April 12, 2012

A Lean Finely Textured Proposal

Robert Lawrence, MD

Robert Lawrence, MD

Director Emeritus

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

In the weeks following the “pink slime” brouhaha, the responses have run the gamut—outrage, demands, disgust, defense, explanations, and excuses. I’d like to respond with a proposal that should help us reach some health goals, eliminate the need for pink slime filler, and prevent our hunger for “real beef” from causing more cow carnage.

Mark Bittman, in his column “The Pink Menace,” urges us to examine food system industrialization and the conditions that require the beef industry to use ammonium hydroxide to sanitize a product that, if it had been produced more responsibly, wouldn’t need to be sanitized. Tom Laskawy of Grist took a similar tack, pegging pink slime as the “tip of the iceberg” of what happens in meat production.

Some of the most interesting commentary, though, in my opinion, was from The New York Times’s Andrew Revkin, who lays out some compelling arguments for “Why I’m O.K. with  Pink Slime in Ground Beef.” What caught my eye in this piece was his plea that we consider the “extra 1.5 million or so head of livestock that will need to be slaughtered to fill the ground beef gap” if the industry were to replace pink slim with “real beef.” We currently slaughter about 34 million beef cattle annually, and, of course, dairy CAFOs exhaust milk cows by age 4, at which point they are slaughtered, mostly for hamburger meat. And, as the Des Moines Register reminds us, replacing the filler with “real beef” would probably drive up hamburger prices somewhere between 3 cents and 25 cents per pound.

Beef Products Inc. estimates that the filler makes up 15 percent of the total volume of ground beef sold. So here’s my proposal: Let’s reduce 15 percent of our hamburger consumption. This is exactly the kind of public health measure that we’ve been advocating at the CLF for years, through programs like Meatless Monday. Think about it. If, as a nation, we cut down on our beef consumption by 15 percent, then those 1.5 million more cows won’t have to be slaughtered, and we can eliminate the need for pink slime filler. The beef industry may still, as a result of discontinuing pink slime, hike the prices. But by buying less beef, we’ll pay less at the supermarket. And of course, there are many health benefits to reducing beef consumption, as the Meatless Monday campaign describes very well, such as reduced risk of heart disease, some cancers, and overweight/obesity. (For good news about a Meatless Monday initiative undertaken by Sodexo, read this recent blogpost.)

And, for those who prefer a more satirical proposal, here’s another, courtesy of my colleague Alan Guebert, who writes The Farm and Food File. “If you shoot anhydrous ammonia into a covered bed of soil, like tobacco farmers all did, the result is soil that is both sterile and edible. So, get some anhydrous and eat dirt. Hey, it beats the other stuff.” But we don’t have to resort to eating sterilized soil.

There’s the saying, What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. I think that until very recently this was true of meat production, as well: What happens in the slaughterhouse stays in the slaughterhouse. Perhaps this is becoming less true, and that would be good for everyone. As consumers, we have influence in the supermarket, which will influence what happens in our industrialized meat production system. Let’s buy 15 percent less beef, get rid of the slime, save the cows, and feel better. Oh, and we can let the pet food industry have exclusive rights to pink slime once again.

Post-script: For a devastating picture of the impact of large slaughterhouses and feedlots on communities such as Garden City, Kansas, I recommend reading Slaughterhouse Blues: The Meat and Poultry Industry in North America, written by cultural anthropologist Donald Stull and Michael Broadway, a social geographer.


  1. First I would like to say that I do not wish to cut meat out of my diet any day of the week and that is my right to a choice. Now, a clear fact here. What we have all been exposed to with this “pink slime” coverage is a classic example of media sensationalism aimed at ratings and not based on facts. I find it distasteful that you are also now using it to push you own agenda onto people. How about we supply the public with credible facts and let them make a educated choices. Onto the subject of ammonia hydroxide. The association of ammonia used as a sanitizing agent is very misleading. After the lean beef is separated from the high fat trimmings. Food grade ammonia gas, which is naturally occurring in many foods including beef, is used to slightly elevate the ph of the product. Elevating the ph of the beef creates an environment that is unfriendly to bacteria. So the intent here is truly food safety. The next thing we should be asking ourselves is, who’s going to suffer? Let’s assume that the general public does not wish to cut a potion of meat out of their diets anymore than I do. Well, simple economics will tell us we, as consumers, will pay more at the meat counter due to the lose of lean beef in the market place. I would encourage that we all do some research for ourselves and not buy into the media hype or personal agendas. A well informed consumer now has the tools to, and will, make good choices.

  2. That is a great proposal, which if anything is too conservative. I will confess that I grew up eating very little ground beef, so eliminating it from my diet is not a sacrifice for me at all, but we have cut our beef (and pork and chicken) consumption by about 50% and are enjoying the variety in our dinners! And it doesn’t mean I don’t eat meat, I just eat is as part of a dish instead of a chunk of it alone on the plate. I completely disagree with Tomc and suggest he is the one that needs clear facts. The good choices are to increase our vegetable and grain consumption, support local agriculture, and try to minimize our exposure to added chemicals in our food.

  3. @Ana, I respect your right to choose how much meat, vegetable, and grains you consume and when. That is your god given right. What I am simply advocating for is that we as individuals retain those rights.

  4. Give me a break about eating meat as your “right.” Its not YOUR right, nor it it anyone else’s to take a life to feed yourself when there are zillions of other options.
    If you were a caveman, yeah-you do what you have to do.
    If you ENJOY eating meat or cheetos, its your CHOICE. You do you think you are dude?
    Also – God gave you life, not the right to eat meat.

  5. Pingback: Ditching Meat One Day a Week: What, Exactly, Is the Reduced Risk of Mortality? | Center for a Livable Future

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