Pink Slime and History, Redux

No, I don’t plan to blog obsessively about Pink Slime (PS to you and me) — but I had another thought after I posted yesterday’s rant about PS and history.

My brain kept coming back to this comment by Marion Nestle:

If [allowing the use of deboned meat] is acceptable to people, it essentially means it’s OK to eat the kind of stuff we put into pet food.” “Culturally we don’t eat byproducts of human food production. It’s not in our culture. Other cultures do. We don’t.”

Where do I start? How about with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years of human history. Think about the stereotype of the “French housewife,” making practical use of every bit of food that comes her way.

Think of peasants from prehistory  to, well, now — also making pracitical use of every bit of food that comes their way. With food always in short supply, and hungry people to feed, humans have, for ages, used up every bit of food.

You know? Like scraping every. last. bit. of meat from the bones of a carcass. Like dumping the bones and their remnants of meat into a pot of water and cooking it until the bones are softened and those last jots of protein have fallen from the bone.

Only someone who has never wanted for food would equate “pink slime” with dog food. Only in the extraordinarily affluent U.S. would people attack an industry for trying to make use of rather than waste food.

As I’ve noted here before, Marion Nestle is prone to playing fast/loose with facts. (*1)

 In this case, she goes too far. Way too far. To refer to meat as “dog food” simply because she doesn’t like where that meat comes from is more than wrong-headed. In this case it borders on immoral.

There is another critcism of PS that’s also worth mentioning (along with, yes!, a bit more history):

Some critics argue this: If the stuff is safe to eat, why do its manufacturers use ammonia-based (and other) processes to sterilize it?

Folks, you’d be amazed at how much of your meat gets sterilized these days before it hits the table. In this case, the procedure was added to the deboning process back in the 1990s, presumably after an outbreak of e. coli-related illnesses. (See yesterday’s blog entry for that point.)

Here’s the thing about e. coli: As I hope most of you know, we all carry this bacteria. It’s in us all the time. Cattle also carry it in their digestive tracts.

Critics argue that e. coli has become more common in recent years because meat inspection has become lax.

Maybe. Maybe not. (I favor the “not” side.)

But here’s another point that most people don’t know (because only a nerdish history-head like me would know stuff like this):

e. coli first became problematic back in the early 1980s. At the time, that puzzled scientists — but eventually they pinpointed the likely reason why e. coli had suddenly become a problem:

For more than a century, one of the main missions of the US Department of Agriculture has been to eradicate livestock diseases, whether “Texas fever,” pleuro-pneumonia, bruccelosis (I probably spelled that wrong) or the dozens of respiratory diseases that afflict poultry. The USDA combatted livestock disease because those cause high mortality rates among livestock, reduce herd and flock sizes, and drive up the cost of food.

(As I said yesterday, it’s impossible to overestimate the impact of Americans’ demands for cheap food.)

By the middle of the twentieth century, the USDA had succeeded in eliminating and controlling most livestock diseases. The department’s campaigns were so effective, in fact, that cattle grazers and feeders reduced the number of vaccinations they gave their livestock, or abandoned the shots altogether.

The unexpected consequence was that, for the first time in a century, the e. coli that cattle naturally carry had a chance to flourish unimpeded, and rather quickly became a problem for humans. (We have a much harder time with e. coli than do cattle.)

Meatpackers have always used various materials and substances to “preserve” meats — meaning to prevent the growth of bacteria in those meats. The method used to sterilize PS is just one of those methods.

Any chance we can all just step back from the witch hunt hysteria and think about this matter? Fearmongering, whether by politicians or food activists, is bad policy because instilling fear becomes a convenient way to prevent otherwise rational people from thinking a problem through. 

So. How ’bout a little reason and a few facts with that Pink Slime?


*1. Just so we’re all clear: I’ve got nothing personal against Nestle. I don’t know her. Have never met her. It’s unlikely I ever will meet her. My point is that she commands attention and it’s unfortunate that she chooses to abuse her power by playing so fast/loose with facts.

18 thoughts on “Pink Slime and History, Redux

  1. WELL SAID Maureen.. I still use the very cooking techniques that you mentioned in this piece. Taught to me by my grandmother.

  2. Welcome back! Interesting hysteria on the PS. I wonder how many of these “activists” folks actually eat hamburger? I bet some eat charcuterie or the new hip restaurant menu item “marrow”.

