Slimy Meat and You

by Elizabeth on September 14, 2012

It’s been awhile since pink slime’s been in the news.

(And yes, I know that’s an old ad for bacon.  Which isn’t beef.  But it was too kitschy not to use.)

Since the story broke in 2009, BPI, the company responsible for making the ammonia-laced textured beef protein that we call “pink slime”, lost more than 80% of its customer base, according to various sources.  (They’re remaining tight-lipped about what that means in real dollars, but I’m betting it’s a fairly significant chunk of change.)  Even the USDA itself has started giving public schools the choice between buying slimed beef or non-slimed for school lunches now.  (Only three states — Iowa, Nebraska, and South Dakota — have opted to keep the slimed beef, by the way.  All three states where BPI has a large employment base, it’s interesting to note, though not surprising.)

In a Hail Mary play, BPI decided this week to sue ABC for “defamation”.

Y’know.  For reporting the truth they were trying to keep hidden and all.  That much of what we were buying in the store, thinking we were plunking down money for, y’know, ground beef was actually ground beef + slime.  How dare ABC tell the people being defrauded about this closely-guarded secret?

(You can’t see it here, but my eyeroll…it’s epic.)

They’re also suing both Diane Sawyer (for reporting it?  For being the anchor in charge at the time of the report?  I’m unclear as to why Sawyer’s named in the suit at all, to be honest.), and the USDA official who coined the pink slime term.  At the time of this writing, they are not suing either the New York Times (who broke the initial story) or Jamie Oliver (who’s report on the subject thrust the hidden practice into wide public view).

This, my friends, has me a little bit rageypants.

During the course of my little better living crusade this past year, I’ve done a lot of research about food and what passes for food in this culture.  (Most of which is so processed that it’s not really even food anymore at all.)  I’ve read All The Things about food safety and the way this Not-Food trend is actually affecting us all.

Here’s the deal:

I don’t know if pink slime’s safe.  There’s ammonia in it, yes.  But it’s small amounts.  Probably no more than you’d get if you were cleaning with the stuff, which people still do.  And other Not-Food products have ammonia in them, too.  It’s not as unusual as you’d think it would be.

But for me, at least, it’s not about the safety.

The USDA has said that, because slime’s made from actual beef (albeit beef that wouldn’t normally be used for human consumption), even though it goes through a weird washing process and is sprayed with ammonia — it’s still beef.  It’s a processing method, not a different product.  I get that.  I really do.  (And I also “get” that the USDA might as well be called the Cattlemen’s Association Adjunct, because a large part of the USDA is closely allied with the beef industry, including BPI, according to all kinds of sources, online and off.)

But if I’m paying for “ground beef” in the store, I expect that tube of meat to be, y’know, ground beef.

I mentioned it to some friends online yesterday:  If I buy a Ferrari, and find out it has a Hyundai engine and seats from a Kia — I’m going to be miffed.  Especially if the label on it (hood ornament, whatever holds the thin metaphor better) says it’s, y’know, a Ferrari.

For years, the beef processors got away with charging us the same prices for less expensive slimy beef.  Before pink slime was invented in the 1980′s, when you bought a pound of ground beef, you were buying a pound of ground beef.  Period.  It was beef for eating, ground up to be made into patties.  That’s it.

Post-slime invention, and the addition of the ammonia treatment in the early ’90′s, beef producers were able to use far less whole beef in a pound of burger…by adding in this pink slime filler.  It’s cheaper than the regular ground beef, and since that USDA proclamation that it’s a treatment not an ingredient, they could sell you cheaper meat filler for the same price and not even have to tell you about it. 

Moreover, when the slime fiasco hit the news, their argument against telling you was that it would make prices go up.

Does that offend anyone else?  If I’m selling you gas for $2 a gallon, that costs me $1 per gallon…and then I water it down by 50%, my cost per gallon is still $1.  You’re just getting half a gallon for $2.  It does not affect that $1 a gallon price that I have to pay if I get busted and have to sell you the full gallon for that same $2.  It just means that I’m making $1 off that same gallon of gas instead of an ill-begotten $1.50.

The beef processors have, essentially, been giving you a half-gallon of beef for the price of a full gallon, and are now complaining that they have to give you what you paid for, instead of half of what you paid for and half filler.  Somehow, that is your problem for unknowingly buying it all these years, and not theirs for watering down your gas.

That sticks in my craw.

There are a lot of folks out there who express health concerns over pink slime.

lot.  And time will probably tell whether or not they’re crackpots or people brave enough to ask the hard questions.  It sucks to say “we’ll see” when it comes to issues of public safety, but for now, the jury that lives in my head is still out.  Maybe it’s 100% safe, and maybe it causes a third arm to spontaneously shoot out of your forehead when exposed to salt water or something.  We just don’t know for sure.

What we do know is that BPI and the beef processors lied to us about what we were getting.

We know that it’s not ground beef…at least not under any definition other than the one the USDA came up with that looks at only the base ingredient.  We know it’s cheap filler made from mechanically-separated meat that isn’t used for human consumption otherwise.  We know that, for years, we were told a pound of beef was a pound of beef. We know that we paid for a pound of beef and got fillers for our money, completely unlabeled.

And we know that BPI tried very hard to keep that fact secret, and now that it’s out in public, and the public has voted with their dollars that they do not want it, that BPI is trying to manipulate the legal system into giving them the money they lost through their own secrecy and, frankly, bad business practices.  (Having a single product is the worst possible thing for a company, by the way.  If public support/customers dry up on that single product — as it’s done with the pink slime issue — your business is, effectively, done for.  That’s not ABC’s fault, or the customers’ fault, or the USDA’s fault.  That’s BPIs fault for being completely un-diversified.)

 I’m expecting a three-ring circus over this, to be honest.

BPI is going to position itself in front of a cattle-processing-friendly court (in South Dakota) as a company being unduly scrutinized by Big Media, causing the layoffs of hundreds of employees.  (650 in one plant alone, if I recall the numbers correctly.)  It’s going to vilify ABC, accuse them of influencing customers, and only telling one side of the story.

(Which, I note, is exactly what BPI is doing, but logic doesn’t really appear in the court of public opinion.)

But who’s standing up for the millions of customers who were swindled out of cash for buying filler and thinking it was ground beef?

Vote with your dollars, people.

Most of you probably already are, but it bears repeating:

Buy local, and if you can’t buy local, buy from a store that publicly states it doesn’t carry slimed meat.

If you don’t stand up for your rights and your pocketbook, nobody will.  BPI will throw millions into a lawsuit against anyone telling you the truth, and the only way to stop it is to cut off the source of those millions…you and your purchases.

If you’re in one of those three states that opts for the slime in school lunches, email your senators and representatives.

If your favorite store carries pink slime, send an email or a letter or talk to the managers.  Tell them why you won’t buy it.  Make yourself heard.

Just do something.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

minnie September 15, 2012 at 3:39 am

i grind my own. i buy cuts on sale, like bottom round, or rump roast, or chuck, and i cut them up, and grind it. yes, it’s more work. yes we eat less burger than we used to. however, it tastes like the burger i grew up with (i grew up on a farm, and my dad would get a beef done up at a locker plant annually).

sorry, gang, never going back.

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