Seeing pink: Facts behind the furor over finely trimmed beef

Steve Tarter

“Pink slime”: The very words summon images of everything from what you remember in the sink back in ninth-grade biology lab to a scene from “Ghostbusters.”

It’s also likely to generate lengthy treatises about media coverage and public relations tactics for years to come.

As most of us know by now, pink slime refers to the filler product that the meat industry calls lean, finely textured beef, something that’s been mixed in hamburger for more than a decade.

Outrage over LFTB

The media storm broke after U.S. Department of Agriculture scientists explained the process. Suddenly, the filler was under fire — with social media and network TV fanning the flames.

The public soon learned the whole LFTB story: Beef trimmings were heated, spun in a centrifuge and treated with ammonium hydroxide to kill bacteria, making up 10 to 15 percent of the ground beef product.

Critics howled. Retailers bowed. The meat industry beefed.

McDonald’s and other major hamburger purveyors announced plans to discontinue use of ground beef with the controversial filler. So did major supermarket chains like Kroger and Hy-Vee, although not without sounding a warning note.

“The industry is telling us that the removal of this filler is the equivalent of losing 1.5 million head of cattle – and cattle are already in tight supply,” said Ruth Comer, spokeswoman for Des Moines-based Hy-Vee.

An online petition seeking to have the USDA eliminate the filler in school lunches picked up 250,000 signatures.

The counterattack

Facing an American public aroused over the integrity of the beloved hamburger, the American Meat Institute went into full crisis management mode.

“Congratulations, ‘ABC World News.’ Your relentless coverage and uninformed criticism of a safe and wholesome beef product has now delivered a hook for yet another nightly news broadcast,” said AMI President J. Patrick Boyle in a prepared statement.

Food safety experts, consumer representatives and government officials including U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack were rounded up to assure the public that using LFTB was not only safe but sensible.

A group of governors of Midwestern states toured a Beef Products Inc. plant in Nebraska where LFTB was produced. Gov. Terry Branstad of Iowa charged that a smear campaign was under way against a product “that is healthy and safe.”

In late March, BPI announced the suspension of operations at plants that produce the filler in Texas, Kansas and Iowa, affecting 650 jobs.

“Today’s developments are a sad day for the families of those who lost their jobs,” said AMI’s Boyle, regarding the plant closings. “Other American families will also pay the price at the checkout counter as they see the price of ground beef begin to rise while we work to grow as many as 1.5 million more head of cattle to replace the beef that will no longer be consumed due to this manufactured scare,” he said.

Then in a move reminiscent of action taken by pork producers during the “swine flu” furor of 2009, the institute urged media to stop using the term pink slime to describe lean, finely textured beef.

“The process starts with beef and ends with 95 percent lean beef. Calling it pink slime is inaccurate, alarmist and disparaging,” said Boyle.

In April, BPI released a statement saying it had signed on to the USDA’s decision to allow designate LFTB content on the label to assure the public of its safety.

What’s next

But that may not be enough, Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition and public at New York University, told the Christian Science Monitor.

LFTB “is not dangerous at all. The question is whether it’s socially

acceptable. Humans don’t usually eat byproducts. Just because it’s safe doesn’t mean it’s acceptable,” said Nestle.

Larry Smith, with the Institute for Crisis Management public relations

firm in Louisville, Ky., questions whether the makers of pink slime can

overcome the public stigma against their product.

“I can’t think of a single solitary message that a manufacturer could

use that would resonate with anybody right now,” he said.

GateHouse News Service columnist Jeff Vrabel may have fingered the real problem for the meat industry: the descriptive color.

“I think it’s the color pink that’s the hook here; it’s a perfect descriptor for an unidentifiable, multi-syllabic and wholly chemical-sounding foodish-thing that is easy to imagine being hooked into your kids’ lunches via murderous-looking machinery in a factory in North Korea (or, more likely, a country with functional factories),” he noted in a recent column.

“It’s a writer’s dream, a lyrical, almost onomatopoetic slice of verba sleight-of-hand that grabs your brain and demands it to conjure up an image, requires you to stop what you’re doing — eating a hoagie, feeding your baby, delivering a baby — to consider it.

“Frankly, as soon as someone coined the phrase ‘pink slime,’ it was over — stick a fork in it. Actually, that wouldn’t work because sticking a fork in an industrial-sized vat of gelatinous goo wouldn’t be practical.”