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Pink slime, early death -- bad PR for beef

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There are many words that come to mind when you hear the words "pink slime" in reference to the beef product you are about to eat.

"Yummy" isn't among them.

And when you couple some of the headlines surrounding the unfolding pink-slime controversy in the United States with yet another study linking red meat consumption with premature death, you have to wonder if there is a PR machine big enough to fix what's broke with the beef industry.

Of course, "pink slime" isn't the industry's choice to describe a product that's been in our food supply for years but only recently making the news. That term emerged from media coverage of someone's discovery the product was winding up in U.S. school lunch programs, coverage the meat industry rather poetically describes as a smear campaign.

The American Meat Institute calls this product "boneless lean beef trimmings (BLBT)" and goes on to say it is "a safe, wholesome and nutritious form of beef that is made by separating lean beef from fat."

Essentially, it's made from what's left of the fatty carcass tissue after the choice cuts of meat are separated from the bone.

These trimmings are processed through a centrifuge, which separates the fat from the remaining bits of beef. "It's a process similar to separating cream from milk," an AMI statement says.

But it's often contaminated with bacteria and E. coli, so it's treated with a puff of ammonium hydroxide gas to kill all the bad stuff, "all done under the watchful eye of USDA inspectors and according to strict federal rules." U.S. hamburger producers make about 362 million kilograms of it a year for blending into processed beef products.

"The beef industry is proud to efficiently produce as much lean meat as possible from the cattle we raise," the AMI says.

"It's the right thing to do and it ensures that our products remain as affordable as we can make them while helping to feed America and the world," the AMI says.

That's all well and good, except that until this process was developed, the product was something butchers paid to have hauled away or was turned into pet food.

Last June, a segment of celebrity chef Jamie Oliver's television series, also available on YouTube, dubbed the trimmings as "all the bits no one wants" and demonstrated the process in a butcher shop using a washing machine and a jug of household ammonia before a group of horrified onlookers.

And lest anyone accused him of being a rabid vegetarian, he paraded a live heifer before his audience painted according to where all the choice bits of beef are located. Like most people, Oliver likes eating meat.

"I haven't got anything against burgers; I eat them and I love them," Oliver told the cameras. "The problem I have is with what's inside them."

His conclusion was, don't eat ground beef products unless you can watch the butcher grinding them.

News recently emerged that three million kg of the stuff would be allowed into USDA school lunch programs. Consumer outrage has prompted the largest U.S. food retailers -- Kroger Co., Safeway and Supervalu as well as McDonald's Corp. -- to say they won't be buying any of it.

Have boneless lean beef trimmings been unfairly maligned? After all, these products are lean, safe and affordable, if somewhat prone to unappetizing labels. Truth be told, a lot of us wouldn't eat hotdogs either if we watched them being made.

But this debacle brings to the fore a whole host of reasons why meat needs to be repositioned away from being a dietary mainstay to becoming an occasional treat similar to that glass of wine or cocktail people are told they can enjoy a few times a week. Instead of being the enemy, chefs could be a real asset in that.

The pink-slime controversy coincides with a new study that says every extra serving of processed and unprocessed red meat we eat increases our chances of premature death by 12 per cent.

"Red meat and especially processed red meat contains a lot of compounds and chemicals that have been linked to chronic disease risk," said Frank Hu, at the Harvard School of Public Health and one of the study leaders.

"What's surprising is the magnitude... Even a small amount of red meat is associated with a significantly increased risk of mortality."

It's a dilemma for an industry built on efficiency and increasing the kilograms produced per dollar spent at all costs.

It would seem the first step would be to stop adding to the list of reasons why consumers might keep right on walking as they reach the red meat counter. Maybe some efficiencies simply aren't worth it.

Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator. She can be reached at 792-4382 or by email: laura@fbcpublishing.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 24, 2012 $sourceSection0

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