Thinking Through Pink Slime

I have mixed feelings about the "pink slime" controversy, especially after learning of last week's bankruptcy filing of AFA foods, which will probably kill 850 jobs in Pennsylvania. I suspect there will be more job losses in the coming months from other meat processors.

For me, yes, the concept of producing meat in this way is profoundly unappetizing to say the least. And certainly the phrase "pink slime" itself has been manufactured to sound as vile as possible. Well-played.

In fact, Laura and I had a gigantic conversation over the past several days about whether we should finally fully embrace vegetarianism. The pink slime controversy was what got us talking, and quite frankly it almost pushed us over the edge.

But just to be devil's advocate for a moment: You could also argue--if you've made a commitment to eat meat in the first place--that getting every last bit of usable meat from an animal is more respectful, more environmentally sound, and less wasteful than simply throwing away all the trimmings and cuttings. Even Marion Nestle, one of the food industry's fiercest critics, argues that the use of these trimmings recovers 10 to 12 pounds of edible lean beef from every animal, and saves some 1.5 million animals from slaughter each year.

So let's ask the question in a different way: Are we needlessly wasting animal parts in order to protect our sensibilities? In other words, is it narcissistic of us to waste meat merely because a particular process for not wasting it appears gross to us? They say if you like sausage you should never set foot inside a sausage factory. Are we making the same shallow argument with pink slime? These are incredibly difficult questions.

Readers, I don't have the pink slime story figured out by any stretch. But one thing I almost always find with controversial issues like this is things are not always as they seem. I'm just trying to think through the issue, and I'm hoping I can get some feedback from the always insightful readers here at Casual Kitchen.

So readers, what do you think? Is there another side to the pink slime controversy? Or is it a black and white story with no gray areas?

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Louisa said...

Well, using all of the animal is to be respected. But I think the problem is that because slaughtering and processing(of all foods) is done on such an immense scale, that potentially dangerous chemicals need to be used in the interest of "food safety"

If things were done on a smaller scale, more locally, yes, it would be more expensive, but it would also be safer. I know it would take some painful economic restructuring to get there, but it might all be for the better

Emmy said...

I agree with Louisa. Pink Slime is a segue into the CAFO and why that should be eliminated. I guess the practice of hosing down our meat with ammonia isn't a bad thing, considering. But that's just it, we need to be considering where our meat's coming from. I think the whole controversy is pushing factory farms and feedlots into the public's view. And we don't like our food to have a face. We're a bit spoiled like that.

Anonymous said...

Protein is protein.

Stuart Carter said...

I am so thankful that I don't eat factory produced meat for the most part - local, humane, free-range for me.

"Pink slime" is just the inevitable end stage of a system that tries to make people forget that animals are living, breathing beings that can feel fear and pain. It confirms their status as mere food sources. While the furor about the name is understandable, the part that nauseates me is what I said here - this product just confirms that most people do not want to think of animals as animals. Just as a source of protein.

Shane said...

Here's the thing... We've been eating this meat since I believe 1974 is when they said this process started. They claim to have had no food borne illness from any of the plants that use this process in that time. The use of ammonia was largely exaggerated to make it sound like they were just pouring on all of these chemicals, when in actuality it's a puff of ammonia to kill off things like ecoli and other food borne pathogens. I think it is good that they are using all of the meat and not wasting it.

What will happen if people don't change their views on this, is Americans all over the country will lose their jobs. These large factories will shut down or dramatically reduce their production levels... Cost of meat will go through the roof, but consumer demand will not go down. (Just like fuel)... We still want our red meat. They will just demand it not be "pink slime". Businesses will claim "no pink slime" here... consumers will take them at face value and continue to eat. In the meantime, since demand will still be high, we'll probably have to import our meat from over seas since we will have shut down our main meat manufacturers in the USA. The foreign meat will have even less regulation than our current meat does and we'll have a higher risk of food borne illness. But at least we'll feel better that those evil meat companies producing the "pink slime" have been shut down.

The meat industry has shown pictures of what their lean finely trimmed beef (pink slime) looks like and it's actually very lean looking. Apparently, a lot of the gross pictures of "pink slime" on the internet are actually pictures of chicken... not even beef.

I am a bit biased here... I live in Sioux City and am heavily exposed to the beef industries side of things. BPI is like 10 minutes from my house. Like the last poster said... protein is protein. Beef is beef. They have actually built their own website so you can see it from their view at:

Let's not throw away hard working American's jobs, just to replace them with overseas workers and overseas meat.

So Dan, I applaud you for looking at this issue with the other perspective and not just looking at the media slant of "pink slime". It's been very exaggerated.

Viveca from FatigueBeGone said...

I am sad to hear about the loss of those jobs and for a process that has saved many animals from the slaughter house. This payday I am going to send $50 to them as a donation. If enough of us did, maybe we could save them.

