The meat industry and the USDA just don't get it.
Americans are repulsed to learn that "pink slime," an unappetizing industrial slurry of cow connective tissue and low-grade beef scraps, is being added, surreptitiously, to supermarket ground beef as well as meat served in the National School Lunch Program. These ground-up tissues and scraps, formerly used for dog food, have been quietly included in our nation's ground beef supply since the 1990's thanks to a process invented by Beef Products Inc. (BPI). Since beef tissues used in pink slime are predisposed to E. coli and salmonella contamination, the filler is treated with ammonium hydroxide to kill the pathogens, before being mixed into ground beef as an additive.
After chef Jamie Oliver went on a televised tirade about the substance, also known as "finely textured lean beef," McDonald's, Taco Bell and Burger King announced in January, 2012 that they would no longer use pink slime as filler in their ground beef.
But this past week, to the horror of consumers, ABC News reported that the pink slime is even more ubiquitous than we think. 70 percent of supermarket ground beef contains the gelatinous additive, even though no mention of this filler is required on the label.
All of this begs the question, is it ethical for the meat industry and USDA to force consumers to ingest pink slime? Why isn't inclusion of this ingredient revealed on ground beef labels? And why on earth would our National School Lunch Program purchase for the nation's schoolchildren, ground beef that contains this unsavory filler? Anger over pink slime has dominated the news all week. Last Tuesday, "The Lunch Tray" blogger, Bettina Elias Siegel, started a petition to remove pink slime from school food. As of today, nearly 150,000 people have signed.
The responses from both the meat industry and the USDA to this controversy have been telling. The American Meat Institute (AMI) issued a statement through Food Safety News in support of pink slime:
The fact is, BPI's Lean Beef Trimmings (BLBT) is beef. The beef trimmings that are used to make BLBT are absolutely edible. In fact, no process can somehow make inedible meat edible; it's impossible. In reality, the BLBT production process simply removes fat and makes the remaining beef more lean and suited to a variety of beef products that satisfy consumers' desire for leaner foods.
In fact, BLBT is a sustainable product because it recovers lean meat that would otherwise be wasted. The beef industry is proud to efficiently produce as much lean meat as possible from the cattle we raise. It's the right thing to do and it ensures that our products remain as affordable as we can make them while helping to feed America and the world.
I find that statement remarkable in that the AMI doesn't even address what I think is the major issue. How can the beef industry silently include an ammonia-treated slurry of cow connective tissues and beef scraps in our ground beef supply -- beef parts that few Americans would willingly choose to consume? And as far as AMI's contention that they are ensuring that ground beef is lean, sustainable and affordable, I suspect that the addition of this cheap filler actually helps the meat industry increase its profit margin.
The USDA's remarks on the pink slime debacle, as reported by many news outlets, are equally curious:
"All USDA ground beef purchases must meet the highest standards for food safety," the agency said in a statement. "USDA has strengthened ground beef food safety standards in recent years and only allows products into commerce that we have confidence are safe."
Safe? Let's assume, for argument's sake that pink slime is safe (although the New York Times reported some disturbing findings about the slurry in December, 2009). Just because the USDA has deemed a food ingredient safe, doesn't give the agency the right to include it, secretly, in our nation's food supply.
Our industrial food system and the government agencies that police it, have been allowing questionable ingredients in our food supply for some time. These ingredients would turn consumers off in droves, if labels provided more detailed or clearer information. Just this week, Coca-Cola and Pepsi announced a change in the recipe of the caramel coloring used in their beverages, to avoid placing a cancer warning label on their products. The change was spurred not by the FDA but by a California law as well as lab tests performed by Center for Science in the Public Interest. Not surprisingly, the FDA maintains the chemical is safe.
In the case of pink slime, the additive isn't even required to be mentioned on ground beef labels. Normally, food ingredients -- many with long chemical names -- are required to be listed on food labels. However, most consumers would need a degree in chemistry to decipher the lists. That's why so many food reform advocates and medical professionals recommend that consumers stop purchasing processed food products that contain a long list of unidentifiable, unnatural substances.
The pink slime uproar shows that Americans are finally fed up with unsavory ingredients/additives in their food. Congress should mandate the labeling of ALL food ingredients, in simple and understandable English. Consumers should always have the information they need to make fully-informed decisions about which additives, if any, they feed their families.