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The Beef Industry Tries to Defend "Pink Slime" and My Response

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Last Tuesday I launched on my blog, The Lunch Tray, a Change.org petition to get "Boneless Lean Beef Trimmings" (BLBT), also known as "pink slime," out of school food. The response has been truly staggering -- over 222,000 people have signed on and that number continues to go up hourly.

So it's hardly surprising that the beef industry has started to come out swinging.  PR reps of the American Meat Institute, employees of Beef Products Inc. (the inventor of BLBT) and others with ties to the beef industry are now all over Twitter defending with the hashtag #pinkslimeisamyth.

Well, in point of fact, the undisclosed presence of ammonia-hydroxide-treated bovine connective tissues in 70 percent of the nation's ground beef is hardly a "myth."  But rather than responding under Twitter's 140 character constraint, I would like to address here a few of the main arguments currently being advanced by industry in defense of BLBT.

BLBT Is Nothing But Lean, Nutritious Beef

Meat industry lobbyists maintain that BLBT is nothing more than "lean, nutritious" beef, but it's well worth noting that two former microbiologists at USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service -- now federal whistleblowers - have vociferously protested the agency's controversial decision to classify BLBT as "meat."  In a 2002 email to colleagues, one of these scientists wrote: "I do not consider the stuff to be ground beef, and I consider allowing it in ground beef to be a form of fraudulent labeling."  That revelation ought to be at least some cause for consumer concern.

BLBT Is Perfectly Safe to Eat

Even BPI acknowledges that the types of slaughterhouse waste used to make BLBT-- fatty scraps and bits of connective tissue left over from beef processing -- is more susceptible to food-borne pathogens than regular cuts of meat.  These bits and pieces tend to come from the outermost part of the animal and thus are more likely to be contaminated with excrement smeared on the animal's hide.  According to a Pulitzer Prize-winning 2009 New York Times exposé, federal testing between 2005-2009 found that ground beef containing BLBT was four times more likely to contain salmonella than regular ground meat.

In fairness, BPI has improved its safety protocols and now leads the industry in testing for not just one but the so-called "Big Six" strains of E. coli, and it also vows to hold back any batch testing positive for these pathogens.  But it's important to remember that there are other deadly food-borne pathogens besides the Big Six.  Last year's E. coli outbreak in Germany, which left 45 dead and 3,785 sickened, was caused by a previously unknown strain of the bacteria, demonstrating that microbiologists often identify new pathogens only after a deadly outbreak.  And should an outbreak occur, children are more vulnerable than adults to suffering serious harm, or even death.

Using Every Bit of the Cow is "Sustainable"

The meat industry argues that we ought to love pink slime because it "absolutely is the right thing" to use every available scrap on a cow carcass. But we were already honoring the noble ideal of "nose-to-tail" butchering by putting these scraps to use in the past for pet food or rendering it into cooking oil.  Was there any reason to shift their use to human consumption, beyond profit motive?  (According to ABC News, BPI has made "hundreds of millions of dollars" on the sale of pink slime; a source quoted in the Times article says BPI's founder and owner has "amassed a tidy fortune" from it.)

BLBT Helps Feed a Hungry World

BPI and the meat industry answer that last question by arguing that BLBT helps "feed America and the world" by stretching the available supply of beef products.  But if our country is undertaking a wholesale "stretching" of the food supply with ammonia-treated bovine connective tissue, shouldn't individual consumers have the right to opt out?  Just as some people relish the idea of a beef tongue sandwich and others are repelled at the notion, many consumers want to avoid pink slime for reasons both rational and irrational.  Yet the federal government's decisions -- at BPI's behest -- to classify BLBT as "beef" so that it need not be labeled, and to treat ammonia hydroxide as an undisclosed processing agent, has utterly stripped consumers of the right to know exactly what they are eating and feeding their families.

BLBT Actually Helps America's School Children

In a new post published on The Daily on March 12, BPI spokesman Rich Jochum asserts that the presence of BLBT in school beef actually helps our children because it "1) improves the nutritional profile, 2) increases the safety of the products and 3) meets the budget parameters that allow the school lunch program to feed kids nationwide every day."

Let me address these notions in a slightly different order.  When BPI argues that use of BLBT "increases the safety of products" it seems to be coming dangerously close to making the claim that by mixing the ammonia-hydroxide-treated substance into regular ground beef, its mere presence reduces pathogens in the rest of the product.  This is precisely how BPI first marketed BLBT when it was introduced in 2001, but, as well-detailed in the aforementioned Times exposé, this food safety claim has been thoroughly discredited.

Second, when BPI says the use of BLBT increases the nutritional profile of school food, I can only assume that the company is referring to the lower fat content of ground beef mixed with BLBT.  But of course another way of achieving the same result would be to add higher quality lean beef to the mixture, rather than pink slime.  This would of course be more costly, however, which leads to the third defense of pink slime, which is that it reduces school district's food costs.

On this point, BPI and I are in complete agreement.  Use of BLBT shaves three cents a pound off the ground beef that contains it.  But as writer Tom Philpott wryly noted back in 2010:

Three cents off the cost of making a pound of ground beef. Under the severe fiscal austerity that school cafeteria administrators operate under, pinching those three pennies is a rational decision, even if it means subjecting children to ammonia-ridden slime that may contain pathogens.

The bottom line for me is this: three leading fast food giants -- McDonald's, Burger King and Taco Bell -- all recently discontinued their use of BLBT.  Though they haven't said so explicitly, it's likely that growing consumer concern over pink slime led to their change in practice.  But while fast food customers can vote with their dollars, our nation's school children, particularly those whose lower economic status forces them to rely on federal school meals, lack any voice in the matter.  They must passively consume whatever the federal government sees fit to feed them.

I simply do not  believe that use of BLBT is doing our best by our nation's children.

And, so far, apparently, 175,000 people agree with me.

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