It wasn't long ago that "they" said eggs were bad for us. Then, years later they said eggs were no longer bad for us and we could eat as many as we wanted.

How much money and how many jobs were lost over that? And where was the apology? I never heard one.

I am very involved in animal rescue and the power of the internet to connect animals in need with loving fosters and homes - FAST is incredible. By the same token the power to destroy innocent people is just as FAST.

Liz T. said...

Hey, if you're making something the market, as capricious as it is, doesn't want, then you'll go down. Happy Capitalism!

For me, it's about processed food. I try to avoid it as much as possible. I'll eat meat that is recognizable as meat. I don't eat tofurkey or soy dogs, and I will also go out of my way to avoid pink slime. As cheap as I am, i have been known to buy local whole chickens at $5/lb from a nearby farm. Simple as that.

Also, it's gross.

Liz T. said...

Upon reflection, I think the bigger question is 'Why must it be processed with ammonia?' (or whatever ammonia compund it's treated with.) how long has it been sitting around, or what has it been in contact with, that requires that extra step? Otherwise, how it is different than 'regular' ground beef? Most of us rely on our imaginations to fill in the blanks, and it's not usually a positive conclusion.

Shane said...

Here's a link off of the website explaining the ammonia. I highly recommend anyone with questions check out this site if you have questions about the process.

Here's some other FAQ's and answers:

I'm no expert on this. I just live locally in the area that is affected the hardest by this. We have been given a ton of info about the process. Unfortunately, the court of public opinion is easily swayed by the media. Ammonia is in all kinds of products we eat already. The video explains it better than I can though. Again, not an expert here. Just sharing the info I have.

Jen said...

Personally I don't think pink slime itself is so much worse than lots of other processes or products in our food supply. (I've heard some truly revolting things about hot dogs, for instance. And yet I still eat those occasionally.) I don't think it needs to be banned if it's not posing any more of a food safety or health issue than any other part of large scale meat processing. I do think we all need to keep demanding more information about our food, though, and I think the government should mandate that producers provide it.

I'm so torn about the job loss issue. On the one hand, I am intensely sympathetic to what happens to communities and families when an industry collapses. (I lived in Detroit for many years and saw it firsthand!) That's not something to be taken lightly or just brushed aside, as so many "outraged" people are doing. At the same time, if a practice is less than ideal, should it continue forever just to save jobs?

chacha1 said...

Excellent question and discussion so far. My view is that those of us who can afford to buy ground bison instead of mass-market ground beef probably weren't buying mass-market ground beef anyway.

There are a lot of people on the knife-edge of employment and hunger in this country. Removing a cheap protein source from the food supply, out of what are essentially aesthetic considerations, is wasteful and maybe even elitist.

Shutting down this recovery process (which is what it is) really does render the entire animal-use process less efficient and less effective.

We, as a population, are going to keep eating red meat. I think if a process is proven to be safe (as safe as any mechanized, industrial food-handling process can be) then we do have an obligation to not waste the resource just because we are squeamish.

AmandaLP said...

While there may be 1000 job losses if we stop eating "pink slime," those 1000 jobs killed off several times that number in farmers and butchers. Using another industry, New York lost 300 million acres of small dairy farms, because it was cheaper to consolidate into larger farms, crowding animals onto smaller pieces of land, but creating tons of environmental waste, feeding animals antibiotics, and creating less healthy meat.

In addition, those jobs lost were low skill and highly dangerous jobs. Working in an industrial slaughterhouse or meat processing plant is some of the most dangerous and underpaid work in the county. Imagine McDonalds wages, but with sharp knives, heavy production schedules, and heavy casualties.

Liz T. said...

Like in just about every other conflict, there is no one Right Answer. But correct information is critical,and most folks don't take the time to check everything out, instead relying on emotion-based media reporting. I know this, and am still guilty of it. Thanks for the beefisbeef link, Shane. I'll check it out.

chacha1 said...

@AmandaLP, not sure if you mean losing low-paid, highly-dangerous jobs is not a bad thing?

The current issue shouldn't necessarily be conflated with the consolidation of dairy farms.

Both are fairly repugnant, both resulted in job losses from more primitive farming and food production models, and both were perceived as favorable developments in terms of providing more food at lower prices.

But "pink slime" is a result of efficiency of production taken to its logical end, whereas dairy consolidation is a result of market pressure favoring economies of scale.

Also, it's not historically been perceived as necessary, or even desirable, for a developing industry to devote any resources to displaced workers. I don't think the two phenomena are necessarily related other than that both utilize cattle.

Anyway ... just not sure what you're getting at in your comment!

Joanne said...

