The Bigger Pink Slime Problem for Business

In a matter of weeks, activists have been able to assassinate a popular product through a confluence of events: an official labeled it derogatorily as “pink slime,” social media buzz (or anti-buzz), and media attention against the background of Americans’ greater concern about processed foods. Could this happen to other products? Does it relate to a broader shift in power from PR firms and industry to the consumer mob?
John Bussey has a good article in today’s Wall Street Journal featuring some of the wound-licking of the lean finely textured beef industry. Note the tactics:
1) Make it about consumer choice:

This week beef producers belatedly said they’re considering labeling the beef that contains LFTB. The idea is simple. Tell consumers what they’re buying. Give them an option. Let them make the choice.

Of course, how much choice do I have as a student at some public school that has decided to save five cents on my burger by packing it with LFTB?
2) Change the language:
Notice the use of LFTB acronym…Notice the reporter used it, and it is the same acronym used by the industry.
3) Make an entirely unverifiable and vague claim, one that reporters seem to always quote faithfully:

“We have recently seen an increased interest in purchasing ground beef containing LFTB as customers and consumers gain access to more accurate information,” adds Gary Mickelson, a spokesman for Tyson Foods…”

I am so totally sure that if consumers just knew that their food had to be treated with ammonia because of underlying problems with the safety of its rendering, they would clamor for it.
4) Rely upon toady regulators–here the USDA. Note the unidentified spokesperson. Does the fact that the USDA expert won’t identify him/herself a signal?

“It’s beef,” says a USDA official. “There are various parts of the animal that come together in ground beef. This is just one part.”

5) Say it’s really no different from the rest of the sorry state of processed foods, because that is a very cogent argument:

As for the ick factor, well, wake up and smell the Spam. “There are plenty of examples in the food system where you could come up with a derogatory term for the process,” says Edward Mills of Penn State’s animal science department. “Luncheon meat, sausage, hot dogs. All of these are batter products. They’re made in a slurry. It isn’t pretty.”

6) And don’t forget to malign the critics:

“a troubling mix of industry intransigence, uninformed consumers and a megaphone-toting media–social and otherwise. The only innocent bystander was the cow.”

Of course, consumers are always uninformed. No one can be fully informed…
In order to win the larger battle with big business and their PR tactics, the consumer movement (and ordinary consumer themselves) has to recognize these tactics. In large part, this article has illustrated the pattern of argumentation that is so effective at manipulating the media and regulators. We need to get wise to this.


40 responses to “The Bigger Pink Slime Problem for Business”

  1. But to what extent should scientists or environmentalists think that pink slime is a real issue? Does anyone want to make the argument that garden-variety hamburgers made from feedlot beef are less healthy or more harmful to the environment if they contain pink slime?
    Certainly, there is a lot to criticize about those hamburgers, from the health issue of eating a lot of beef, however produced, to the ills of our beef industry. But it seems to me that picking on the pink slime in it is much like criticizing a meth dealer’s brand name.

  2. Honestly, I don’t see what the big deal is about “pink slime,” and I’ve been a little annoyed that so many news organizations have chosen to adopt the term. It makes it a little hard to be objective about it if you’re using the derogatory term coined by one side.
    We’re already talking about a food that’s ground-up cow, what’s the big deal about adding more ground-up cow? Safety doesn’t seem to be an issue and I don’t know why the ick factor should really be worse than for all the other food we eat without complaint.
    I don’t see the big deal with ammonium either other than that it’s a chemical (ooh… scary). You don’t hear many complaints about the fact that we’re basically drinking diluted bleach, but I’m sure we could stir up some outrage if we phrased it that way.

  3. Onkel Bob

    As someone who raised animals in my vocational agriculture high school, and then killed some of those same animals (the last session of my senior class was harvesting the chickens) I always say this: I didn’t expend all that energy and spend the taxpayers money to only consume the prime parts. I’m eating every bit that is suitable for my digestive system. I hope you do the same.
    It’s obvious that the reason “pink slime” is made is because they can get a better price for ground beef than they can get for sausage, hot dogs, or for animal feed (i.e., pet food).
    I like – nay – prefer some of these not prime parts such as beef cheeks and hog jowl. As I see it, if the food is deemed safe by objective and thorough inspection process (so I do advocate USDA standards and trust their opinion in this manner) then this continual denigration of a food product is counterproductive.
    Lest I be accused of being a shill for “big ag,” I also advocate a overhaul of domestic agriculture policy. From the policy of subsidies to tariffs and quotas protecting sugar, our food policy is simply awful.
    Now if we can just get rid of the stupid policy of homogenizing cow milk. Pasteurization is absolutely necessary and without question vital to human health. But homogenization just ruins the product.

