Monday, August 15, 2011

The Pink Slime

While watching Robert Kenner's eye-opening documentary Food, Inc. on PBS, I was shocked to learn about a hamburger additive jokingly known as "pink slime." After doing a little research on this mysterious substance, what I learned was so horrifying that I vowed never to eat another fast food hamburger.  

Heres the scoop on "pink slime":

In 2001, a company called Beef Products, Inc. developed a cheap beef byproduct they euphemistically named "lean finely textured beef." The name is technically correct in that it comes from a cow, and it even sounds appealing, however the truth is far less appetizing. BPI's "lean finely textured beef" is actually made from the normally inedible scraps that end up on the slaughterhouse floor during butchering. As you may know, slaughterhouse floors are notoriously filthy places, awash with a nauseating swill of feces, urine, rancid blood and partially digested food. 

Cow (photo: USDA)
Prior to 2001, this disease-ridden offal was thrown away or hauled off to a rendering plant where it was processed into commercial pet or livestock feed. The ground up scraps were also treated with harsh chemicals to kill the salmonella, hemorrhagic E. coli and other virulent pathogens present in the meat as a result of contamination with fecal matter and other biological waste.

Beef Products Incorporated, however, thought this biohazard stew would make a tasty, economical addition to the American diet. After all, what's good for the cat is good for the kids, right? So they cranked their grinders up a notch to make the stuff even more unidentifiable and started selling the pureed cow leavings to fast food chains, supermarkets, and school lunchrooms as an inexpensive hamburger additive, though they didn't call it that. 

Because the meat slurry came from pureed cow parts, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) ruled that it could legally be called "beef"; the fact that it was ultra-cheap made it an ideal meat extender. It was a godsend for restaurants, supermarkets and institutions. Beef industry-approved USDA rules allowed them to dilute their hamburger with up to 15% of the odious effluvia while still proclaiming--with a perfectly straight face--that they use "no fillers." All of which proves that you can literally sell shit if you have the right regulatory agencies on your side. (If you don't believe me, just ask the SEC about Bernie Madoff or credit default swaps.)

Cow patty (Photo: US Dept. of Health)
If the beef industry believes the old adage "You are what you eat," they clearly have a low opinion of the American consumer.   

To make the pink slime, BPI uses industrial grinders and centrifuges to render the sewage-marinated cow scraps into a kind of meat paste. They then dump ammonium hydroxide (that's household cleaning ammonia) into the hopper in order to "wash" (i.e., sterilize) the noxious sludge. Because ammonia is a powerful disinfectant, the resultant goo allegedly exceeds USDA guidelines for acceptable levels of contaminants. If you've ever heard McDonalds bragging about how the cleanliness of their meat exceeds Federal guidelines, now you know why.  

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The pink slime is now used in most American supermarkets and fast food restaurants including McDonald's and Burger King. According to chef and food critic Jamie Oliver, 70% of all hamburgers eaten in America contain the sterilized poo-and-beef paste. And it's all perfectly legal.

Seal of the USDA
If you're wondering how our food supply was allowed to become contaminated with such a vile product, it has to do with money, political power, and yet another government agency that has betrayed the public trust--in this case the USDA, which was established to protect U.S. consumers, but seems to spend much of its time running interference for the beef industry. 

According to a Frontline article entitled The Politics of Meat, the beef lobby wields enormous legislative and regulatory influence, one result of which is the USDA's nonsensical guidelines with regard to the purity and labeling of meat products. In a rational world, any industrial chemical such as ammonium hydroxide that's added to a food product would be considered an additive. This is true for virtually every food producer except the beef industry, for which the USDA made an exception by declaring the addition of ammonia to be a process, not an additive.

"100% pure USDA inspected beef" (photo: USDA)
According to current USDA guidelines, fast food franchises and supermarkets are allowed to adulterate their ground beef with up to 15% of the "pink slime" without forfeiting the treasured "100% pure USDA inspected beef" label. Which raises an interesting question:  If BPI's notorious meat sludge is truly 100% pure USDA inspected beef, why is there a maximum allowable percentage of only 15%? If the stuff is that wholesome, why not 100%?  

Actually, it's not wholesome and it's not real beef. It's garbage that you wouldn't feed a barnyard hog, let alone your family pet. Yet they're feeding it to our kids in fast food restaurants and school lunchrooms all across America because the government and the beef industry say it's okay. Considering the government's incestuous relationship with big business--i.e. big pharma, big agra,etc.--do you really trust our regulatory agencies to do the right thing?


