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The Ethical Case For Pink Slime PDF Print E-mail
Swift
Written by Kyle Hill   

You walk up to the counter at a local fast food restaurant. Throwing a passing glance towards the area in back where the food is prepared, you order a cheeseburger. You sit down with your sugar-saturated soda and unwrap the yellow and red paper from the burger.  

By now everyone has heard of the so-called “pink slime” added to burgers of just this type. You wonder what percentage of your burger has been extruded from a slender pipe. Taking a deep breath, you bite into it and…nothing happens. Nothing tastes weird; you don’t have mush in your mouth or keel over. The burger is “same as is ever was.” And that’s the point.  

There are already economic, human health, and possible environmental reasons to continue using “lean finely textured beef” (LFTB) or “pink slime.” But as these arguments allude to, I think there is an ethical one as well.  

There have been literally thousands of stories on LFTB this year, commenting on how a psychological “ick factor” generated the intense reaction from the public, exploring if LFTB is lurking in your child’s school lunch, and examining how the term went viral with help from social media.  

What has stood out for me is the underlying ethical argument in support of LFTB use. Yes, it looks gross, but this knee-jerk reaction conflicts with an evolving concern for non-human animal well-being. As our moral zeitgeist marches onward, if we aren’t going to change the way we process meat in this country, using LFTB eliminates a great amount of animal suffering.  

What LFTB Is and Is Not  

When you process an animal for meat, you first cut off the largest chunks. But because only a portion of the animal is fit for consumption, there is a lot left over (bones, organs, etc.), including the trimmings. The trimmings consist largely of fat that has small bits of meat still on it. Contrary to much “pink slime” propaganda, these trimmings are not the result of “floor sweeping.” Bones and skin and internal organs make up the unusable portion of each animal that is disposed of in landfills or incinerated. The trimmings that yield LFTB are all processed on sanitized food-grade conveyor belts and cutting tables.  

Companies knew that it would be cost-prohibitive to hire workers or build machines to go through all the trimmings and salvage the tiny bits of leftover meat, so the trimmings used to be tossed out altogether. In the 1980s, a process was developed to recover all this lost meat. Trimmings are put in a giant centrifuge, heated slightly, and spun. Like a washing machine’s spin cycle that spins off water, the fat is spun off from the meat. What is left over is of a gooey pink consistency, hence the term “pink slime.” The recovered meat is then put through a thin tube and treated with ammonia gas. The gas reacts with the water in the meat to form ammonium hydroxide, reducing acidity and killing pathogens. 

I wonder how negatively people would feel towards LFTB if the recovered meat were manually removed (keeping a “meaty” texture), as the “slimy” consistency is the result of the separation process, not some kind of grotesque cow-squeezing.  

Much has been made about treating LFTB with ammonia, but this is a red herring. Numerous other foods we ingest have higher ammonia content and ammonia is used to sterilize literally hundreds of food types. As science journalist Deborah Blum puts it, “…if we're going to worry about chemical processing, beef products need to stand in line.”  

At least according to the meat industry, LFTB is nutritionally equivalent to the ground beef that we are all familiar with. If neither nutrition nor chemical treatment is really a problem, the “ick factor” must be incredibly strong to warrant such a reaction from the public. In my mind, if people knew just how many animals we were saving, perhaps our revulsion would cease (or at least diminish).  

An Ethical Case  

If we have to slaughter animals for food, one hopes that it is in a humane way. The continued use of LFTB doesn’t just pose negligible health risks; it saves a lot of cattle. In a recent interview, famed animal behaviorist Temple Grandin makes the ethical case:  

If we stopped using [LFTB], we're throwing away a lot of cattle. Let's say you had a great, big, huge plant and they slaughter 5,000 cattle a day, and if we don't use this beef protein...let's say we stopped using that product. That would be the equivalent, at this great, big plant, that we just take one entire truckload of their cattle, we just take them to the dump and shoot them and throw them in the dump. We'd take a truckload each day from each big plant and just throw them in the garbage. That would be about 42 head of steers, and we're going to just throw them away. That's really unethical, that's food waste.  

Marion Nestle, writing in The Atlantic, echoes Grandin’s point:  

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.  

Lastly, BeefisBeef.com, a website aiming to correct the misconceptions about LFTB, adds to the ethical argument:  

If LFTB were not produced, 850,000,000 lbs of lean beef a year would need to be generated from some other source to meet consumer demand. It would be like throwing away 5,700 cattle a day. In a world where population is increasing; red meat consumption is rising; and available supply is declining, it would seem that getting all the lean meat from every animal is the absolute necessary and responsible thing to do.  