  4. Ella Kay

    Perhaps the critics should be maligned. PR is PR (and facts are facts) whether it comes from “PR firms and industry to the consumer mob.” I personally don’t place a lot of faith in mobs or in the uninformed. At least industry agenda has a clear purpose other than hysteria or sensationalism–unless it involves the competition. Then I’m sure they are privately laughing all the way to the bank. And the general topic here concerns denialism. Which side is using science and which feelings and beliefs?

  5. _Arthur

    There was a problem with the recall of a batch of “Angus Beef” last year.
    It turned out to be impossible to trace back the provenance of the batch, because meat from dozens of suppliers had gone into the grinder that day, US beef, canadian beef, beef from Argentina, but anyways the key ingredient, which helped keep the cost low, was reconstituted meat, pink slime. And pink slime is untraceable.
    Yeah, choice Angus Beef patties, no better than baloney.

  6. @2: Safety is an issue, from what I’ve read. This meat is especially likely to be contaminated, which is why the dousing in ammonia is necessary. In which case we’re counting on the industry to make it suitable for consumption (historically an iffy proposition).
    I do agree that this is no different from hundreds, or even thousands, of other steps in our industrial food process that people don’t know about. Ignorance is bliss.

  7. Larry,
    Safety is an issue for the untreated substance. I haven’t seen anything to suggest the actual treated product is unsafe. In fact, everything I’ve been able to find says that the treated product is less likely to contain pathogens than the rest of the ground beef.

  8. Chris H

    FWIW, I don’t think this post is about the merits of the pink slime issue–it’s about the tactics used by the industry to calm criticism. They are common to many debates. In particular, the argument “people really want this if they know the truth” is repeated all the time, no matter how dubious the underlying argument.
    Although consumer criticism of pink slime may reflect some hysteria, it is the product of a consumer preference against highly processed foods. Businesses have never cared that consumer preferences be logical and are happy to exploit irrelevant differences in products in order to promote positional goods or entirely bogus things.
    Of course, I write this from a slow-food restaurant in the Bay Area…where I have been deprived of the choice of pink slime (and skim milk for that matter) and am happy with it.

  9. Onkel Bob

    Although consumer criticism of pink slime may reflect some hysteria, it is the product of a consumer preference against highly processed foods.

    May? As in there is a possibility it contains hyperbole and excessive exaggeration? I disagree there, a great deal of the criticism relies solely on hysteria and appeals to emotion. That there is a desire or preference for minimal processing is an afterthought. I am of the opinion that very little of the criticism is because the product is processed, nor do I believe the criticism is valid. Having been to a small scale abattoir, I can easily understand the difficulty in keeping pathogens in check.

    In regards to consumer preference, for the most part consumer preference is for cheap, not necessarily just inexpensive, because as we are all aware the initial price does not reflect the true final cost. The “processed food” meme is just so much noise. Being the significant other of an emigrant from northern Italy, I’m well acquainted with the slow food movement. Believe me, the ham, salami, mortadella, and cheeses from that region undergo quite an amount of processing. There doesn’t appear to be a movement against those highly processed products. IMHO, if everyone spent a summer on a real farm, and tackled the issues facing food production and preservation, this “processed food” meme would die a quick (and richly deserved) death.

    Finally, what you see as tactics to calm the issue, others may perceive as methods to correct the hysterical misinformation (and in some cases, disinformation) that is all part of the marketplace. You appear to give a pass to those with whom your opinion resonates, and castigate those that attempt to correct the perception. Yes, they are using PR tactics to counter criticism, but not without reason. I doubt the criticism is as concerned with public good, as it is about propagating their agenda. I am not offering a tu quoque argument as much as I am pointing out the favored tactic of many: audacter calumniare semper aliquid haeret.

