The Problem with Governors Eating Pink Slime

Even 8,000 miles away, I’ve been unable to avoid hearing about “pink slime” – or, if you prefer, “finely textured lean beef” – and the resulting commotion being made as people come to learn that the ground beef they are buying often contains additives that have been treated in some disturbing ways.

Pink Slime 01

This week, a trio of governors (Brownback from Kansas, Perry from Texas, and Branstad from Iowa) visited a Nebraska meat processing plant owned by the ominously named Beef Products, Incorporated, with media in tow. To prove their claim that this finely textured lean beef is safe to eat, after their tour of the plant they ate hamburgers made from the meat additive.

Good for them, but their publicity stunt missed the larger issue. The question isn’t whether or not this finely textured lean beef meets the minimum standards of food safety. The question is whether consumers have a right to know whether the ground beef they are buying contains any of this highly processed additive.

Let me explain my rationale: When you go to the store and buy a pound of ground beef, or when you buy a “100% beef” hamburger at a restaurant, this is what you probably have in your mind:


You expect chunks of beef, perhaps with a little more fat than this picture shows, that have been ground. But if that’s all you expect, you may be in for a stomach-turning shock.

It has been reported that up to 70% of the ground beef sold in the United States has finely textured lean beef (a.k.a. “pink slime”) added to it and, of that ground beef, up to 25% of the total may be made up of the additive.

This additive is made from the stuff that’s left over once all the “meat” is cut off the cow’s caracas: stuff like connective tissue and spinal, rectal, and digestive lining. In the strictest sense, I guess it is “beef”… but it isn’t what I have in mind when I buy ground beef.

Now, my personal philosophy on food and nutrition is that we are better off when we eat food that has been processed as little as possible – ideally, not at all. Each step of processing robs nutrients from the food and generally increases the cost of the food.

Pink Slime 02

When I think of eating meat – and despite having spent a few years in university as a vegetarian, I’m definitely a meat eater – I would never want to eat any meat that has had to be sent through large rollers, as in the picture above, which shows how the finely textured lean beef is produced at the BPI plant. “Meat” that has to be sent through rollers can’t be a healthy choice, even if it meets the Food and Drug Administration’s definition of “generally recognized as safe.”

Pink Slime 03

Which is why I think at the heart of this matter – the heart that the merry trio of hamburger helper governors has missed – is a question of transparency, of consumers’ right to know, of truth in labeling. Something that is labeled as “100% ground beef” shouldn’t contain any finely textured lean beef… which we more accurately ought to call “ammonia bathed offal.” Instead, it should be labeled something like “ground beef with up to X% additives.” 

Again, I’m not saying that this product shouldn’t be allowed to exist on the market. I just think that we have a right to know what has been added to our food and how our food has been processed before we buy it.


Updating the Nutrition Information Food Labels

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit public health advocacy group, is proposing changes in the way packaged food is labeled.  The CSPI, with whom I’ve had some disagreements over the years (disparaging movie theatre popcorn and in 1994 calling fettuccine Alfredo “a heart attack on a plate“), nonetheless has played a prominent role in bringing issues of diet and nutrition to the forefront of the public consciousness in America.

Their latest effort is around updating the nearly twenty-year old packaged food label.  This label is designed to provide consumers with the information needed to make health-conscious choices while standing in the supermarket aisle.  CSPI, though, says there are many changes needed to bring the labelling up-to-date and make it an easier tool with more relevant information.

Food Label Here is a look at the before and after versions of the labels.  Notice they remain the same size, so no additional space would be required on packages.  You can click on the picture to see the full CSPI graphic about the labels.

Here are the proposed changes I find most interesting:

  1. Calorie and serving size information is in much larger type at the top of the label.
  2. The ingredient list is much easier to read by printing it in regular type instead of all capital letters.  Also, bullets separate ingredients rather than allowing them to all run together.
  3. Similar ingredients are listed together and shown by the percentage by weight. For instance, sugar, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup and grape juice concentrate are all forms of sugar and would be listed in parenthesis under the catchall heading “sugars.”
  4. Products containing more than 20 percent of the daily recommendation for fats, sugards, sodium and cholesterol would use red labeling and the word “high” placed next to the percentage.  Easier to avoid foods that are high in these things.
  5. For items made of grains, the top of the lable would prominently display the percentage of whole grains contained in the product.

What are your thoughts about these changes?  I’m a firm believer that knowledge is power and that people are hungry (pardon the pun) for more and clearer information about the food they are consuming.  Updated labels could help give people the information they need to make healthier, more helpful choices.

Additional Links:

A timeline of food and nutrition labeling.
Full CSPI graphic of proposed changes and of the old and new versions of the label.
Original NY Times article that inspired this entry.