By Deborah Blum, a Pulitzer-prize winning science writer and professor of journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison since 1997.
It originally appeared on the Knight Science Journalism Tracker.
What I've been trying to figure out, since the processed beef "pink slime" story broke this month is this: Are we just reacting to what Benjamin Radford at Discovery News calls "the ick factor"? Or does pink slime (which the industry understandably prefers to call "lean finely textured beef") actually pose a health risk? And does anything in the flurry of recent coverage help us sort that out? It's worth looking at the coverage that began in early March with a story in The Daily by David Knowles and an ABC News segment by Jim Avila. As noted in The Huffington Post by Michael Hill, in a matter of days the issue went "from simmer to boil." Let's stipulate that some of this response derives from the very term "pink slime," which tends to stimulate the "ugh" response. "Pink"---not so bad. But "slime"? Have you ever heard anyone use that word in a positive, how-attractive-your-slime-covered-dinner-is kind of way? The term was reportedly coined by Gerald Zimstein, the former USDA scientist who brought the process to the public's attention. Zimstein is not---surprise---a fan of the product. He also objected to a USDA decision allowing its use to be concealed from the American public and has made a point of calling it out. You'll find him in the ABC News story reporting that some 70 percent of ground beef products in grocery stores contain pink slime. So what is pink slime, or, um, finely textured beef? It comes from a rather commercially clever use of scraps---fat and meat removed from standard meat cuts. These remnants are spun through a centrifuge to separate the beef bits from the fat. The rather soupy meat mixture is then squeezed through a thin tube and exposed to a puff of ammonia gas. The gas reacts with water in the meat to form a trace amount of ammonium hydroxide. This reduces acidity and kills (fairly reliably) any pathogenic bacteria lurking in the beef. The separation process was invented in the 1980s; ammonia treatment was added in the 1990s for food safety reasons. And the company that started it all, Beef Products Inc., of North Dakota now has a website dedicated to defending trimmings as a healthy food source. It needs it, too, because Google tells us that the last couple weeks have seen more than 2,000 stories on the subject, many including the word "gross" in the headlines. Consider this one from J.M. Hirsch at AP, featured in the e-version of the Auburn (AL) Citizen: "Pink Slime Sounds Gross - But How Does it Taste?" The intrepid reporter manages to track down ground beef packages with and without added slime. (It is really hard to find the right word here. Trimmings? Ooze? Pink product? Filler?) Anyway, not surprisingly, Hirsch likes the ooze-free hamburger better. The same tidal wave of revulsion has swamped the food industry as well, with everyone from McDonalds to Safeway announcing that they'll no longer use the product, South Carolina legislators proposing a state-wide ban, and the USDA reversing a long-standing policy and deciding that school lunch programs can opt out of pink-slime beef as part of the menu. (Note that the original story in The Daily referred to the agriculture department as "Partners in Slime.") On the other hand, Hirsch makes the point, however, that ground beef with additive is a lot cheaper; in other words, it's easier to avoid highly processed food if you're in one of those higher socioeconomic brackets. But are there any actual health problems associated with slime? This got a much tougher look a couple of years ago when Michael Moss at the New York Times did some terrific work looking at the risks---both chemical and bacterial---associated with the product, noting particularly that the vaunted ammonia treatment didn't always kill pathogenic bacteria. The paper's strongest coverage this round comes from KJ Dell'Antonia, who writes the Motherlode blog. Dell'Antonia is consistently (my opinion) one of the best science science writers at the Times today. Her post deftly summarizes the major issues and addresses directly the unpleasant covert aspects of our government's behavior: "Someone, somewhere, thought we wouldn't buy a product labeled 'ground beef---with added trimmings, connective tissue and ammonia." She also notes that that the ammonia, put in context with our other chemical exposures, doesn't seem especially worrisome. And I tend to agree there too. What's more interesting to me---and what hasn't been covered especially well in the slime stories---is that foods that are ammonia-processed are remarkably widespread. Among them are breads, pastries, cheeses, chocolates, breakfast cereals, sports drinks, fruits, vegetables....in other words, if we're going to worry about chemical processing, beef products need to stand in line. Another smart piece from Amy Hubbard at the Los Angeles Timesnotes that even the consumer-advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest isn't particularly alarmed about pink slime, noting rather depressingly that a lot worse things go into the daily diet. The center does plan to investigate whether the super-processed beef bits are less nutritious than regular beef. As the Houston Chroniclepoints out in a recent editorial, the real issue here is transparency. Our government should not be colluding with private industry in hiding additives from the consumer. And, in fact, there are signs that the USDA is tending to agree. In an interview with Food Safety News, the agency's food safety head, Elizabeth Hagen, emphasized that the product is considered safe and added: "It seems to me that the larger issue here is labeling and transparency." But one more point, just to complicate the story. You'll recall I mentioned that the USDA has agreed to allow schools to choose slime-improved beef or to reject it. But it turns out that the regular, unprocessed ground beef alternative, lacking that super-lean filler, has a higher fat content. Another health story, anyone?