Health Concerns

The Complete History of the Life and Crimes of Pink Slime

It's the end of an era.
It’s the end of an era. Photo: Francois Nascimbeni/Getty Images

Pink slime — the fusion of ammonia and fit-for-dogs beef scraps — might be the latest cause among good-food crusaders, but it’s been around for a while. Today, Food Safety News drops a comprehensive 30-year timeline that reveals the history behind lean beef trimmings: the long relationship with BPI, the stuff’s celebrity inventor, and the strident defenders of all things pink and/or slimy.

According to the story, the first major milestones in the life of the slime occurred in the seventies, first when technology was introduced that could freeze meat in just two minutes, and two years later, when ammonia hydroxide was labeled safe for consumption by the FDA.

In 1981, Eldon Roth, the same guy who invented meat’s quick-freeze method, founded Beef Products, Inc., expanding to two plants over the next eleven years. In 1993, Roth first saw pink slime get its ticket punched, with approval coming from the USDA for the process that removes fat from beef scraps using a centrifuge process. Since the only other time we commonly hear the word “centrifuge” used is to describe some sort of horrible nuclear disaster scenario, maybe that would have been the time to check these guys and their crazy experiments with beef.

But no. Over the next ten years, Roth and his company were mostly involved in trying to make meat safer, given ongoing outbreaks of E. coli. Their methods increasingly involved spraying ammonia gas at the reformatted beef scraps, a process approved for sale and marketing to the public in 2001. The ammonia addition would later become a point of much contention for anyone standing against pink slime and indeed, the next year, future whistle-blower Gerald Zirnstein toured a BPI plant and in a magic moment, coined the term “pink slime” in emails that question the stuff.

During these upstart nineties, there were warning signs for the beef, like the time officials in Georgia returned 7,000 pounds of the stuff after noticing a 60-pound block of it intended for prisoners reeked of ammonia. (Being barred from prison should have early indicator to McDonald’s and Taco Bell, who eventually used the stuff, but alas.)

Despite sporadic salmonella and E. coli scares involving BPI and the poisoning death of a colleague from an ammonia leak, George Bush Jr.’s mid-aughts America ushered in a boom time for BPI and pink slime, as school officials allowed more of the stuff into students’ hamburgers and the International Association of Food Protection awarded the growing company’s efforts.

Cracks in slime’s security really appeared in 2008, when Oscar-winning doc Food Inc. hit theaters, while The New York Times upturned BPI’s past to question whether its weirdo beef is something we actually want to eat. From that point on, pink slime went under fire, with Jamie Oliver and Diane Sawyer giving it hard to BPI, leading to the now-famous petition that helped dissolve the dominance of pink slime, and an avalanche of businesses, from fast-food outlets to public schools, turning their backs on the “beef.”

Which basically brings us up to date, 30-plus years since the groundwork was laid for pink slime’s invasion, with most Americans now aware of, and disgusted by, the slime and multiple plants closing down due to a decreased demand. We’d love to say the story ends there on a happy note, but well, then there’s the whole arsenic-chicken thing to deal with, along with such future variables as Mitt Romney’s relationship to regulation, Texan lobbyists, and the beef industry to consider.

BPI and ‘Pink Slime’: A Timeline [FSN]

The Complete History of the Life and Crimes of Pink Slime