As Juliet said to Romeo, “What’s in a name?” The answer, when it comes to the ammonia-treated cartilage and scrap meat that goes into much U.S. ground beef, is “lots.”
The moniker “pink slime” for that foodstuff has sparked a furor that caused Beef Products, Inc., to shut down three of its four plants that produced the substance. The agribusiness giant Cargill Inc. said it would cut production. And most recently came a filing for bankruptcy protection by AFA Foods, Inc., which processes more than 500 million pounds of ground beef products annually, according to the Wall Street Journal.
The trouble started in 2002 when Gerald Zirnstein, a former microbiologist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, used the term “pink slime” in what he thought was a private email to a fellow scientist. The message leaked out, and the story grew through sharing on Facebook and YouTube, and this year it exploded, with television and Internet chef Jamie Oliver leading the charge.
Consumer activists campaigned against the product, including many in Maine. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat who knows something about beef production since she raises cattle on her farm in North Haven, has introduced a bill that would require the labeling of any product that contains what the industry calls “finely textured ground beef.”
The Maine Department of Agriculture says it is not accepting for school lunches any federal hamburger containing the product. But the hamburger it sends to Maine schools amounts to only 10 or 15 percent of what the schools use in lunches. It is up to individual school systems to make a choice. Labeling may help them choose between pink slime and no pink slime.
But Phil Lempert, a food industry consultant and editor of SupermarketGuru.com, says “Labeling isn’t going to help.” As far as finely textured ground beef is concerned, he says “The fight is over,” but the industry will turn to other extenders for ground beef, “like vegetables or soy, and might open the door for irradiation vs. ammonia.”
It thus may be too late, but industry leaders continue to defend what they call “lean beef trimmings.” In a “Get the Facts” summary they say the product is 100 percent beef, processed from beef trimmed from steaks and roasts. They say processing removes fat from the beef, leaving the product 94.97 percent lean beef. The rest can be connective tissue and cartilage. Ammonium hydroxide, although demonized by consumer activists, is used to kill bacteria in pink slime, just as it is widely used in making cheese, chocolate and baking powder.
The present situation is that the ground meat industry will find other fillers to hold down the cost. Similarly, salted peanuts cost less than unsalted peanuts because salt is cheaper than peanuts. The result may be distasteful, but it is probably safe, and it’s cheaper than pure ground beef.
So the only ways to be sure of getting hamburger without the additives are to trust your butcher or grind your own. Anything else will remain mystery meat.