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Everything You Wanted to Know about Pink Slime

Ground beef and burger without pink slime (on the left), and with pink slime on the right.

More and more supermarkets and burger sellers are joining the list of people who say they will no longer sell beef that includes the so-called “pink slime” – a ground up mixture of fatty bits from other cuts of meat and treated with ammonia to enable it to meet food safety standards.

In her nutrition column in the San Francisco Chronicle, public policy expert Marion Nestle explains the ins and outs of pink slime. First, what exactly is this stuff:

Pink slime is the pejorative term for “lean finely textured beef,” [LFTB] a product designed to recover useful bits from carcass trimmings. These are warmed, centrifuged to remove the fat, treated with ammonium hydroxide gas to kill pathogens and compressed into blocks that are frozen for later use.

The final product is pink; therefore, it’s meat – or so says the meat industry. And from a strictly nutritional standpoint, it is. But from any other standpoint, LFTB creates a dilemma.

The dilemma is that almost half the equivalent of the 34 million cattle slaughtered each year for food is considered fit for human consumption. The rest has to be burned, buried, or used for fertilizer or pet food. LFTB recovers up to 12 pounds of beef from every animal, so you could argue that it saves another 1.5 million animals from slaughter.

Also, the use of ammonia-treated LFTB makes the meat safer from bacteria:

The meat trimmings that go into cheap hamburger are said to often be heavily contaminated with bacteria, some of them dangerous. The ammonia processing makes LFTB safe. Since LFTB’s introduction, safety officials say they rarely find toxic E. coli in school hamburger.

The leading manufacturer of pink slime, Beef Products, Inc., has announced that it will not longer produce LFBT at three of its four plants.

This alarms some food safety advocates. They worry that if public pressure causes LFTB to be eliminated, bacteria-laden beef trimmings will go back into hamburger, just as they used to, and the meat will be much less safe.

LFTB is not really slimy and Nestle says it is reasonably safe and nutritious – basically no more of less safe than anything else that comes from a factory farm. But “it violates cultural norms”, and removing it leaves people with the impression that the meat they buy is safer than it was before. That’s questionable, she says.

Should school districts be required to stop using LFTB, as many people are saying? Will this make school food more expensive? Nestle concludes that the best approach is simply to clearly label LFTB as an ingredient and let individuals and local school districts decide for themselves.

Perhaps the best solution to the pink slime dilemma is simply to label LFTB as an ingredient. This would give individuals and schools the opportunity to decide for themselves whether culture or cost is the more important value in food choice.

An even better idea: Let’s produce safe meat in the first place.

But meat that comes from factory farms is inherently unsafe, due to the unsanitary, cruel conditions in which the animals are kept.

So the real “even better idea” is very simple: Don’t eat meat from factory farms. Adopt a plant-based diet instead. It’s healthier, it’s safer, it’s better for the environment (as well as for the cows!), and it’s cheaper, too.

Marion Nestle’s article can be found here.