SOMETIMES THE terminology used in a debate is vivid enough to determine the outcome. So it is with the current furor over ground beef additives that the beef industry has long called “lean finely textured beef.’’ The term has been used to describe beef trimmings, from various parts of the cow, that are separated from fat via centrifuge, sprayed with ammonium hydroxide to kill bacteria, and added as a thickening agent to the ground beef widely found in supermarkets and schools. But recently, a Department of Agriculture whistleblower suggested a new name for the substance: “pink slime.’’
That was the unforgettable term that roiled the Internet and the news media last week, as information about the unlabeled additive spread and a petition to ban the substance from schools quickly gained more than 250,000 signatures. Before long, the USDA had changed its rules, saying that starting next fall, schools can opt out of using beef that contains the substance. (Through the national school lunch program, the USDA purchases about a fifth of the food served in schools across the country.) Time will tell how the news will affect the market for packaged supermarket meat.
From the standpoint of consumer safety, the risks of the beef additive are unclear. The substance has been used for decades and has passed muster with federal regulators. Beef Products Inc., the South Dakota company that manufactures the additive, points out that ammonium hydroxide, which sounds unappetizingly chemical, is a substance that occurs naturally in many foods.
That information is part of a public relations offensive on the part of Beef Products Inc., which includes a new blog called pinkslimeisamyth.com. But while the information is useful, it’s unlikely to change the conversation. For this, the company and the beef industry have themselves to blame. The Orwellian name originally used for the additive - lean finely textured beef - doesn’t inspire public confidence, nor do the photos of processed cylindrical pellets that Beef Products Inc. has put forth to counter the image of slime. Prior USDA rulings, determining that the additive doesn’t have to be labeled separately, only contribute to the sense that consumers are being deceived, and possibly shortchanged. Consumers increasingly want to know the origins of their food, and the truth about ingredients. A history of obfuscation leads, quite naturally, to a lack of trust.