Commentary: 'Pink slime' and our cheap beef economy

The Kansas City StarApril 10, 2012 

To the legion of Americans running away from a hamburger additive as fast as a startled Angus, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback is here to tell you: "It's beef, dude."

Technically, he’s right. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s official definition of beef for marketing purposes is “flesh of cattle.” And the product officially known as lean finely textured beef and now infamously called pink slime does originate with a cow.

But dude, we’re talking about salvaged scraps, simmered at low heat and spun at high speed to remove the fat, then spritzed with ammonia to kill bacteria. It may pass bureaucratic muster, but it’s not what consumers are used to thinking of as beef.

Beef, it seems, is in the eye, mouth and stomach of the governor. And the USDA food scientists who tried to get the additive banned. And the celebrity chef whose televised rant was instrumental in kicking off the pink slime scare. And we the consumers.

My personal opinion is that not everything that begins with a cow deserves to be thought of as beef. But neither does concocting an additive from cow parts make it slime.

Somewhere between the optimistically named “lean finely textured beef” and the over-the-top “pink slime” has got to be a more trustworthy definition of what is going into that hamburger.

But the truth is, meat and poultry products sold on the mass market contain a lot of ingredients, and a lot of history, that we’d rather not think about. Most of us prefer the illusion that our meat began just as we found it in the supermarket, shrink-wrapped and ready for the grill.

Donald D. Stull, a cultural anthropologist at the University of Kansas, studies the meat industry and has spent much of his career inside meat and poultry plants.

“It’s a factory in reverse,” he said. “It converts a live animal into lots of different commodities. Some are more attractive than others. A steak is more attractive than pink slime.”

Hard to argue with that.

Stull has drawn attention to many objectionable aspects of the meat and poultry industries. They are brutal on animals, workers, small towns and the environment. Yet reports of workplace injuries and pollution don’t resonate in the same way as the thought that pink slime might be infesting one’s hamburger.

“It is interesting to watch how framing really transforms the dialogue,” Stull said. “It seems to me that critics have framed the debate in such a way that the meat industry is going to have a hard time recovering.”

But Americans love cheap meat. Demand for inexpensive beef was what caused processors to devise a scrap-salvaging process in the 1970’s. The ammonia rinse was added about 10 years ago to combat concerns about dangerous bacteria in ground beef.

To get rid of the controversial additive would raise the cost of hamburgers and other products. The beef industry estimates it would have to slay 1.5 million additional head of cattle to make up for loss of the filler. About 600 jobs have been lost as the manufacturer of the additive closed three of four plants.

“We’re a pink slime-based economy!” Jon Stewart exclaimed on the Daily Show.

For sure, we’re a cheap meat economy. And as long as that’s the case, the industry will never really change. The additive slimed as pink slime may disappear, but something else will replace it. Cattle will still be corn fed in close quarters. Workers will continue to do dangerous jobs for low pay. Rural America will continue to give way to factory farms. Food-borne illness will remain a critical problem.

Americans say they want reforms, but they have yet to show they are willing to pay for them in the checkout line.

I asked Stull, would he eat the hamburger additive known as pink slime?

“As an anthropologist, I’ll eat anything that people put in front of me,” he said.

I resolved some time ago to purchase meat, especially ground beef, at a specialty market. It costs more than the supermarket, but I have more confidence in the contents.

In a perfect world, we’d all eat the meat of grass-fed cattle raised within a 20-mile radius of our homes. In the real world, most of us will continue to eat mass-produced commodities that we don’t want to know too much about.

That’s the beef industry, dude.

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