Partners in Slime.”)

On the other hand, Hirsch makes the point, however, that ground beef with additive is a lot cheaper; in other words, it’s easier to avoid highly processed food if you’re in one of those higher socioeconomic brackets. But are there any actual health problems associated with slime?

This got a much tougher look a couple of years ago when Michael Moss at the New York Times did some terrific work looking at the risks—both chemical and bacterial—associated with the product, noting particularly that the vaunted ammonia treatment didn’t always kill pathogenic bacteria.

The paper’s strongest coverage this round comes from KJ Dell’Antonia, who writes the Motherlode blog. Dell’Antonia is consistently (my opinion) one of the best science science writers at the Times today. Her post deftly summarizes the major issues and addresses directly the unpleasant covert aspects of our government’s behavior: “Someone, somewhere, thought we wouldn’t buy a product labeled ‘ground beef—with added trimmings, connective tissue and ammonia.”

She also notes that that the ammonia, put in context with our other chemical exposures, doesn’t seem especially worrisome. And I tend to agree there too. What’s more interesting to me—and what hasn’t been covered especially well in the slime stories—is that foods that are ammonia-processed are remarkably widespread. Among them are breads, pastries, cheeses, chocolates, breakfast cereals, sports drinks, fruits, vegetables….in other words, if we’re going to worry about chemical processing, beef products need to stand in line.

Another smart piece from Amy Hubbard at the Los Angeles Times notes that even the consumer-advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest isn’t particularly alarmed about pink slime, noting rather depressingly that a lot worse things go into the daily diet. The center does plan to investigate whether the super-processed beef bits are less nutritious than regular beef.

As the Houston Chronicle points out in a recent editorial, the real issue here is transparency. Our government should not be colluding with private industry in hiding additives from the consumer. And, in fact, there are signs that the USDA is tending to agree. In an interview with Food Safety News, the agency’s food safety head, Elizabeth Hagen, emphasized that the product is considered safe and added: “It seems to me that the larger issue here is labeling and transparency.”

But one more point, just to complicate the story. You’ll recall I mentioned that the USDA has agreed to allow schools to choose slime-improved beef or to reject it. But it turns out that the regular, unprocessed ground beef alternative, lacking that super-lean filler, has a higher fat content. Another health story, anyone?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Top Posts
  • kirk

    Jello is connective tissue. Strawberry Jello has kitteh blood in it.

  • littlejohn

    Pink Slime is people!

  • Kevin

    This story goes even farther back. Producers of the movie Food, Inc. were allowed to film inside one of the company’s plants. In essence, they showed us how sausage is made and let’s face it, nobody wants to see how sausage is made. From there, Mr. Moss sensationalized a collection of cherry-picked facts in pursuit his award rather than placing things into context, as subsequent coverage showed. It didn’t take long for others to pick-up on it and the story was off to the races.

    Now that we have the media origins out of the way, what’s the over/under on how many hundreds of people will lose their jobs, cars, homes, etc. because of layoffs following the sensationalized media handling of this story? Seems that hundreds of families on welfare has become the new price of a prize for writing and one could be forgiven for believing there’s a special place in hell for people like that.

  • http://scienceblogs.com/gregladen/ Greg Laden

    I heard somewhere, second hand, so this may be nothing but still could be worth asking, that the process of power-washing meat stuff off of vertebral columns can sometimes expose neural tissue, and said tissue can get mixed into the “pink slime” (btw, from a lake ecology point of view, “slime” is probably much more edible than “ooze” but that’s a otter matter).

    Neural tissue is a potential risk because of prions (BSE, etc.) so this would be a concern.

    Has anyone heard about this one way or the other?

  • Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor)

    @Greg: I was wondering that myself. Apparently, the concern about neural tissue is mostly/entirely about “mechanically separated meat,” as opposed to “lean finely textured beef.” Based on Wikipedia, seems like MSM is more aggressively pulled off of the bone, can contain more calcium from bone, and has to be labeled differently. E.g.:

    In the United States, USDA regulations stipulate that AMR [advanced meat recovery] machinery cannot grind, crush, or pulverize bones to remove edible meat tissue, and bones must emerge intact. The meat produced in this manner can contain no more than 150(±30) milligrams of calcium per 200 grams product,[5] as calcium in such high concentrations in the product would be indicative of bone being mixed with the meat. Products that exceed the calcium content limit must be labeled “mechanically separated beef or pork” in the ingredients statement.

    And this:

    Concerns were raised again when the BSE epidemic, commonly known as “mad cow disease”, occurred in the United Kingdom in 1986. Since bits of the spinal cord (the part most likely to be carrying BSE)[1][2] often got mixed in with the rest of the meat, products using mechanically separated meat taken from the carcasses of bovines were at higher risk for transmitting BSE to humans. As a result, in 1989 the United Kingdom tightened restrictions to help ensure that pieces of the spinal cord would not be present in mechanically separated meat taken from bovines.[3]

    Similar USDA rules became effective November 4, 1996, and were later updated, stressing: “Due to FSIS regulations enacted in 2004 to protect consumers against Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, mechanically separated beef is considered inedible and is prohibited for use as human food. It is not permitted in hot dogs or any other processed product.[4]”

  • Teri Sims

    This is exactly why I am a vegeterian!!! gross!!

