The pink slime games; chronicles of the bizarre

Beef Products, Inc. ran a full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal Friday along with copy by Nancy Donley, President, STOP Foodborne Illness talking about the role of ammonia hydride and food-grade antimicrobial sprays in hamburger production, along with some choice words from Eldon Roth, CEO of BPI, about the "campaign of lies and deceit that have been waged" by the "entertainment media, tabloid journalists, so-called national news." He says the "misinformation campaign" may result in the "loss of over 3,000" jobs. He also says that the "lean beef" from his company has been in over 300 billion meals.

The choice of a print media outlet appealing to the business elite raises some issues: do many people who eat hamburger from grocery stores or school cafeterias routinely read the Wall Street Journal? Is print media the best way to reach Americans? Who are the PR geniuses that came up with this strategy and why do they keep telling BPI to blame the media for reporting on what is a right-to-know issue?

New York-based Wegmans said Friday it will stop selling ground beef that includes the ammonia-treated filler known as "pink slime in response to customer concerns caused by "sensationalism" over the product.

A spokesman for Cargill, the leading U.S. ground beef producer, told The Daily that "pink slime" is "pretty much over." And that "the industry produces 800 million pounds of finely textured beef every year. We’ll likely have to raise an additional 1.5 million head of cattle to make up for the loss.”

As predicted when USDA abdicated leadership and left things pink and slimey up to schools, PTA meetings are now seemingly dominated by fillers rather than meat.

The Boston school district, among others, has taken the step of purging all ground beef from its menus to immediately get rid of pink slime. Other districts, like the New York City schools, have begun phasing out ground beef containing the additive from their lunchrooms.

Michael Peck, the director of food and nutrition services for the Boston schools, said the district had decided to hold and isolate its entire inventory of ground beef, leaving over 70,000 pounds of beef — worth about $500,000, Mr. Peck estimated — confined to a warehouse until the district knows more about what is in it.

“It’s another example of the alteration of our food supply,” said Mr. Peck, who is concerned about the use of ammonia hydroxide gas to kill bacteria in the product. “Have we created another unknown safety risk?”

In Portsmouth, N.H., it was the memory of an E. coli scare over spinach that led Deborah Riso, the district’s nutrition director, to decide she would take no chances.

“You just pull it because you don’t know,” Ms. Riso said from her office, where she was expunging ground beef from the April school menu. “I had a hamburger bar, so I’m going to do a hot roast beef sandwich. I had a beef or chicken burrito — I’m going to go with the chicken and rice burrito,” Ms. Riso said. “You can still make a nice product without beef.”

The schools’ exodus is grounded less in science than in instinctive revulsion, said Donald W. Schaffner, director of the Center of Advanced Food Technology at Rutgers University.

“I don’t see that there is a scientific or health benefit from the point of microbiology or even toxicology,” Dr. Schaffner said of the rush to pull the beef from school menus. “The reason why it’s resonated with people is not so much that it’s unsafe, but the idea that we’re putting ammonia in our food is unpalatable to people.”

Reuters reports that every time someone calls former U.S. government scientist Gerald Zirnstein a whistleblower, he cringes a little.

When he coined the term "Pink Slime" to describe the unlabeled and unappetizing bits of cartilage and other chemically-treated scrap meat going into U.S. ground beef, Zirnstein was a microbiologist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

He made the slime reference to a fellow scientist in an internal – and he thought private – email. But that email later became public, and with it came an explosion of outrage from consumer groups.

"You look through the regulations and a lot of that stuff was never approved for hamburger. It was under the radar," said the 54-year-old Zirnstein, who lives outside Washington, D.C. with his wife and 2-year-old son. "It’s cheating. It’s economic fraud," he said in a telephone interview.

Zirnstein, who worked in a meat plant growing up in Kansas, said the situation came to his attention a decade ago. In 2002, he was working as a USDA food scientist and was assigned to a project to determine what was going into ground beef and whether the ingredients met federal regulations.

At the same time, the beef industry was asking the government to endorse a new product they called "lean finely textured beef" that was largely trimmings typically used for pet food and cooking oil. The trimmings were treated with ammonia to kill dangerous bacteria.

USDA officials approved the processed product. Zirnstein was disgusted, and made his opinion known to co-workers in an email that called the processed product "pink slime." The email was later released to the New York Times as part of a Freedom of Information request for a 2009 investigative article on food safety. The newspaper article mentioned the slime reference in passing.

"Nobody did anything (about pink slime). USDA dropped the ball again. The meat industry soft sold it," said Zirnstein, who left USDA and took a job as an industry consultant but now is unemployed. The issue got renewed life when British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, who advocates for American children to eat healthier food, devoted an episode of his television show to the topic in April last year.

Oh, and pink slime isn’t used in Canadian burgers – at least according to Health Canada, which says it hasn’t ruled on the product because no one has asked. But Canadians do ship burgers to the U.S. that contain E. coli O157:H7. And get recalled.