The hullabaloo over “pink slime” (pictured above in its actually not-so-slimy form) has been brewing since last August, when celebrity chef Jamie Oliver drew attention to the ammonia-treated beef filler and McDonald’s and Burger King responded by announcing that they have stopped using beef processed in such a way.
The unfortunately named ingredient has been thrust back into the spotlight in recent days with announcements by the nation’s top two grocers – Kroger and Safeway – that the pair will stop buying beef with the filler. Other chains, including Weis Markets, Giant Food Stores, Wegman’s Food Markets, and ACME Markets followed suit. The USDA also chimed in, issuing a directive that will allow schools across the nation to decide for themselves whether or not to include beef containing the filler on school menus.
So what exactly is “pink slime,” and what does all this mean for food and beverage marketers? (After all, there are lessons to be learned here, even if you’re not in the meat industry.) We take a closer look in an entry we call “Behind the Slime.”
WHAT IS “PINK SLIME”?
Pink slime – also known as lean finely textured beef – is a low-cost filler made by separating small amounts of muscle still attached to fatty tissue trimmed off scraps of beef. The filler is then treated with a “puff” of ammonia gas to kill bacteria like E. coli and Salmonella. The ammonia does not stay in the meat and is similarly used in the manufacture of some baked goods, cheeses, chocolates, and puddings.
Pink slime is made by South Dakota-based Beef Products Incorporated (BPI). Used solely in ground beef, it is often added to ground beef with high fat content – for example, 73 percent lean ground beef – in order to make it leaner.
HOW PREVALENT IS THE USE OF PINK SLIME?
A 2012 ABC News investigative report claimed that 70 percent of ground beef sold or consumed in the U.S. contains pink slime. A 2008 Washington Post article suggested that pink slime accounts for nearly 25 percent of beef patties that include the filler.
IS PINK SLIME SAFE?
The USDA says the filler is safe, and contends that the department “only purchases products for the school lunch program that are safe, nutritious and affordable — including all products containing lean finely textured beef.”
Regardless, the USDA announced last week that it will disclose to school districts which of its suppliers use pink slime so administrators can decide whether to purchase it.
DOES PINK SLIME AFFECT THE TASTE AND TEXTURE OF BEEF?
Associated Press food editor J.M. Hirsch performed a side-by-side hamburger taste test using beef with pink slime and beef without. According to Hirsch, the slime-free burger packed more flavor and a better overall texture (although he did gladly finish both burgers). His in-depth analysis can be found on DenverPost.com.
WHO SUPPORTS PINK SLIME?
Many within the meat industry do, as well as those who sell beef on a large scale, although many grocers and restaurants have turned against the filler in response to growing consumer concerns.
BPI, maker of the filler, launched “Pink Slime is a Myth,” a dual website and Twitter campaign that aims to ease consumer concerns about what the company calls “lean beef trim.” Critics argue that the meat industry’s support is only because the low-cost additive increases the profitability of meat treated with it.
WHO OPPOSES IT?
Advocates for healthier school lunches are fueling much of the backlash against pink slime. Some critics, including former USDA scientists, agree that pink slime isn’t harmful, but disapprove of its use because it’s less nutritious than pure ground beef.
The National Meat Association is caught somewhere in the middle and has noted that the filler is made from “scraps destined for pet food.”
WHAT’S THE LESSON FOR FOOD MARKETERS?
There are definitely lessons to be learned from this situation, even if your daily marketing duties don’t place you within a 10-mile radius of lean finely textured beef.
The first, and most obvious, is to know what’s in your product and be ready to support it (if it’s an ingredient you feel strongly about) or cut it (if it’s not worth the fight). And if it’s not worth the fight, you might consider cutting it before the fight even starts.
The second lesson is a testament to the power of perception, and the power that consumers wield when motivated by each other and the media. In the case of pink slime, even when the ingredient was proven safe and had the backing of the USDA, consumers rebelled against it. Maybe it was the “pink slime” name (given to it by the media) or maybe it was the ammonia gas treatment (again, many foods undergo the same process and the gas does not remain “in” the food), but consumers want no part of it, especially when it comes to children’s school lunches.
“It’s one of those things,” said National Meat Association CEO Barry Carpenter, “It’s the aesthetics of it that gets people’s attention. And in this case, it’s not even legitimate aesthetics of it. It’s a perception of what it is.”