  10. Ella Kay

    “Safety is an issue, from what I’ve read.”
    Safety is an issue for any food not produced in a sterile lab. I haven’t seen any study that says anything about the microbial load of the trimmings being any higher or lower than any other piece of meat from a given carcass. Just random unsubstatiated mentions by bloggers and journalists. There are a number of factors that contribute to a possible higher load, but not seeing the process, this too could be conjecture: multiple animals mixed together, increased surface area (both of which are true of regular industrial hamburger) anf elevated temperatures to remove the fat. But it’s not because its coated in feces or thrown on the floor or any of the other horror stories.
    The tactics of industry are no different than tactics of the mob, with the exception of the amount of money available. And social media has leveled that playing field somewhat. I’m afraid your biases are showing: “a consumer preference against highly processed foods” Explain to me why Coca Cola sells 10s of billions of dollars of brown fizzy sweetened highly processed beverages, please, if “the consumer “prefers” fresh squeezed juice? You are right about businesses “exploiting” differences…like say those in the “slow food” restaurant business-Or the sugar (vs. corn syrup) business. I don’t mean this as a personal attack, but I’m also wary of people with constant access to fresh abundant foods (like those that live in the Bay area vs. those in North Dakota or sub-Saharan Africa)that don’t seem to like “processed foods”. Also not getting the “skim milk” reference. Could you explain?

  11. Chris H

    Onkel Bob, you are making great points and exposing my underlying commitment against these food companies. On some level, I just don’t trust them.
    This morning I’m reading a market study on an entirely different subject that argues that consumers can be manipulated around an inconvenient product attribute by understanding consumers’ “emotional relationship” with the product. It shouldn’t be a surprise when these emotions are later used for other purposes.

  12. Chris H

    @Ella Kay, you are completely right about the bay area thing. But since moving here I have discovered how radically different and better the food is here than what is available on the east coast. It even looks different (often worse, in fact) but tastes way better.
    >Explain to me why Coca Cola sells 10s of billions of dollars of brown fizzy sweetened highly processed beverages, please, if “the consumer “prefers” fresh squeezed juice?
    There is generally more awareness of food production than 10 or 20 years ago. And still a lot of people who love their coke 🙂
    > Also not getting the “skim milk” reference. Could you explain?
    Many restaurants here are paternalistic and won’t serve certain things, perhaps because they believe it corrupts the end product. They don’t want you to have a skim latte! Some won’t even toast bread, because they believe that bread is already cooked, so toasting it is unnecessary!

  13. It might be helpful to step back a few paces and understand that according to food terminology, and accepted by the regulators, the term “beef” refers to virtual anything that comes from a cow. The stuff they pressure wash off bones, largely membrane, cartilage, and connective tissue, with occasional bits of actual meat, counts as “beef”. This is the lowest possible category of animal product. LFTB, with “beef” as the identifier, is just a subset of this lowest possible class. Remember that when you read a label and see that the product contains “beef”.

  14. Moopheus

    Onkel Bob–The problem is not so much that non-prime-beef parts of the animal aren’t edible–they obviously are, and are routinely sold as such in stores. You can get all manner of organ bits, cow’s tongue, hooves, lard, ox tail, whatever you want, really. It’s that when someone is paying for the prime bits, they aren’t really expecting that ammonia-soaked scrapple is part of the deal. I mean, if the PR flacks were correct, then they could presumably pack this stuff on its own in cans and sell it. But they don’t.

  15. Ella Kay

    While you have a point, technically it isn’t scrapple or offal. It’s trimmings. It’s not mechanically deboned (@Art, if that’s what you were trying to explain).
    If you cook, picture a chunk of meat that has too much fat on it, or a piece that might have gristle on it. When you trim that off, you have some meat in-between the fat or the gristle. That’s what they are recovering and “soaking” (which they are only doing in the mind of Jamie Oliver and his producers) in ammonia. If they “packed it in cans” they wouldn’t need the ammonia because it would be sterilized during canning.
    Any meat that sells for $2.99 or less isn’t prime whether you are using Webster’s or the USDA definition. But yes, in a way it’s lower “quality”, certainly compared to grinding up a rump roast or even a chuck roast. (It’s finely ground muscle and “connective tissue” mush, not coarsely ground muscle and fat with whatever connective tissue is in the regular meat) But depending on the amount, sometimes I take those scraps and make soup if I have bones, and if I don’t I might feed them to the dog (if its not all fat) vs. dumping it in the trash and wasting it. But again I don’t have to treat the meat because I’m “thermal processing” it.

