#PinkSlime: debunking the media frenzy

[From my blog post with the Cornell Daily Sun]

Beef has been getting a lot of, well…beef lately. Between the recently published study at Harvard’s school of medicine linking red meat to cancer, and now the “Pink Slime” hysteria, many Americans have finally started questioning what they are purchasing in the grocery store. From here onward, I will refer to this “Pink Slime” by exactly what it is beyond the closed-mindedness of the media’s campaign to eradicate it: Lean Finely Textured Beef (LFTB).

It is important to note the vital roles that advertising and media have played in bringing the issue of LFTB into the public eye in recent weeks. LFTB has been approved by the USDA, on the market and in your ground beef products for over a decade, but odds are pretty good that you have never heard of it. However, the moniker the media has been recently using — “slime” — holds an entirely different connotation; advertisers are thus effectively capitalizing on scare tactics.

So, what exactly is this “Lean Finely Textured Beef?” In essence, the scraps from cow carcasses in beef processing plants are recovered in an attempt to eliminate waste; figuratively, they want to use everything possible but the tail and the moo. The fatty components are removed, and the remains that are certified as meat products are treated with ammonium hydroxide in an effort to reduce and kill bacteria, such salmonella and E. coli. This is then used as filler in processed beef products (i.e. ground beef).

From an environmental perspective, the use of LFTB is entirely justified. First, it reduces wastes in our otherwise wasteful society. Its use also limits the number of cows necessary to meet our country’s beef demand.  According to Marion Nestle, professor emeritus of nutritional sciences here at Cornell:

“…[LFTB] solves an enormous problem for meat producers. Only about half the weight of the 34 million cattle slaughtered each year is considered fit for human consumption. The rest has to be burned, buried in landfills or sold cheaply for fertilizer or pet food … LFTB recovers 10 to 12 pounds of edible lean beef from every animal and is said to save another 1.5 million animals from slaughter.”

From an animal welfare or environmental perspective, this seems logical. The carbon footprint of a cow is quite significant, since its manure by-products release methane, a greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere.

After the media frenzy in recent weeks, many grocery store chains and restaurants nationwide have stopped selling LFTB products. Consumers have shown through their purchasing behavior that they are not interested in eating meat tainted with even “safe” levels of ammonium hydroxide. Forty years ago, ammonia was cleared for use in processed foods. Beef is not the only food Americans consume on a daily basis that contains ammonia. For example, some processed baked goods, cheeses, soft drinks and chocolate contain variations of ammonia. While this may not be harmful, consumer surprise and outrage at its presence points to a huge issue: that a wide percentage (not all) of consumers live in a naïve world when it comes to caring about or knowing where their food comes from.

While many consumers have begun to demand that presence of ammonia be noted on labels, it is currently required only if ammonia constitutes beyond one percent of the product. In terms of labeling, products such as LFTB fall under categories like natural additives, and plain and simple: Beef.

If you are opposed to Lean Finely Textured Beef, as a consumer you have a choice about whether or not to feed it to yourself and your family. Before jumping to conclusions, however, you should consider what implications this could have on the rest of your diet. Odds are fairly good that if you have gone and watched a Yankees game, you devoured that costly hot dog and mustard. Here’s the thing: If the chemical additives in the hotdogs and sausages you have been eating for your entire life do not bother you, then, in reality, “pink slime” burgers should not bother you, either.

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