America, the Dystopian Reality Show: Pink Slime Edition

When The Decline and Fall of the American Empire is written, I hope the historian writing it is astute enough to notice that the same week our nation’s highest court spent deciding whether the government could legally offer (badly conceived) health insurance reform, the business community was fighting to sustain a market for pink slime.

Pink slime arose as a typically American response to industrialization. After Jack in the Box killed a bunch of its customers by feeding them E. coli, rather than cleaning up the nation’s industrial meat supply, the food industry instead decided to scrub meat parts with ammonia before mixing it back in with The Beef.

But guess what? If you tell consumers what kind of slime you’re actually feeding them, they’ll stop eating it.

Ammoniated beef has taken a real beating in the media over the past couple years, and now fast-food giants McDonald’s, Taco Bell and Burger King are no longer using it. As veteran journalist Philip Brasher reported over the holidays, the Iowa-based company that manufactures the beef product — at one time used in around 70 percent of American ground beef — has watched sales drop by 25 percent.

Beef Products Inc. uses an innovative process to turn fatty beef trimmings, which used to go mainly into pet food and other byproducts, into hamburger filler. Because the trimmings are at risk for E. coli or Salmonella contamination, the company adds a mixture of ammonia and water (ammonium hydroxide) to kill bacteria. BPI’s process, progressive food safety policies, and state-of-the art system have received numerous food safety awards and the company has never been linked to a foodborne illness.

But when some consumers find out about the treated beef product — dubbed “pink slime” by a U.S. Department of Agriculture microbiologist — they don’t like what they hear and food companies are taking notice.

In 2008, many American eaters were introduced to the product by Food, Inc, the Oscar-nominated documentary, which portrayed the technology as merely masking a symptom of a bigger problem: the industrial meat system. A year later, a New York Times expose questioned whether the ammonium hydroxide process was really delivering on its food safety promise, which is especially critical considering the product is widely used in the National School Lunch Program.

After Krogers and McDonalds both decided they couldn’t continue to sell consumers pink slime anymore, the pink slime company, BPI, shut down a bunch of pink slime factories.

Now a bunch of Governors and other industry-owned hacks have taken to the airwaves to defend pink slime.

Three governors, among them recent presidential candidate Rick Perry of Texas, two lieutenant governors, and the Under Secretary for Food Safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture all went to bat for Beef Products Inc. in a press conference in South Sioux City, Nebraska Thursday to assure consumers that Lean Finely Textured Beef, now widely known as “pink slime,” is safe and nutritious.

[snip]

“We need to stand together to clear up the misinformation that has been circulating in the media,” said Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, who helped organize the event. “These accusations are totally unfounded… I am proud to say that for 20 years I and my family have been eating it.”

Kansas Governor Sam Brownback called the national controversy over LFTB “an unmerited and unwarranted food scare” and said it would lead to higher lean ground beef prices and cause more people to buy higher fat ground meat.

“Dude, it’s beef!” said Brownback. “It’s good beef.”

All these high profile people could embrace an effort to clean up our industrial food supply. Alternately, they could inform consumers how much healthier they’d be if they gave up red meat altogether and instead ate chicken or–gasp!–broccoli.

But no. Instead, the very same week some of these same Governors argued that it was unduly coercive for the Federal Government to ask you to provide health care to the very poor even while providing money for that care, they’re also trying to convince us that pink slime is the route to good health.

It’s the little things, you know, that bring down great empires.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

34 replies
  1. Chris Stoneking says:

    People should have the choice to purchase hamburger with or without lftb. Such a small part of the population making decisions on false news report is just wrong. let the people choose!

  2. emptywheel says:

    @Chris Stoneking: It’d be nice if industry paid hacks got worried about the concentration in our food supply when it served to bankrupt farmers and introduce these problems in the first place.

    But I guess the industry doesn’t pay for that, huh?

  3. EH says:

    I like the idea of restricting school food suppliers to those who don’t run away from health tests.

  4. joanneleon says:

    OMG, that was quick. What do the hacks have, some ass buzzers or something, that notify them about new stories with the words “pink slime” in them? Put the device in your back pocket, buzzer goes off, gives you the link, Charge!! … Whatever.

  5. prostratedragon says:

    One’s relationship to one’s meat-grinding butcher is one of the sacred things of life.

  6. Petrocelli says:

    Pink slime, irradiated meats … only to make factory farms profitable; consumer safety be damned.

    If you don’t know the Butcher, you’re prolly getting sub-par meats …

  7. scribe says:

    @prostratedragon: Which is why I so enjoy going to my neighborhood butcher and watching the guys behind the counter cut and grind the meat. And laugh, sotto voce, at the local supermarket’s latest recall.

