You’ve likely seen the pictures: a serpentine coil of Pepto-Bismol-colored substance that goes into your hamburgers. It has been dubbed “pink slime,” quite aptly, and it’s the product of our industrial food system’s terrifying efficiencies. After a steer is broken down into its constituent parts, and this is further butchered into the delicious cuts many of us know and love — the New York strip, the brisket, the hanger, etc. But there’s still scraps of connective tissue and fat left behind, which likely used to be the sort of thing we fed to dogs.

But in the 1990’s a man named Eldon Roth, chief executive of the mouthwateringly-named Beef Products Inc., developed a process that turns those inedible trimmings into something edible. All you need is some industrial centrifuges to separate the meat from the fat and ammonia gas to lower the acidity level, killing any e. coli left behind (the product, which goes by the official name “lean finely textured beef,”is reported to contain meat from area’s quite close to the cow’s rectum, making this a highly necessary step).

Then, it’s mixed into ground beef to make it leaner. Say what you will about the process, it’s less fatty than beef normally is. Also, naturally, it extends the yield of beef.

It has led to outcry from Americans, after being featured on a celebrity chef’s show, leading many supermarket chains to get rid of the additive. It was disturbing to know that this utterly disgusting mechanically-separated substance had been lurking below the surface of our most prized national dish for so many years. Worst of all, perhaps, was its USDA stamp of approval, which still hasn’t been rescinded — Tom Vilsack recently defended the product’s safety.

Does pink slime have parallels elsewhere?

The way that pink slime turns something completely worthless into something salable — and supposedly palatable — seem familiar? Its blessing from the federal government also seems familiar, doesn’t it? Are CDOs and ABS and all the other complex financial products that helped get us into our current mess not incredibly similar?

They took junk, chopped it up into something unrecognizable, and sprayed it clean. In finance, you need no centrifuges or ammonia, however. It’s much less messy. They hid all these junk mortgages in with the good stuff, and sold it to unsuspecting buyers who likely had no idea their Grade A investments were weighted down with the home mortgage equivalent of bovine rectums and connective tissue.

We all know how that worked out.

This all gets back to what seems to be the fundamental problem in the American economy: we’ve forgotten how to do the simple stuff right. Home building, providing health care, higher education, making hamburgers — all of it seems to be made in some terrible partnership between bottom-seeking corporations and the hapless politicians who serve them.

Politicians’ response to the pink slime scare has been telling. Matthew Yglesias, blogging at Slate, pointed out that the pink slime scare will destroy the sort of real industrial jobs that Americans now claim to desire, and he makes a valid point, however cynical. Governor Terry Branstad of Iowa and Governor Rick Perry of Texas (remember that guy?) recently made a vow to eat the product, reports the Wall Street Journal. No surprise that the governors of our meat-producing states would take this stand: those states will lose pink slime producing jobs should the nationwide disgust with the product not be stemmed by watching some politicians eat hamburgers.

The most aggravating part of the story is this:

“You effectively need to kill 1.5 million more head of cattle in a year to replace the meat that would go off the market from this unwarranted, unmerited food scare,” Gov. Branstad said. “That’s why we’re pushing back on it.”

Now the cattle industry is not pretty, but this sort of short-sightedness is what makes pink slime defenders seem so silly. What Gov. Brandstad is saying is: We will have to actually make more beef if we want to make more beef. It’s unimportant whether pink slime is safe or not: it’s not the sort of thing people want in their beef; they want beef in their beef, not industrialized shorthand for beef.

These are our wise elected officials, though, who depend on the short-term interests of corporations to finance their reelection campaigns, and are consequently unwilling to recognize the benefits of short-term losses for corporations, even if they tout the virtues of creative destruction when at the podium. Because of this, there’s pink slime everywhere, not just in our hamburgers. Pink slime happens whenever massive corporations find these shortcuts or money-savers, and regulators see fit to give them the green light to essentially mislabel the product — whenever this happens, consumers get the short end of the stick.

This dynamic has helped American industries forget how to do the basics. We don’t know how to make hamburgers properly anymore — a crime! Unamerican! Half a decade ago, we forgot how to build homes and lend money properly. We can get pink slime out of our hamburgers, maybe. Can we get it out of our financial system? So long as politicians need to go back to Wall Street every few years with their hands out, it wouldn’t be likely.

But if we all refuse to eat it, they’ll have to stop selling it.

Photo by Collin Anderson via Flickr Creative Commons.
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