The Politics of Pink Slime
By Dave Swenson
Last week, three of the nation’s beef-state governors, Terry Branstad of Iowa, Sam Brownback of Kansas, and Rick Perry of Texas, attempted to nip a burgeoning consumer backlash in the bud. Pink slime, they all proclaimed, is good eatin’. And to prove it, Governor Branstad ate a slimeburger at the South Sioux City (Nebraska) Beef Products, Inc., plant that made the now much maligned product. As Mr. Branstad is still with us, odds are good that whatever he ate that day was safe. Though the advisability of eating burgers is questionable given his history of cardiac disease, it looks like no risk is too great when protecting the nation’s pink slime manufacturer and a $152,000 contributor to his 2010 campaign to boot (as we learned this weekend in the Des Moines Register – details are here
It is officially called lean finely textured beef, not pink slime. It was created by a proprietary process pioneered last decade by the Dakota Dunes, South Dakota, company that runs the South Sioux City Beef Products, Inc., plant that Branstad visited. It is made by taking slaughter trimmings, heating them and putting them in a centrifuge to separate the meat from the fat, infusing the meat with ammonia to kill all bacteria, and then flash freezing the product before those nasty pathogens know what hit them. The resulting product is theoretically bug-free and then added as a lower-cost amendment to traditional ground beef – think of it as a ground beef extender just like oatmeal or breadcrumbs but with a hint of (non-sudsy) Bo-Peep ammonia as a bouquet.
The initial users of the product were large manufacturers of processed food like ConAgra, school lunch and other major institutional food programs, along with fast food restaurants like McDonalds and Burger King and the nation’s major grocery chains. In short, about everyone that sells us food.
From the get go, though, the school lunch people were a tad queasy about the product. An extensive investigation of it and its manufacturer by the New York Times in December 2009 (Yes, two and a half years ago –the original is here
) revealed that there were questions about the safety of the product and the processes involved all along. Initially, though, the USDA was so taken by the process they actually exempted the product from periodic bacteria testing, but other scientists at the USDA who monitor the quality of school lunch food found, according to the NY Times, “… that in testing for the school lunch program, E. coli and salmonella pathogens [had] been found dozens of times in Beef Products meat, challenging claims by the company and the U.S.D.A. about the effectiveness of the [ammonia] treatment.”
In short, this widely-claimed-as-safe product was frequently foul. The 2009 Times investigation and many subsequent stories have raised legitimate questions about assurances by government regulators and industry flacks as to its overall safety. This is not new news.
With fingers to the wind, the three defending governors also told us that if pink slime is allowed to go down, so will hundreds of jobs. Nope. I’m reasonably certain we’ll keep eating. What we don’t eat in lean finely textured beef, to the degree that we actually can dodge it, we will eat in something else, and whatever else we eat will have required jobs to raise it and process it. And it, whatever it is, will be produced domestically. So, net change in jobs is zero. Except, maybe, at Beef Products, Inc, and plants that supply them. A shift in consumer demand may necessitate a shift in their business model. That’s okay with me. It happens all the time.
Consumers are sovereign here, notwithstanding the gubernatorial grandstanding last week. It is my sense that massive amounts of pink slime will be eaten wittingly or not. It is currently approved for school lunch use, it will likely still be a component in those Hy-Vee ground beef chubs you buy from the store, and you will eat hamburgers mixed with the stuff at Bob’s Big and Beefy Burger Barn or as ingredients in a ConAgra packaged dinner.
Governor Branstad believes there’s a smear campaign afoot to demean what he claims is a wholesome and safe food product, and he wants a congressional investigation.
The phrase “pink slime” was coined by Gerald Zirnstein, a USDA microbiologist, in 2002. At the time he wrote to his colleagues: “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.” There’s the original smear – a career public servant calling it like he saw it, literally.
What has happened since 2002 when that blunt statement was made by a federal watchdog scientist is perhaps what needs investigating.
Dave Swenson is a long-time analyst of Iowa political, social, and economic issues. He is a staff research economist at Iowa State University and a community and regional economics analyst and educator. He also teaches planners (those nefarious agents of totalitarian control) how to do economic things in their profession at both Iowa State University and The University of Iowa.