Friday, January 4, 2013

Popular News Stories 2012: Pink Slime

One of my nutrition-related listservs recently sent me an e-mail about the most talked about food news stories of 2012. Included on the list was the pink slime controversy. I covered this topic in an article I wrote during my community rotation as a dietetic intern, so I thought I'd share :) 
                                            What is Pink Slime?

The meat industry calls it “lean finely textured beef”, but it’s more commonly known as “pink slime”. So what is it? Pink slime is a ground beef filler that is made from fatty trimmings of the cow- a combination of beef scraps and connective tissue.  These fatty trimmings are more likely to contain bacteria than the other parts of the cow so it is treated with ammonia to remove pathogens such as salmonella and E. coli. The entire process involves simmering the beef scraps low heat to separate the fat from the muscle, separating the meat in a centrifuge, and spraying it with ammonia gas. The resulting product is packaged and sold to stores and meat packers, where it is added to most ground beef. It is estimated that about 70 percent of our ground beef supply contains pink slime.

The term “pink slime” was first used by Gerald Zirnstein, a former USDA scientist who had been assigned to investigate whether or not the product met federal regulations. Zirnstein expressed his disgust about the product in a private e-mail to a colleague by calling it “pink slime”. His e-mail became viral and the term was quickly picked up and used by consumers.  


Unfortunately, you won’t find the word “pink slime” on any nutrition labels. The ammonium hydroxide that is used to sanitize the beef scraps is considered a “processing aid” which is not required by U.S. regulators to be included on food labels. According to Roger Clemens, president of the Institute of Food Technologists, “If it helps facilitate a process and it’s used at a percent less than 1 percent, it doesn’t have to be declared on the label.”


In response to public outcry, fast food restaurants like McDonald's, Taco Bell and Burger King have stopped using pink slime in their food. Food blogger Bettina Elias Siegel started an online petition on her website, The Lunch Tray, to stop the USDA from using the product in school lunches. The enormous response from the public caused the USDA to release a statement this past March saying that they “will provide schools with a choice to order product either with or without Lean Finely Textured Beef…"

This is not the first time consumers have question the safety of our food supply. We can only hope that increased awareness and concern can help to change the rules of food labeling so that we can make informed choices about our food choices.