In Ghostbusters II, as Sigourney Weaver's character draws a bath for her newborn son, an opaque bubble gum-pink liquid stealthily oozes from the steaming faucet until it gathers into a sentient, blob-like mass at the bottom of the tub — where it attempts, unsuccessfully, to devour her.
On the other side of the screen, we're the ones devouring the slime. It's called lean finely textured beef (LFTB ) or finely textured beef additive — otherwise known as "pink slime." Minus the ectoplasm, it's likely in a hamburger near (or in) you.
Pink slime was approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in 2001 as a means to reconstitute otherwise inedible and e. Coli-laden bovine connective tissue. It's an icky process that requires placing beef scraps in a centrifuge to separate the meat from the chaff — and applying ammonia to eliminate harmful bacteria.
The purpose of pink slime is twofold: to stretch the supply of industrial meats to meet the appetites of American consumers, and ostensibly to make that food safer for them in the process. Under current federal guidelines, pink slime cannot comprise more than 15 percent of ground beef without additional labeling.
Yet years after its implementation, with no reports of related health hazards, pink slime has become the food-industry bogeyman of the moment.
On March 7, ABC News launched a series of reports warning consumers that 70 percent of all beef sold in the United States contains the substance. After landing in the 24-hour news zeitgeist for the better part of a month, pink slime soon earned its own panic button in the mainstream media's pantheon of epidemiological worries. All of a sudden, our children were in danger.
In the original ABC News story, George Zirnstein, the former USDA scientist who coined the term, accused the USDA of "economic fraud" by green-lighting pink slime to appease officials with close ties to the beef industry — all at the expense of American consumers.
Dozens upon dozens of news outlets fell in line. Amid the fallout, industry backers and food safety advocates have engaged in a war of words over the controversial mixture, drawing familiar culture-war battle lines that have pitted liberal foodies against supposed pro-business Mr. Burns types.
The brouhaha resurrected a 2011 clip from celebrity chef Jamie Oliver's television show, Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution. In it, the eponymous host horrifies a room full of parents and children by throwing a slab of beef carcass into a washing machine, before waxing poetic on the visually repulsive substance.
"When you've broken down a whole beast, you're left with trimmings," Oliver tells his audience. "In my industry, we call those trimmings 'shit.'"
In the current media landscape carved by ABC News and others, Oliver's was the rallying cry that launched a thousand digital ships. Anti-slimers achieved a victory last month when South Dakota-based Beef Products Inc. (BPI) — responsible for roughly 75 percent of the nation's hamburger patties in 2012, and whose clients have included McDonald's and Burger King — announced that it would temporarily shutter operations at three of its four meat processing plants in response to what it described as media-manufactured alarmism.
"If the media is able to bring a company like us down, you're going to disincentivize anybody to try to create a safe, wholesome product," BPI owner Regina Roth said. "We've got to attack this the way it was generated, and that is through that social media world. It's not a world I'm particularly familiar with. I never thought I was going to have to, but it is out there, it's how it's spread. There's so much misinformation."
BPI claims that as a result of the closures, 600 jobs have been lost. Other slime-slinging companies have felt the aftershocks as well. AFA Foods filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy this month, citing negative media coverage. Fast food giants McDonald's, Burger King and Taco Bell all announced they would no longer use the product, and Wendy's took out ads saying it never had. In Louisiana, supermarket chains Rouses and Winn-Dixie, among others, announced their beef would henceforth be slime-free. ("Because LFTB is not required to be labeled on products, we took our time and worked very hard to verify that all of our ground beef is free of any traces of LFTB," Rouses said in a letter to consumers several weeks ago. "We have stressed to our suppliers that Rouses will not accept any ground beef product with traces of LFTB.")
The slime backlash didn't stop there. A Change.org petition that netted 258,632 digital signatures prompted the USDA to allow school districts across the nation to decide whether they want to feed students beef containing the additive.
Louisiana Commissioner of Agriculture Dr. Mike Strain told Gambit last week that the controversy began around the time the department was placing orders with the federal government for one year's school meat allotment. "We ordered it without the product (LFTB) in it," he said. (Michael St. Romain of the LDAF told a north Louisiana website, www.ArkLaTex.com, that the school meat supply would be LFTB-free as of July 1.) Strain added the initial controversy stemmed from a private email from a USDA biologist, who used the term "pink slime" to refer to the rendered meat product, and from there the term went viral, capturing the public (and media) imagination. "There's 12 to 15 pounds of protein product per animal that is usable" due to the use of beef scraps, he said.
"The product (LFTB) itself is safe," Strain said, adding, "It's been used for a long time with no health problems whatsoever."
But if the federal government and beef companies contend that the additive is safe, then why would supermarkets and state agencies attack what appears to be a non-problem? Could there be scientific truth to the claims of Oliver et al.?
Dr. William Schaffner, who chairs Vanderbilt University's Department of Preventative Medicine, says there isn't. He laments what he perceives to be acquiescence to a media-manufactured public issue, saying "there isn't any science behind the concern."
"There have been no health hazards identified [with pink slime], and millions of children have eaten millions of pounds of this processed meat product, which is basically what it is" without any adverse effects, says Schaffner, who said he does not speak as a shill for Big Cow. "There's an old expression: Enjoy the sausage, but don't look at how it's made, and this is a product that is a consequence of our now highly industrialized processed food industry, and it was given an unfortunate moniker."
While pink slime in itself poses no scientifically credible threat to the public, Schaffner says, it does present a different problem: overconsumption.
"We can certainly make the argument, and we've heard it many times over, in terms of our general health, we have a growing obesity crisis in this country," he says. "We ought to eat less, we ought to eat more pure, less processed food, and we ought to eat more whole grains and vegetables. And if we all did that, we would have a distinctly healthier society."
— Jonathan Meador is a reporter for the Nashville Scene, where a version of this story originally appeared. Kevin Allman contributed reporting.