Pink Slime and Mad Cow Disease

Burger lovers are not having an easy time lately. Last month, news broke that the USDA’s National School Lunch Program had recently purchased seven million pounds of something delectably called “pink slime.”

Soon thereafter, news reports trumpeted that pink slime hasn’t just been making its way into school lunches, as bad as that sounds. In recent years, nearly a billion pounds of this ammonia-laced burger filler have been mixed annually into the ground beef sold in the U.S. As a result, more than two-thirds of the nation’s pre-made burger patties have contained pink slime.

The name “pink slime” sounds, well, slimy, but what exactly is it? The answer isn’t reassuring. In fact, it’s as gross as it seems. Just 10 years ago, according to Mary Jane’s Farm, “the rejected fat, sinew, bloody effluvia, and occasional bits of meat cut from carcasses in the slaughterhouse were a low-value waste product called ‘trimmings’ that were sold primarily as pet food.” But then Beef Products, Inc. began converting the stuff into a mash and treating it with ammonium hydroxide to kill bacteria. The resulting product was given the name pink slime by Gerald Zirnstein, a microbiologist working for the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service. He said it was “not meat,” but “salvage.” Zirnstein added: “I consider allowing it in ground beef to be a form of fraudulent labeling.”

Does such fraudulent labeling still take place? In March, ABC World News with Diane Sawyer reported that 70 percent of U.S. supermarket ground beef contained pink slime, and that it is often labeled “100% ground beef.”

After the ABC special generated a great deal of negative attention to pink slime, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack held a press conference in an effort to defend the product. His justification for including it in the school lunch program? He said it is safe, cheap and helps to fight childhood obesity. The main problem, he said, is the unfortunate name “pink slime.” That night, Jon Stewart offered his help. He suggested that, instead, consumers adopt the term “ammonia-soaked centrifuge-separated byproduct paste.”

The beef industry shot back, saying the proper term is “lean finely textured beef” and suggesting it simply be called “LFTB.” The following night, Stephen Colbert agreed. “Yes, LFTB,” he said, “because our beef now has so many hormones, it’s a member of the transgender community.”

And now, as if the burger business needed any more bad press, a case of mad cow disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE) has been discovered in a California dairy cow. In the U.S., virtually all dairy cows are eventually ground up into burgers.

Mad cow disease, or BSE, you may remember, is the infection that decimated English cattle herds in the 1980s and 1990s, and caused hundreds of deaths in humans from a gruesome and lethal brain disease called Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD). When a former cattle rancher, Howard Lyman, appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, explaining that the very same livestock-feeding practices that had caused the problem in England were in place in the U.S., Oprah famously remarked, “It has just stopped me cold from eating another burger.”

The beef industry doesn’t like anyone causing their market to shrink, so they sued Oprah for $20 million, telling her they would drop the case if she’d eat a hamburger on her show. She refused, and they brought the case in Amarillo, Texas, distributing bumper stickers throughout the town stating “the only mad cow in Amarillo is Oprah.” It was a bitterly contested case, and the cattlemen spent many millions on attorney fees, but to no avail. After Oprah won, she appeared on the court room steps and fiercely proclaimed: “The First Amendment not only lives, it rocks. And I’m still never going to eat another hamburger.”

Soon thereafter, the U.S. cattle industry ceased the feeding practices that Lyman had said could lead to a major pandemic of the disease in the U.S. And as far as the beef industry was concerned, the matter was settled. That is, until now.

The appearance this week of a case of mad cow disease in the U.S. herd has made a lot of people very nervous. Two major South Korean retailers immediately pulled U.S. beef from their stores, and Indonesia has banned all imports of U.S. beef. Faced with yet another blow to their image and their revenues, the U.S. meat industry is frantic to reassure the public.

Meat industry officials are pointing to the rarity of BSE in the U.S. as evidence that U.S. burgers are safe to eat. An American Meat Institute executive vice-president, James Hodges, is repeatedly reminding the media, government officials, and the public that only four American animals, including this new case, have been diagnosed with the disease in the last 10 years. “That translates into one of the lowest rates of BSE in any nation that has ever diagnosed a case,” he says proudly.

But there’s a problem. Could this be a case of “Don’t look, don’t find”? Nearly 34 million cattle are slaughtered every year in the U.S. Of those, only 40,000 are tested for BSE. That’s about one in every thousand animals. If we tested 80,000, would we find two? If we tested them all, would we find 1,000 cases a year? One cow can make its way into many thousands of burgers. So then, how many burgers might be contaminated?

No one knows. And it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the U.S. meat industry would like to keep it that way. The disease in humans is invariably fatal, but it takes years to show up, and can appear to be an early-onset and rapidly developing dementia. As a result, it is very difficult to track.

A key to solving the case at hand is finding where and when the cow was born. But tracking how this dairy cow came to be infected with BSE is not a simple matter, because the U.S. is one of the only beef-producing countries in the world that does not have a mandatory identification system that tracks animals from birth through slaughterhouse. Even Botswana tracks its cattle with microchips. In New Zealand, bar codes on meat packages enable consumers to learn just about anything they want to know about the history of the animal whose flesh they might consume.

There have of course been many attempts in the U.S. to create a national identification system for cattle. But they have all been stymied by resistance from segments of the cattle industry.

This recent case of mad cow disease could be an isolated case. It could amount to nothing more than a fleeting news item. That, certainly, is what the U.S. meat industry would like officials to think, and what it would like consumers to believe.

On the other hand, mad cow disease is no joke. It killed hundreds of people in England who ate burgers they had no way of knowing might be tainted.

