Pink Slime: (More) History and A Dollop of Sermonizing. Part Four

Part OnePart TwoPart Three — Part Five

For my two initial PS posts, see here and here

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So — back to the “pink slime” controversy: Many critics object to the fact that package labels don’t say “this meat contains meat scraps extracted from a carcass and subjected to ammonia gas in order to elevate its pH levels and kill bacteria.”  

Others object to the fact that LFTB is being used in school lunch programs. In response to that particular point, I’ll just say this: We barely pay teachers a living wage for teaching. What makes anyone think the American taxpayers are willing to spend more of their tax dollars on school lunches? (As with our drinking culture, we get the educational system we want.)

But let’s not lose sight of the reason meatpackers developed techniques to utilize those scraps: They were trying to keep consumer prices down and still allow the owners/shareholders of packing/processing companies to earn a profit. Those scraps represented a way to achieve both goals. 

Which brings us to the last of the major objections:Critics object to the CONTENT; to the stuff that LFTB is made from.

Many people believe that the ingredients in LFTB aren’t “real” meat; that the scraps are byproduct material suitable only for dog food.

That truly puzzled me. How, I wondered, could any sane person think this is non-edible food? I finally found the answer: In 2009, a New York Times reporter wrote a story about BPI, and in that report he describes LFTB as 

made from beef that included fatty trimmings the industry once relegated to pet food and cooking oil.

Aha! Apparently, that’s where the “dog food” critique came from. Let’s think this through, shall we? 

The fact that the packing industry “once relegated” those scraps to use in pet food doesn’t make it “dog food.” What it means is that packers couldn’t figure out how to use those scraps in a way that consumers would accept (because of the “bone” problem).

But that’s not the same thing as saying the scraps were/are “dog food,” or that they were inedible or unsafe for human consumption. All it means is that, barring a better method of utilizing those scraps, they’d turned them to profit by selling them to manufacturers of dog food.

Why would they do that? Because here’s a little-known but immensely useful fact about meatpacking in general and beef processing in particular: It’s damn near impossible to make a profit from the MEAT itself.

Packers have always relied on byproducts, whether hides, bone, hoof, thyroid, or whatever, to subsidize the cost of making the actual meat. Prior to the 1940s, those byproducts brought in good money: Packers sold hides to shoemakers, for example, and various animal parts to drug makers.

But from the 1940s on, meat byproducts declined in value: shoemakers replaced leather with vinyl, especially the soles; synthetic pharmaceuticals replaced old-fashioned drugs; plastic replaced bone buttons. You get the picture.

The loss of income from these byproducts was devastating to the packing industry. Many packers went out of business, and the survivors survived because they built ultra-efficient plants where machines replace human labor. (Another fact that drives critics crazy.)

Packers don’t have a choice, not if they want to keep the price of meat low enough to satisfy consumers: By itself, the meat won’t pay the bills. Packers must come up with other ways to reduce costs.  

So if they had meat scraps that couldn’t be mixed with other “beef,” their best bet was to sell the stuff to someone who could use it, in this case pet food manufacturers. But once packers developed a bone-free method of utilizing the scraps, they could add it to other ground beef and use it themselves rather than selling it to Purina. Makes sense to me.

Next: Be careful what you read. Even here!

7 thoughts on “Pink Slime: (More) History and A Dollop of Sermonizing. Part Four

  1. So good to see you back, in action!
    Very interesting historical travel this is.
    The black ‘bar’ isn’t so bad, i just have to change all my bookmarks! lol
    Thank you for your straight talk here refreshing as always

    dave

  2. Thanks so much for the historical information. I really do appreciate your efforts to bring this to light. I did have to laugh, however, when Jamie Oliver “imagined” what would happen. I think of him as a relatively benign chef – but he was certainly igniting a bunch of parents with fear, wasn’t he? He should stick to teaching those parents how to cook nutritious meals.

  3. I think the refers to the other parts of this series may be broken, at least on some of the posts (of course, it could be a WordPress issue).

    I was glad to see you brought this up: “So — back to the “pink slime” controversy: Many critics object to the fact that package labels don’t say “this meat contains meat scraps extracted from a carcass and subjected to ammonia gas in order to elevate its pH levels and kill bacteria.”

    But disappointed that you didn’t address it. So far, you’ve said you are in favor of labeling, but you’ve also exempted BPI from any responsibility for labeling consumer products (which makes sense, given that they don’t sell to consumers.) And you’ve suggested that folks who buy ground beef with a brand name on it more or less deserve whatever is in the package.

    What you haven’t done (unless I have missed it) is offered a useful suggestion about how ground beef (or other products) that contain LFTB should be labelled, or opined on whether that labeling should be enforced through legislation or regulatory action. Such suggestions would make a nice coda to your series.

  4. Oh, Greg, thanks for pointing that out. The links on this post work fine, but I found some broken ones on the other entries. THANKS. (Yes, this move did rather screw things up…)

    as for labeling: all of that has to be done through the FDA and USDA — and that’s the problem. Trying to change labeling takes people into the 9th circle of hell because everyone involved MUST have their say and they all want what they want, and no one agrees…. and so labeling is one of THE most time-consuming, contentious activities we Americans, and our appointed bureaucrats, deal with. It’s great to say “Let’s label this stuff,” — but if history is any example, and in this case it is, that could take years and the end result will make NO ONE happy. Sorry to say.

    As to what’s in hamburger itself. I must say that perhaps the single most surprising aspect of this entire uproar has been (for me) to discover that so many people think/believe hamburger is a specific “thing.” That’s it’s made from specific cuts of beef. It’s not. Never has been. The whole point of burger is to use up what’s leftover. Yes, some grocery stores do sell hamburger that’s SPECIFICALLY labeled as, say, “ground chuck.” And what’s in that, presumably, is only beef from that portion of the steer, and what’s specifically there is whatever was leftover after cutting up pieces of “chuck” for other uses.

    But there is no “hamburger” part of the steer.

  5. Steve, I mean that we’re getting what we apparently want. We can piss and moan about how “bad” schools are, or how dismal American education is, but no one seems to want to do more than moan about it. If people REALLY wanted to change things, they’d put some money where their moaning mouths are.

    I compared that to our drinking culture because we Americans also tend to moan about underage drinking, binge drinking, etc. — but the fact is that kids don’t drink “responsibly” because we teach them to fear and demonize, rather than respect alcohol. So if there’s, for example, an “under-age drinking problem” in the U.S., we have no one to blame but ourselves. I’ve ranted about this on a number of occasions. You can find those posts under the category and tag of “rational drinking.” (My last book was a history of beer in America. I’ve spent a LOT of time thinking about this stuff.)

    And thanks for stopping by and for taking time to read. I appreciate it.

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

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