Beef is as American as apple pie.
So, in essence, argues Alex Loud below. But high-quality beef is not a dinner — or a school lunch — option for many Americans due to price. This leads us to the crux of the issue behind the so-called “pink slime” controversy.
Slow Food Boston
In my last post I alluded briefly to the battle over Pink Slime (or “LFTB” for Lean Finely Textured Beef, if you’re inclined to be precise). I want to say a bit more about it now. The debate over the stuff — if you can call it a debate — has in the last few months taken on that farcical you-couldn’t-make-this-crap-up quality that typifies much of our public discourse these days.
By way of a recap, the anti-Slime movement began with a call from celebrity chef Jamie Oliver to label LFTB as an ingredient in foods (it’s currently considered ground beef). From this, the Pink Slime story was picked up by the blogosphere, which then gave way to the involvement of the network news shows. It’s at this point — perhaps not surprisingly — that everything went batsh*t crazy.
In less than two months we’ve seen competing websites, news stories, experts, scientists, government officials and celebrities all spouting wildly divergent views. LFTB maker AFA has filed for bankruptcy while the company that invented the stuff, Beef Products Inc., has shuttered three plants, laying off thousands of workers. The Governor of Iowa has even demanded a Congressional investigation into the slandering of the Slime (not into the safety or nutritional content of LFTB, mind you, but who’s been saying mean things about it).
The anti-Slimers are now doing a victory lap, while the pro-Slime crowd has wrapped itself in the sad story of a munificent and selfless industry being sullied by a bunch of hairy media hippies. Indeed, this Bloomberg story has such an aw-shucks, Rockwellian quality to it that it could bring a tear to a less jaundiced eye.**
Not surprisingly, the truth is somewhat more complex than either side cares to present it. Why does Pink Slime/LFTB exist? The answer is simple: it’s cheap. In the modern high-speed slaughterhouse, a lot of protein goes to waste in the form of trimmings. In the past this was rendered to make things like pet food. Pink Slime/LFTB simply captures that waste and processes it into an ostensibly-edible conglomerate product, not all that far removed from the McRib.
In his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan identified America’s “mountain” of cheap corn as being the seminal fuel that enables the existence of a great deal of other products, mostly via the route of high fructose corn syrup. Pink Slime is analogous to this. Places like Taco Bell and McDonald’s and many supermarkets until last year used LFTB to make their “beef products” cheaper to produce.
Why is this important? Because cattle prices have outstripped income in this country by almost 3 to 1 since 1970. Live cattle that cost about $40 in the mid-1970s today cost around $115. Wages for the majority of the people in this country, however, have stagnated over the past 40 years when inflation is taken into account. Don’t believe me? The good folks at The Economist — hardly a bunch of patchouli-stinkin’ leftists — pointed this out last year.
Faced with rising input prices but little consumer tolerance for higher Happy Meal prices, what’s the executive of a fast food chain to do? LFTB, of course. So long as the government doesn’t require you to label LFTB as anything other than beef, everybody’s happy. Consumers continue to be able to afford “hamburgers,” and margins don’t suffer too much.
In this way, the LFTB burger offers an illusion of sorts — a myth. And that myth is important. This, after all, is America. We eat beef. Beef is part and parcel of the American soul. Think about it: cowboys, cattle drives, the open range, the Chicago stockyards, Rawhide and even the Big Mac have held sway over our collective imagination for generations. Beef was the food of aspiration, the food of wealth. What was unattainable in the old world became attainable and fashionable in the new world. You can see the same phenomenon in Asia today, where beef consumption is rapidly increasing as millions of people make their way into the global middle class for the first time.
The irony of the Pink Slime fight is that the industry did everything it could to perpetuate this mythology of beef. Folks my age will remember the “Beef, It’s What’s for Dinner” ads from 20 years ago. Scored with Aaron Copeland’s utterly American “Hoe Down,” the ads feature images of healthy families dining on beef in the most stolid circumstances: there are cast-iron frying pans and porch dinners and grilled T-bones as big as a Frisbee.
And this, of course, is where the public relations problem lies. The LFTB industry insists that “Beef is Beef.” (They even gave their website this awkward name, leaving one to wonder what website names they didn’t choose. Did they perhaps consider BeefIsBeefSoShutTheHellUpAndEatIt.com?). After years of soaking beef deeply in the stuff of dreams, the industry now seems surprised that the image of spinning cow meat into a sort of bloody Jello would turn people off.
The deeper problem, however, remains that of income — or, more accurately, resource — inequality. Not everybody in this country is eating LFTB. The folks ordering the $150 Waygu filets from Snake River Farm, it’s reasonable to assume, are not eating Pink Slime on a regular basis. For those people who are instead regular LFTB consumers, the question needs to be asked: what now? If you’re regularly buying beef patties at WalMart and overnight the price goes up by 50%, what do you do? Put the mini-carrots back? Buy less milk?
The same dilemma is faced by school lunch programs. Most school districts require their lunch programs to be self-sustaining in terms of revenue. For every dollar they put out buying chicken or broccoli or hamburgers, they have to raise a dollar. Typically, this takes the form of concessions and vending machines. Although Massachusetts has regulated what types of foods can be sold in schools, the Federal Government so far has tread lightly around this. If the cost of buying more expensive ground beef is offset by selling more chips, sports drinks and Slim Jims, what’s the benefit?
Understand, please, that I’m not defending Pink Slime/LFTB as an ingredient. But I am saying it exists for a reason. It exists because serious food inequality exists in this country. It exists because participation in the National School Lunch Program has increased by more than one million students in the past four years, while the percentage of students receiving free or reduced price lunches has reached all-time highs. Simply yanking it out of the food system without so much as an inkling of what to replace it with just tightens one more screw on those people who can least afford it — both in terms of money and calories.
To his credit, Jamie Oliver, the initiator of the whole Pink Slime hubbub, has routinely addressed issues of food inequality in his TV programs. However, I fear that all the hyperventilating around Pink Slime now threatens the bigger discussion this country needs to have. Pink Slime is not the problem. Pink Slime is a symptom, a warning sign that something is seriously wrong in our food system and our economy. The question now is whether or not anyone can hear that warning over all the noise?
** The Bloomberg article uses turns of phrase to remain both factually correct and thoroughly glowing. For example, the first sentence in the second section reads: “BPI’s predicament is unusual because it wasn’t precipitated by an outbreak of food-borne illness, and its product has never been directly linked to one.” True, the company’s product has never been linked to an outbreak, but that’s because Federal inspectors stopped shipments on four separate occasions after discovering E.coli (3) and Salmonella (1). You can find a far more balanced review of both the highs and lows of the LFTB industry in this timeline on Food Safety News.