And here’s another point. Even if a burger isn’t carrying mad cow disease, and even if it isn’t filled with ammonia-laced pink slime, should we be eating it? Last month one of the largest studies in medical history was reported in the Archives of Internal Medicine. More than 120,000 people were followed for almost 3 million person-years. What did the researchers find? That consumption of red meat is linked to an increased risk of premature mortality, not just from heart disease and cancer, as had already been known, but from all causes.

I think I’ll have a veggie burger, thank you.

John Robbins is the author of eight books including the newly-released No Happy Cows: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Food Revolution, and host of the Food Revolution Summit. Sign up for free to hear him interview 23 of the world’s top food leaders at John is the recipient of the Rachel Carson Award, the Albert Schweitzer Humanitarian Award, the Peace Abbey’s Courage of Conscience Award and Green America’s Lifetime Achievement Award. To learn more about his work, visit

Thanks to Huffington Post.

Pink Slime – And More

Factory Farms

‘Pink slime’ is the tip of the iceberg: Look what else is in industrial meat



Photo by Cobalt123.

You didn’t think I’d miss my chance to weigh in on the latest round of pink slime discussions, did you? Rather than recapitulate the horror that is your favorite form of “lean finely textured beef,” I will instead point you to my favorite statement in defense of pink slime. It was given by American Meat Institute Director of Scientific Affairs Betsy Booren to NPR:

“This is not the same ammonia you’d use in cleaning supplies,” explains Betsy Booren of the AMI Foundation. “It’s a gas, it’s a different compound, and it’s a well-established processing intervention that has a long history of success.”

First off, the AMI Foundation? AMI’s own website identifies the group as “a national trade association that represents companies that process 95 percent of red meat and 70 percent of turkey in the U.S. and their suppliers throughout America.” Foundation my arse.

And granted, I’m no chemist — but my understanding is that the form of ammonia used in cleaning products is typically ammonium hydroxide. And the form used in pink slime is … ammonium hydroxide! The only difference is the household cleaner is a liquid and pink slime is treated with a gas.

But that’s not really the issue. When you have to defend your food production practice by saying, “Hey, at least we don’t use household cleaners on it!” you know you’ve got a big problem.

What pink slime represents is an open admission by the food industry that it is hard-pressed to produce meat that won’t make you sick. Because, I hate to break it to you folks, but ammonium hydroxide is just one in a long list of unlabeled chemical treatments used on almost all industrial meat and poultry.

Helena Bottemiller of Food Safety News dug up this United Stated Department of Agriculture document [PDF], which lists dozens of chemicals that processors can apply to meat without any labeling requirement. Things like calcium hypochlorite (also used to bleach cotton and clean swimming pools), hypobromous acid (also used as a germicide in hot tubs), DBDMH (or 1,3-dibromo-5,5-dimethylhydantoin, which is also used in water treatment), and chlorine dioxide (also used to bleach wood pulp), to name just a few.

All these chemicals can go on meat. Not that you’d know it, because both the industry and the USDA keep it on the down-low. In fact, they work together on this. The USDA requires processors to label certain approved antimicrobials, such as salt, spices, and even lemon as ingredients, but not their hard-to-pronounce brethren. Why not? Perhaps because it might shock and disgust consumers to know how thoroughly their meat must be chemically disinfected before it can be sold. USDA’s head of food safety Elizabeth Hagen told Bottemiller recently that, “Just being honest, I don’t think your average consumer probably knows a lot about how food is produced.” She’s right. We don’t know the half of it — and the more we find out, the angrier many of us get.

Andy Bellatti recently wrote a piece he called “Beyond Pink Slime,” in which he enumerates all the problems with industrial meat production that led it to this point. And in many ways pink slime is the perfect embodiment of a food industry gone off the rails.

In short, they took meat that was too dangerous to feed to humans, disinfected it so thoroughly that a block of the stuff will make your eyes water, and then celebrated the fact that they’d created a two-fer (it’s a food! it’s a disinfectant!).  The industry embraced their creation so completely that around 70 percent of all supermarket ground beef now contains the stuff. But this goes way beyond hamburger. As Tom Philpott points out, pink slime is used in a huge variety of products including “hot dogs, lunch meats, chili, sausages, pepperoni, retail frozen entrees, roast beef, and canned foods.” By industry standards, it is nothing short of a food “intervention” success story.

The irony, of course, is that the 2010 debate over pink slime brought to light evidence that this treated meat product is not nearly as reliable a disinfecting agent as its maker asserted. It was likely those indications that led the fast food industry, in most ways farther ahead of the food safety curve than supermarkets or school food providers, to abandon the ingredient late last year. And now that the mainstream media has taken notice of pink slime, even the USDA has had to back off its wholehearted endorsement for it in school lunch.

But don’t let the appearance of a back-and-forth debate fool you. Pink slime is truly worse than other forms of disinfected treated meat since the trimmings used in pink slime are known to harbor pathogens at high levels before treatment. Should it disappear from store shelves, however, we can rest assured the meat that remains will continue to be treated with other industrial chemicals. Because that’s — pure and simple — the only way the industrial meat industry can prevent its products from making people sick.

I’d like to see more consumers and media outlets asking why exactly that is.


A 17-year veteran of both traditional and online media, Tom is a founder and Executive Director of the Food & Environment Reporting Network and a Contributing Writer at Grist covering food and agricultural policy. Tom’s long and winding road to food politics writing passed through New York, Boston, the San Francisco Bay Area, Florence, Italy and Philadelphia (which has a vibrant progressive food politics and sustainable agriculture scene, thank you very much). In addition to Grist, his writing has appeared online in the American Prospect, Slate, the New York Times and The New Republic. He is on record as believing that wrecking the planet is a bad idea. Follow him on Twitter.

Thanks to Grist.