Photo: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The truth is, a 15% mixture of pink slime in commercially-produced hamburger is the most they can get away with without the customers catching on. Any more than that and you'd probably start tasting the ammonia. The pink slime is so potent that it will allegedly disinfect the real hamburger that it's mixed with. That may be a comfort to germ-o-phobes (the technical term is mysophobia), however if something is so infected and disease-ridden that we have to soak it in ammonia in order to eat it without dying or getting sick, we shouldn't be eating it anyway.

(Image: Wikipedia)
One of the many ironies of all this is that a few years ago a national grocery chain called Food Lion was nearly bankrupted by public disgust over revelations they were doing the exact same thing to their meat products. The only difference is that they were using diluted bleach instead of ammonia. 

Why does the USDA condone this sort of chicanery? Because the beef lobby, and companies like McDonalds--the nation's largest buyer of beef--don't want their customers to know what they're really eating, otherwise they're liable to stop eating it.

McDonalds claims in their literature that they use "only 100% pure USDA inspected beef, no fillers or additives," which sounds perfectly proper until you realize that under the USDA's somewhat imaginative guidelines, BPI's so-called "lean finely textured beef" (aka, the "pink slime") qualifies as "100% pure USDA inspected beef." Never mind that it consists entirely of garbage filler made from slaughterhouse offal, or that it actually does contain an additive, namely ammonium hydroxide: in the Orwellian world of the USDA,  nothing is quite what it seems.

Adding insult to injury, the USDA stopped inspecting the meat altogether. In an article in the New York Times, Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Michael Moss wrote: 

"Officials at the United States Department of Agriculture endorsed the company’s (BPI's) ammonia treatment, and have said it destroys E. coli 'to an undetectable level.' They decided it was so effective that in 2007, when the department began routine testing of meat used in hamburger sold to the general public, they exempted Beef Products." (My italics) 

All that propaganda about "100% pure USDA inspected beef" was not only a lie, it was a whopper. Furthermore, because BPI's cow-carcass puree was believed to be pathogen free, the chemically-treated ooze was excluded from recalls, "even when it was an ingredient in hamburgers found to be contaminated." (my italics)

You read that correctly. The USDA stopped inspecting the pink slime--and even exempted it from recalls--because they believed BPI was "doing the right thing." 

Just out of curiosity, when was the last time a government agency trusted you to do the right thing? When it was time to renew your car registration, did the state say, "We know you're a safe driver, don't worry about it!"? At tax time, has the IRS ever said to you, "We know you'll send us the money if you owe it, so don't worry about the paperwork!"?

Head spinning yet? 

Escherichia coli (photo: US Dept of Health and Human Services)
The federal school lunch program uses nearly 6 million pounds of processed beef annually, approximately 15% of which consists of BPI's industrial meat sludge as a filler. The beef industry and the USDA say that it's not a filler, it's an extender, which is like trying to make a distinction between horseshit and bullshit. We all know what it is, and there's about 900,000 pounds of it in our kids' lunches.

But the pink slime was supposed to be safe, right? So safe, in fact, that the USDA decided to stop inspecting it. After all, it's got enough ammonia in it to kill everything except the kid that eats it. Right?

Wrong again.

According to Michael Moss, state health inspectors found dozens of cases of E. coli and salmonella contamination in the pink slime. The problem was so bad that in 2009, school officials in Kansas temporarily banned the use of BPI's meat paste for the third time in as many years. Yet the USDA continued to put their official stamp of approval on the rancid goo.

When the New York Times shared this information, the USDA responded by saying that it would be revoking BPI's exemption from routine inspections while they conducted a "review" of the company's procedures.  

"More cow poo, Ma?" (photo: USDA)
It seems that even after washing in ammonia, the pink slime still isn't safe for human consumption. So why is it still in our hamburgers?

The food service business is extremely competitive. According to a study by Ohio State University, as many as 6 out of 10 restaurants will fail. Profit is not a four-letter word; the purpose of a business is to make money. The beef industry and the USDA would argue that companies like McDonalds and Burger King aren't trying to be bad corporate citizens, they're simply trying to remain profitable while still giving us what we want, which is tasty food, bigger portions, and cheaper prices. The only way to do that, they would argue, is to cut corners and add meat extenders such as BPI's pink slime.

Which, of course, would be a giant steaming buttload of finely textured beef product.

