[Y]ou know what he wanted? Hot dogs! You know what they make those things out of, Chet? You know? Lips and a—holes!
—Dan Aykroyd, The Great Outdoors (1988)
There was a rumor going around my college that the beef served in the cafeteria arrived in boxes labeled “Grade E But Edible.” This was before the Internet was widely available, and Snopes did not yet exist. As it turned out, the rumor had been circulating throughout many college campuses. In reality, the meat wasn’t Grade E. Nor was it composed of, in the words of Dan Aykroyd’s character from The Great Outdoors, “lips and a—holes.” But it probably had its share of “pink slime.”
By now you’ve heard the news that we have all been eating hamburgers containing as much as 15 percent of what some are calling pink slime—the parts of a cow often sent for rendering and turned into dog food, the connective tissue prone to E. coli and salmonella. Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver laid this out on his ABC show Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution back in 2010, when he escorted a cow into the studio, in front of families with young children, and explained the dangers of pink slime. When it came time to demonstrate the disinfection process, he poured liquid ammonia onto the meat, saying, “there’s a specific ratio [of ammonia to water], but basically they wash this meat, and that kills E. coli and salmonella and any kind of pathogens.”
At which point you can’t help but think of Charlton Heston’s famous line, “Soylent Green is people!” from the 1973 cult classic. Except that in this case, pink slime is not people. Pink slime is meat, although a debate rages over the specifics. The Wall Street Journal describes it as “fatty meat scraps.” Mark Bittman has called it “fatty beef trimmings.” The industry refers to it as “lean, finely textured beef,” or LFTB. As noted above, it is also considered connective tissue and not muscle, thereby spurring the debate over what counts as meat and what doesn’t.
What is acknowledged is that the meat is indeed susceptible to E. coli and salmonella. This is where the ammonia comes in—but not in liquid form, as Jamie Oliver mistakenly showed for shock value. Instead, it’s ammonium hydroxide gas, which is also used for baked goods and pudding. (Another debate involves the amount of ammonium hydroxide needed to kill off dangerous pathogens and how too much of the gas could give the meat a bad smell due to its alkalinity. This was discussed by Michael Moss in the New York Times in 2009.)
According to historian Maureen Ogle, we’ve been eating LFTB not since the 1990s, as has been reported, but rather as early as the mid-1970s. (Incidentally, she considers LFTB to be “plain ol’ beef.”) The author of the forthcoming book Meat: An American History explained on her blog that its origins are related to skyrocketing prices: “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.)”
There may be hell to pay in our near future—as school districts and supermarket chains opt out of using LFTB, the gaps in those hamburger patties will be made up by more cows, which environmentalists and animal activists should find alarming. Beef prices will rise. Beef Products, Inc., has already temporarily shut down three plants. Meat processor AFA Foods, Inc., meanwhile, has just filed for bankruptcy protection. (The developments were enough of a concern that the governors of Iowa, Kansas, and Texas had to publicly assure Americans that the lean, finely textured beef has been and will continue to be safe for consumption.)