As you have probably heard by now, the food scandal “du jour” has to do with “pink slime”, also known as mechanically-separated meat (or, when made by Beef Products Inc., “Boneless Beef Lean Trimmings”).


This ammonia-treated scrap meat — the same one some fast food giants recently phased out  — has been widely used since the early 1990s, is reportedly present in 70 percent of all ground beef products, and is a staple in school cafeterias (seven million pounds (!) are expected to be served in school lunches across the country over the next few months).

The story essentially writes itself. When fast food companies, infamous for cutting corners at any cost, turn their noses up at a questionably safe ingredient that ends up on the lunch trays of schoolchildren, headlines are to be expected — and rightfully so.

The meat industry has responded via a new website: the awkwardly-titled Pink Slime Is A Myth (I have yet to comprehend how something real and tangible can be labeled a myth).

While I do not dismiss the recent grassroots efforts that have gained significant strength via a petition to get pink slime out of school cafeterias, I worry that the focus on it detracts from bigger and more important food system issues, and provides the meat industry with a convenient distraction and an easily fixable problem that can effortlessly be spun into a public-relations success.

At its core, the pink slime controversy is a case of “same script, different cast”. It is no different from ingredient obsessions that led to trans-fat free chips and sugar-loaded products “free of high fructose corn syrup”.

Undoubtedly, phasing out trans fats is a formidable public health step. However, the absence of trans fats does not intrinsically make chips “more nutritious” or “healthy”, simply “less worse”.

In the same way that soda made with cane sugar in lieu of high fructose corn syrup is not a healthful beverage, there needs to be a clear message that “slime-free” ground beef is by no means the golden standard, especially when an ever-growing body of research continues to highlight the harmful effects of red meat consumption (the latest: it “contributes substantially to premature death”).

We can’t forget that the majority of ground beef in the United States, even if free of said “slime”, comes from animals (35 million beef cattle, to be exact) that are treated miserably, is processed by employees under horrible working conditions, and severely damages the environment. And, of course, there are also the rampant recalls and food safety concerns.

It’s also important to remember that other important puzzle piece: agricultural policy that makes ground beef cheap and, therefore, ubiquitous. The United States is the number one exporter of beef, and the average American consumes 58 pounds of it each year (a figure that has been on a steady decline, but is nevertheless one of the highest in the world).

I do not bemoan public interest in school lunch issues and sketchy additives, but it is crucial to not lose sight of the big picture — “pink slime” is one of many symptoms of a broken food system. Even if the meat industry were to announce the end of ammonia-treated beef, they should continue to be held accountable for a multitude of atrocious practices as well as a food product that poses various health risks.

Slime or no slime, red meat should be a rarity in school cafeterias.


Andy Bellatti, MS, RD, is a Seattle-based dietitian who approaches nutrition from a whole-foods, plant-centric framework. He also takes a strong interest in food politics, nutrition policy, and deceptive food industry marketing tactics. This commentary, “Beyond Pink Slime,” first appeared March 13, 2012 on his website, small bites.

  • John

    It is essential for all persons’ well-being, that EVERY food and beverage list EVERY SINGLE *True ingredient, *Processing aids, and the *Actual PROCESSES used in the production of that food. Processes can create all sorts of byproducts, and people deserve to know how their food has been created.

  • Wednesday, March 14, 2012
    >>> Experts say it is likely that bits of spinal cord – the part of a cow most likely to be contaminated with BSE – could be found in mechanically recovered meat. <<<
    with disgusted regards again,

  • Minkpuppy

    First off, I’m not defending the use of LFTB/pink slime nor am I an industry shill. I think it’s purely profit motivated maneuver to stretch poundage of ground beef to make more money on an inferior product. I also suspect that BPI was more concerned with protecting their patent on a unique process than they were about being transparent.
    Consumers, grocers and butchers that buy ground beef with this added to it are getting ripped off. It needs to be labeled if it’s in the final product.
    HOWEVER, I am sick of the complete misrepresentation of the actual process and the end product. There’s way too much misinformation about it out there and every article I’ve seen perpetuates it. I was already familiar with this stuff so it wasn’t a big deal to me. I just don’t buy the stuff I know it’s in. I also have an unfair advantage because I know which companies don’t use it because I’ve inspected in their plants.
    The final product is not pink nor is it slime. That is a complete media fabrication that only distracts from the real issue. I’m ashamed of FSN for continuing to perpetuate it.
    I think the 70% of all ground beef is an exaggeration–I’d have to seem some verifiable substantiated data on the actual rate of usage of LFTB in consumer products. It really isn’t worth a crap in sausage type products but it does get used a lot in cheap pre-made patties and RTE tacos/burritos etc.
    So here’s a little insight into the regulatory side of it:
    9 CFR 319.5 (b) states: “Mechanically Seperated Beef is considered inedible and is prohibited for use in human food.”
    “Pink Slime” is not the same as Mechanically Seperated Beef.
    Lean finely Textured Beef or LFTB, is made by a low-temperature rendering process which helps to seperate the lean muscle tissue from fat trimmings (it’s not all connective tissue as the media seems to think). The trimmings are then run through a centrifuge to remove the fat portion, then a puff of ammonium hydroxide gas is injected into the remaining lean portion which is then spread over a freezer drum which freezes it solid. The frozen beef is then chipped off the drum into cubes that are not pink or slimy. It’s pretty non-descript actually.
    There will be some connective tissue proteins extracted into the final product–it holds the muscles together so it’s going to be there, can’t avoid it. Because there is no bone associated with this product, it is allowed in ground beef and (loosely) fits the definition of meat put forth in 9 CFR 301.2.
    In contrast, mechanically seperated meat is a process which removes scraps of meat from bone through forcible pressure on bones. Because of the hazards of spinal tissue being attached to the spinal columns run through these mechanical deboners, the use of this type of beef was banned.
    Neither process allows spinal cord or specified risk materials in the final product. It’s strictly enforced by inspectors like myself. You wouldn’t believe the hoops the grinding plants have to jump through to document that their source trimmings for ground beef are SRM-free.
    The photo being widely circulated in association with this story is most likely mechanically seperated chicken but it also bears a strong resemblance to a ground pork sausage product I’m familiar with after sodium nitrate has been added(the nitrate turns it bright pink). It has a “mousse” like quality to it. Very fluffy and sticky, but not slimy.
    It doesn’t make it any more attractive to know that but I’ll bet everyone outraged about this would be equally appalled to see what lunch meat looks like before it’s cooked and sliced and stuffed into those handy little reusable storage tubs. Or hot dogs and bratwurst.
    Put aside the label “pink slime” and look at the real issues here: the safety of the ammonia gas and whether or not it should be labeled.
    The former USDA microbiologists very rightly raised concerns about the actual safety of the product.
    I respect their opinions but it’s painfully obvious to me as an inspector that either their statements are being misrepresented or they are misrepresenting the process to make their point.
    When I see the comments of the former USDA scientists, it reminds me that there is a huge and unfortunate disconnect within the Agency. The folks working in the labs or administrative positions don’t necessarily have field experience in the plants. No amount of training can replace actually seeing how the processes work.
    In addition, policy makers rely on written descriptions of procedures and are bombarded with “validation data” from the industry and base their decisions on that, rather than observing the actual processes and obtaining independent data on them. They often ignore the legitimate concerns raised by both inspectors and microbiologists.
    Overall, the meat industry fails to remember that what’s familiar to us can be shocking to those outside that little world. The meat industry isn’t pretty and never has been. We have to stop hiding it because when we do, consumers become distrustful and suspicious.