[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.)
Hard to believe the frenzy over pink slime began only last month, when food-activist and blogger Bettina Siegel posted a petition at the change.org website on March 6 asking for schools to ban the use of LFTB. The petition then took a life of its own, with other activists getting involved, ultimately leading to the changes mentioned above and possibly more to come from Congress. The petition itself garnered more than 250,000 signatures.
The meat companies, however, are fighting back. BPI actually created a website, www.pinkslimeisamyth.com. But even Andrew Revkin of the Dot Earth blog at the New York Times is willing to admit that LFTB “is indeed beef—a source of low-fat nutrition.” He goes on to explain that since “we’re not going to a meat-free society any time soon, and that kids need cheap sources of low-fat protein, I’d like those pushing the ‘yuck’ factor to consider the extra 1.5 million or so head of livestock that will need to be slaughtered to fill the ground beef gap.”
In addition, BPI was recently defended by Nancy Donley, a food safety activist whose son Alex died a horrific death in 1993 because of E. coli-tainted meat. “There has been a lot of misinformation swirling around the Internet and on TV about lean beef trim produced by Beef Products, Inc.,” she writes. “As I stated earlier, I have personally visited their plant and the categorization of calling their product ‘pink slime’ is completely false and incendiary. Consumers need to understand that this product is meat, period, and that the use of ammonia hydroxide in minute amounts during processing improves the safety of the product and is routinely used throughout the food industry.”
But the backlash to the backlash may be too little, too late. Pink slime is probably on its way out. Companies will lay off more workers. More cows will be slaughtered. The price of beef will likely rise. The Wall Street Journal quotes food-industry consultant Phil Lempert, who said “‘the fight is over’ and that the next step for the beef industry is experimentation with other types of filler.”
Other types of filler? Just remember, “Soylent Green is people!”
Victorino Matus is a senior editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.