‘Pink Slime’ Maker Cuts Back Production. Is That a Good Thing?

Faced with dropping sales, the maker of so-called pink slime decides to suspend operations at three plants.

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Beef Products Inc. / AP

In this undated image released by Beef Products Inc., boneless lean beef trimmings are shown before packaging.

The South Dakota-based company that manufactures so-called pink slime, the ammonia-treated beef filler that has recently stirred up so much bile from the public, announced it is suspending operations at three of its four plants that pump out the product, due to falling sales.

The decision came after consumers, parents, school administrators and national personalities like celebrity chef Jamie Oliver took to social media to protest the fact that the low-fat filler is included in foods without any indication on the label. Products that contain pink slime include fresh retail ground beef, low-fat hot dogs, lunch meats, pepperoni, meatballs, frozen entrees and canned foods.

Last year, McDonald’s and other fast food purveyors said they would stop using ammonia-treated beef. Recently the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) allowed school districts to opt out of using meat containing the filler for school lunches, after an online petition drew hundreds of thousands of signatures in support. Many national grocery chains, including Wegmans, Kroger, Food Lion and Stop & Shop, have also starting phasing out ammonia-treated beef from store shelves.

MORE: ‘Pink Slime’ in School Lunches: Is It Really that Bad?

The name “pink slime” caught on after various media reports referenced an email from a former USDA microbiologist who referred to the filler that way. For those in the industry, pink slime is better known as “lean finely textured beef,” or LFTB, a low-fat filler used to bulk up processed meats.

What is LFTB exactly? Scientific American describes it:

Connective tissue, trimmings, and scraps from industrial butcher plants are mixed in a large steel reactor, where technicians heat the mixture to 100F, initiating tissue lysis — fats and oils begin to rise up, while thicker bits like protein sink. After a spin on the centrifuge to separate these components, lean, squishy pink goo emerges. Ammonium hydroxide — ammonia dissolved partially in water — sterilizes the resulting mass against microbes such as E. coli or Salmonella. … Once extruded, the “slime” can be blended into hamburger, hot dogs, and other products, or frozen into pellets for shipping and storage.

The product sounds icky, but its safety is another matter. Even critics of the stuff would probably agree that despite the fact that the government has allowed it in food since the 1990s without labeling, it’s not exactly harmful — certainly no worse for you than chicken nuggets or turkey and pork sausage — as long as it’s properly treated to kill any potentially disease-causing bacteria.

MORE: Recipe for Food Safety

LFTB’s maker, Beef Products Inc., said it would rebuild its business strategy and try to combat widespread misconceptions about its product. “We feel like when people can start to understand the truth and reality then our business will come back,” Craig Letch, director of food quality and assurance at Beef Products Inc. told the Associated Press. “It’s 100 percent beef.”

That may be, but the company’s bound to have a tough time wooing back the hundreds of thousands of consumers who have already decided pink slime is too unappetizing to tolerate. For now it seems consumers might have their way, but one has to wonder, with pink slime off the production line, what additive will take its place?

Alice Park is a writer at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @aliceparkny. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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