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“Pink slime”: Safe, nutritious – and icky

By Caroline Scott-Thomas , 27-Mar-2012
Last updated the 27-Mar-2012 at 17:59 GMT

Don't get slimed...
Don't get slimed...

An overwhelming chorus of “eww, that sounds gross!” alongside some scary junk science about ammonium hydroxide, has led to a safe, nutritious product being pulled from stores – but there is an important lesson here for industry.

Beef Products Inc., the nation’s largest manufacturer of “pink slime” – aka lean finely textured beef – is suspending production of the product at three of four plants after major retailers said they would stop stocking it. The move follows a storm of media hysteria spewed forth onto a public that was largely ignorant of the ingredient and its uses, let alone how it was made – and of course, the “pink slime” moniker hasn’t helped.

The debacle should serve as a lesson to industry to become more transparent about its ingredients and processes, as just the latest example of consumer fear – and the ick factor – trumping safety and sustainability in the food industry.

So what can industry do to avoid being at the mercy of the next consumer scare?

First of all, tell people what you’re selling them, no matter how unsavory it may seem. The International Food Information Council (IFIC) is just one organization with resources for industry and consumers alike, including this straightforward overview of how ammonium hydroxide is used in food processing.

Industry needs to spend more time preempting consumer concerns, rather than reacting to them. (I’m looking at you, nanotechnology.) I think that better consumer awareness and education – and labeling in some cases – could have led to better acceptance of all kinds of ingredients and processes that many consumers find unappetizing, from lean finely textured beef, to irradiation, to genetically modified crops. In terms of beef, a leaner product that’s been treated for microbes sounds pretty good to me.

On the whole, the industry is terrible at communication. The current position seems to be an assumption that the processes of our highly mechanized food system are just too complicated for consumers to understand – so let’s bury our heads in the sand.

When industry does need to react, it should – quickly and with honesty. In the case of trans fats, for example, many food manufacturers rapidly and voluntarily switched to other (often more expensive) fats, after evidence mounted about its link to increased risk of heart disease. But there are still manufacturers using trans fats in their products. Is it any wonder consumers don’t trust the food industry when some manufacturers consider cost to be more important than switching out a dangerous ingredient? And when such behavior is legal?

Beef Products Inc. has given itself 60 days to sort out its “pink slime” PR disaster. If it fails, the American Meat Institute (AMI) claims that an extra 1.5 million cattle would need to be slaughtered to meet demand for ground beef without the feared “slime” – also putting an end to the far more sustainable practice of using every part of the animal, at a time when we are trying to produce more food from less land.

There are genuine problems with our food supply. This isn’t one of them.

The idea of “pink slime” might be icky, but it has definite advantages, and we should have heard about them before.

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