Before 2012, the makeup of ground beef was a bit of a don't-ask, don't-tell situation. But that year, ABC News ran a series of stories on lean, finely textured beef - the industry term for pink slime - and the process by which a South Dakota plant called Beef Products Inc. added it to ground beef to lower its fat content. This month, ABC has been taken to trial in a multibillion dollar lawsuit by the plant arguing that the story was defamatory.
The story certainly crushed sales. Beef Products Inc. says that it not only lost $1.9bn in the wake of the news coverage, but that it was forced to close three of its four plants and had to lay off some 700 workers.
I’ll leave it to the jury to determine whether or not the ABC story was fake news. But the truth about pink slime is that, despite its unappetizing name, it’s entirely safe to eat. More than that, it is an affordable source of lean meat for low-income Americans, and stigmatizing it hurts people who rely on it for protein.
What seemed to scare consumers the most about pink slime — which ABC claimed was used in 70 percent of ground beef sold in American supermarkets — was that the lean beef trimmings were treated with ammonia. That sounds scary, but is actually perfectly safe. Ammonia is used to kill harmful bacteria that exists in the meat, but is present in such tiny quantities that it is not harmful to consume. The United States Department of Agriculture affirmed as much in a letter back in 2012, a few weeks after the ABC story aired. Indeed, Chips Ahoy cookies and Velveeta cheese contain similar ammonium compounds, like ammonium phosphate, as does Wonder Bread.
Timely, incisive articles delivered directly to your inbox.