Foodie Villain of the Week

The current foodie movement villain of the week is ground beef, specifically boneless lean beef trimmings (which they call “pink slime”). What are boneless lean beef trimmings? Well, they’re beef, removed from the bones of a cow using a machine because the beef pieces are too close to the bone for human butchers to remove. It shouldn’t be wrong to use machines to remove more beef from a cow than people can do themselves, should it? Aren’t we supposed to “use every part of the animal” and reduce our environmental footprints? When did killing fewer cows to satisfy America’s appetite for hamburgers become a bad thing?

Indeed, the USDA reduces the school lunch program’s annual cattle slaughter and environmental footprint by the equivalent of up to 12,000 animals by using 7 million pounds of boneless lean beef trimmings in hamburgers and ground beef. Despite this potential for savings, foodies demand it be banned (even, oddly, those who decry the numbers of animals raised for food).

So what’s wrong with boneless lean beef trimmings? In the real world: Nothing, which is why the FDA treats it as what it is; namely, ground beef. Of course, if “foodie world” is so worked up about it, surely something is wrong. Something must be wrong; after all, the USDA plans to offer an opt-out to schools that don’t want to use boneless lean beef trimmings. What could it be?

Is it chemicals? After all, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver (remember him?) went on television and poured household ammonia cleaner on some beef to show how the evil “pink slime” is made. Of course, not everything on reality TV is real. Beef processors neither use household ammonia-water mixes nor do they bathe the beef trimmings in cleaner. In fact, food processors mist the beef with an ammonium hydroxide solution to kill pathogens, making the resulting ground beef safer. Sure enough, ammonium hydroxide is Generally Recognized As Safe by the Food and Drug Administration.

Is it contamination? That wouldn’t make any sense, since the whole point of processing the beef trimmings is to kill pathogens, and sure enough, even some prominent critics of beef processors acknowledge of the products aren’t unsafe. Marion Nestle, while criticizing the existence of boneless lean beef trimmings, told The Washington Post: “I’m not arguing that that stuff is unsafe.” Indeed, the very same process that is now the subject of a food scare was featured in the Post in 2008 as a possible model for the future of food safety.

So what is the problem? Aesthetics (snobbery might be a better word) seems to be the answer. As Nestle told the Post, “I’m arguing that it’s the lowest common denominator.” And what makes lean beef trimmings “the lowest common denominator?” Nestle doesn’t tell us. It just “sounds disgusting.” Unfortunately, that doesn’t reflect reality.

This processed ground beef may not be “real” enough to satisfy those in the ivory tower, but is it worth killing up to an additional 12,000 cows for? If you’re Marion Nestle or Mark Bittman, apparently it is.

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