Pink Slime and All the Juicy Bits

For quite some time now, the story about the “pink slime” has been making its away around the online media. For those of you who haven’t seen it, pink slime is the sludge made from ground up animal bits that goes into such appetizing concoctions as Chicken McNuggets and public school lunches. Pink slime is made by grinding up the leftovers after an animal has been slaughtered, pureeing it, and treating it with ammonia to kill bacteria.

News coverage of the pink slime has been so negative that the company that makes it, Beef Products Inc., is now shutting down its factories. A victory for healthy eating, I suppose, although the manufacturer reports that pink slime is 97% lean, so how could anything else be more healthy? I’ll leave the question of whether fat or ammonia is more harmful to your health to a more qualified authority (perhaps a scientist?), but I am quite interested in the moral dimension. Is pink slime any more disgusting than any other processed meat, and is it at all hypocritical for food experts to denounce pink slime as a particular evil?

It seems that there are two things here that could be cause for concern: the grinding up of all the juicy, nasty bits into a usable puree, and the ammonia bath that these fine specimens receive as part of the decontamination process. Where to begin?

Let’s begin with the nasty bits. Marion Nestle, one of the experts cited in the HuffPo article as speaking against  pink slime, stated that “If this is acceptable to people, it essentially means it’s OK to eat the kind of stuff we put into pet food …. Culturally we don’t eat byproducts of human food production. It’s not in our culture. Other cultures do. We don’t.”

I’ve watched enough episodes of Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern to know that that is simply not true. What does Nestle think is contained inside a sausage? I’m unclear as to whether Nestle is being ethnocentrist (Westerners don’t eat that crap) or clueless (humans don’t eat that crap). Either way he is wrong, but I’m not clear just how wrong.

On the other hand, everyone who knows how sausages are made knows that they are not made with anything even approaching 97% lean. Pink slime is not necessarily sausage filler, although it is probably used that way sometimes, so I won’t necessarily rule out the possibility that pink slime really is majority lean, but the number of 97% challenges credulity. If the meat is so lean, why wasn’t it taken in the original cut? Either you’ve got some really inefficient slaughtering processes going on, or 97% is an inflated figure. If the figure is accurate, then slaughtering practices ought to be improved. If the figure is inaccurate, then the manufacturer shouldn’t tell lies.

Ok, on to number two: the ammonia bath. I don’t see how this can be healthy, but I also know that it and similar chemical baths are used even on whole animal parts when the animal has been raised in factory farm conditions. This is disgusting, but its not a unique evil. The solution to getting ammonia residue out of people’s diets is not to ban pink slime – the solution is to ban factory farming.

Beef Products Inc. seems to be a particularly unscrupulous company, having secured a specific exemption for itself from the US Department of Agriculture’s food safety authority. But the outrage over its practices seems misguided, both in that people like Dr. Nestle seem never to have eaten a sausage, and because the real problem with the company’s practices – the use of poisonous chemicals to treat meat raised in unsafe conditions – is much more widespread than the factories of a single company.


About Daniel Clinkman

I recently completed my PhD in History at the University of Edinburgh. My academic interest is in the transition from feudalism to liberalism in early modern Britain and its empire. My non-academic interests include public policy, political thought, international politics, social institutions, and travel. I grew up near Boston before attending the American University in Washington, DC. I now live in the San Francisco Bay Area. Follow me @dclinkman on Twitter.
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One Response to Pink Slime and All the Juicy Bits

  1. Greg says:

    The 97% is achieved from putting all the leftovers in a centrifuge which they spin to get rid of all the fat – hence why the filler is then 97% fat free. Fat is a normal part of eating meat, so I’d say it’s must worse than ammonia. Finally, the solution is not to “manufacture” meat that is leaner…it’s to eat less of it, as part of a balanced diet, instead of as the only thing you eat like most Americans do nowadays. Interesting thing I saw last week is that in 1965 the price of chicken was like 4 times what it is today in 2012 dollars. Yes, factory farming has made it cheaper, but at what cost?

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