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.