  3. You are correct in that there was a push to eliminate cattle pathogens, but it isn’t a lack of vaccinations that caused the shift in E. coli, if you can call it that.First off, there is no “E. coli vaccine”, and the pathogens eliminated through safer and cleaner handling practices were not actually direct competitors of the E. coli. I’m not sure that you meant to imply those points, but I thought I would make sure before I continued.So, what is it that caused the problems with E. coli and led to the deaths of several people? Grain. It isn’t that humans are less tolerant of E. coli in a strict sense, but rather that the E. coli the victims of the tainted meat were getting was different than the E. coli that had come before.All bacteria have little subset populations that are different from one another – you can think of them as the differences between individual human beings (we’re all the same species, but many of us have different strengths, weaknesses, features, etc) and these subset populations are called strains. Some strains are “friendly” and won’t hurt you if you happen to eat them, some because they’re harmless and others because they can’t make it past our stomach acid alive. How else would the E. coli that already live inside us have gotten there?This is where E. coli O157 comes in. This nasty little strain is our serial killer variety. When the shift in the livestock industry toward grain- and corn-fed animals ramped up there was a connected shift in the guts of those animals. High-corn diets in cows leads to an increase in the acidity of their complex digestive system. Over the long period of time between then and now, the E. coli that live inside them had to adapt to that higher acidity. That lets them past human defense barrier number one, stomach acid is no problem for them. But that isn’t the real problem because many of the acid-tolerant strains still won’t kill us!One of the acid tolerant strains happened to pick up a set of nasty genes from one of their more deadly cousins called Shigella. These genes, called virulence factors, made O157:H7 into a killer. The strain could then produce several toxins that cause the internal bleeding and organ failure that kills humans that are infected.Here’s the final kicker: O157:H7 only grows in highly acidic environments so grass-fed cattle are generally free of it.I don’t mean to imply that ALL cows have O157 because that definitely isn’t the case. Although despite its relative rarity, it is prevalent enough to have caused deaths. In addition, O157 isn’t the only pathogenic strain out there it’s just the one responsible for the rash of deaths in the 90’s and up. There are other, newer, equally dangerous strains emerging like the one from last year in Germany, O104:H4In summation, don’t get down on sterilization of meat products…and I agree entirely that Americans’ desire for cheap meat is the driving force behind EVERYTHING you just read, both this comment and the original post. Scary thought.P.S. If you wondered why the cows don’t get sick from the pathogenic E. coli like O157, it’s because cow cells are essentially invisible to the toxins they produce because they lack a receptor for it. Lucky cows.

  4. You’re right to call out Nestle on this point – The idea that we should only eat certain choice cuts of meat is really a very recent notion in Western culture, and in fact a trend that’s being completely reversed these days with the recent “foodie” taste for things like offal, foie gras, sweetbreads and the like.Making efficient use of every part of the animal is a practice that has much more history in “our culture”, which I take to mean Euro/American culture, than this recent pickiness or squeamishness – think of liverwurst, pate, haggis, and so on, to say nothing of chitlins or pork rinds. In fact, aren’t sausages, hot dogs, and hamburgers all just ways to dress up meat scraps in the first place? It makes every bit as much sense now to make full use of an animal as it did in centuries past.On pink slime though, shouldn’t we also be asking a few more questions other than “is it gross?” and “is it safe?”? Research shows that eating “processed” meat has a huge correlation to a shorter life span. This sounds like some pretty serious processing, especially the chemical sterilization. And it’s unclear whether the slime has different proportions of protein, fat, and cholesterol than regular meat. Also, mushed bone chunks? Uh.. ok. I guess my point is, “is it healthy?” should probably be in the mix too.People should at least be able to know how heavily processed what they’re eating is, no? I had previously thought ground beef was a relatively unadulterated product, but now I know different. I think that sense of deception is one source of the outrage that you’re dismissing a bit here, that’s all.Mostly, I agree with you. I hope PS proves to be both safe and healthy, the public forgets all about it (they tend to do that) and we can keep using it. If not, well… I don’t think dogs are going to get picky anytime soon.

  5. I definitely didn’t mean to imply that there’s a vaccination for e. coli. No, there’s definitely not! It’s not clear to me (but I’m not an animal nutritionist) if “grain feeding” is the issue. As I note in the book in chapter four, Americans have ‘finished” cattle on grain for centuries. The big feedlots that are so common today emerged in the 1940s and 1950s — where cattle were fed many kinds of foodstuffs, not just grain (and certainly not just corn).I plan to learn more about the physiology of bovine digestion before the book comes out (I *just* finished the manuscript and sent it to my editor on Wednesday: That’s why I could blog about PS. I had TIME! Yay!) But thanks so very much for all these comments, which are both interesting and helpful. Many many thanks.

  6. Hey! THanks for commenting and ohboyisitgoodtobeback! And yeah, I thought about marrow when I was writing those PS posts. Because it’s only a small step from PS to marrow, right? Indeed, drop bones and scrap in a pot of water and cook it for a few hours (or roast the bones/meat) and voila! Marrow!

  7. 🙂 We need more people blogging obsessively about pink slime imo. Thanks for the facts! Since when are people so afraid of eating meat?

