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Hi, I'm Malcolm Woods

I’m the New Media Editor at Outpost, though I’m the old media editor, as well. In both capacities, I read, hear, photograph and write about food. I also eat food pretty regularly, all of which means I spend a lot of time thinking about food in...
Malcolm Woods

Slimed: beef mix exposes our conflicted relationship with food

Food, Love and Policy By Malcolm Woods on March 26, 2012

There has been a lot of talk lately about "pink slime." That's the term a former USDA official gave to a commercially prepared mixture of beef trimmings, dosed with a puff of ammonia to thwart germs and often mixed with ground beef as a cost cutting measure. 


When it was revealed a few weeks ago that the federal school lunch system allowed the pink slime mixture in the ground beef it purchased for school lunches, parents around the country expressed outrage. When other news reports suggested that a number of fast food companies also used the pink slime mixture, similar outrage forced a number of the major chains to announce they had discontinued use of the product. 


So, a victory for consumers?


Turns out that's a tough call to make.


Turns out there are a lot of issues wrapped up in this one. 


We have such a complicated relationship with the foods we eat, particularly those which derive from formerly sentient beings. 


And it's no doubt an evolving relationship, for us in the west and for humans in general, I think. We have  a population on this planet which continues to grow and continues to outpace our ability to feed it. How do we deal with that? 


I think and I hope that as a species, we evolve in our attitudes towards food. There simply isn't enough land nor enough fresh water on the planet to give everyone in the world a hamburger.


We can say the main issue here is transparency, which it is, for American (and western) consumers in general. But we usually struggle with this issue of transparency bit by bit. Today it is country of origin; tomorrow it is the use of pesticides; the day after that, GMOs; the following day pink slime. Each new outrage or report generates some traction and we focus and petition on that day's hot topic. If all goes well, step by step, we move towards a greater transparency, each time becoming more aware of the complicated issues which surround food production (how it's grown, where it's grown, how it's processed, how the grower was paid, etc).


That stands in start contrast to the recent past. Beautiful convenient food after beautiful convenient food just appeared on the shelf at the grocery store, as if by magic. Often, the foods were produced with ingredients (plant, animal or mineral) whose origin, cultivation and processing were heavily subsidized by the government, masking their true cost. 


But we're losing our innocence. Just as a child one day makes the realization that the pig on the farm will one day be bacon on his or her plate, we are becoming more conscious of the back story of our foods - and some of that story is ugly, unappetizing, even downright unethical and inhumane.


So let's take a look back at the pink slime. The pink slime is the creation of an elaborate process to use scraps - formerly a waste product - and obtain useful protein. The company which developed the process prefers (obviously) to call it finely textured beef. During processing, the lean bits are separated from the fattier bits, to produce a very lean beef mixture, which is then exposed to a puff of ammonia gas. The company maintains that this treatment effectively kills any pathogens and makes the mix safe for human consumption. The USDA clearly agrees. Ground beef which contains the mix is a less expensive alternative to pricier lean grinds. It's worth noting that many conventional food items undergo a similar ammonia gassing to kill germs. 


Is pink slime bad? That's a complicated question. Discover Magazine points out the USDA has, since the story first broke, decided to allow schools to opt out of the pink slime beef and purchase unprocessed ground beef instead, but that the unprocessed patties have a higher fat content. So, one issue has been exchanged for another.


Another argument goes to the notion of waste. The process of creating the lean beef mix helps us use more of the animal and thus reduces waste, which seems an admirable goal.  


That pretty much brings us back to transparency - coupled with education. Once revulsion over the very idea of 'pink slime" passes, some people might decide that it's not all that bad - that a cheap, lean hamburger patty which creates less waste is just fine. Once we're smart enough to make that decision, wouldn't it be nice if the label on the package of ground beef told you whether or not it contained the filler mixture? So you could make a choice?


We’ll continue to push for transparency in the industry. Outpost belongs to several industry trade groups which advocate labeling for everything from GMOs to fair trade practices and more.


Meanwhile, our ground beef is ground fresh in the stores - with no additives. And any pre-packaged ground beef patties we sell from time to time are also free of additives. Unfortunately, the absence of that cheap mixture, coupled with the more labor intensive farming conditions practiced by our suppliers, means that the ground beef may cost more than the bargain patties you can find elsewhere.


You get what you pay for. Ultimately, it would be nice to know just what you’re paying for, no matter where you buy that hamburger or grapefruit or tomato. It would be nice to know just what costs – environmental, social or economic – are bound up in the food you purchase and consume.


It’s complicated. But we’re getting there.



Some helpful links:

A good overview by Discover Magazine.


A report on a response ad run by the producer of the lean beef filler can be read here.








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