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.