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Posts tagged pink slime
Translating “Beef is Beef”
In a previous post, I asked:
Here’s a common sense test for whether lean finely textured beef should be labeled. If you put a pile of ground chuck in front of a consumer, and also a pile of lean finely-textured beef next to it, would the consumer be able to tell the difference?
This was unfair. The reason it’s unfair is because LFTB is probably never blended with ground chuck. It’s blended with “ground beef” and there is a world of difference between “ground chuck” and “ground beef.”
Gross, but safe. And maybe not meat.
That’s what I said to a reporter last week when he asked me about “pink slime.” Then I reconsidered, asked him not to use the quote, and gave him the name of someone else with more expertise.
Well, so much for passing the buck; he called me back on Wednesday. Since this quote is likely going to make it to print, I figured I might as well expand on it.
It’s obviously a bit more complicated than these seven words, but I stand by them. In the past week, however, I’ve come to realize that this whole controversy can actually be reduced to one word: transparency.
If the food industry was more transparent about what goes on behind closed doors, I don’t think consumers would be as easily surprised or disgusted, and I don’t think they’d have anyone to blame for their lack of understanding other than themselves. If the government made decisions with more direct public engagement and properly labeled these products, it wouldn’t look like it was doing industry’s bidding at the expense of consumers’ health. Lastly, if the critics of “pink slime” didn’t warp the issue so dramatically for maximum yuck factor, maybe could have a real conversation about how we can improve things rather than chalk up a minor win that could actually make things worse in the long run.
What’s in a name?
It’s impossible to have a rational conversation when you call it “pink slime.” Before you can even describe it, just about every listener or reader is already vomiting in their own mouth. It’s annoying that reporters are so willing to throw around such a prejudicial word, but do you really think they’re going to use the industry terms “boneless lean beef trimmings” or “lean finely-textured beef?” These are obtuse, insidery terms that are misleadingly vague and completely unintelligible to consumers. It boggles my mind that AMI thinks thinks statements like this are reassuring: “The fact is, BLBT is beef.” Darn, I thought it was a BLT with double-bacon.
So we either have derogatory slang or corporate nothing-to-see-here jargon. Neither is honest, frankly. I want to say, let’s just call it BS for beef stuff, but I guess that’s only one step away from pink slime.
Is it gross?
Part of me wants to roll my eyes at all the fist-shaking. Like, how do you really think food is made? Do you eat chicken nuggets? How do you think they make bologna? Deep down, we know that our hot dogs are made of eyeballs and anuses, but we eat them anyway.1
What makes lean finely textured beef different from hot dogs is obviously that people do think they know what’s in their ground beef, and it doesn’t involve a product that requires a paragraph to describe and all sorts of defensive statements. And, the fact is, when you describe this process to consumers, they think it’s gross.
And that’s it. It’s subjective and unfair, but there you have it.
And sure, maybe consumers should bear some responsibility for being ignorant about how their food is produced, but let’s be honest: it’s not like we do a good job explaining it to them. Our discussions of food and agriculture in schools are naive and nostalgic, and most food companies, particularly those in large-scale animal production, aren’t eager to show what goes on in these operations. You may or may not be grossed out by the sight of animals being cut apart into meat, but few find it actually appetizing.
In fact, the only people who want to talk to consumers about modern food production are the activists who seek to destroy this system. So, what do you expect?
Let’s remember that this all started with Food, Inc.. There is a three-minute segment starting at about the 36 minute mark in which Eldon Roth, founder of Beef Products, Inc. (BPI) talks about his product. You can see he’s proud because he views himself as a leader in food safety (more on that in a minute), and he’s eager to show off how much work they’ve put into making meat safer. But all the viewer takes away is scale, industrialization, and detachment: the cameras float through massive facilities, full of pipes five feet in diameter and conveyer belts going this way and that dumping piles of meat into huge grinders. Portal windows with ammonia (maybe) sloshing about. Square cubes of pink stuff that looks like thick, pink pudding.
The way BPI’s product is presented has nothing to do with safety, and everything to do with scale.
