Earth Eats: Real Food, Green Living

Pink Slime’s Icky PR War

What is 'pink slime'? Where does it come from? And why has everybody suddenly started to care about it?

Bowl of finely-ground meat trimmings compressed into fine cylinders

Photo: pennstatelive (flickr)

Lean finely textured beef, or "pink slime," is made from ammonia-treated meat trimmings and can comprise up to fifteen percent of any ground beef product without being disclosed.

By Any Other Name

To folks in the beef industry, it’s ‘boneless lean beef trimmings’ or ‘lean finely textured beef’, but you probably know it as ‘pink slime’.

Pink slime’s all over the news these days: Wendy’s wants everyone to know that they’ve never used the stuff, and McDonald’s has announced they’re not going to use it anymore.

It might still be in your child’s school lunch, though, which some legislators support, and others oppose. The USDA has said that schools can opt out of serving meat containing pink slime. (Many have already decided to do so.)

Beef Products Inc. (BPI) — a leading producer of pink slime — has closed three of its four plants in the wake of the controversy. At least one other beef processor has declared bankruptcy.

What is pink slime? Where does it come from? And why has everyone suddenly started to care about it?

What Hides Under A Cowhide

After a cow is butchered, scraps of meat and connective tissue remain stuck to the animal’s bones and hide.

These scraps are treated with food-grade ammonium hydroxide to kill potential contaminants and then placed in a centrifuge to separate the fat from the meat. The latter is finely ground and compressed into blocks. This is pink slime.

These blocks are then sold to manufacturers who can use pink slime as an inexpensive filler in ground beef or deli meats.

Though ground beef may not legally contain more than fifteen percent pink slime, some seventy percent of ground beef products in supermarkets contain the additive.

Keeping A (pH) Balanced Perspective

In 2001, the USDA approved a new process for decontaminating meat by altering its pH using ammonium hydroxide.

Beef Products Inc. used the novel method to make human-palatable food from beef scraps that previously were only permitted for use in pet food.

The name “pink slime” was coined in 2002 by Dr. Gerald Zirnstein, a former USDA scientist who was among the first to inspect the product.  He didn’t think the stuff deserved to be called meat.

The Message In The Media

In 2008, the documentary Food, Inc. toured BPI’s pink slime facilities.

The New York Times followed up in 2009 with an expose, reporting that BPI was reducing the amount of ammonia used during processing in response to complaints over the product’s smell.

But people really didn’t get mad until Jamie Oliver devoted an episode of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution to how pink slime is made and eventually finds itself in school lunches.

This is what made people really mad.

Gross Enough To Waste?

Criticisms of pink slime are wide-ranging. Some people object to the harsh chemicals used in its processing, others fear its potential to carry food-borne illnesses, and still others just find the idea of eating mashed-up beef leftovers gross.

But supporters say that the processing of pink slime isn’t substantially different from the processing that goes into hot dogs, lunch meats or chicken nuggets.

What is more, they say, pink slime reduces waste. Indeed, America will have to raise and slaughter 1.5 million more cows next year if the additive disappears.

Read More:

  • Is it time to embrace pink slime? (The Atlantic)
  • Pink Slime Make Halts Production, But Ground Beef Will Still Contain Trimmings (NPR)
  • Wendy’s Jumps Into “Pink Slime” Public Relations War (Reuters)
  • 70 Percent Of Ground Beef At Supermarkets Contains “Pink Slime” (ABC News)
Sarah Gordon

Sarah Gordon has been interested in food ethics since she was 15, learned about industrial slaughter, and launched into 10 years of vegetarianism. These days, she strives to be a conscientious omnivore. Now a PhD candidate in folklore, her research has caused her to spend a lot of time in the remote Canadian sub-arctic, where the lake trout (sustainably harvested) tastes amazing.

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  • Selina Rifkin

    Perhaps this will alert people to what is in lunchmeat and hot dogs as well. Artisinal processors once managed to make fine sausages, and hot dogs without using ammonia. This would be a far better use for these scraps. But of course the USDA, and agency that prides itself in shutting down small slaughterhouses, would reject such a solution. 

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