Putting aside the fears of ammonia and the “ick factor” of gooey pink animal protein, the practice saves many animals. It seems to be the best of a bad situation. Ideally, we wouldn’t have any animals suffer, but since the insatiable appetite for animal flesh persists, we might as well use everything we can get from their collective demise. An argument could be made, and indeed I will make it, that the animals we save by using LFTB reduces the fear of “pink slime” to a shameful knee-jerk reaction to unfamiliar textures and colors.  

If we use more ammonia on many other food products, if there are no health risks, if the consistency and color produced is simply a byproduct of being in a centrifuge, and if using it saves millions of animals, the conclusion to continue using LFTB is a clear one.  

“The product is meat, period.”  

Ground_beef_USDA 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

USDA inspection of beef grinding operation by The USDA    

 

Kyle Hill is the JREF research fellow specializing in communication research and human information processing. He writes daily at the Science-Based Life blog and you can follow him on Twitter at @Sci_Phile.

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written by OldProf, October 18, 2012
An intelligent and rational piece. It will never get the headlines.
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written by ConspicuousCarl, October 18, 2012
Remember in elementary school when they kept telling us how wonderful it was that the Indians would use every part of the buffalo, respect for nature and efficiency and all that, unlike us wasteful honkies? Well here we are, eating every bit we can. And yet it seems to be the leftists and hippies who cringe most at the consumption of anything but a prime cut of steak.
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written by Morrigan, October 18, 2012
I have no objections to your arguments, and I wouldn't know what it tastes like since we don't have that in Canada, but I've heard a few people say it does taste different. Of course, I can't verify that they did a blind taste test or anything like that, but if the taste or texture is indeed inferior for the palate, well, that's enough reason for most people to stop purchasing it.

Of course it'd just mean that the product should be cheaper than standard meat, not banned. smilies/wink.gif
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written by Skeptigirl, October 18, 2012
So, you take an industry sponsored assertion that Pink Slime does not change the taste of the burger (despite the fact their own taste tests found it did if you went over 20%), and Pink Slime is the same stuff as is already used for burger. Did you investigate the claim? Did you seek any more objective information? Did you notice the gazillion page forum thread on the topic?
Here's my informed opinion, citations are in the thread:
1) There's very little health threat from the additive, however, some of the lots have been found to be inadequately treated and have bacterial contamination. Since all burger should be thoroughly cooked, people should be safe, but the additive still increases risk. For me, it's not an issue, nor is the ammonia used to treat the product a concern of mine. Ammonia is found in cells naturally.

However, I do have 2 issues that do matter:
1) Pink Slime significantly changes the texture. While not everyone seems to notice, a lot of us do. Pink Slime has a significantly greater % of fibrous connective tissue. It makes the burger rubbery and personally ruins the burger for me.
2) The circumstances by which this stuff was allowed into burger without labeling is troubling. The key person in the USDA responsible for the decision not to label it was given a board of director position (works a couple days a year) with a company that benefits from pink slime. She then earned ~1.4 million over a couple years after leaving her government job. While it amounted to a typical salary (~ 40K/yr, IIRC) that's still pretty good for a couple days work per year.

I can taste the texture difference and I believe I had a right to know which burger did and did not have it. It would have saved me a lot of thrown away and returned burger if the stuff was simply properly labeled. I'm sure marketers could have found a cleaver name for the stuff so people would have still bought it, especially if it were sold at a lower price.
Skeptic Ginger
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written by Skeptigirl, October 18, 2012
Typo above: cleaver should be clever.
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written by Skeptigirl, October 18, 2012
Morrigan: I did do a blinded taste test at our Seattle Skeptics group. Unfortunately the number of people who agreed to taste it wasn't very many. However there were enough who correctly noted the texture problem without knowing which burger was which to at least suggest it was a real issue for some people. Some people preferred the burger with Pink Slime, and that's fine. It simply needs to be labeled for those of us who did mind.
Before the scandal, the only burger that I found which consistently did not have the awful texture was at Whole Foods. Now I can find multiple brands without it and as far as I'm concerned, burger is finally back to normal.
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written by Morrigan, October 18, 2012
Skeptigirl: fair enough, I remembered you mentioning the different of taste in that thread, but I didn't remember if it were a blind test, and I didn't really want to revisit that 27-page long thread to find out. smilies/cheesy.gif

Like you said, if the product is labelled (and I'm fine with a less obviously-pejorative term than the very loaded "pink slime") and cheaper, I have no problem with it being sold since it seems to be perfectly safe for consumption.
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Not surprising
written by drxym, October 19, 2012
I cooked a leg of lamb last weekend. Even after carving it and cutting bits of meat off the joint for sandwiches later there was still lots attached, bits too small to justify the time expended to obtain, fatty bits, gristle, veins and so on. I gave it to someone to give to their dog who is less fussy and has more time than me to get at it.