    No ammonia, no filler, no bullshit – literal or figurative.

    I’m confident enough in their product that I have no compunction enjoying one of my favorites when I take their ground beef home: hackfleisch.

    For the uninitiated, that’s fresh, raw ground beef, with a little salt, black pepper, and maybe garlic powder, eaten as is or maybe with a slice of strong bread and some butter.

    Don’t try that with your supermarket ground beef.

    And, the funny thing is, the butcher actually beats the supermarket on price. Go figure.

  8. P J Evans says:

    @scribe:
    I remember when supermarkets did all that too. (Been a while since I met one that did. Maybe smaller ones, but not big chains.)
    The butchers at the store where my mother bought her meat and fish would shape their sausage like a small pig, with cherry-tomato eyes. And if you went in later in the evening, you could by the ground meats for half price, because they couldn’t keep them overnight. (There was also the time she got home and discovered the package wrappers were labeled ‘fish’ and ‘not fish’.)

  9. rosalind says:

    @scribe: i contributed to this Kickstarter project, and just got notice that my goodies are about to ship out: Charcuterie Sampler: Two packages of of salami (Genoa, chorizo, or sauscisson sec), PLUS one pack each of sliced lonzino and lomo!

    *smacking lips*

  10. emptywheel says:

    @P J Evans: My market (it is smaller) has a good butcher, but the meat they start with isn’t the quality I get from the farmers directly.

    There’s also the butchers in the It-Smells-like-kielbasa-neighborhood. They know what they’re doing.

  11. Starbuck says:

    @emptywheel:

    Marcy, do you live in or near Chicago? I grew up there and went to the butcher shop with sawdust on the floor.

    Anyway, just finished dinner of pasta with cream sauce overlaid with smoked lox.

    Ah!

  12. scribe says:

    In the run up to Christmas, T-giving and New Years it was fun to be hanging in the butcher shop, drinking my morning coffee (they open early and sell good coffee along with groceries). I’d get to be shooting the breeze while they were cutting meat – frenching pork loin roasts, making lamb crown roasts, the occasional tur-duck-hen. My local butcher is family run, 5th or 6th generation now, and can and does do just about anything. I think they sold something like 100 lamb crown roasts and a like number of beef standing rib roasts*, in addition to the truckload of turkeys. And all of it comes with good, solid advice on how to cook it best.

    *It’s entertaining to watch people throw a 20 pound slab of beef on their shoulder as they head for the door; if you’re older or female, the butchers will carry your order out to your car.

    Regardless of one’s views on carnivorism, the one thing I think just about everyone can agree on is that in the long run and often the short, the marginal savings produced by industrial agriculture are not worth the hidden costs they impose. The big local supermarket chain had a huge recall of ground beef because a bit came up contaminated and made some people really sick – my little family butcher shop has not and did not. And if I eat a little less meat because it costs more, how bad is that for me?

  13. GulfCoastPirate says:

    Beef???????????

    Eat Texas/Louisiana fresh seafood. Much better for you. Found some live crabs Thursday and made the years first pot of gumbo for dinner last night. Good stuff.

    For ground meats around here these days we go with lamb or bison. Occasionally some venison mixed with a little ground pork. Not too much beef because it’s hard to tell where it’s coming from. The bison is the best. We actually did a bison rib roast for Christmas this year instead of beef and it was a hit with guests.

    But it’s summer. Time for crabs, shrimp, fish, crawfish …………….

  14. emptywheel says:

    @rosalind: No way! Did you know he was my cousin when you signed up for the course? And how did you figure out he was my cousin?

    If ever he gets stroppy, ask him about the guinea pigs. Assuming he knows you know me, that’s all you’ll need to say.

  15. rosalind says:

    @emptywheel: i saw him in your twitter feed, where i saw his blurb about the writing workshop. i realized it was just the class i looking for to reactivate my creative muse and signed up, mentioning i saw him in your twitter stream. he emailed me back telling me about the familial connection. i had no idea.

  16. rosalind says:

    he and a woman who is a script consultant are doing a six-week screenwriting course where we’ll come up with a sold first draft. i haven’t written a script in a long time, and never in this 24/7 internet world, and have had a hard time turning everything off. the class is perfect to ease me back into schedule and structure.

  17. Francois T says:

    “how much healthier they’d be if they gave up red meat altogether”

    This is propagandistic load of grade-AAA crapola. Red meat per se isn’t detrimental to human health. What is bad is eating big quantities of corn-fed, caged beef. The trick is to eat read meat less often, but get the meat of grass-fed free roaming humanely raised animals.

    And Yes! There are farms who do just that.

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