Meat is a nasty business, filled with blood, guts and, yes, shit. While there’s nothing in the U.S. today that matches the hellish conditions described in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle at the turn of the last century, there is no avoiding the fact that if we want to eat meat, we need to do things that are stomach-churning for the average person: kill things, cut them up, pack the pieces into containers and ship them out.
We’ve all done an excellent job of hiding this process from our daily lives. In the time we’ve moved out of the country and into cities and suburbs (in 1910, 72 percent of Americans lived in rural areas; in 2010, only 16 percent did), we’ve both literally and emotionally distanced ourselves from the provenance of our dinners. In her book on the history of meat production in the U.S., In Meat We Trust, Maureen Ogle notes that as early as 1870s, city dwellers were desperate to get the dirty business of the slaughterhouse off their cobblestone streets. And as cities became less industrialized and more “refined,” the sight and smell of slaughter became even less tolerable.
So we drove meat production into the hinterlands, in the process encouraging the growth of massive meat conglomerates that did much more than simply process: They grew, slaughtered, processed, shipped and marketed. To keep up with demand, they used all the resources they could marshall to become ever more efficient at these tasks. In 2010, weconsumed 34,156,000 metric tons of the stuff total. Per person, we average 270.7 pounds of meat per year, well above the world average of 102.5 pounds and second only to tiny Luxembourg.
All the while, we demand that meat stay good and cheap. “Meat is the culinary equivalent of gasoline,” writes Ogle, referring to the market’s inability to bend at all with regard to cost. “When meat’s price rises above a [vaguely defined] acceptable level, tempers flare and consumers blame rich farmers, richer corporations or government subsidy programs.”
This has led to the rise of factory farms, which are farms in name only—they have more in common with an electronics manufacturer than what the average American thinks of when he or she hears that particular F-word. “A lot of people like bacon and hamburgers and turkey,” says Michael Martin, director of communication at Cargill, the country’s second-largest meat producer. “But the reality is that in order to get that product, we have to harvest animals and disassemble them. And people don’t necessarily want to know all the details about how that’s done.”
Pink slime is one of those inconvenient little details. The much-maligned meat product was a masterful feat of food engineering—a means by which beef trimmings formerly tossed in the trash could be turned into hamburger patties. Because of its ability to deliver affordable ground beef efficiently to the masses, “lean finely textured beef,” or LFTB (the industry term for the stuff), became a ubiquitous part of the industry landscape. And because the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) said there was no need to put LFTB on the label, the public never knew it existed—until we found out. Then, the outrage.
The story was all over the Internet—always with the inflammatory term pink slime, and often accompanied by a provocative image of what looks something like strawberry soft-serve being poured into a cardboard box. Media (traditional and social) reproduced the photo repeatedly, crying out that this was no way for meat to look; even more damning, many argued that LFTB wasn’t beef at all but filler, maybe fit for dogs, but not much else. It later came out that the popular image was not of LFTB at all but a chicken-based product of unknown provenance. But the damage was done—the image is still being used incorrectly to illustrate pink slime today.
The hysteria spurred the kind of consumer outrage and grassroots “vote with your dollar” momentum of which Ralph Nader can only dream. But the reality is that pink slime is no more of a public health threat than most other pieces of animal flesh you can buy at your local A&P. That doesn’t mean there was no good done here: The pink slime story exposed a deep rift between the U.S. meat industry and the public, characterized by mistrust and deceit. The public realized it had been treated like children, told to trust that what was given to it was for the best. And in many ways we were innocent as toddlers: We didn’t have the tools to ask the questions that needed asking. Now we do, and the questions, of which there are legion, may be best summed up in one: What else might they be hiding?