  16. I am glad everyone is not reflexively against the use of this product. I have been getting frustrated with a lot of people I otherwise agree with abandoning all critical thought about this issue. I remember seeing an article over at Dispatches From the Culture Wars (I think, I am having a hard time finding it now) where the food value of LFTB was brought up and someone asked about how it compared to the prime cuts nutritionally and they got shot down, and eventually someone who I normally agree with even insinuated they were something of a meat industry shill. It was just disappointing.
    I am very much for people knowing what is in their food and being able to find out what they are buying but some of the hysteria has just driven me up the wall.

  17. _Arthur

    Here’s the 2009 NYT article:
    “Ground beef is usually not simply a chunk of meat run through a grinder. Instead, records and interviews show, a single portion of hamburger meat is often an amalgam of various grades of meat from different parts of cows and even from different slaughterhouses. These cuts of meat are particularly vulnerable to E. coli contamination, food experts and officials say.”
    (The “pink slime” qualifier had not been coined by then.)
    “The frozen hamburgers that the Smiths ate, which were made by the food giant Cargill, were labeled “American Chef’s Selection Angus Beef Patties.” Yet confidential grinding logs and other Cargill records show that the hamburgers were made from a mix of slaughterhouse trimmings and a mash-like product derived from scraps that were ground together at a plant in Wisconsin. The ingredients came from slaughterhouses in Nebraska, Texas and Uruguay, and from a South Dakota company that processes fatty trimmings and treats them with ammonia to kill bacteria.
    Using a combination of sources — a practice followed by most large producers of fresh and packaged hamburger — allowed Cargill to spend about 25 percent less than it would have for cuts of whole meat.”

  18. Yeah, I don’t get all the fuss. It’s well accepted that whole muscle meat is so often tainted with pathogens that it should never be eaten without thorough cooking. And people are all upset about this particular type of likely-unsterile meat?

  19. This is yet another example of liberal war on science and embrace of emotional hysteria.

  20. _Arthur

    Where is the “war on science” in that ?
    People are criticizing the meat industry use of “reconstituted meat”, now called “pink slime”, for various reasons, just as they worry about food additives or GM grains.
    Why do you call this “liberal” or “war” ?
    Oh, I get it. Annoying the meat industry, just as annoying the oil industry, is something intolerable. Intolerably communist –whoops, “liberal”.
    Got you.

  21. I think we can safely say that Mike’s comment is worth largely ignoring.
    When I read the selections you posted from that article I had one thought running through my head: Why would anyone assume these things are true of ground beef? Why would the use of Angus in a name make one think it must be made of great cuts of meat. Angus is a breed of cattle, it does not say anything about how wonderful the meat is, even an Angus has its share of utility and lower grade meat.
    Maybe I am just tired and grumpy tonight but I think people need to start thinking about what food labels actually mean rather than simply attributing qualities to them based on what advertisers obviously want them to see (For instance I understand that Angus beef is often played up by advertisers and implied to mean something wonderful about the taste and quality, but people should be able to see through this). I just have a hard time sitting back and feeling like the consumer is being duped all of the time, sometimes they need to take some responsibility and I feel the examples you posted from that article are good examples of people not thinking about what the terms actually mean and making unfounded assumptions about what they are buying.
    I say the above not to pretend the meat industry is perfect, we should be concerned with labeling and standards and they have a long history of bad practices, but I just found those examples to be very weak.

  22. Tony Mach

    “FWIW, I don’t think this post is about the merits of the pink slime issue–it’s about the tactics used by the industry to calm criticism.”
    So you want the industry to call it “pink slime”? Do you want the pharma industry to call vaccines “baby killers”? And since when have you become an anti-sketpic?

