The U.S. Department of Agriculture has released a set of internal discussions about "pink slime", shedding light on early efforts to respond to public outcry over its presence in processed food.
It is its first response to a FOIA request, filed by Government Attic, requesting copies of its deliberations. Though the USDA invoked expemptions to avoid publishing "open and frank discussions and expressions of opinion necessary for agency decision makers to make informed decisions," the documents reveal confused USDA staffers rushing to formulate an institutional response to public concern.
"We are taking a beating from the media lately," remarks one anonymized correspondent. "Yeah, I think the "pink slime" refers to finely textured beef (FTB). I seem to remember the "pink slime" reference being used in the NY times articles last year on the treatment of FTB with ammonia. The FTB is commonly used in ground beef at up to 20% of the meat block so [TV presenter] Jamie Oliver may have viewed the FTB as a type of "filler" in ground beef (even though we do not)"
Pink slime refers to a paste of cartilage, low-grade trimmings, sinew and other animal bits that was until recently found widely in fast food, TV dinners and other low-end beef products. Public interest focused on the presence of ammonia in the mix and its disgusting characteristics in general.
Found in pet food until its approval for human consumption in 2001, pink slime was used by McDonalds and and other beef-industry lynchpins until they suddenly abandoned its use. One manufacturer subsequently filed a lawsuit against ABC News claiming that the coverage amounted to a "concerted disinformation campaign" against what it prefers be known as lean finely textured beef.
One email discussion thread among USDA staffers suggests internal confusion over transglutinase, an associated substance used to press bits of meat together to make them look like bigger bits of meat.
"Yeah, what's up with that 'meat glue?'," wrote an anonymized correspondent. "Had a very angry comment on the survey from a customer who couldn't find that, and I couldn't find anything good on the issue either."
"Apparently transglutaminase is the name of "meat clue"[sic] which I found out by reading the news clips today," writes another staffer.
"Oh yes, we also call it TG," came a reply from an USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) Technical Information Specialist. "Got to love the TG and the pink slime!"
"Get ready for a bunch of pink slime questions!" one staffer warns in another email thread.
On another redacted email exchange, someone at the USDA is directed to "Check it out on Yahoo web search, type in pink slime". Another reports trouble finding information on mechanically separated beef. A third recommends that "standardized text would be beneficial since this issue is bound to surface again".
Also included in the tranche were inquiries from a writer at Gourmet magazine about beef disinfected with ammonia: "I have a hunch that you all are inundated with pink slime questions."
Another staffer, who inadvertantly forwarded a pink slime inquiry to someone not involved with the pink slime situation, apologizes for the error:
"Oops! Sorry [redacted] I forwarded the wrong inquiry to you," they wrote in an email. "Sorry to ruin your morning with thoughts of pink slime."
"The mention of anything pink seemed kind of cheerful," came the reply.
Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service intra-agency emails regarding "pink slime," 2010-2011 (PDF Link) [governmentattic.org]