It's when stories like this come out that I am SO glad I don't eat meat anymore. But honestly, even before that I hadn't eaten processed meat like this in many years and had no intention of doing so ever again. I like to know where my food comes from whenever possible and if I can't at least know what's in it, then I won't eat it. Plain and simple.

Janet C said...

I agree with those who say that its the processing (particularly the ammonia) and not the by-products themselves that turn me off. AND there should be truth in packaging: if you use offal to make the ground sirloin then say so. And at the risk of throwing a "yes but" at you Dan: didn't your theory of letting the market determine what is sold happen here? People threatened to boycott beef, and a questionable product went under. Sounds like some folks have been reading Casual Kitchen! :-)

Daniel said...

Janet, great point, and I can't disagree. I just hope that consumers are making their own decisions and not letting the media shape their thinking for them. The first is empowered and informed decision-making, the second isn't.

And just to be a double-dog-devil's advocate for a moment: a firm that filed BK this quickly probably wasn't on firm financial footing in the first place.

Once again, I'm not sure where I stand on this issue, but I'm grateful for the conversation. I'm learning a lot from all of you.


Jenna said...

Personally, I come down firmly on the yes/no side of the argument. (lol)

By that I mean - I honestly do think that if you are going to eat meat, you should eat as much of the critter as you can. BUT - I think that issue should be dealt with by learning how to butcher and cook all parts of the animal. When meat wasn't viewed as a 'normal' everyday, every meal, 3x a day item, it wasn't because our grandparents were chucking huge portions out the back window. Bones weren't pressure washed and treated with toxic chemicals (yes, by the time you eat 'pink slime' the gases have, well, offgassed. But I tend to view things as toxic if spilling some on my bare skin = trips to the ER. Call me a simple gal.) they were made into stocks. Sausages. Scrapple. Dried, salted, and canned. The bits & bobs were used - but they weren't processed into something other than what they are. Might be overly simplistic, but to me there is a big difference between say salt pork and pink slime.

For me, it's a simple matter. I pay more for grassfed, locally raised, humanly treated critters. Costs more and I can't afford much of it - so I've had to learn what to do with the bits, how to make things stretch, and yes - shockingly - sometimes? DO WITHOUT.

Pink slime, to me, comes down to us as a society refusing to accept the 'unfairness' of the simple fact that not everyone can afford to eat filet mignon at every meal. We're not a communist society. Some folks have more. Some folks have less. It's time to stop trying to grind the whole cow up into mystery bits and make everyone pretend it's sirloin steak. We all think that we all deserve to have everything we want, and everything others have too. It's all gotta be FAIR so no one feels left out. Honestly, it's the same thing behind no one wins at baseball because we don't want the losers to know they didn't win too. Eat what you can afford. Eat what is GOOD for you. Do what you can with what you have and learn to make wonderful things with what you have.

And stop pumping useless filler crap into things. Be it meat, the air, your wallet, body, or your brain.

Wet Coasters said...

Perfectly said, Jenna. Your comment pretty much sums up exactly how I feel.
I hope the pink slime controversy will open peoples eyes to how all our food is processed to the max these days. Processed is equal to unhealthy.
We may agree that pink slime uses up every last bit of the animal, but have you ever noticed how much food gets wasted at the other end of the chain? Perfectly good food gets thrown out, and that is very disrespectful of the animal that died to fill your plate.
The solution? Eat less, eat whole food that you can recognize, and support your local food growers.

Anonymous said...

Is it desirable to use every possible part of the animal? Of course.

Is it desirable to let Big Farma use what it thinks is "every possible part of the animal"-- butchered using a process that it thinks is safe-- in a plant that it thinks is sufficiently sanitary, and treated with chemicals it thinks won't hurt you? Of course not.

Big Farma makes these types of decisions based on their lawyers' estimates of what they can get away with if they're sued (assuming that a judge even allows the case to proceed).

As for the nonsense about this causing bankruptcy, AFA generates $958 million in annual revnue and has $197 million in debt. Those two numbers alone should be a tipoff that this probably didn't all happen in the two months since the ABC story broke.

And if you look at the summary of the filing. published by Fox Rothschild (the only free resource) one finds the following paragraphs: (google some text to find the full summary)

The meat processing industry, according to AFA, is a "highly competitive industry, marked by growing overcapacity." Decl. at *9. Despite having a good safety record and high quality products, AFA contends it has still struggled to achieve earnings over the last two years. The company competes against larger meat processors and smaller, independent processors as well. Id. The prices for AFA's products are based on USDA pricing indexes. The spread between product costs and indexed prices results in a thin profit margin which requires a "consistent level of output" to remain viable. Id.

