Sunday, May 13, 2012

Ever Since Charleton Heston Gave Soylent Green a Bad Name....

It was healthy, nutritious, and people seemed to like it, but then Heston got all bent out of shape about it....

In the New York Times, Philip Boffey asks what would happen if "pink slime" meat were called something other than "pink slime". You know, like the industry's preferred "lean finely textured beef", but certainly not an objectively fair name such as "ammonia-washed meat scraps". He argues,
At first consideration, lean finely textured beef is admittedly not all that appetizing. It is derived from the fatty scraps that remain after steaks and roasts are carved out of a beef carcass. The fat is spun off and any pathogens in the remnant are killed off with that small amount of ammonia. But the truth is this product does not differ greatly from the rest of ground beef, which is also mostly scraps and remnants.

As for how it tastes, we conducted a test at the Times cafeteria and in my home kitchen of ground beef patties, some in which pink slime made up 15 percent and others without it. Four of our testers, including me, preferred the burgers with pink slime. I found it more tender. Three others preferred the burgers without. No one found any of the burgers slimy.
The first part of the argument is not unreasonable, but it's fair to ask how contaminated, fatty, and meat-free a scrap should be before he would argue that it should no longer be considered appropriate for having the fat "spun off", being rinsed in ammonia, and being mixed into other food of less ignoble origins. But for the fact that repurposing that near-waste material for people is more profitable than other uses, it would likely be used in animal feed or pet food. And when you look at the origins and processing of "pink slime" meat, the answer of those who advocate its (preferably secret) inclusion in human food products would presumably be "never" - as long as the ammonia rinse were sufficient to kill the pathogens, they are fine with its inclusion in products intended for human consumption.

The question of how it tastes is peripheral to the reason people object to its inclusion in their food. As some have pointed out, there are products that are part of foods we often eat that are every bit as disgusting, and in some cases much more disgusting, than ammonia-rinsed, finely ground beef scraps. Mechanically separated chicken comes to mind - and has a taste and texture that is harder to hide. The author's implication that at a 15% mix, most people won't notice the inclusion of "lean finely textured beef" in their burgers, and might even prefer it, is fair, but that's not really why people object. When people learn that offal-tainted cutting room scraps are being ammonia-washed and put back into their food, the reaction of disgust comes from that part of the brain that tries to keep us safe and healthy. "But some amount of dung makes its way into all ground beef, and the ammonia wash makes this safer," isn't the sort of argument that is apt to overcome the natural revulsion. A more likely reaction is, "How about we try to clean up the production so that don't need to have this discussion about comparative levels of dung contamination in our food supply," or perhaps just, "Ew."

Frankly, in terms of the preservation of the species, I think that the natural reaction people have to "pink slime beef" is a more healthy one than "As long as the ammonia wash kills off the E. coli it's fine by me."

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