It’s the sort of headline that leaves you stuck in front of the television for three hours, gripping the remote in panic and terror.
What is “pink slime”? Why is the USDA purchasing 7 million pounds of it for school lunches?
None of the other names for the substance do much for it either. “Soylent Pink” was floated at one point. Even its official title “Lean Beef Trimmings,” is little better. Its manufacturer is the vaguely named Beef Products Incorporated (BPI), which could hardly be a less fortunate name. “We Do Things With Beef,” the name says. “Move along, there is nothing more to see.”
Pink slime is the meat that the butchers rejected, basically. It's the connective tissue and other leavings, usually outer areas of the carcass that have more opportunities to get exposed to bacteria — what a 2003 Beef Products, Inc.-financed study referred to as “larger microbiological populations.” If microbes were hipsters, this would be Williamsburg. It was once shipped off to be used in oil and dog foods, until an entrepreneur thought that it might be salvageable for human consumption.
What gives “pink slime” its distinctive hue and texture is the process of treating it with ammonia. The usual alkalinity of beef is somewhere around a 6, which is about the middle of the acidic-to-not-particularly-acidic scale. In order to kill E. coli — a bacteria commonly found in meat, not to be confused with e. e. coli, a bacteria commonly found in erratically punctuated poetry* — which thrives at higher acidities, some method of increasing the alkalinity of the beef is necessary.
* This is weak, but I defy you to come up with a better joke about beef alkalinity.
So Beef Products Incorporated gases the beef product with ammonia.
Exactly how high the alkalinity of the Beef-ish Product is, as of 2009, remained in question. Some batches were in the neighborhood of 9.5, which is high enough that cooks to whom the beef was shipped for making meatloaf for convicts complained, thinking it had been contaminated. Some batches were in the neighborhood of 7.75, which is, well, not high enough and provokes complaints from the New York Times. Day by day, beef batch by beef batch, Beef Products Incorporated tries to strike some sort of balance between safety and beef that smells like you found it under your sink with the cleaning products.
Lately, something of an outcry began. McDonalds no longer uses the “pink slime” in its burgers. Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver demonstrated an imaginative version of the Lean Beef Trimmings production process to a disturbed-looking group of schoolchildren and their parents, and they all yelled against it.
But the USDA is still ordering 7 million pounds of it for school lunches. Why?
Well, it’s cheap.
Incorporate the treated meat, and you shave 3 cents off the cost of making a pound of ground beef. That’s nothing to sneeze at, and not just in the sense that you shouldn’t be sneezing around ground beef in the first place.
When it comes to food, that’s always the trade-off. Feed more people, less expensively? Or pay more for meat that hasn’t had the chance to get up-close-and-personal with ammonia? On the one extreme are the people who want us to eat only Locally Grown Fully Organic Marvel Foods. Never mind that this is also what they did during the medieval era, when feudalism was the order of the day and no one had invented refrigeration. It’s better for you, or something. On the other hard are people like me, who won’t eat chicken unless you hand me an affidavit saying its life was unpleasant, it lived in a cramped and miserable cage, and that it probably was frozen for months in a strange warehouse and pumped full of chemicals. I like to be reminded of progress. Also, it’s cheaper.
Most people fall somewhere in the middle. And policy around “Pink Slime” tries to take that into account.
Current regulations allow you to make Beefish Product up to 15 percent of your hamburger, with no labeling about the ammonia (it’s a “processing agent,” not an ingredient. This makes sense — if it were labeled as an ingredient, no matter how safe it was, you probably wouldn’t buy it.)
For every celebrity chef darting into your school to insinuate that the food there should be greener and less pinkish, there’s a cost.
Sure, the videos from BPI weren’t exactly reassuring. “When most people think of ammonia, they probably think of household cleaners,” the video noted. “But there is so much more to ammonia than you may know. . . . It’s a natural component of all plants and animals!” It’s in chickens! It’s in people shopping at the Banana Republic! It’s in moose, those majestic and natural beasts! I am not making this up.
Foodies have already made our life difficult enough. They force us to differentiate between locally grown, organically nourished chickens and their factory cousins. They oblige us to go to farmers’ markets and hunt down exotic squashes. They insist that if you can’t eat locally grown kale, you should feel somehow ashamed.
But if we can prove the slime is safe and it makes more food available more cheaply to more people, I’m not inclined to stand in its way, whether or not it’s technically meat. Perhaps this also explains my dating life. I’d be the first to turn in the beef if it contained any objectionable bacteria. Well, not the first. That’s probably someone at the beef testing area.
After all, the inclusion of an eerie, lumpy substance that only superficially resembles meat is a long tradition of school lunches. It builds character. And in a taste test, some students even preferred the slime mixture. Just rename it, and we’ll be fine.