Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Pink Slime is a giant band-aid.

If you haven't heard of "pink slime" by now, you must be living under a rock.

Photo credit: Associated Press

But in case you just missed it, pink slime, which is otherwise known as lean finely textured beef, is just that. Pretty much. It's trimmings leftover from beef that is processed into other various cuts and consumer products. The trimmings are heated so that any fat leftover renders out and then it is treated with amonia gas to kill any nasty little bugs like e. Coli and salmonella. It's used as a filler in ground beef products or pressed into blocks and flash frozen. It's most widely used by schools in the School Lunch Program, mostly because of it's low cost.

After reading Mark Bittman's editorial piece for the NY Times, it dawned on me that pink slime is just a giant band-aid. That is essentially the point he is making. I encourage you to read it.

The pink slime scandal began when the public realized this product was being served to school children all the time. Outrage spread quickly via social media, and in the context of the burgeoning school food revolution. First, we learned that one of the makers of pink slime, Beef Products, Inc., had shuttered three of its four plants temporarily, at a cost of an estimated 650 jobs, when demand for its product fell off after the public outcry. Yesterday, it was reported that another maker, AFA Foods, has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy because of the negative media coverage surrounding its primary product.

However, Bittman's editoral points out that the number of e. Coli and salmonella-related illnesses have declined drastically since pink slime first made its debut 10 years ago. And, without pink slime, and additional 1.5 million cattle will need to be slaughtered annually to meet the demand for meat in pink slime's absence. Not to mention that it was a low cost way to put protein on the lunch trays of millions of school children in school districts that are woefully underfunded already.

If that's the case, then remind me again why pink slime was such a bad idea?

Before it starts to sound like I'm defending pink slime with the likes of Rick Perry and Terry Branstad, why not take a step back and look, like Bittman's editorial urges us to do, at why we even wound up using pink slime in the first place. How did it ever became normal and acceptable to take the leftover bits of meat and connective tissue, grind it up real fine and spray it with a toxic gas, and then feed it to humans?

People like Bittman and Michael Pollan have been saying it for years (and I've said it before here). We as a society need to eat less meat. I know a lot of people who feel the way that I do, but then there's always someone who thinks that the crunch granola tree huggers will have to pry their porterhouse steak out of their cold dead hands...

Hold up, there, Chet Ripley. Nobody said anything about giving up meat altogether.

I'm not a vegetarian. I like meat. I love pork almost as much as I love steak. But there are too many good reasons to eat less of it to ignore. For me.

The main reason for me is health. Diets with lots of meat are pretty much proven to bring with them a myriad of health problems, the scariest being cancer. Then, there's the cost. A guaranteed way to save money on food is to cut meat.

And, if those two aren't enough, there are the concerns about the safety of our meat. The very heart of the pink slime debate. It's been well documented that the FDA is ill-equiped to deal with the safety of our food supply.

I think that those reasons would resonate with anyone. But there's also both the animal welfare issue of meat-eating. I don't mean that it's wrong to kill an animal for food and we should all be vegans. Like I said, I like meat. I just like it to come from a place that didn't place a higher priority on their bottom line than an animal's well-being. And, there are is the environmental issue of raising lots of animals for food. Their waste poses countless threats to the surrounding environment and beyond. Ever heard of the Gulf of Mexico "Dead Zone?" The Gulf of Mexico is one of the largest fisheries in the United States.

A friend once asked me how I didn't miss eating meat, after I was talking about how great the vegetarian fajitas were at one of the Mexican restaurants we both like. That question really caught me off guard and I didn't know how to answer more than to just say "I don't know. I just don't."

I cook at home a lot. Now that the weather is nice, we'll be grilling at least one day a week whether it be steaks, fish or pork chops. And I usually cook a big breakfast on the weekend with bacon and eggs or sausage and biscuits. But I always try to have one meatless meal per week. When I eat out, I almost never order meat. Making soup is a great way to cut back on meat because using a little bit of bacon or some leftover ham goes a long way toward flavoring a whole pot of soup with just a slice or two of bacon or just a handful of leftover chopped ham. Food that is very high in fiber is also very filling, too. You won't miss the meat if you use beans in tacos or on nachos or in salads. It helps that I really like vegetables. And I can make a meal out of some fried green tomatoes and an ear of corn. Or some pasta with pesto and some fresh grape tomatoes.

When I do eat meat now, I enjoy it more than I used to. The taste and the texture. I'll never forget the first time I grilled a grass-fed steak. If that's not enough to make you stop eating regular steaks and never look back, I don't know what is. It tasted like a steak soaked in steak juice and rubbed down with steak-flavored seasoning and topped with steak gravy with a side of steak. Because its not economically feasible or practical for that matter to have grass-fed steaks every weekend, I don't. The size of my steaks are a lot smaller than they used to be. It's completely crazy to eat a 16 ounce steak. I don't even go as high as half that anymore. Just try eating a smaller steak next time you order or grill it. Fill up on the side dishes, especially if they're vegetables. See how easy it was to cut down on meat? I have hamburgers a handful of times per year. They always taste amazing to me, and I appreciate how enjoyable they are to eat.

I started out with a few little things, and now I don't even notice if I don't eat meat at a meal or all day long, for that matter. If we all stopped expecting to have meat on our plates at every meal, it would go a long way toward addressing how we ended up serving pink slime to school children to begin with. I'm not saying its the solution, but it never hurts to use less. In fact, I'll bet both your waistline and bottom line will both benefit.

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