  • http://TryLivingOrganic.com Paul

    Enough is enough!
    If cows were fed grass like they are supposed to, were treated with respect like they deserve, weren’t shot up with hormones and antibiotics since birth, I highly doubt E Coli would even be an issue. Instead they are fed GMO corn which they can’t digest, sit in feces for weeks, have very high levels of stress which causes sickness and death.
    And what do we get, PINK SLIME as food from beef that can only be cleansed by adding nasty chemicals like ammonium hydroxide. I’m sorry but the fact that the USDA has to alllow this is a telling sign that we have gone down the wrong path with regards to farming and producing food for our children. Read about Pink slime in beef and chicken here: http://trylivingorganic.com/2012/03/23/pink-slime-in-chicken-vs-pink-slime-in-beef/

  • Pingback: Why I Don’t Care About Pink Slime » The Rochesterian()

  • Me

    So, “Pink Slime” is safer due to the process intended to kill E.Coli, Is healthier than regular ground beef, and uses products that would otherwise be thrown away (Thereby killing less animals overall), and the issue is what?

  • Chris

    I’m sticking with Soylent Green. :P

  • Tony Mach

    @Terri
    What is “this exactly” you refer to? And would you rather prefer if more parts of the animal were simply thrown away? Just three to four generations ago lots of people were used to eating the whole animal – and I mean whole animal – and reportedly liked it. And now we become all squicky and use excessive exclamation marks when a little more meat gets scraped of the bones. Gee, get a life.

  • Chuck Jolley

    Sometimes whistle blowers perform courageous public services; sometimes whistle blowers merely suck. In this case, I think Zimstein inhaled.

  • Pam Ellis

    I don’t eat meat anymore, so this does not affect me.
    But even if “pink slime” as this story calls it has no negative health concerns, what about the choice of consumers to get what they pay for or ability to get a meat product properly defined?

    Using the euphemism “lean finely textured beef” is used for the sole reason of fooling the public who is not aware what that term means.

    For those of you who are OK with “pink slime” and don’t mind if you get it when not even expecting to, good for you. Other people might want to have a choice.

  • G Wilkins

    Thank you for putting together this article.
    I’ve been hearing “pink slime this” and “pink slime is the most horrible thing on Earth that” and nowhere had I heard explained just *what* it is.

    Granted, I also don’t make it a point to watch the news on a regular basis and I don’t eat huge quantities of ground beef (or red meat in general more out of laziness than anything else), so I wasn’t overly concerned by the hum-bub; but to have the facts laid out without the “it’s the end of healthy eating as we know it!!!!!” was very welcome and informative.

  • Pandora

    It just so happens that I *am* pink slime, and I’ve never had a problem with it.

  • Rich M.

    A couple of observations

    1) If LFTB is a cost effective additive, why then are the packages of leaner grade ground beef more expensive and not less. The lower cost additive should dilute the price of the premium beef.

    2) IF LFTB is from connective tissue etc and after treatment is known as “beef”, I’ll grant you that. But if you incorporate this filler product into ground chuck, ground round, or ground sirloin, you are intoroducing a “food-stuff” foreign to the cut and that alone necessitates labeling, otherwise one needs to use the generic term “ground-beef” for all products incorporating the additive.

    3) @ Amos. Any “expert” who quotes Wikipedia as a source is no expert. (By the way mechanically seperated meat products are specifically prohibited for human consumption under FDA regulations.)

    4) @ Teri. You are either a vegan, a carnivore or an onmivore.

    5) @ Tony, still a common practice to a lot of people in this world.

  • Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor)

    @Rich: I’m not an expert on meat processing and I’m not passing myself off as such. But you’re wrong (and Wikipedia and I are right) about mechanically separated meat: It is allowed for consumption and is consumed widely in the U.S. Only mechanically separated beef is not allowed.

    Source there is the USDA itself:

    “Mechanically separated beef is considered inedible and is prohibited for use as human food… Mechanically separated pork is permitted and must be labeled as “mechanically separated pork”… Mechanically separated poultry has been used in poultry products since the late 1960’s. In 1995, a final rule on mechanically separated poultry said it was safe and could be used without restrictions. However, it must be labeled as “mechanically separated chicken or turkey.”

    Note that the relevant regulator here is USDA, not FDA.

  • Josh

    When I first read a story about this I wondered where I’d be able to buy some of the stuff. It looks easy to mix with other ingredients, maybe you could roll it out and use cookie cutters to make custom sausage nuggets with the kids…

    In the ‘good old days’ this meat was reclaimed by cooking down carcasses into stock. It’s not the stuff being eaten that’s bothering people, just what it looks like. I’m sure that mechanically separated brussels sprouts would look gross too.