  23. _Arthur

    Pink slime: You say ‘ewwwww’; experts say ‘so what?’
    Pink Slime and ammonia consumption – the numbers

  24. Chris H

    @Travis, don’t you think it’s really tough for consumers to do that? Food labels are highly tweaked by regulated industries. I’m just not sure that consumers can see through the b.s. There are plenty of products called jelly or the like where the first ingredient is corn syrup.
    I was just looking for the definition of “beef” and came across this distinction at the USDA website. I would assume that this distinction is lost on most people:
    “What’s the difference between “hamburger” and “ground beef”?
    Beef fat may be added to “hamburger,” but not “ground beef.” A maximum of 30% fat is allowed in either hamburger or ground beef…”

  25. I do not think it is all that difficult to do these things, it takes a few minutes and a realization that we are somewhat responsible for what we buy. When I buy just about anything I look at what is listed on the ingredients, I often take a minute or two to look up anything unusual, or because I am curious what something means.
    I am not saying people should know the exact definitions but people should know there are differences. Even with your example, remembering 30% of fat is not that important but people should know that hamburger and ground beef are not the same and have something of an understanding why. Just the same as realizing Angus does not mean prime cuts, in the previous example. It just takes a little bit of thought.

    Food labels are highly tweaked by regulated industries. I’m just not sure that consumers can see through the b.s.

    I think that is sad. As I said, people should be able to see through it. Why can’t they? Why do these tweaked labels actually work when a simple web search can often clear up their exact meaning?
    Look, I think the labels should be clear, deceptive practices should be stopped, that is something regulators should certainly be doing (and I am very tired of the idea that industry can self-regulate, I like the iron fist of government when industries are regulated), but all of the examples I have seen so far here should just be common knowledge or just something people can figure out using the the little gray cells. If regulations were tightened up to force hamburger to include something saying it contained up to 30% fat I would not complain, the more information the better but I think it is bad that we actually need to do that for people to realize there is even a difference.

  26. I’m a small CSA farmer who has raised his own beef for personal consumption. Yes, I prefer the fresh stuff, right out of my backyard.
    And yet this whole “pink slime” phenomenon strikes me as much ado about nothing, yet more of the far-left, anti-technology, self-righteous hysteria. (Keep in mind: I’m a liberal, gay, atheist farmer.)
    Americans want it both ways: They want to reproduce and to consume as they see fit, and they want to be patted on their collective back for their superior virtue.
    I sell my produce at a local farmers market, and yet the whole “locavore,” “slow food” movement nauseates me more and more each day because it’s predicated on debasing on all those other, evil, “industrial” farmers and foodstuffs–the ones who actually put the food in the majority of mouths in this country.

  27. Rokujolady

    Amen mike B. and to the person whining about not expecting pink slime in their prime cuts, Who goes out to buy hamburgers and weenies and thanks “this is the prime cut?”

  28. Sherry Miller

    Most people who eat fast food must be aware that it contains too much fat, salt, and other things that are not healthy. What is a little “Pink Slime” added to the mix? Oh, and MRW, ammonium hydroxide is not bleach, it is household ammonia such as is used to wash floors and contained in window cleaners. Grocery stores routinely use bleach to rinse fish to prolong the shelf life. Unless you raise your own food, one can assume the meat has been processed to prevent pathogens. Hey, and how about Gefilte Fish? Processed with lye.

  29. I was under the impression that one of the functions of the ammonium hydroxide was to increase the tested protein content of the final product. Meat packing companies can adjust the fat/protein/other content of their products depending on the protein content of their feedstock and the meat standards in the the state selling the hamburger. This is a money-saving convenience for them, and I’m not buying the disinfection argument – that’s just a side effect.

  30. Sherry Miller,
    You’ve completely misread my comment. I never said that ammonia and bleach were the same thing, and I never suggested that using bleach was a bad thing.
    My point is that we don’t give drinking one (diluted) harsh cleaning product a second though, but some people are up in arms over the idea that their food came in contact with a different one.

  31. Which sounds better: “Ground beef” or “Pink pulp”?
    And which sounds worse: “Pink pulp” or “Pink slime”?
    Heck, people are so used to edible cow parts being shredded down into a semi-solid state that often the meatgrinders and augurs will be prominently featured in advertisements and butcher shop / grocery store windows. So if you didn’t call it “slime,” what exactly would be so bad about it?
    Unless LFTB / “pink slime” is genetically, chemically, or pathogenically different from the rest of the pulped cow guts you’ve already consented to eat, I honestly do not see the big deal. Cultural squeamishness is sentiment, not science.

