Burger lovers are not having an easy time lately. Last month, news broke that the USDA's National School Lunch Program had recently purchased seven million pounds of something delectably called "pink slime."
Soon thereafter, news reports trumpeted that pink slime hasn't just been making its way into school lunches, as bad as that sounds. In recent years, nearly a billion pounds of this ammonia-laced burger filler have been mixed annually into the ground beef sold in the U.S. As a result, more than two-thirds of the nation's pre-made burger patties have contained pink slime.
The name "pink slime" sounds, well, slimy, but what exactly is it? The answer isn't reassuring. In fact, it's as gross as it seems. Just 10 years ago, according to Mary Jane's Farm, "the rejected fat, sinew, bloody effluvia, and occasional bits of meat cut from carcasses in the slaughterhouse were a low-value waste product called 'trimmings' that were sold primarily as pet food." But then Beef Products, Inc. began converting the stuff into a mash and treating it with ammonium hydroxide to kill bacteria. The resulting product was given the name pink slime by Gerald Zirnstein, a microbiologist working for the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service. He said it was "not meat," but "salvage." Zirnstein added: "I consider allowing it in ground beef to be a form of fraudulent labeling."
Does such fraudulent labeling still take place? In March, ABC World News with Diane Sawyer reported that 70 percent of U.S. supermarket ground beef contained pink slime, and that it is often labeled "100% ground beef."
After the ABC special generated a great deal of negative attention to pink slime, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack held a press conference in an effort to defend the product. His justification for including it in the school lunch program? He said it is safe, cheap and helps to fight childhood obesity. The main problem, he said, is the unfortunate name "pink slime." That night, Jon Stewart offered his help. He suggested that, instead, consumers adopt the term "ammonia-soaked centrifuge-separated byproduct paste."
The beef industry shot back, saying the proper term is "lean finely textured beef" and suggesting it simply be called "LFTB." The following night, Stephen Colbert agreed. "Yes, LFTB," he said, "because our beef now has so many hormones, it's a member of the transgender community."
And now, as if the burger business needed any more bad press, a case of mad cow disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE) has been discovered in a California dairy cow. In the U.S., virtually all dairy cows are eventually ground up into burgers.
Mad cow disease, or BSE, you may remember, is the infection that decimated English cattle herds in the 1980s and 1990s, and caused hundreds of deaths in humans from a gruesome and lethal brain disease called Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD). When a former cattle rancher, Howard Lyman, appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, explaining that the very same livestock-feeding practices that had caused the problem in England were in place in the U.S., Oprah famously remarked, "It has just stopped me cold from eating another burger."
The beef industry doesn't like anyone causing their market to shrink, so they sued Oprah for $20 million, telling her they would drop the case if she'd eat a hamburger on her show. She refused, and they brought the case in Amarillo, Texas, distributing bumper stickers throughout the town stating "the only mad cow in Amarillo is Oprah." It was a bitterly contested case, and the cattlemen spent many millions on attorney fees, but to no avail. After Oprah won, she appeared on the court room steps and fiercely proclaimed: "The First Amendment not only lives, it rocks. And I'm still never going to eat another hamburger."
Soon thereafter, the U.S. cattle industry ceased the feeding practices that Lyman had said could lead to a major pandemic of the disease in the U.S. And as far as the beef industry was concerned, the matter was settled. That is, until now.
The appearance this week of a case of mad cow disease in the U.S. herd has made a lot of people very nervous. Two major South Korean retailers immediately pulled U.S. beef from their stores, and Indonesia has banned all imports of U.S. beef. Faced with yet another blow to their image and their revenues, the U.S. meat industry is frantic to reassure the public.
Meat industry officials are pointing to the rarity of BSE in the U.S. as evidence that U.S. burgers are safe to eat. An American Meat Institute executive vice-president, James Hodges, is repeatedly reminding the media, government officials, and the public that only four American animals, including this new case, have been diagnosed with the disease in the last 10 years. "That translates into one of the lowest rates of BSE in any nation that has ever diagnosed a case," he says proudly.
But there's a problem. Could this be a case of "Don't look, don't find"? Nearly 34 million cattle are slaughtered every year in the U.S. Of those, only 40,000 are tested for BSE. That's about one in every thousand animals. If we tested 80,000, would we find two? If we tested them all, would we find 1,000 cases a year? One cow can make its way into many thousands of burgers. So then, how many burgers might be contaminated?
No one knows. And it's hard to avoid the conclusion that the U.S. meat industry would like to keep it that way. The disease in humans is invariably fatal, but it takes years to show up, and can appear to be an early-onset and rapidly developing dementia. As a result, it is very difficult to track.
A key to solving the case at hand is finding where and when the cow was born. But tracking how this dairy cow came to be infected with BSE is not a simple matter, because the U.S. is one of the only beef-producing countries in the world that does not have a mandatory identification system that tracks animals from birth through slaughterhouse. Even Botswana tracks its cattle with microchips. In New Zealand, bar codes on meat packages enable consumers to learn just about anything they want to know about the history of the animal whose flesh they might consume.
There have of course been many attempts in the U.S. to create a national identification system for cattle. But they have all been stymied by resistance from segments of the cattle industry.
This recent case of mad cow disease could be an isolated case. It could amount to nothing more than a fleeting news item. That, certainly, is what the U.S. meat industry would like officials to think, and what it would like consumers to believe.
On the other hand, mad cow disease is no joke. It killed hundreds of people in England who ate burgers they had no way of knowing might be tainted.
And here's another point. Even if a burger isn't carrying mad cow disease, and even if it isn't filled with ammonia-laced pink slime, should we be eating it? Last month one of the largest studies in medical history was reported in the Archives of Internal Medicine. More than 120,000 people were followed for almost 3 million person-years. What did the researchers find? That consumption of red meat is linked to an increased risk of premature mortality, not just from heart disease and cancer, as had already been known, but from all causes.
I think I'll have a veggie burger, thank you.
John Robbins is the author of eight books including the newly-released No Happy Cows: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Food Revolution, and host of the Food Revolution Summit. Sign up for free to hear him interview 23 of the world's top food leaders at foodrevolution.org. John is the recipient of the Rachel Carson Award, the Albert Schweitzer Humanitarian Award, the Peace Abbey's Courage of Conscience Award and Green America's Lifetime Achievement Award. To learn more about his work, visit http://www.johnrobbins.info.
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