Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Pushback II

It's Baaack!!! photo:

Beef Products Inc. has made a splash this past week. After the eating public decided that they didn't really want ammoniated "lean finely textured beef" in their food chain--yes, the "pink slime" issue--BPI's business took a punch to the face. After Jaime Oliver's piece on ammoniated beef ran on ABC, " the firm says that what it describes as unfair coverage caused its sales to drop by 80 per cent, forcing the closure of three of its four plants. Roughly 700 workers were laid off, and the company estimates that it is still losing $20m per month in revenue." (The Independent). So they're taking pretty much everyone who ever used the words "pink slime" to court, having filed a lawsuit asking $1.2 billion (US) in damages from ABC.

BPI's pink slime has been the subject of previous investigation. The New York Times ran a piece investigating the safety of "pink slime." Anthony Bourdain wrote about it. But it wasn't until the one two punch of this video

and the ABC news report

that the issue really caught the public's attention. As Marion Nestle says:
You have to hand it to BPI (Beef Products Inc), the producer of  “Lean Finely Textured Beef (LFTB)”—a.k.a. “pink slime.”  The company deserves a prize for chutzpah (translation: outrageous audacity).
It has just filed a defamation (“veggie libel”) lawsuit for $1.2 billion (!) against an amazing cast of characters:
  • ABC News (owned by Disney)
  • TV news anchor Diane Sawyer
  • ABC correspondent Jim Avila
  • ABC correspondent David Kerley
  • Gerald Zirnstein , former USDA employee who invented the term “pink slime”
  • Carl Custer, former USDA employee
  • Kit Foshee, whistleblower former BPI employee
Ms. Nestle refers to this being a "veggie libel" lawsuit. After Howard Lyman appeared on Oprah and talked about how beef is produced and handled in the US, Oprah said she doubted she'd "ever eat another burger." This had such impact that both Lyman and Oprah were taken to court for defaming beef. Since then, several states have passed "veggie libel" laws that make it a crime to "defame" industrial food products. Typically, these lawsuits fail because of the free speech provisions of the US constitution, but are seen as SLAPP suits; Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation. The risk, and associated expense, of being hit with one of these lawsuits tend to reduce public comment (particularly by individuals and small, local environmental groups), keeping corporate messaging from being called to account in public discussion.
Thankfully, Tom Philpott, over at Mother Jones, has found this interview with a Cargill spokesman in Food Navigator, and then points out:
Meanwhile, Cargill, the vast agribiz company, is quietly contemplating ramping up its own production of "lean, finely textured beef." A company spokesperson recently told the trade journal Food Navigator (registration required) that it had done focus groups on the stuff shortly after the media storm last spring, and found that concern over it was already "in consumers' rearview mirror and fading fast." The spokesperson added that some of its customers—big institutional buyers of ground beef—have expressed interest in buying pink slime again. Cargill is even prepared to start labeling products containing the elixir with the phrase, "includes finely textured beef," it told the trade journal.
Whereas BPI famously uses ammonia to kill the pathogens lurking in the meat scraps that go into pink slime, Cargill uses citric acid, Food Navigator reports. That strikes me as a bit more palatable than ammonia.

More palatable, yes. But not necessarily answering the questions about the actual safety of the product. BPI claimed that the ammoniated beef was conferring some anti- e. coli properties to the beef it was being mixed with. Which seemed to have some validity, but reports came back of the meat being refused because of smell and taste issues. The ammonia treatment was scaled back to deal with these problems, but no testing was pursued to see if the antibacterial properties had been compromised.
Cargill has produced a video about their production of finely textured ground beef.  It is available on their website, or you can have a look below.

you've gotta love the way these folk describe separating fat from beef scrap like "running a milk separator on the back porch" or describe the modern multi-million tonne beef processing line as being "just like my grandma's kitchen." but most of all I love the apocalyptic opening of the threat of global starvation being stopped by separating little bits of meat from fat. When in doubt, always frame the question as a problem to which you are the solution.  The other bit that gets me is the guy saying "the technology exists, so we should use it." Right. Just because we can, we have to. Not that its better. Not that it will improve life for the poorest on earth. No, the justification is that the tech exists, so we have to use it. I call bullshit on that one....

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