  • Rich M.

    @ Amos. I appologize for using the word “meat” when I should have used “beef”. Please also refer to USA Title 9 C.F.R. Sections 319(5)(6) regarding mechanically seperated meat. You will find restrictions on the use of all meat productions for certain purposes. The F.D.A. (part of DHHS) and USDA (Agriculture) have shared responsibility as to policy and enforcement of said code, specifically as to labeling and additives. Furthermore the F.D.A. has specific requirements for the documentation of production processes, tracking of lot numbers of components and final products and testing of “shelf” lives.

    I also appoligize to you for my infering of you as an expert. Too often Wikipedia is cited as being a credible, inviolate source of information. It is not. It is however a useful starting point. Many times information is manipulated for a purpose (ask Sarah Palin), and is parsed either intentionally or culled unintentionally, giving an incomplete, yet presumably authoritative “source” of information. In actuality, Wikipedia is heresay, cosmetically enhanced to appear as a definitive, reliable alternative to solid, well-practiced research.

    I trust you had no issue with my other four observations.

  • Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor)

    @Rich: I hear you on Wikipedia! It’s very tempting to use as a resource. It’s often a good pointer even if not a perfect reference.

    Not sure if I agree with all the other points, but maybe there’ll be an expert around (ha) who knows more about it than I.

  • http://discovermagazine.com Iain

    As long as they aren’t adding nasty bits that you would refuse to eat if you knew it was there like vagina’s, penis’s, last sphincter, tumors and other gross parts, then who really cares?

  • Brian Too

    Some thoughts:

    1). I know that I’ve seen credible, reliable studies that said, in effect, recipes created using a wider array of meat cuts were superior nutritionally to those using a very narrow set of cuts. Even when the narrowly selected cuts of meat were those considered premium cuts;

    That’s +1 for pink slime.

    2). I would be concerned about the possible bacteriological contamination, at source, of an undifferentiated collection of meat scraps. More handling, more time spent on processing, all these open up pathways for contamination. And even the most effective antibacterial treatment does not address the chemical byproducts of bacterial contamination.

    That’s -1 for pink slime.

    But c’mon, “pink slime”? Sounds pretty inflammatory, considering this is what most of us would call “sausage ingredient”.

  • CQSarah

    LFTB has been used in over 300 billion meals and has not once caused any type of food poisoning. when fat is removed from larger cuts of the animal, there is usually some protein attached. If we didn’t have this process, we’d need to slaughter millions more cattle each year. Also, the fat that has been separated from the meat travels by rail and is turned into biodiesel, which is a renewable source of energy. Prices for everything will continue to increase.

  • http://www.pinkslime.us Randy Dutton

    Pink Slime is the name of a short story I wrote that uses an investigative reporter as the vehicle to investigate the issue. Available at Amazon, B&N, Smashwords or look at http://www.pinkslime.us. The science is real but the conclusions are not what you would expect.

  • jmcv02

    Paul- I guess you don’t know a typical production cycle but cattle are on pasture until they enter a feedlot. Thats normally 6 months to a year or more before they go into the feedlot, so yes they do eat grass even in this supposed “factory farming”. Cattle also aren’t shot up with hormones or antibiotics since birth. Outside of the feedlot we only use antibiotics if they get sick and hormones are rarely used on calves to promote wieght gain but some do. In the feedlot we typically use sub-theraptic levels to help promote growth, not really to fight off these unsanitary conditions you think are commonplace. I don’t know who told you GMO corn is undigestable but we wouldn’t waste our money buying it at $5-6 a bushel if they couldn’t digest it. Simply put if they couldn’t digest it how would they grow and put on wieght? Also its only part of the diet not the whole thing, we also use forages such as corn silage, alfalfa hay, vitamins, minerals, etc. ) E.coli is naturally found in ANY ruminant stomach/digestive tract (ruminant=cows, goats, sheep, deer, etc), its part of their mechanism to digest food. Doesn’t matter if you raise it completely natural/organic its gonna be there. Also cows can’t “sit” they stand or lay down. We do our very best to clean pens as often as possible. Most of the time theyre standing on dirt not feces like you think. The stress really isn’t as big as you think once they get settled in. We have a bigger problem with weather and respiratory diseases. Im certain you don’t know but one of cattles’ fatal flaws is their respiratory system is too small/inefficient for their relative size, thats a natural flaw not a breeders fault. They also use it to cool themselves (pant like a dog). Also we dont need to use ammonium hydroxide we just use it to improve food safety, its commonly used in a lot of foods so beef isn’t the only one. No offense but maybe you should educate yourself before you speak about agriculture, I know many farmers/ranchers wouldn’t mind showing you what they do, I bet you wouldn’t think its so bad if you saw it firsthand and stopped listening to the media whose just trying to bump up their sales.

  • jmcv02
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