Thursday, April 5, 2012

At the dusk of a scandal: thoughts on pink slime

If you're into food and read the news, no doubt you have read about the so-called "pink slime" scandal in the United States. It reached a fevered pitch over the last two weeks as AFA Investment Inc. - one of the largest beef processors in the US - declared bankruptcy. A cadre of state governors gathered to express outrage at how this upstanding industry was under assault by a smear campaign, and that the product in question is perfectly safe.

As a blogger who writes about burgers, often beef ones, I feel obliged to weigh in on this tempestuous public debate and give my thoughts.

Read on after the break

The scandal

I'm not going to retell the story that the media is repeating over and over again. Suffice it to say lean, finely textured beef (LFTB) is a food processing technique whereby beef muscle protein scraps are removed from fat in a centrifuge, processed into a paste, heated and blasted with a wee bit of ammonia gas. Mmmm, tasty. The US FDA says that the process is safe and results in edible food. It is not to be confused with mechanically separated chicken (MSM), a safe, edible and extremely creepy processed chicken product also reminiscent of a pinkish slime. MSM was famously profiled by Jamie Oliver and some kids.

Previously, LFTB was a way to use beef remnants rather than let them waste (a good thing) by being used as a filler for some pet foods. As an aside, I find this a bit hilarious, since any dog I've met would happily chew any sort of scrap of raw beef - bone, fat, or protein - without needing processing. They have a row of sharp teeth and acidic saliva for reason, no? Just how little do we trust evolution?

Anyway, the scandal broke on March 7, after an ABC News exposé revealed to America that them patties were puppy chow. It was in their supermarkets, fast food restaurants (though surprisingly few), and most eerily: school cafeterias.

In Canada, Health Canada regulations prohibit the treatment of meat with ammonia, so by definition pink slime is not in our food supply. McDonald's Canada has been aggressively advertising this fact, likely because they face a disproportionately higher blowback from any food debacle. McDonald's US used the product, which goes to show that the Golden Arches likes us north of the 49th more than y'all down south.

My thoughts

There is no evidence to suggest that pink slime is inherently harmful - it's not. It is, however, unappealing to consumers. In fact let's consider the immediate, intense reaction from consumer groups for a moment. (Channelling Don Draper):

Imagine growing up in some nameless suburb in Kansas or Wichita or New Jersey. You're staring up at your dad as he fires up the barbeque, bringing out a tray of irregular-looking beef patties that he lovingly made in the kitchen. He doesn't do a lot of the cooking, but the grill is his territory, and rain or sun by God he'll be out there flipping those patties just to see that big smile spread across your face.

Now imagine those patties are ammoniated lean, finely textured beef product. Hamburgers conjure up memories of crab grass in the backyard, playing soccer with your dog, lazy summer evenings bereft of responsibilities. It is, quite simply, a betrayal of the family BBQ mythos, yet another example of how pure North Americana is being devoured by Big Whatever. That the corporate PR apparatchiks missed this is a testament to their lack of connection to their value chain, and that they don't watch Mad Men. Even if their consumers are supermarkets and other wholesalers, a prescient analyst should have seen the threat this product posed and braked before hitting the wall. Now hundreds of Americans are out of work.

In a free market economy consumers vote with their dollars, and if people don't want to buy something that is offensively unappetizing than it is their right to do so. The issue is that consumers had a lack of information on the product they were buying; one would assume that "ground beef" was 100% ground-up chuck, not ammoniated textured beef scraps.  That said, I feel strongly that the product not be banned due to populist fervour. If FDA tests found LFTB safe than it is safe and should be legal to sell. Plunging demand is a much more democratic way to ban the stuff than regulating a safe product simply because we are suspicious of it.

That the ammoniated beef products were deeply ingrained in the supermarket also highlights why I am a huge proponent of supporting your local butcher. They take pride in sourcing the highest quality meats available, often locally sourced and reared more humanely than the ridiculous factory food practices of the large meat packing industry. Supermarket chains by design will rely on keeping costs low to make profits, because they sell volume product at low margins. It is out of this desire that 70% of US supermarket chains introduced pink slime into their supply. I can hardly blame them any more than I blame the scorpion for stinging the frog.

If you don't have a local butcher near you, many supermarkets offer higher-quality meat options. Loblaws/Real Canadian Superstores offer "Free From" products that are explicitly labelled, stating that they contain no animal by-products. Yes, you will pay a premium. My solution: less quantity, more quality. It is better for your health, your local economy, the environment and most importantly your palate to eat high-quality meat three times a week rather than dubious meat six times a week. We're an omnivorous species, embrace the biology!

Pink slime is a symptom of a food system run amok, partly due to the fact that we're not paying enough attention to it (though that is changing), and partly because some shady businessfolk are taking advantage of our inattention. Buying, preparing and eating food are activities that warrant interest and attention on a regular basis.

After all, you are a consumer and that makes you powerful.

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