FoodPolitik: ‘Pink Slime’ — what’s the big deal?

If you read the news regularly, chances are you’ve seen stories over the past two weeks about how so-called “pink slime” is infiltrating school cafeterias across America. So what is it, exactly? And what’s the big deal with it?

“Pink slime” is a term that was coined by a USDA employee, and it’s more media-friendly than the more accurate “lean finely textured beef.” In a nutshell, during beef processing there are little bits of meat that remain on bones. One company specializes in a way to round up these parts, remove the fat, and give it a brief puff of ammonia gas to kill any nasty pathogens. The resulting beef is used in hamburgers.

Is it unsafe? No. In fact, The Washington Post featured the company making this beef product as a possible model for food safety just a few years ago. The Post called the building where this beef is produced “a fortress against potentially lethal bacteria” like E. coli.

The beef is exposed to a one-second puff of ammonium hydroxide, which is already naturally present in beef. This is also used in processing cheese and chocolate. (“Reality” TV chef Jamie Oliver didn’t help much, in this regard. In one of his shows, he pours household ammonia on ground beef — not an accurate representation by a mile.)

Is it unhealthy? No. The beef trimmings are processed in a centrifuge to remove fat, making the end product leaner than a lot of store-bought ground beef.

So what’s the problem? It’s apparently unappealing.

But just because something is “gross” doesn’t make it bad. Plenty of cultures eat bugs, which are good protein sources. Walk into a restaurant in China and you might find some congealed duck blood or chicken offal. There’s a reason blood sausage, a European favorite, has the name it has.

Scrapple is another American food that’s a mix of animal bits. And I won’t even get into Rocky Mountain oysters.

The real problem here is how the Internet has enabled a new kind of pitchfork-wielding mob mentality.