But moreover, without this 2008 Food, Inc. segment, would Michael Moss have penned his Pulitzer-prize winning New York Times article in December of 2009? Would Jamie Oliver have taken it up as a cause célèbre on his TV show in April of 2011? Would McDonald’s have stopped using it, as reported in January 2012? Would The Daily have run a story on LFTB in school lunches in March of 2012? Would there now be a petition on Change.org with over 240,000 names on it?
By letting some folks with an agenda and a videocamera into their facility, BPI is now (maybe) facing economic ruin. What lesson do you think the food industry takes away from that?
Because all they see is downside, what is the food industry to do? Be more transparent with consumers? Or try to lock out the video cameras? Well, all you have to do is look at the ag-gag laws that are being passed, which criminalize the act of taking a job in an agricultural job in order to document or film illegal or otherwise egregious behaviors, to know the answer.
Is it safe?
I know folks are skeeved by the word “ammonia” but can we step back and acknowledge that maybe decades of scientific studies have some merit? We can’t just run around in circles shouting chemical names. Some people just know it’s bad, but considering that this ammoniated beef trim is supposedly in 70% of our ground beef, tell me: where are all the people sick from ammonia? There are none, because ammonia is fairly benign until you start concentrating it into household cleaners. It’s an abundant gas. It’s in your body. It’s in plants. It’s in baked goods, cheeses, chocolates, soy products, puddings, and other things you probably eat all the time.
FSIS’s list of “Safe and suitable ingredients used in the production of meat, poultry, and egg products” is 52 pages long. How do you feel about the fact that sulfuric acid and hydrochloric acid are used in poultry chill water to kill bacteria during slaughter? Should that be on labels, too? Where would you draw the line?
And for the record, ammonia isn’t even a carcinogen, unlike say, nitrites. Bacon will give you cancer, but the ammonia in pink slime won’t.
But what about pathogens?
My understanding is that the trim this product is made from is more likely to be contaminated with pathogenic bacteria, or as Alexandra Petri put it: “If microbes were hipsters, this would be Williamsburg.” But this treatment, while found to not always be perfectly implemented, is understood to be very effective. Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if you found that, on average, this processed beef trim contained less pathogens than the untreated ground beef it’s being mixed with.
Anti-industrial food types might not like Beef Products, Inc., but they are recognized as a leader when it comes to microbiological food safety. BPI was the first meat company to test and hold for E. coli O157:H7, way back in 1998, and last year they became the first meat company to test for the “big six” non-O157 STECs (Shiga-toxin producing E. coli). I cannot overestimate the importance of this leadership.
Food safety advocate and litigator Bill Marler named Eldon Roth as one of the good ones in his 2011 naughty and nice list. Nancy Donley, the president of STOP Foodborne Illness, an organization that represents victims of foodborne illness, and the mother of a child who died from infection with E. coli O157:H7, penned a strongly worded op-ed in support of BPI. Carol Tucker-Foreman of the Consumer Federation of America has been supportive, too.
So this stuff is safe, or as safe as any raw ground beef product.
Is it meat?
Ah, but here’s where it gets interesting.
The beef industry says boneless lean beef trim is not all that different from ground beef, that it’s nutritionally very similar, and therefore, there’s no need to label it. But how am I supposed to trust a website called beefisbeef.com?2 So, there’s no difference between oxtail and filet mignon? Come on over here so I can kick you where your shank meets your flank. There is high-quality high-value meat and low-quality low-value meat, and pretending otherwise is wrong.
Industry says that this stuff is made from small scraps from major cuts that they previously couldn’t do much with because it was simply too fatty. So they developed this spinning process to separate these valuable bits of meat from the fat. That sounds reasonable to me.
On the other hand, Carl Custer, a highly respected ex-USDA official who’s been quoted in a number of the news pieces on this, clearly thinks it is not meat.