  32. Calli Arcale

    Sherry Miller — and then there’s lutefisk. 😉
    I am entirely totally fine with pink slime. If we kill animals for food, we have a moral obligation (in my opinion) to use the whole thing. Something *died* for your burger, and we’re gonna be picky about what part of it we’ll eat? I want my food to be safe and wholesome, obviously, but that can definitely include connective tissue and organ meats processed to remove contamination (e.g. from digestive contents) and make them more palatable.
    Recently, I’ve seen places offering sirloin hamburger. This seems like an absurd waste to me. Sirloin makes excellent steaks. It’ll make excellent burger too, but only marginally better than just about any other cut; once you cut it up finely, the texture changes dramatically. A chop steak is one thing; I do not want McDonald’s wasting perfectly good steak meat on my Quarter Pounder. Now, I could definitely see the introduction of new grading standards for ground meat to reflect how much of it is skeletal muscle tissue, but it would need to be carefully thought through to make sure the grading standards are sensible, practical, and useful to the consumer.

  33. Although it is heartwarming to watch politicians, federal ‘officials’ and captains of industry convulsing over pink slime related fallout it is secondary to the greater event. The real event is a sharpening of middle class awareness brought on by years of being subject to a relentless onslaught of social engineering. Profits at the cost of the most basic of American expectation. The truth. So, now we vote as individuals and as a community. No more endless blabber termed ‘debate’. We vote resolutely with our feet, debit cards and email accounts. The vote is immediately effective.

  34. anandine

    My only question about pink slime is whether the process is more likely to put nervous system tissue into the mix. Does anybody know?

  35. _Arthur

    Anandine, the so-called “pink slime” is very unlikely to contain nerves or offal.
    The base material is fat trimmings that still contain some meat. The fat is chemically dissolved, and what little of meat it contained remains.
    I suppose that meat is more valuable than fat, nowadays.
    Maybe they’ll start selling non-fat bacon, anytime now.

  36. Vince whirlwind

    Honestly, the crud you Americans are willing to eat is quite flabbergasting. Jamie’s doing agreat job of raising awareness about poor quality processed ‘food’. Pink slime? Does the shoe fit? Disgusting rubbish. And don’t get me started on the rubbish that passes for ‘pizza’ over there. Food producers are on notice: trying to sell nasty garbage passed off as food? You’ll get called out on it. No use crying foul when it was your choice to sell grotesque parodies of good such as your vile pink slime.

  37. Onkel Bob

    Honestly, the crud you Americans are willing to eat is quite flabbergasting.

    Unless you hail from some heretofore unknown society, your culture also eats things that others will find bizarre. It’s the nature of aesthetics; one man’s meat is another man’s poison.

  38. Anthropologist

    Here in Wisconsin, we have HEAD CHEESE–cheese is is NOT, but it IS made from the heads of various creatures, all held together with some kind of gelatin or gelatinous substance. Quite popular with populations descended from Germany and Eastern Europe.
    What we find disgusting to eat is purely cultural–with subgroups abounding, such as vegetarian, but I don’t think you’ll find many native born Americans eating deep fried grubs.
    To clarify the basic issues of “pink slime”, I offer this link to by Marion Nestle of NYU nutrition studies (PhD, MPH and no relation to Nestle Foods).
    From a recent post:
    “The best place to start is with Michael Moss’s December 30, 2009 investigative report in the New York Time on the ammonia process used by Beef Products, Inc to make LFTB (lean finely textured beef).
    The article contains the first mention of the term “pink slime” as a pejorative for this product.
    Moss provides confidential documents detailing the effects of the ammonia processing of LFTB, and revelations of the discrepancy between USDA’s standards for beef safety and those of its school lunch program.”
    There are several posts on the subject, all of which can be located by doing a simple search in the box at the top right. Nestle’s posts are top notch science with a public health emphasis.

  39. Interrobang

    To get back to the original topic of the thread, I have to give kudos to the person who came up with the “pink slime” framing. It’s short, punchy, and to the point, and hits exactly the right emotional buttons. Say what you want about the product itself (I prefer to eat things that look like bits of plants or animals, personally), but the framing is excellent.

  40. _Arthur

    I fully agree, I-bang, as soon I saw the new handle “pink slime” instead of “reconstitued meat” or LFBT, I knew that this part of the meat industry was in trouble.
    Framing is half the battle, and “pink slime” beats “LFBT” by a country mile.