Friday, June 2, 2017

Pink Slime, Take 2

It started more than five years ago.  The term “pink slime” was apparently coined by “a federal microbiologist” (whatever that means) but brought to light by the ranting of a celebrity chef (whatever that means).  They were concerned – or just trying to make headlines by getting a bunch of others concerned – about the food companies adding it to ground beef without a specific label. It made more headlines when McDonald's and other major chains, in reaction to this manufactured concern, discontinued their use of “ammonia-treated beef,” which doesn’t sound any more appetizing.

The actual description is "lean, finely textured beef."  It is made from left-over meat trimmings from other cuts of beef.  After being heated and spun to remove most of the fat, it is exposed to "a puff of ammonium hydroxide gas" to kill bacteria, such as E. coli and salmonella.  Blocks were shipped from a company in South Dakota to be added to ground beef to reduce the overall fat content.

According to CBS News at the time (2012):  “Though the term ‘pink slime’ has been used pejoratively for at least several years, it wasn't until last week that social media suddenly exploded with worry and an online petition seeking its ouster from school lunches that quickly garnered hundreds of thousands of supporters.”  Soon grocery stores were pledging to stop using it in their ground beef.

As I wrote in April 2012 when this news first broke, why must people resort to such name-calling?  Either they have a valid argument or they don’t.  Instead they try to catch everyone up in an emotional reaction to promote their particular cause or  “purity crusade.”   No one thinks about the real danger or about the jobs lost when this type of misinformation goes viral through social media or on-line petitions.  Why do people speak out against waste in other areas and remain silent on this issue of basically recycling usable meat scraps instead of throwing them in the garbage?  How can Kroger and the others ban this product outright, totally depriving customers of a choice, when they offer twenty different kinds of dishwashing soap?  (The educated customers would likely not be swayed by these scare tactics and choose to buy the same kind of ground beef, less expensive and less fatty, that they have been buying for the last 20 years.)

This is just another version of the Alar scare back in the 1980s.  Here is a summary from the Chicago Tribune from shortly afterward.  60 Minutes aired a segment publicizing claims that 6,000 preschoolers may eventually get cancer from residues of the pesticide in apples and apple juice.”  Meryl Streep, whose food-safety expertise was apparently unquestioned, testified before Congress and spread the news on TV talk shows.  “The stampede was on. Schools yanked apples off their menus; parents threw out their apple juice. The EPA began the process of banning alar.”  Apple farmers lost millions and the maker stopped selling it.  “Will Americans be safer? Probably not.”

This is another aspect of the danger I warned about last time, that technology is out-pacing our ability to cope.  We are so much more interconnected than in the 1980s that these have become regular occurrences.  Someone comes out with a food safety scare – often from foodie blogs and websites – and the kneejerk reactions begin, first by a few on the Internet, then by a host of followers who gasp and sign petitions, then by the manufacturers and retailers who fear losing sales based on the hysteria.  People lose jobs, and our options become more and more limited. We are slowly squeezed into a box defined by the publicity hounds, fanatics and frightened mothers.  We end up no safer and the economy suffers when resources are dedicated to non-value-added activities.

Fortunately, there may be hope. “Dakota Dunes-based Beef Products Inc. sued the television network in 2012, saying ABC's coverage misled consumers into believing the product is unsafe and led to the closures of three plants and layoffs of roughly 700 workers. The reports emphasized that the product at the time was present in 70 percent of the ground beef sold in supermarkets, but wasn't labeled.”  The trial begins in July.

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