The Fall and Rise of Pink Slime and Faster Meat Packing Lines

Many people have forgotten about the 2012 “pink slime” scandal in which beef scraped from animals’ skeletal muscle at processing plants was extruded through tubes (looking like spaghetti or intestines) and treated with ammonia to kill bacteria. Few knew that pink slime was in 70 percent of US ground meat, unlabeled. (A US Department of Agriculture microbiologist had claimed the product was not even ground beef at all but connective tissue.)[i]

Eating Pink Slime

A series of exposes by ABC News in 2012 about pink slime, officially known as “lean finely textured beef” (LFTB), provoked such national revulsion that the product’s primary producer, Beef Products Inc. (BPI), lost contracts with 72 customers, closed three of its four plants and laid off 700 workers, almost overnight. Cattle futures on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange hit a low.[ii]

pink slime big food big pharma big lies. book cover by Martha Rosenberg.
Pink Slime – Big Food Big Pharma Big Lies book cover by Martha Rosenberg.

E. Coli And Ammonia

There were two shockers – first that ammonia was in human food, unlabeled, and secondly that bacteria were so entrenched in slaughterhouses, especially E. coli, that it was necessary. The public was especially outraged over the revelation that pink slime was in school lunches – that kids were unwittingly eating it. Once that news was out, 47 out of 50 states declined to purchase any of the product for the 2012-2013 school year. A quarter of a million people signed a Change.org petition to ban the product in school lunches and the USDA quickly told schools that relied on the government for ground beef, they could choose beef without the pink slime.[iii]

After such swift responses, you would think pink slime would have vanished from the food landscape but the opposite has occurred. In 2018 the Food Safety And Inspection Service (FSIS), part of the USDA, reclassified pink slime as “ground beef” and it now can legally constitute up to 15 percent of ground beef![iv]

It has not gone away – it has been assimilated.

Pink Slime Returns

Meanwhile, Beef Products Inc. (BPI), the main pink slime producer, sued ABC News for “false, misleading and defamatory statements” and “product and food disparagement” and in 2017 the suit was given a green light because BPI was ruled a “public figure.”[v] BPI actually prevailed and reached a settlement with ABC out of court for the alleged disparagement which was rumored to be as high $177 million.[vi]

How Fast Should Slaughter Lines Go?

There is a natural antipathy between private meat companies and federal inspectors who can stop their slaughter line, production, operations and intrude on their bottom line. In interviews, inspectors report being ignored, laughed at and openly defied by meat operations and not supported by their own local and national offices. One FSIS inspector was so bullied at a slaughterhouse, a FSIS employee who knew her told me, she took her own life.

Private meat companies’ desire to “self-police” is especially playing out over new inspection systems, such as the New Swine Inspection System (NSIS) and New Poultry Inspection System (NPIS) which have the effect of speeding up the slaughter lines. For example, under the existing poultry system, the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point-Based Inspection Models Project or HIMP, the number of birds slaughtered a minute is 140 birds but under NPIS it is 175. NPIS is a pilot system, requiring slaughterhouses to procure a waiver and is only in use at 53 chicken plants so far.

Speed Kills

Still, in March of 2022, 26 groups of poultry worker representatives, worker rights advocates, occupational safety experts, animal right advocates, consumer rights advocates, and public and community health organizations wrote the administrators at the FSIS and Office of Food Safety at the USDA objecting to the new faster kills speeds on the basis of worker safety, food safety and animal welfare.

Union Lawsuit

The new Swine Inspection System (NSIS), called the Modernization of Swine Slaughter Inspection rule, added to the Federal Register in 2018, has also received blowback. More than 6,500 hog plant workers, members of the United Food and Commercial Workers union International [UFCW] and its Locals filed a lawsuit to stop the new system in 2019 which also increases slaughter line speeds.

Unsafe

Marc Perrone, then international president of the UFCW, said faster line speeds would mean more worker injuries and food that is less safe. “We urge the USDA to hear their voices and rewrite this rule so that the people who work in pork plants and the millions they serve can all be kept safe,” he said.

While the public may not know or care about the speed at which pigs and chickens for their meals are killed, the issue represents a growing face-off between meat producers and government about the future regulation of meat.

UPDATE: November 2023 – “Big Meat” won this round; the issue is in the book’s epilogue. [Reuters News ]

This is an excerpt from the just published expose, Big Food, Big Pharma, Big Lies.

[i] Wikipedia, “Pink Slime,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pink_slime

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

Martha Rosenberg

Martha Rosenberg is the Investigative Health Correspondent for NewsBlaze. Martha illustrates many of her stories with relevant cartoons. She was staff cartoonist at Evanston Roundtable.