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

Richard Berman President, Berman and Company
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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.

We saw it recently with Lord’s Resistance Army chief Joseph Kony, an internationally wanted child-conscripting criminal. Few people knew his name until a “Kony 2012” YouTube video about him stormed social media and quickly garnered more than 80 million views.

But it turns out that the video itself used footage that’s years old. These days, Kony isn’t even in Uganda and his so-called “army” has reportedly dwindled to just a few hundred members. Many Ugandans were irked at the video itself.

So people are “aware” without actually knowing enough to be truly informed. And now this type of “awareness” is hitting our food.

It’s reported that beef trimmings are used widely enough that we’d need to slaughter an additional 1.5 million cows if this product weren’t around. And it may not be for much longer: The company that makes it closed most of its plants in the aftermath of the bad press. Hundreds of workers might lose their jobs and a firm known for food-safety innovations might close — all thanks to one catchy misnomer.

Ironically, some of the same folks who are fanning the flames over using meat scraps are the same ones who whine about the number of animals killed for food, or the supposed environmental cost of raising animals. Nice work, fellas. (New York Times columnist Mark Bittman, I’m looking at you.)

There’s an old saying that a lie will travel halfway around the world before the truth has got its boots on. In the days of #pinkslime and #KONY2012, misinformation spreads as fast as you can RT.

Rick Berman is President of the public affairs firm Berman and Company. He has worked extensively in the food and beverage industries for the past 30 years. To learn more, visit http://www.BermanCo.com.