I assume the industry sees that "waste" and has the means to extract it and it's therefore not surprising that it does. It probably represents another 5% extra meat for the expense of a machine to extract it and render it down into a sludge.

That said I wouldn't be too happy about eating it without knowing I'm eating it. I accept that low grade ingredients go into certain cheap food items but I think it is important that it is labelled explicitly.
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written by One Eyed Jack, October 19, 2012
If "pink slime" bothers you, you really don't want to know how that 100% pure apple juice is made.

I've been in every type of commercial food plant there is. Some of our most cherished foods are made from raw food stocks that you would never eat if you saw them. What I find interesting is the engineering and science that goes into turning a less than ideal stock into an end product that is safe and nutritious.

People can stick their noses in the air if they want. If you can afford rib-eyes and NY strip, well good on you. However, there is a place for cheap, simple, nourishment.
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So why don't we start eating bugs? (in Western culture as well)
written by Zoroaster, October 19, 2012
Our planet is literally crawling with protein, there is no need to slaughter vertebrates at all. If we are going to get over the "ick" factor than we should start eating insects.

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703293204576106072340020728.html
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Pink Slime test at Skeptics Meetup and other evidence:
written by Skeptigirl, October 19, 2012
Test design: (2 page thread) http://forums.randi.org/showthread.php?t=235855
Results (posted in the longer thread): http://forums.randi.org/showth...ost8387215
With [With] LFTB: 11% tender; 67% chewy; 22% gristly.
Without LFBT: 67% tender; 33% chewy; 0% gristly.

It can be concluded that in this pilot study, the hamburger texture without the LFTB had a significantly different texture than the hamburger with LFTB.
It was also described by a food critic as making the texture "gristly", and there was a scientific analysis of the components that found Pink Slime had significantly more fibrous connective tissue than the other parts of 'trim' used for hamburger.

Think about it. Muscle is not directly attached to bone, tendons are. And muscle is separated from the hide by more connective tissue. Muscle is made of globular protein while connective tissue (including tendons) consists of fibrous proteins. What is recovered in the process of making Pink Slime is more connective tissue protein. It's then heated to liquify the fat and centrifuged to remove the fat. This allows the producer to add Pink Slime to hamburger thus lowering the fat percentage.

It's also worth noting that in the industry taste tests they found if they added more than 20% Pink Slime, people didn't like the burger. And there were complaints in the schools sometimes of an ammonia odor in the meat. So if Pink Slime is simply more of the same, recovered when it would have otherwise been wasted, why does it matter that more than 20% becomes too obvious to people?

Posts with key citations regarding the texture difference for those who don't want to read 27 pages:
http://forums.randi.org/showth...ost8139673
http://forums.randi.org/showth...ost8141474
http://forums.randi.org/showth...ost8149330

Some people who were skeptical there was a difference hadn't eaten any. Like Morrigan, they were in countries that did not allow it. Or, they had been consuming burger from stores that didn't use the product, like Costco. Or, they didn't eat the lowest fat burger, thus less or no Pink Slime would have been in it. And other people simply didn't notice or weren't bothered by the texture change. That's fine, but it doesn't mean those of us who were bothered are imagining things.

I have a lot of respect for the authors of Swift articles, including Kyle. But perhaps when looking at two aspects, food safety and taste, it wasn't noticed there was another aspect, texture, that the industry web site conveniently avoided mentioning.
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Pink Slime test at Skeptics' Meetup and other evidence.
written by Skeptigirl, October 19, 2012
Test design: (2 page thread) http://forums.randi.org/showthread.php?t=235855
Results (posted in the longer thread): http://forums.randi.org/showth...ost8387215
With [With] LFTB: 11% tender; 67% chewy; 22% gristly.
Without LFBT: 67% tender; 33% chewy; 0% gristly.

It can be concluded that in this pilot study, the hamburger texture without the LFTB had a significantly different texture than the hamburger with LFTB.
It was also described by a food critic as making the texture "gristly", and there was a scientific analysis of the components that found Pink Slime had significantly more fibrous connective tissue than the other parts of 'trim' used for hamburger.

Think about it. Muscle is not directly attached to bone, tendons are. And muscle is separated from the hide by more connective tissue. Muscle is made of globular protein while connective tissue (including tendons) consists of fibrous proteins. What is recovered in the process of making Pink Slime is more connective tissue protein. It's then heated to liquify the fat and centrifuged to remove the fat. This allows the producer to add Pink Slime to hamburger thus lowering the fat percentage.

