By now you have probably heard of “finely textured beef” or at least its more popular name, “pink slime,” which has been in our ground beef for years, and recently brought to public attention. In fact, unless you have only consumed organic ground beef, you have probably ingested it. J.M. Hirsch did a great job describing where it comes from and how it tastes compared to “unadulterated” beef in his story yesterday. Many large grocery retailers are quick to announce that they will no longer sell ground beef containing this filler. This will be challenging given that ABC News also reported that 70% of ground beef at supermarkets currently contains pink slime.
The challenge for shoppers now, is that there is almost no way to know from the packaging if this filler is in the beef you are buying. Because it is made from scraps of other cuts of beef, USDA does not require separate labeling. Starting this fall, schools will have the knowledge and choice of whether to serve ground beef with or without scraps treated with ammonium hydroxide. Some school districts are already announcing their plans to eliminate it from school lunches and fast-food restaurants are also making the move.
While the debate on whether or not it is safe continues, there is another debate on the transparency of our food labeling and regulation needed to protect consumers, or at least inform them. Sometimes what you don’t know won’t hurt you, but it may gross you out. For me it was when my older sister pulling back the curtain on Oz and telling me about her part time job at McDonald’s. Being a pre-teen at the time, it really wasn’t until Super Size Me that I gave up fast food, with the exception of the occasional road trip pit stop.
This debate is not new. We have seen some labeling transparency slowly added, like Country of Origin Labeling on seafood, meat and produce. In other instances, like with the term “All-Natural,” only minimal definition from USDA has allowed for some products to make all-natural claims despite having artificial hormones or being genetically modified. GMO labeling is also very loose. Connecticut is trying to establish its own requirements for GMO foods, but many feel that the federal government should be setting standards nationally. Like this latest controversy, the government and industry tell us its safe, and it very well may be, but for many it is a matter of freedom of choice.
It has been over 100 years since Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle exposed dubious practices by the meat packing industry leading to the Pure Food and Drug Act and Meat Inspection Act. As consumers become increasingly aware of how their food is raised and where it comes from, they will demand more transparency. Retailers with nothing to hide are happy to offer details about the food they sell. For those who continue to count on an uneducated or uninterested customer, they may be looking ahead to a sticky situation.