  8. Seems to me one of the responders to your first post on this topic had it right: the key is getting the consumer the facts, on the package, at the place of purchase. A package of “hamburger” that includes “lean finely textured beef” should say so. A package of “ground round” or “ground sirloin” should contain only beef from those cuts and should not contain “lean finely textured beef.” How hard is that?Consumers deserve to know what they are being sold. But the food industry consistently resists providing consumers with basic information about what they are buying and eating.Of course, it’s lovely that the industry is using the whole animal. (You should see the creative ways I use all the parts of the chicken I raise in the backyard!) But if I’d rather not eat scrapings and mashed bits of bone fumigated with ammonia, and I’m willing to pay a bit more for that privilege, I should be afforded the information that allows me to make that choice.

  9. I enjoyed the twin posts on pink slime, in as much as one can enjoy anything involving pink slime; thanks for posting them. I’m a historian as well, writing about food, and I appreciate your offering some historical perspective. I started to leave a comment that ran far too long, in partial agreement but in lengthier and philosophical disagreement, so I wrote a response, instead:

  10. I think you need to brush up on your knowledge about E. coli. It is one species of bacteria with many strains — not all are harmful, not all can live in the same environments, and most are very specific and named. The strains normally present in grazing cattle have adapted to living in a higher pH than those normally present in humans. Any harmful strain in grazing cattle would not likely survive in our gut. However, grain-fed cattle have much lower intestinal pH, and bacteria which colonize it will be able to survive in our intestines. This is where the dangerous strains of E. coil come to play — they can survive in the acidic environment of cattle intestines, and can also survive in ours. What makes them dangerous are toxins secreted by these particular strains. If you do a little research, you’ll find scientific papers which show that finishing grain-fed cattle with a period of grazing or hay will correct the pH and significantly reduce or eliminate the nasty strains of E. coli. Additionally, the harmful strains are virtually unknown in cattle that are slaughtered after only grazing (no grain-feeding at all). Second, I think you are merging two separate processes — the one which is used to produce “pink slime” and the one used to produce “mechanically separated meat.” The former recovers meat from soft tissues, the latter from bone. They are different, and carry different risks. What’s used in hot dogs and sausages has been the latter — and must be labeled differently in ingredient lists. The former carries higher risks of bacterial contamination, and until a “sterilizing” process was developed, could not be sold raw. The concern is that producers know that consumers envision “ground beef” as cuts put through a grinder, but withhold the additional components of its production because they know consumers would find it off-putting. Withholding information so as to sway the decision-making of another is a form of deception, specifically “lying by omission.” If there’s nothing wrong with this process, why keep it hidden? Why only NOW are people defending it as safe, as consumers are suddenly aware of it? This is why there is a growing distrust of large-scale food production and processing — too many steps between farm and fork that are kept in the dark until someone blows the whistle.I highly recommend (before you complete your book on the history of meat) that you read Harvey Blatt’s book “America’s Food: What You Don’t Know About What You Eat” to find some verifiable, referenced information from a scientist about food production in this country. Perhaps more misconceptions can be cleared up.

  11. Chris, thanks so much for your thoughtful comments. I appreciate the time you took to write them. Re. e. coli: I’m sorry I left the impression that I thought there was only one kind of e. coli. Obviously there are a slew of strains. As to the relation between grain- and grass-finishing and e. coli: That’s fascinating and, because I’m a historian and not a microbiologist or animal scientist, an area with which I’m not familiar. The book I wrote is a work of history, not science. So I’ll look for the relevant papers.Here’s a historical factoid that may be interesting (or not…): when the mechanical deboning process was first utilized by beef packers back in the 1970s, it was used primarily for making hamburger, not hot dogs/sausage.I do wonder about this: if there’s a connection between final finish on grain and presence of e. coli, why did the bacteria only become problematic in the 1980s and after. Grain finishing has always been used in the US, and the amount of grain-finished cattle increased dramatically in the 1950s and after. So why the 30-year lag? I know that in the 1980s, scientists speculated that bacteria had become more problematic in part because of decline in livestock vaccinations and because packing plant line speeds increased. But you’re positing a quite different explanation. (Which, heh, may be due to the fact that science and “facts” change to suit political needs.)In any case, I’m all for truth in labeling, and for accuracy in both explanatory and critical rhetoric. I’m aware of Blatt’s book, but haven’t had time to read it. I only just (and I do mean just – like last week) finished the book, so the contemporary reading is still on the back burner. Plus, frankly, there’s so much crap out there re. food critique that it’s tough to take much of it seriously.Again, sincere thanks for taking time to comment. I appreciate it.