Worldwide, McDonalds sells 75 hamburgers per second, which works out to 4,500 per minute, or 270,000 per hour. That's a little over 6 million hamburgers in one 24-hour period, or over 2 billion per year. In order to keep up with the seemingly insatiable demand, McDonalds buys 1 billion pounds of beef a year at a cost of approximately $1.3 billion. Using BPI's pink slime as a meat extender enables McDonalds and its franchisees to save about 12 cents off the cost of every pound of hamburger they sell, which works out to a companywide savings of approximately $120 million.

That's $120 million that McDonalds wouldn't have had if the USDA had done the right thing instead of declaring that BPI's "pink slime" was not only not a filler, but that it met the criteria for “100% pure USDA inspected beef.”

Photo: Wikipedia (Sammetsfan)
Armchair bean counters who worry that McDonalds' survival may hinge on its ability to save 12 cents on a pound of hamburger will be comforted by the fact that the company is hardly hurting. On the contrary, McDonalds is one of the few large corporations that actually seems to have done well during the recession. According to McDonalds' most recent financial reports, 2010 marked the 7th consecutive year of positive sales, with $24 billion in revenue and a $5.1 billion return to shareholders through share repurchases and dividends. A 27% return for investors earned the company the #3 spot on the Dow Jones Industrial Average. By this time next year McDonalds will have opened 750 new stores worldwide and revamped 2,200 existing outlets.

The $120 million McDonalds saved by using BPI's pink slime is a drop in the bucket compared with what the company spends on advertising. According to a report issued by Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, the burger giant has an annual advertising budget of over $650 million. Which may explain why hospitality industry consultant Chuck Hamburg is quoted in the same article as saying “They say when a baby is born, after his mother and father, the third most recognized thing is the Golden Arches.”

McDonalds deserves to make a profit. But as consumers, we deserve quality food more than McDonalds deserves the $120 million they save by feeding us pink slime. The same goes for Burger King, supermarkets, and the Federal school lunch program.

How about a nice, hot slice of WTF?
The food industry is understandably sensitive about these kinds of criticisms. In 1996, When whistleblowing cattle rancher Howard Lyman appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show and revealed that American cattle were being fed diseased, ground-up cows, Oprah responded by saying that Lyman's revelations had “stopped her cold from eating another burger.” She was promptly sued by a cabal of wealthy cattle ranchers under an obscure Texas law known as the False Disparagement of Perishable Food Products Act of 1995. A Texas jury exonerated Winfrey, however the two-year legal battle cost her a cool $1 million.

According to Howard Lyman's website, thirteen states including Texas have passed laws designed to “silence and intimidate those who expose unsafe and unhealthy factory farm and slaughterhouse practices; these so-called 'food disparagement' laws make it a crime to criticize food and how it is produced.”

Astounding as it seems, the beef industry is so powerful that it has been able to subvert our Constitutional right to Freedom of Speech under the First Amendment. Colorado's “food sedition” laws now make it a felony to publicly write or say anything “disparaging” about a food product, which means that I could be arrested and put in jail for merely writing this article.

So, how did the system get so insane? Because we allowed it to. As consumers, we were willing to sacrifice quality for convenience, value for cheapness. And as with the financial crisis, we appointed regulators who were drawn from the very industries they were supposed to be regulating. As Hugo Weaving's character observed in the Film V for Vendetta, if we're looking for the guilty, we need only look into a mirror.

The good news, as Food, Inc. director Robert Kenner points out, is that we--all of us--have have the ability to change the system. It's entirely up to us...


Safety of Beef Processing Method is Questioned, Michael Moss, The New York Times,

Repeal Colorado's Food Sedition Law, Thomas B. Kelley and Michael Collins, Coalition for Free Speech,
Oprah Free Speech Rocks, CNN,

Restaurant Failure Rate Much Lower Than Commonly Assumed, Study Finds, Jeff Grabmeier, Ohio State University Research News,

Big Beef Buyers, Joe Roybal, Beef Magazine

Potential Effects of the Next 100 Billion Hamburgers sold by McDonalds, Elsa H. Spencer, PhD; Erica Frank, MD, MPH; Nichole F. McIntosh, MD, MPH, American Journal of Preventive Medicine

Subway Runs Past McDonalds Chain, Julie Jargon, The Wall Street Journal, 

Analysts: McDonald’s prospects look Big N’ Tasty in 2011, Marissa Oberlander, Medill Reports, Chicago, Northwestern University

Texas Cattlemen vs Howard Lyman & Oprah Winfrey, Howard Lyman,
Food Libel Laws, Wikipedia, 

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,

McDonalds 2010 Annual Report,

USDA Agricultural Research Service,

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