Thursday, March 15, 2012

"Pink Slime" producer fights back in PR food fight

Is it any worse than a McRib?

I just got around to picking up a copy of Food Inc. this week and watching the film. It's pretty good infotainment. (My 7-year-old loves it, and has been watching it over and over again!)

One of the corporate targets of the documentary makers is BPI, "Beef Products Inc.", the company responsible for extracting the meat paste from trim that has become infamous as "Pink Slime".

The actual finished product, via BPI

Coincidentally, Pink Slime is in the news right now, after McDonald's stopped adding it to their burgers and the USDA okayed it for school lunches.

Meanwhile, BPI is fighting back with a campaign Wordpress site called "Pink Slime is a Myth" in which they tell their side of the story.

Actual copy: "Ammonia is essential for life. This naturally occurring substance is found in virtually all life forms, from plants to animals to humans. Life could not have evolved and cannot survive without it."

They make the usual mistake of protesting too loudly that boneless lean beef trim (their term for the product) "is beef – period".

What it is, is meat that has been separated from the trimmed fat of cow carcasses through chemical and mechanical means and has been sterilized with Ammonium Hydroxide .

What it is not, is this:

That's mechanically separated chicken. Want a nugget?

I'm not defending BPI. I think what they do is gross, and I don't want to eat it. But if we're going to stop putting processed animal byproducts in our meat snacks, we're going to have to give up cheap meat and accept a more wasteful meat industry.


Let's look at it this way: livestock are more than steaks and chops. Traditional trim, carved off the bones with an expert knife, wound up as sausages, cold cuts and ground meat. It still does, if you buy your processed meats from a butcher who makes them in-store. (Which I am, admittedly, a real snob about. Even organic packaged hot dogs gross me out.)

But even the most expert cutter misses lots of digestible protein that is in unpalatable organs, bone marrow, and inextricably merged with fat. The old-school solution would be to render it into gelatin, tallow or lard, or make it into stock. But back in the '60s and '70s, food scientists started looking for ways to get more edible and saleable product from each animal. Mechanically separated meat entered the market, and it got into many of the packaged soups, burgers, sausages and finger foods you eat. 

This was seen as a good thing. Consumerist quotes Roger Mandigo, a professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln:

"Most people would be extremely unhappy if they were served heart or tongue on a plate," he observed. "But flaked into a restructured product it loses its identity. Such products as tripe, heart, and scalded stomachs are high in protein, completely edible, wholesome, and nutritious, and most are already used in sausage without objection." Pork patties could be shaped into any form and marketed in restaurants or for airlines, solving a secondary problem of irregular portion size of cuts such as pork chops. In 1981 McDonald's introduced a boneless pork sandwich of chunked and formed meat called the McRib, developed in part through check-off funds [micro-donations from pork producers] from the NPPC [National Pork Producers Council]. It was not as popular as the McNugget, introduced in 1983, would be, even though both products were composed of unmarketable parts of the animal (skin and dark meat in the McNugget). The McNugget, however, benefited from positive consumer associations with chicken, even though it had none of the "healthy" attributes people associated with poultry.”
McRib, McNugget: McAnicallySeparatedMeat. (Although the McNugget changed to "real" chicken a few years ago.) So why is this beef process singled out for disgust?

People love this shit.

It's purely subjective. First, Jamie Oliver grossed people out on his show with a demonstration of how ammonia and water dissolve meat into red goop. Then there was the Food Inc. exposé. Then McDonald's and the FDA. Combined with the mislabelled chicken visual, the negative PR shitstorm has stirred public anxiety over one particular kind of processed meat product.

But is it really worse than the others? The process at issue is the decontamination with ammonia, which is toxic. It was actually a breakthrough for BPI, since the trimmings that are their raw product get disgustingly  contaminated in industrial butchery, and were previously not fit for human consumption. The ammonia was supposed to fix that. 

But when you look for research on the safety of the process, it's not trace ammonia that's the big problem. It's that it still lets some pathogens, like e. coli and salmonella, through. BPI had been exempted from regular testing and recalls, simply because the US government was overconfident with the efficacy of chemical sterilization.

Factory mass-production of meat is gross, period. But it also allows companies to offer $1 hamburger deals and other cheap meats, plus it feeds more people per animal—which has some significant environmental benefits. The original process of mechanical separation of beef from bones was banned in the US following the mad cow epidemic, so this is one of the cheapest sources of total animal utilization available.

(Ironically, the "nose-to-tail" foodie movement attempts to accomplish the same goal, but by gourmet means, by creating recipes for offal and other unpopular animal parts.)

If we want to stop eating questionable meat, we will have to eat less meat overall and pay a lot more for it. But as long as enough people are ignorant or ambivalent about what goes in their meals, there will always be a market for Pink Slime.

My advice for BPI, and consumer advocates, is to be absolutely honest. Activists need to stop misusing the chicken image and focus fairly on all mass-produced factory meat processes (as well as related food safety, worker rights and animal welfare issues), not just the cause of the day. BPI needs to back off on its claims that their product is virtually identical to ordinary lean ground beef, and take the position that using more of the animal is more economical and sustainable as long as you don't think about it too much.

Epilogue: BPI was so outraged by its portrayal in Food Inc. and on Chef Oliver's show that it commissioned its own reactionary video series:

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