Pink Slime: A Bio-Hazard in Your Lunch?

Hamburger Man

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Andrea Verschuyl
March 30, 2012
Filed under News

How would you feel if you opened your hamburger to find a large dollop of ammonia-treated, meaty goo settling like putrid mayonnaise on your sesame bun? Maybe this discovery was made after you took your first bite, surprised by the strange aftertaste on your tongue. Perhaps you only realized your delicious ground chuck was contaminated after you read Yahoo! News, that slice of beefy hell now sitting like a lump in your throat. “I ate WHAT?!”

If you feel violated, then you are among the majority of people across the globe that recently slipped upon this slimy discovery. The social media storm of “Pink Slime” rumbled into news stations and news websites internationally, leaving the world astonished and suddenly questioning exactly what was in their food.

“What exactly is the stuff?” people wanted to know, but research into the topic only left them more aghast. Pink Slime is actually “lean, finely textured beef,” a low-cost ingredient in ground beef made from fatty leftover meat trimmings from other cuts. The bits are heated to about 100° F and spun to remove most of the fat, then compressed into blocks for use in ground meat. The product, made by South Dakota-based Beef Products Inc. (BPI), is then exposed to a puff of ammonium hydroxide gas to kill bacteria, such as E. coli and salmonella.

Yuck! How long has this pink slime stuff been in there? That’s the really alarming part. This has been going on for YEARS! So why did pink slime suddenly become such a scandal, swiftly becoming the stuff of people’s very worst nightmares? It’s not entirely clear. However, the bottom line is that Pink Slime, a term coined by a federal microbiologist, has been present in the media stream since the New York Times printed an article about it back in 2009.

Perhaps lean finely textured beef, or LFTB, as the savvy might call it, regained its place in the spotlight around the time major fast food chains like McDonald’s actually banned it from their restaurants. McDonald’s is itself a notorious franchise that has been the epicenter of numerous health and sanitation scandals (including a famous incident where one joint in Rock Island, Illinois, served up just a little more for customers, servin’ burgers contaminated with Hepatitis A, infecting several luckless diners). So when such an eatery bans a product that actually makes their food cheaper, the public should definitely take note.

“It sounds disgusting,” says Dr. Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, “A lot of people have been writing about it. Therefore, more people know about it, therefore more people are queasy about it, particularly when you start thinking about how this stuff turns up in school lunches.”

Wait… WHAT?! Yes, Pink Slime is used in 70% of schools nationwide, and could make up about 15% of that burger you happily enjoyed during lunch.

So what’s the grossest part of this scandal to you? The fact that LFTB is so common? Maybe the part that really gets you is that this stuff is treated with ammonia? Trying to address this particular issue, Paul Flock, the Child Nutrition Supervisor for the Olympia School District says, “Ammonia is a compound of nitrogen and hydrogen that occurs naturally in all forms of plant and animal life, including people. Each person produces around 4200mg of ammonia naturally every day.” What Flock fails to address, however, is that this production of the toxic compound, ammonia, is compensated by the systems of the body. Elmhurst College of Illinois, known for is diverse classes and above-par academia, states on its website that, “Ammonia… is toxic in even small amounts and must be removed from the body.” This poison is in your burger. Put it down… back away….slowly.

Yet, despite the fact that Flock defends the use of Pink Slime, he has been an instrumental figure in promoting healthy food choices at school lunches. For instance, he helped spearhead the dietary shift at Lincoln Elementary whose repercussions now include a variety of organic and body-friendly lunch options for their students. Indeed, the entire Washington State school system has banned Pink Slime from its tables, so if you have ever eaten this gooey monstrosity, it was probably at your own dinner table or in a restaurant.

Luckily for the rest of United States schools that have been slipped this blushing surprise in their meat patties, Pink Slime is donning its raincoat and hopefully leaving all schools for good. Bombarded by massive petitions and overwhelming public outrage, governments had little choice but to give districts the choice of choosing between meat that contains Pink Slime, and meat that doesn’t.

Of course this movement to eject Pink Slimes from public schools was nearly suppressed by panicking companies and agencies directly and indirectly benefiting from this lunchtime atrocity. They even launched their own website, the awkwardly named “pinkslimeisamyth.com,” that contains several statements from such big wigs as Eldon Roth, the founder of Beef Products, Inc., and Barry Carpenter, CEO of the National Meat Association. Roth, whose company actually manufactures LFTB, ignores numerous E. coli scandals attributed to his “grocery behemoth” by asserting that, “Anyone that has seen BPI facilities and our processes understands why we have an unsurpassed food safety record.” Roth glibly avoids biting the bullet, and highlights the basic incongruity of the website. Here, great powerhouses of the food industry address the existence of the nasty product their website title refers to as “a myth.” Corporate-run food monopolies have a twisted sense of humor, apparently.

Economically speaking, Pink Slime is a slam-dunk for money-strapped public schools everywhere. Until students speak up about what’s in their food, they are destined to stand in the lunch line; apathetically accepting the bio-chemical waste plopped on their trays. Perhaps this cafeteria dilemma proffers an important lesson for students and citizens everywhere. Don’t be apathetic. Fight for your health and cause a fuss. This isn’t a call to arms; it’s about spitting out your bite of hamburger, and speaking up.