CONTRIBUTORS

How pink slime’s gruesome predecessors scared Congress

Posted April 05, 2012, at 6:40 p.m.

The furor over “pink slime,” the colorful term used in the media for what meatpackers call “lean finely textured beef,” reminds us once again that we don’t always know what we’re eating — and that the way our food is produced can be seriously unsettling.

“Pink slime,” producers assure us, is a safe filler product made from beef trim that is treated with ammonium hydroxide to kill bacteria, such as E. coli.

But many consumers — including more than 220,000 who recently joined an online effort to ban the substance from the federal school-lunch program — have been surprised to learn that the slime is in the ground beef we buy at our local supermarket (many chains now have dropped the product) or order at McDonald’s (ditto).

After all, we’ve been through such uproars before — and the government has assured us for more than 100 years that the meat we buy is safe.

“Meat Trust in a Pickle,” the Washington Post announced in 1906. Indeed it was: Despite fierce pressure by the meatpacking industry, Congress was about to sign into law the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act, both bold measures intended to protect consumers from adulterated food. The laws gave the federal government power to mandate compliance with meat inspections, which had been voluntary, and to require food and drug manufacturers to tell the truth about what ingredients were in their products. Rules about allowable ingredients would be set by the government.

The legislation was enacted within five months of the publication of Upton Sinclair’s scandalous novel “The Jungle,” which Sinclair hoped would expose the meatpacking industry’s exploitation of immigrant workers. But what caught the public’s attention wasn’t the workers’ long hours, low pay and lack of adequate health care; or the powerlessness of unions to bargain for decent wages; or the tragedy of child labor. What horrified readers was Sinclair’s nauseating depiction of meat processing.

Sinclair told of old, lame, diseased cattle still sent to slaughter. He told of “potted chicken” made from tripe, pork fat and the waste from veal; of rancid butter, rechurned and sold to market; of meat that had fallen into the filth, spittle and sawdust of the packing-house floor, only to be retrieved and packaged; of rats and rat dung, poisoned bread and spoiled meat, mixed together in sausage hoppers.

All processed meat, Sinclair reported, contained what was euphemistically called “filler”: “There would come back from Europe old sausage that had been rejected, and that was mouldy and white — it would be dosed with borax and glycerine, and dumped in the hoppers, and made over again for human consumption.” There were “butt-ends of smoked meat, and the scraps of corned beef, and all the odds and ends of the waste” of the manufacturing plants, which was added to fresh meat and churned into breakfast sausage. To use parts of meat that couldn’t be sold whole, the packers applied what Sinclair called “the miracles of chemistry” to make the result appear palatable.

These processed meats were given innovative names: boneless hams, California hams, skinless hams. (In modern-day supermarket aisles, they’re known as deli ham and luncheon meat.)

Readers of “The Jungle” were outraged. One of those readers was President Theodore Roosevelt. Soon after the novel was published, Roosevelt invited Sinclair to meet with him in Washington, and he followed up by sending investigators to the packing plants. When they confirmed Sinclair’s findings, Roosevelt was convinced that reform was needed immediately.

Sinclair was skeptical, though, that the new laws that resulted would really work. The Pure Food and Drug Act “is good as far as it goes, but it is like plugging up one leak in a dam and making a devil of a fuss over it, and letting a dozen other leaks go unnoticed,” he said. “A few months after its enactment, it will be forgotten and former conditions will be resumed.”

He was partly right. The Food and Drug Administration, whose regulatory authority largely derived from the act, has made significant progress in improving food standards since Sinclair’s day, but it has seen its power threatened in recent years by lobbying efforts and budget cuts. In the case of “pink slime,” the FDA says it has done its homework and the additive is completely safe. U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack agrees. So do industry executives.

Consumers, though, are almost as suspicious and worried as they were more than a century ago. And the meat industry — which has suffered a collapse in demand and had at least one bankruptcy result from the controversy — is back in a pickle.

Linda Simon teaches at Skidmore College and is the author of “Dark Light: Electricity and Anxiety From the Telegraph to the X-Ray.”

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