The national outrage over chemically treated meat scraps dubbed “pink slime” and sold to unsuspecting consumers as ground beef started with a disapproving email written by a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) microbiologist to a colleague.
According to Reuters, in 2002 USDA food scientist Gerald Zimstein was assigned to a project analyzing ground beef products and what was being added to them. Mr. Zimstein was thus familiar with the Beef Industry’s efforts to get approval on a product it called “finely textured ground beef,” which is made by grinding connective tissue and other meat scrap products into a paste and treating it with ammonium hydroxide to kill the bacteria from fecal matter and other unsanitary substances it may contain. The pink paste is then blended with real ground beef to increase weight and volume.
Mr. Zimstein told Reuters he “was disgusted” that the USDA approved the use of pink slime for human consumption, and expressed his opinion to a coworker in an internal email. That 2002 email was the first time the words “pink slime” were used to described the product.
Through a sequence of events involving the New York Times, the Freedom of Information Act, celebrity chef and food activist Jamie Oliver, and various consumer groups, the words “pink slime” went viral and Americans learned that they had been buying and eating chemically processed beef scraps. The ensuing outrage caused a number of supermarkets and restaurants to stop using the product in its ground beef.
Additionally, Beef Products Inc., the maker of “pink slime,” suspended operations in all but one of its plants Monday, acknowledging the public outcry but defending its product as real beef.
Mr. Zimstein told Reuters that he never intended to blow the whistle on pink slime publicly, but that he’s glad nonetheless that the product has finally come to the public’s attention.
“Nobody did anything (about pink slime). USDA dropped the ball again. The meat industry soft-sold it,” Mr. Zirnstein, who no longer works for the USDA, told Reuters.
Meanwhile, the USDA insists that the product is safe for human consumption (the product is also used to make dog food). But is safety the only issue at hand? Not according to Mr. Zimstein.
“You look through the regulations and a lot of that stuff was never approved for hamburger. It was under the radar,” Mr. Zirnstein explained to Reuters. “It’s cheating. It’s economic fraud.”
Mr. Zimstein also told Reuters that he was uncomfortable being called a whistleblower, but knows he did nothing intentional to publicize pink slime. He also said that he does not allow his family to eat it. “The labels aren’t clear, so we don’t eat it. That’s the thing,” he told Reuters. “It isn’t freaking labeled.”