Pink slime in the context of history

I haven't written much about pink slime—that creamy mixture of meat and animal matter that is sometimes the byproduct of industrial meat processing.

Most of what's being written about this lately comes from a place of outrage. And I'm really not sure I can get outraged about pink slime. Why not? After all, we're talking about a finely ground goo made up of trimmings, tallow, connective tissue, intestinal linings, and other gross-sounding stuff. They make this goo out of leftover cow parts and then, sneakily, they mix it into regular old ground beef. Plus, it's treated with ammonia first, to kill off any bacteria. Clearly, all of this is bad.

Or, maybe not.

There are some legit critiques here. I need to learn a little more about the specific ammonia treatment process before I can really comment on that. And because pink slime comes from industrially raised cattle and ends up in hamburgers, it's a part of some systems that aren't functioning very well or very sustainably.

That said, the actual existence of pink slime—in and of itself—is not something I find offensive. In fact, I think it's a good thing. If I talked about humans who use every part of the animals they kill, you'd probably assume I was talking about some 19th-century plains tribe of Native Americans, or an off-the-grid farm family. But that virtue is something that's true of industrial meat processing, as well. Given the massive amounts of energy it takes to raise a cow, I'd rather have us use all the cow, rather than waste the gross parts. And, when it comes down to it, I'm not convinced that pink slime is any more gross than, say, what goes on in 3/4 of French Provencal cooking. Or authentic Chinese cuisine. Or, really, any cooking tradition that hasn't bought into the uniquely American belief that only the nicest parts of the muscle are edible and everything else is gross and unsanitary.

Historian Maureen Ogle has a similar perspective. At her blog, she talks about the history of meat consumption and why pink slime made its way into our food supply to begin with.

In the BEEF industry, its use dates back to the mid-1970s, although poultry and fish processors were already using the technique. Beef packers began using in the in mid-seventies because, at the time, all meat prices, but especially beef, were in the stratosphere. A host of factors pushed those prices up (you can read all about this in Chapter Five of my forthcoming — 2013 — book Meat: An American History), including a global food famine, inflation, rising fuel costs, unemployment, etc.

Meatpackers were having a tough time turning out meat products at a price consumers would pay. Consumers were outraged; they organized boycotts; the White House imposed price controls. Etc. (Five years of research for this new book taught me one thing: American consumers demand cheap food, and especially cheap meat, and when they don't get it, there's hell to pay.)

So pushed by consumers on one side, and soaring costs on the other, meatpackers asked for, and got, permission from the USDA to use a "mechanical deboning" process that allowed them scrape meat off carcasses so that what had been waste could be eaten.

…Only someone who has never wanted for food would equate "pink slime" with dog food. Only in the extraordinarily affluent U.S. would people attack an industry for trying to make use of rather than waste food.

Read Maureen Ogle on the history of pink slime in our food supply.

Read Maureen Ogle on gross food, and decontamination of food.

UPDATE: The picture that was on this story wasn't actually pink slime. My apologies for grabbing a photo that I should have known didn't make sense. I've replaced it now with a photo from Reuters of the real pink slime.

IMAGE: The beef product known as pink slime or lean finely textured beef is frozen on large drums as part of the manufacturing process at the Beef Products Inc. plant in South Sioux City, Nebraska March 29, 2012. The governors of Iowa, Texas and Kansas and lieutenant governors of Nebraska and South Dakota toured the plant to show their support for the company and the several thousand jobs it creates in Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, South Dakota and Texas. REUTERS/Nati Harnik/Pool