Ever since ABC News aired an investigative report two weeks ago about the so-called pink slime lurking in an estimated 70 percent of the ground beef sold at U.S. supermarkets, consumers have been, well, perturbed. Last Thursday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that, starting this fall, schools will be able to choose whether or not to purchase pink slime-enhanced beef, and earlier today, the Safeway supermarket chain joined Publix, HEB, Whole Foods, and Costco in promising it would sell only additive-free beef.
To recap, pink slime, or "finely textured lean beef," is ammonia-treated ground beef filler made from trimmings that were once more commonly used as ingredients in dog food and cooking oil. It's manufactured by Beef Products, Inc., a company name that seems invented for a Simpsons episode. Although the USDA maintains that it's not an additive and thus doesn't need to be labeled, critics argue that it's less nutritious than natural, slimeless ground beef, and numerous consumers have responded by way of their gag reflex.
Food Safety News ratcheted up the controversy today with an interview with Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, the USDA's Under Secretary for Food Safety. Asked about pink slime, Hagen goes for the food safety defense: She's not concerned because the good people at the USDA aren't. "It's been used for a long time," she says. "Ammonium hydroxide itself is used in a multitude of different food products." With the understatement typical of high government officials, Hagen adds, "I think it's the idea of this product that is troublesome to people."
For the record, the USDA considers pink slime to be beef: "We start with beef, there's a treatment that's applied, and it ends up as beef." And if it makes you feel any better, Hagen says the government doesn't label any of the other components that find their way into ground beef either, so this is an "even-handed approach." So there.
While Hagen has a point, she also misses the larger one: Nothing about a product called pink slime inspires an "even-handed approach." It inspires the kind of instinctive, visceral disgust that no amount of talk about food safety can calm. Maybe if more of that disgust were directed at large-scale food production methods and their lack of transparency, we wouldn't have to worry about, say, actual shit in our frozen spinach or honey-less honey or cancer in soda.
But perhaps the greatest insult of pink slime is that all of those cheap, crappy, ammonia-treated fillers don't even add up to a good product. Comparing a pink-slime burger with an all-natural one, AP food editor J.M. Hirsch noted that while the latter was "everything you'd want in a burger," the former was "one-dimensional," riddled with "unpleasantly chewy bits of what I can only describe as gristle." And that, in the end, is a verdict that may prove far more convincing to the average eater than all of the bland reassurance the government is able to muster.