His position is, basically, that it contains high amounts of connective tissue (tendons, ligaments, etc.), which is quite distinct from muscle meat. In an email forum, he points to this 1996 study done at Iowa State, which documents similarities and differences between lean finely textured beef and muscle meats. Here is the summary, in full:
Lean, finely textured beef (LFTB) is a lean product derived from beef-fat trimmings. Characterization of LFTB showed that, while it is high in total protein, the LFTB contains more serum and connective tissue proteins and less myofibrillar proteins than muscle meat. Because of the protein differences, LFTB has less functionality in processed meats, resulting in lower yields and softer texture. Appropriate use of sodium chloride, sodium tripolyphosphate, k-carrageenan, or isolated soy protein achieved desired stability and yields in frankfurters with FTLB. The softer texture may be used to advantage in high-protein, low-fat meat products where excessive toughness or firmness is often a problem.
Translation: this stuff ain’t meat, but you can add a bunch of stuff to it to make it seem like meat.
I guess what it comes down to is that, yes, this stuff includes pieces of sirloin and chuck that were left over from making large muscle cuts, but it also contains enough collagen to suggest maybe there’s a little ankle meat in there, too. I have no idea, and I’m frankly too goddamned lazy to make some phone calls to try to split the difference.
So in the end, I guess whether it’s meat depends on what the definition of “is” is.
Should it be labeled?
To me, this is the ultimate transparency question.
Here’s a common sense test for whether lean finely-textured beef should be labeled. If you put a pile of ground chuck in front of a consumer, and also a pile of lean finely-textured beef next to it, would the consumer be able to tell the difference? If you made a normal burger (ground chuck, sirloin, brisket fat, whatever) and a 100% “pink slime” burger3, would the consumer be able to tell the difference? My understanding is that they could, though maybe I’m wrong about that.
If the customer can tell the difference — if most people can easily see that one pile or burger is high-quality and that the other pile or burger is low-quality — then not labeling the blended product is fraud. If not in fact, then in spirit.
Let me put it this way: how is cutting ground chuck with a lower-grade low-value processed meat any different than cutting olive oil with low-grade oils and colorants and passing it off as extra virgin? How is it any different than cutting honey with corn syrup, or passing off escolar as tuna or tilapia as snapper?
To most consumers, it is not any different. Actually, scratch that, it’s worse because it’s sanctioned. I’ve talked to a number of consumers about this, and to them it looks like a conspiracy. It looks like corporate lobbyists colluded with government officials to defraud consumers and serve dog-food to their kids. There is very little that I can say to dissuade them.
So while I’m no labeling expert, to my eyes, yes, this stuff should be labeled.
I think the government made a huge mistake in making an “experts know best” decision here, and worse, they’ve opened themselves up to pretty stinging accusations of revolving door politics and conflict of interest.
While the lesson for industry may be “don’t let the cameras” in, I hope the lesson for government is greater transparency. It may very well have hindered the short-term bottom line for industry to have to label this product in order to introduce it, and maybe the market for it would have been very slow to grow, but at least it would have been honest.
Moreover, while business reaped all of the economic benefits of this decision, they will ultimately bear only part of the cost. At least a failed business can rebrand. ValuJet crashed a plane into the Everglades, was so tarnished it changed it’s name to AirTran, and is now part of Southwest. Government agencies, however, cannot rebrand. A new logo ain’t gonna do it.
Fairly or unfairly, this ordeal will likely further erode the trust that Americans have in the agencies that regulate their food. This loss of trust is real, even if it is impossible to measure, and moreover, pretty much irrecoverable.
The damage is done.
Update (3/30/2012): I made a few minor fixes to links and such.
Many fine hot dogs do not include these things, but my point is that everyone thinks hot dogs are made of these things and we eat them anyway. ↩
3/30/2012: The website has been overhauled since I originally posted this. ↩
This is an oversimplification, since there are all kinds of burger blends, and the fat ratio matters a lot. Lean finely textured beef is very lean (90%), which would make for an awful burger. So for this experiment, assume you blend the LFTB with brisket fat or something to bring it down to 75% lean, and you use a 75% lean blend for the “normal” burger. ↩