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What is the Deal with Pink Slime?

Posted in Food Policy,Food Safety,Our Blog on March 5, 2019

Do you remember pink slime?

The United States Department of Agriculture remembers. They’ve been pouring over literature on the stuff for six months in 2018. There were consumer reviews, panels of experts, and tours of the plant where the product is made.

Then, on December 21st, pink slime manufacturer Beef Products International announced that the USDA had made an important decision about their product: legally, they didn’t have to call it pink slime. They didn’t have to call it a qualified component of ground beef, either, or lean finely textured beef (the company is averse to the “pink slime” label, which we’ll get into a bit further down, but previous regulations required them to call their product by one of those unwieldy names).

Instead, the Food Safety Inspection Service at the Department of Agriculture has decided that BFI can call their product ground beef. No qualifiers or extra words needed. It’s a win for a company that’s been battered by a public-relations nightmare since ABC News aired a controversial report on their signature product in 2012.

The decision by the Department of Agriculture has legal implications. Because lean finely textured beef is now recognized as just being ground beef, it’s no different in the eyes of the law than the meat that you might make a hamburger patty from. According to an article at The New Food Economy, this means that the product can be sold directly to the public.

That’s different than how lean finely textured beef was treated before: it could be included in ground beef, but it was regarded as an additive, and it had to be disclosed separately on the label. Now, the ground beef that you buy at the store can include the stuff without having to spell out what’s going on on the label.

The New Food Economy points out that the term “pink slime” was coined in 2012 by David Zirnstein, a microbiologist working for the USDA. Here’s an illuminating excerpt from their article: “According to a 2009 report from The New York Times’s Michael Moss—part of a series of articles on food safety in the ground beef industry that would ultimately earn him a Pulitzer Prize—Zirnstein was troubled by the production method.“I do not consider the stuff to be ground beef, and I consider allowing it in ground beef to be a form of fraudulent labeling,” he wrote in the email, according to Moss’s report.”

The term pink slime didn’t really blow up, however, until 2012. That was when ABC News launched a multi-part investigative series into pink slime, raising questions about the production process behind the curious beef product. Beef Products International was not pleased. They sued ABC news for defamation. The case went on five years until BPI settled out of court with ABC’s parent company Disney in 2017. The figure wasn’t officially disclosed, but it’s been reported that Disney paid BPI at least $177 million dollars. According to Splinter News, that may be the largest payout in a defamation suit in history.

That’s a lot less than the 1.2 billion that BPI was asking for, but it’s still a huge sum of money. BPI did take an economic hit in the wake of the report; the New Food Economy reports that their production dropped from five million pounds a week to a little over 1.2 million as orders for their lean finely textured beef dried up. They closed three production plants to try and control the damage to their business.

Is pink slime safe, though? That’s a good question. There are some things about BPI’s production process that sound scary – for example, the beef is treated with ammonia gas. Ammonia isn’t the sort of thing that you’d want in your food, but it’s effective at killing off bacteria and generally regarded as safe in small amounts. BPI maintains that their product isn’t soaked in liquid ammonia, as ABC represented, and that what they’re selling is no different from other sorts of beef products.

More broadly, however, ground beef probably isn’t good for you. If you have a family history of heart disease, you’re at particular risk, but there’s also an emerging body of research suggesting that the consumption of red meat may be linked to negative health outcomes like colon cancer. That’s doubly true for meat that’s been processed.

Also, we’re concerned that food manufacturers using libel laws to silence their critics doesn’t bode well for the safety of food in general. We need an independent press to investigate potential wrongdoing or dangers related to our food. Journalists are an important part of our food safety system; they can call attention to problems that would otherwise go overlooked, which in turn can inspire the manufacturers to change their behavior, or put pressure on regulators to step in. They don’t get everything right all the time (that goes for this writer as well), but their ability to investigate and write about potential concerns should not be unduly constrained.

So: pink slime might not be bad for you, but it probably isn’t great for you. And you should be able to know when it’s in the ground beef that you buy at the supermarket. The news should also be able investigate it and raise questions about it, and big companies should not be throwing their weight around in the legal system to constrain said investigations or disclosures. All that said, don’t worry too much about the ammonia – the beef itself will harm you before it does.

By: Sean McNulty, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)