It's also worth noting that in the industry taste tests they found if they added more than 20% Pink Slime, people didn't like the burger. And there were complaints in the schools sometimes of an ammonia odor in the meat. So if Pink Slime is simply more of the same, recovered when it would have otherwise been wasted, why does it matter that more than 20% becomes too obvious to people?

Posts with key citations regarding the texture difference for those who don't want to read 27 pages:
http://forums.randi.org/showth...ost8139673
http://forums.randi.org/showth...ost8141474
http://forums.randi.org/showth...ost8149330

Some people who were skeptical there was a difference hadn't eaten any. Like Morrigan, they were in countries that did not allow it. Or, they had been consuming burger from stores that didn't use the product, like Costco. Or, they didn't eat the lowest fat burger, thus less or no Pink Slime would have been in it. And other people simply didn't notice or weren't bothered by the texture change. That's fine, but it doesn't mean those of us who were bothered are imagining things.

I have a lot of respect for the authors of Swift articles, including Kyle. But perhaps when looking at two aspects, food safety and taste, it wasn't noticed there was another aspect, texture, that the industry web site conveniently avoided mentioning.
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written by Skeptigirl, October 19, 2012
Where is my post? How do I find out the status of it????
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OK, I'll try again: Skeptics' Meetup test and other citations:
written by Skeptigirl, October 19, 2012
Test design: (2 page thread) http://forums.randi.org/showthread.php?t=235855
Results (posted in the longer thread): http://forums.randi.org/showth...ost8387215
With [With] LFTB: 11% tender; 67% chewy; 22% gristly.
Without LFBT: 67% tender; 33% chewy; 0% gristly.

It can be concluded that in this pilot study, the hamburger texture without the LFTB had a significantly different texture than the hamburger with LFTB.
It was also described by a food critic as making the texture "gristly", and there was a scientific analysis of the components that found Pink Slime had significantly more fibrous connective tissue than the other parts of 'trim' used for hamburger.

Think about it. Muscle is not directly attached to bone, tendons are. And muscle is separated from the hide by more connective tissue. Muscle is made of globular protein while connective tissue (including tendons) consists of fibrous proteins. What is recovered in the process of making Pink Slime is more connective tissue protein. It's then heated to liquify the fat and centrifuged to remove the fat. This allows the producer to add Pink Slime to hamburger thus lowering the fat percentage.

It's also worth noting that in the industry taste tests they found if they added more than 20% Pink Slime, people didn't like the burger. And there were complaints in the schools sometimes of an ammonia odor in the meat. So if Pink Slime is simply more of the same, recovered when it would have otherwise been wasted, why does it matter that more than 20% becomes too obvious to people?

Posts with key citations regarding the texture difference for those who don't want to read 27 pages:
http://forums.randi.org/showth...ost8139673
http://forums.randi.org/showth...ost8141474
http://forums.randi.org/showth...ost8149330

Some people who were skeptical there was a difference hadn't eaten any. Like Morrigan, they were in countries that did not allow it. Or, they had been consuming burger from stores that didn't use the product, like Costco. Or, they didn't eat the lowest fat burger, thus less or no Pink Slime would have been in it. And other people simply didn't notice or weren't bothered by the texture change. That's fine, but it doesn't mean those of us who were bothered are imagining things.

I have a lot of respect for the authors of Swift articles, including Kyle. But perhaps when looking at two aspects, food safety and taste, it wasn't noticed there was another aspect, texture, that the industry web site conveniently avoided mentioning.
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written by jbsegal, October 19, 2012
What Skeptigirl said. smilies/smiley.gif
I posted something with links back to the NY Times discussing how the issue that brought this all to prominence in the 1st place is that the meat company changed their anti-bacterial regimen seemingly on their own, without adequate testing, and people got sick.

I don't know how long the moderation process usually takes for initial posts, but this _seems_ a bit long.
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written by Rudy, October 19, 2012
want to be ethical? Care for the planet? Care for yourself?
Become a vegetarian.
Don't bother with the excuses.
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Apology for 3 duplicate posts
written by Skeptigirl, October 19, 2012
Good grief, you'd think the moderators would have noticed I posted three times only because multiple hours passed between posting and seeing the post appear. I don't post here often enough and didn't know if the post had gone through. Sorry.
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written by One Eyed Jack, October 24, 2012
@ Rudy, October 19, 2012

Ethical and vegetarian? What do ethics have to do with being a vegetarian? Is a lion unethical and gazelle ethical?

No, ethics have nothing do with food. We eat what we eat because we evolved that way.

You can apply some artificial ethical structure to food, but that's all it is, an artificial structure. In the real world, animals eat other animals.
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written by jbsegal, October 25, 2012
Did my earlier post offend in some way? I can't imagine why it hasn't been cleared as yet.

Thanks...
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