Over the last couple of years, AFA has had trouble maintaining profitability due to decreased demand, increased costs and lower sales in certain retail food outlets. Decl. at *10. To respond to these pressures, the company began expanding its sales to retail customers, focusing on creating a broader customer base. According to AFA, its strategy was succeeding until controversy arose over its use of boneless lean beef trimmings ("BLBT"). Id.

So they were losing money for two years. What the filing doesn't say explicitly is that Yucaipa Companies, a venture capital firm that owns lots and loits of supermarkets, bought AFA not too long ago, figuring it could boost sales of AFA 'beef' by requiring all its properties to buy it.

So ABC fouled up the plan by explaining to its viewers what this mung is? Awww, shucks.

The thing I find amusing about this situation is that everyone who seems disturbed by these events ignores a basic fact: this is how free markets and the law of supply and demand works. When consumers discovered what they were being sold, they refused to buy it. What, exactly, is the problem with that?

Carol C said...

A lot of us don't have either the time or the funds to shop at the stores that carry locally-raised, grass-fed beef. We are harried, usually accompanied to the supermarket by our kids who want what their friends eat and what they see on tv. It doesn't mean that we don't try to eat healthier, or care about the treatment our food animals recieved. It's to everyone's advantage that animals be treated as humanely as possible, and the meat be processed in a way that minimizes bacterial contamination, and out of respect for those same food animals, uses as much of their carcasses as possible. Some of my family members are hunters. Do we use every bit of a kill that we can? You bet. Even scrappy bits that we don't maybe want to eat get used for pet food. Mind you, coming from a hunting family makes us all a good deal more cognizant of where our food does come from. Even ground beef in a tray came from an animal, and while we enjoy the meat, we are aware of the sacrifice made. Maybe that's the whole root of the "pink slime" controversy - people don't want that awareness. For them, perhaps we should look to growing our meat artificially, in vats. For me, however, I'll stick with the meat I can afford, and respect it.

Don said...

As more people come to see what BPI really does and make they realize its not what the media is selling everybody on. Ground beef is made from trimmings and trimmings are sold based on percent lean. A company can easily buy 93% lean beef trimmings and mix it some 50% lean trimmings and get 80% lean ground beef. That's how the beef plants make ground beef. Its just that 50% lean is cheap and 93% lean is more expensive trimmings. The more beef the more you pay basically. It has nothing to do with types of trimmings its all about the fat/lean percent.

BPI took the cheapest high fat trimmings and invented a way to remove the fat and keep the lean. This was great because now you can take 50% lean and make 95% lean. The 95% lean can be mixed with 73% to make 85% lean ground beef or in any other order to make any other lean/fat percent ground beef.

All ground beef has the same potential for pathogenic bacteria. These bacteria are found on the surface of the trimmings not inside of any meat or fat. Slaughter house spray down the carcus with an anti-bacterial solution to kill any bacteria on the surface. The problem with ground beef is that if there are any bacteria on the surface when it is ground up you now have that bacteria mixed throughout the ground beef. Now BPI is a small family owned company that has been very big on food safety. BPI didn't always use ammonia, it was just another step they could do to improve the safety of the food. BPI uses many steps in there process with the goal of killing any bacteria that may be present. Part of that includes testing of the trimmings before processing, flash freezing the meat to around 10 degrees and colder in less then 1 minute.

BPI has a very clean work environment with very skilled people working in the plant. There is near zero contact with the meat from start to finish.

I can also say everyone I have asked that works at BPI has no problems eating the meat. Same thing goes for people who just get a tour through the plants.

I know not many other food processing employees at hot dog and sausage factories would say that.

Anonymous said...

I agree that we should use the entire animal if we are going to consume it. However, I don't think that anyone here is talking about the fact that the cuts of beef that are being turned into "pink slime" were once destined for dog and cat food. This is another example, in my opinion, of trying to push more processed crap into our food stream while increasing the profit margins of corporations.

Diane said...

I wasn't terribly shocked. I think any time you buy ANY processed foods, you but yourself at the mercy of the processor. And yes, pre-packaged ground meat is processed food.

I have bo problem eating meat, although I don't eat a lot of it. But I am lucky enough to live near a phenomenal butcher who can get me goat liver (eaten for lunch today) and rabbit (on deck for tomorrow), as well as grind meat for me.

Pink slime sounds bad. But America has fully embraced the ethos of cheaper-is-always-better when it comes to our food, and this is the natural extension of that. It was true in the time of Sinclair's "Jungle" and it is true now.

B'ville Dan said...

Yes "pink slime" is foul, but not more so than many other things that occur in slaughterhouses. It just has a buzz and a great anti-marketing name.

I believe that if most people saw what happened in slaughterhouses, there'd be a hell of a lot less meat consumption. Pink slime is just a small taste of what happens behind these closed doors.

youtube video of slaughterhouse clips. Dan this may be helpful to you and Laura if you're thinking about going full-vegetarianism!