Thursday, April 5, 2012

Reporting on the pink slime scam

If the consequences of an action, especially the use of technology, are unknown but are judged by some scientists to have a high risk of being negative from an ethical point of view, then it is better not to carry out the action rather than risk the uncertain, but possibly very negative, consequences. –

Sounds great, doesn’t it? Rather like the physicians Hippocratic Oath, which states in essence, “first, do no harm.”

Like many statements that sound superficially good and noble, a simple review of unintended consequences shows that the world is not as simple as the sloganeers make it out to be.

Here’s an example: “If it would save the life of one child it would be worth it.” In general, we understand that by “it,” the sloganeer is talking about banning some object, product or activity.

If a child chases a ball into the street and is struck and killed by an automobile, then according to the precautionary principle, the consequences of future child/automobile interactions are unknown, but are clearly risky, and therefore it is ethically imperative to ban automobiles.

Now to the, er, meat of my argument.

Last week The Business Farmer published two stories on the so-called “pink slime” ground beef product. The first, under the by-line of The Nebraska Farmers Union, argued that, a) 70 percent of ground beef is pink slime, b) pink slime consists of waste beef trimmings formerly only used for pet food and cooking oil, c) pink slime is treated with ammonia to make it safe to eat, d) that pink slime is not fresh ground beef but a cheap “waste product” additive, and e) that the USDA official who signed off on introducing the processing technique sometime in the late 1980’s wouldn’t be allowed to serve in the same capacity under today’s ethics rules.

Readers unfamiliar with food production – which includes probably 95 percent or more of Americans – could to some extent be excused for concluding that the pink slime story exposed an awful crime being perpetrated against American consumers; that greedy corporate beef processors are adding rotting meat sprayed with deadly ammonia to their ground beef products.

Clearly, if there ever was a cause to employ the precautionary principle, this one is it, right? No scientist in his or her right mind could say that there’s no risk involved in selling rotted, ammonia-tainted ground beef to consumers.

Of course, the Nebraska Farmers Union message, as usual, was long on propaganda and woefully short on facts.

As the Business Farmer’s second story on the subject showed, “pink slime” is in fact lean, finely textured beef (LFTB). It is in fact made from beef trimmings, which when passed through a centrifuge, allow lean beef to be separated from the fat. The trimmings in question are fresh, and come from the excess fat trimmed from steaks and roasts, which always include a significant quantity of lean meat. Prior to the introduction of the centrifuge processing, it was physically and economically impossible to recapture lean meat from trimmings. Recapturing this lean meat actually increases the lean meat yield of each carcass and therefore reduces the cost of ground beef.

Because ground beef has a larger surface area than intact cuts such as steaks and roasts, it carries a greater risk of contamination to the naturally occurring pathogens present in the slaughtered cattle and in the processing facility. Because of this, ammonium hydroxide is added to the LFTB, raising the pH of the product and killing or slowing microbial growth. In the quantities used to treat the product, ammonium hydroxide is completely safe for human consumption. Similar chemicals such as salt, potassium chloride, and smoke have been used for centuries to treat and cure other meat products such as corned beef, bacon and ham.

As to the alleged ethics violations of the then- Undersecretary of Agriculture, this was a simple red-herring introduced to the Nebraska Farmers Union propaganda piece.

Hysterical anti-ag propaganda serves no good purpose. At best it raises unfounded consumer concerns; at worst it raises consumer doubt about the veracity of published news. One can imagine consumers becoming accustomed to ignoring “scare stories” to the point that they also ignore factual stories at their great peril.

That ideologically based propaganda makes it to the news page and onto television, radio and internet is a function of the First Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibits the government from abridging free speech. This is a wonderful thing. But with every enumerated right comes a non-enumerated corollary – the responsibility of reason and skepticism that every man and woman must exercise to enjoy the full measure of their natural liberty.

Hats off to the Business Farmer for openly and honestly printing both sides of the story. The New York Times didn’t do so, and neither did ABC, CBS, or NBC.

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