  12. The lag time between grain-feeding and E. coli outbreaks probably relates to the increasing "efficiency" rates being pushed at slaughter houses. When cattle are expected to be processed faster, there is more chance for errors that would lead to intestine puncturing (and contamination). The 1980's was also a time when there was a decrease in regulation, as promoted through Reagan's belief on allowing businesses to flourish. Companies merged and became bigger…I'd have to look up specific dates for things, but I remember the general trend offhand. :-)~Chris

  13. I’m going to have to disagree with you on that Chris. While the increases in “efficiency” (read:sloppy practice to meet demand) may have been relevant to the exposure of humans to these bacteria. I propose a two-pronged hypothesis for the lag in grain-finishing and prevalence of virulent E. coli outbreaks. One I address in my comment above, but the other I think precipitated the appearance of the pathogenic E. coli strains associated with the beef industry (O157:H7).First off, life takes time to adapt to things. Evolution is not a fast process, even in bacteria which evolve oodles faster than organisms like say, we, do. So there is one reason, but the second is more likely what lies at the base of the sudden appearance of the new E. coli strains. The explosive growth of the cattle industry! Sheer numbers likely produced a drastically accelerated environment not just for the E. coli to adjust to the changing pH of the bovine rumen, but also to spread and share their new abilities with their harmless cousin-strains (some bacteria can share nasty bits of DNA that make them dangerous.

  14. Well, the only flaw in your argument about growing size of cattle population is this: When scientists first “discovered” the relevant strain of e. coli in the early 1980s, the nation’s herd size was its smallest in thirty years! Beef consumption plunged after 1976, and herd size shrank by millions of head in just a few years.But Chris is correct about the line speed in packing plants (a point I’ve also made a couple of times now): Line speed rose dramatically in the 1960s and 70s, but then REALLY shot up in the 1980s, and at the time, scientists felt certain that part of the problem w/bacteria was that various parts of the carcass that were more “bacteria prone” were coming into contact with blades and other carcass parts because of the speed.As for the reason for the dramatic speedup: as beef consumption plunged, packers were left w/huge processing plants that were no longer operating at capacity. Even a tiny percentage drop in capacity production greatly increased production COSTS> Packers were already operating a bare-bones profit (on average, packers rarely earn more than one percent profit), so they were scrambling to try to figure out how to increase their “efficiency.” Yes, Reagan-era deregulation had an impact, but that was only one small part of a larger perfect storm of events that truly altered the packing industry, particularly for beef.And again, I’m SO grateful for all this input! Thanks thanks thanks. I had to walk away from my blog for a year so I could finish the book so when I posted the two pink slime entries, it honestly never ocurred to me that anyone would, ya know, READ them.

  15. 1976 was the year the cattle cycle that started in the late 1960’s just started to go down. When grain finishing became more widespread in the 1950’s the US cattle numbered just shy of 80 million head. In 1975 the cattle numbers were at their all time peak, a whopping 132 million head! That is the drastic increase in number I was talking about. Those pathogenic E. coli may have been discovered in the 80’s, but the foundations of their existence likely stretch back to that twenty-or-so year explosion in growth of the cattle industry during the grain-feeding of cattle.I agree one-hundred percent however that line speed and the cutting of blades into the gut is what began introducing the pathogenic bacteria into meat and caused problems.I’m glad you finished your book and I’m sorry if I’ve soured your return to blogging, but I meant only to share info on an interesting post, honest! Thank you for writing it.

  16. pbuzz10: You didn’t sour my return to blogging! Quite the opposite. I’m thrilled (and humbled) by all this response. Believe me, you made my return a HUGE delight. Tomorrow I plan to write a new PS post because now have more and better info, thanks in large part to the amazing comments offered here. I’m SO grateful. Please, keep commenting!!

  17. Ecoli bacteria are used as an indicator by puclic health officials to see if contamination may have happened. The test is not because they are dangerous, except for a few strains. Within months after the Jack-in-the-Box outbreak, which was the first time ecoli 0157 had been identified as the cause of food poisoning, ecoli 0157 was identified on all 7 continents, which means we had been living with it a very long time.The real issue was that frozen hamburgers had been placed on the grill and the cores had not reached the 165 degree F temperature required to kill the bacteria.Training was the appropriate response.Since then, all sorts of misinformation has been attached to ecoli and beef production, and it has become difficult to find the truth. It is not related to corn fed or grass fed cattle. Apple juice was contaminated by deer. Spinach was contminated by rabbits. The Germans have not released how the sprouts were contaminated.Intact cuts of meat keep the same extterior surface until after cooking. Grinding meat mixes up the interior and exterior of the cuts so that bacteria on an exterior surface can be mixed into the inerior and therefore vulnerable to being insufficiently cooked. Best practice is an anitbacterial wash of the carcass after the offal is removed.Mr. Roth recognized the possiblities of latter contamination and chose to expose his product to ammonia gas. I recommend for additional information, especially Confident Cooking with Beef,

  18. Pingback: Pink Slime: (More) History and A Dollop of Sermonizing. Part One « Maureen Ogle


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