It’s been two years since notorious pink slime beef products made headlines on social media, scaring people to the point where manufacturers pulled the substance from the majority of food items.
But since that time opinions have been changing, and pink slime is about to make a comeback.
There’s no arguing that images of pink slime circulating on the Internet are disturbing; anything that isn’t easily recognizable as food usually has that effect if you find out it’s been in your hamburger or school lunch for years. But manufacturers have maintained the product is safe, even though they pulled it due to public outcry.
“Ultimately what happened is consumers contacted retailers. So by the end of March 2012, Cargill’s finely textured beef had incurred an 80 percent decrease in volume. We ultimately were forced to close down two of the production sites out of the five we had operating that produced finely textured beef,” Cargill spokesman Mike Martin told NPR.
Other manufacturers of pink slime–formally known as lean finely textured beef (LFTB)–have faced similar situations, closing down production plants and laying off hundreds of workers.
The end result? Beef prices have soared and now retailers are looking at allowing pink slime back onto store shelves.
According to The Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2010 the cost of ground beef averaged $2.25 a pound. Now it’s nearly $4 a pound. This price increase is because the meat being sold is without pink slime, so it comes entirely from the choicest cuts of meat rather than getting a percentage from “left overs.”
And that’s what pink slime really is–left over cuts of beef that would otherwise go to waste. These trimmings are processed and treated, and used to add bulk to regular beef products.
“When lean finely textured beef (LFTB) is processed, a machine much like a salad spinner or centrifuge is used to liquefy and spin fat away from wholesome, inspected beef trimmings that results when a carcass is cut into smaller cuts of meat. The process starts with beef and ends with 95 percent lean beef. Calling it pink slime is inaccurate, alarmist and disparaging,” indicated the American Meat Institute in a 2012 statement.
What the American Meat Institute fails to address in the statement, however, is the main thing that got consumers fired up in the first place. Pink slime may really be beef trimmings, but it’s treated with a chemical called ammonium hydroxide. This substance is often found in household cleaners and is used to kills potentially dangerous pathogens like salmonella and e.coli bacteria.
Unfortunately ammonium hydroxide is potentially dangerous for people, and over exposure, according to the National Library of Medicine, can cause:
- Airways and lungs
- Breathing difficulty (from inhalation)
- Throat swelling (which may also cause breathing difficulty)
- Eyes, ears, nose, and throat
- Severe pain in the throat
- Severe pain or burning in the nose, eyes, ears, lips, or tongue
- Vision loss
- Esophagus, stomach, and intestines
- Blood in the stool
- Burns of the esophagus (food pipe) and stomach
- Severe abdominal pain
- Vomiting, possibly with blood
- Heart and blood
- Low blood pressure (develops rapidly)
- Severe change in pH (too much or too little acid in the blood, which leads to damage in all of the body organs)
- Holes in skin tissue (necrosis)
Of course, meat manufacturers maintain that the amount of ammonium hydroxide in pink slime isn’t even close to the amount that would cause exposure hazards. Those opposed to the chemical’s use acknowledge that may be the case, but there is no research investigating the long-term effects regular consumption of such beef products could cause.
For people looking to continue avoiding beef products containing pink slime, some grocery chains have vowed to keep it off store shelves. Supermarket chains Kroger and Supervalu indicate they will keep beef products containing LFTB away from their customers.