Bettina Siegel, from the school lunch blog The Lunch Tray, started a petition on March 6th to get “pink slime” removed from school cafeterias across the country.

Pink slime?   In an artful linguistic twist, the USDA calls it “lean, finely textured beef,” but, considering what it is, I personally like the stomach-turning ring of the former. The product derives from trimmings of fat and connective tissue that are scraped from a cow’s carcass, cooked down to a slime to remove unwanted fat, treated with ammonium hydroxide to eradicate pathogens, then pressed into blocks and frozen for storage and shipment.

With our gag reflex in full reactive mode, we ask, “Shipment where”?  “For what”!?  Meat processors use this slime as a cheap filler for ground meat with the oh-so-comforting assurance that it comprises no more than 15% of any single serving. What’s the going rate for slime, I wonder?  Do we pay less per pound of ground meat for that 15% filler?  Of course not.  That’s the point; with the addition of slime, the meat industry gets more (profit) for less (meat).  We get goop.

Pretty slippery, don’t you think?

Aside from the obvious gross-out factor, what are the concerns here?  Since the meat trimmings are taken from the outside of the carcass, they’re more likely to carry pathogens such as E. coli and salmonella. Why?  Well, in industrialized feedlots and slaughterhouses where things happen fast and furious, cow shit doesn’t always stay where it belongs.  When you collect these feces-ridden trimmings together and add them to ground beef, you concentrate them and their little bacteria friends, increasing the likelihood of food contamination.

Got lethal pathogens? No problem.  Enter ammonium hydroxide: a gas intended to kill any unwelcome bacterial guests.  A quick puff of this stuff (a staple in every kitchen!), and, voila! you have disinfected, shitty, school-cafeteria-ready pink slime.

Since her initial post on slime, Siegel has posted almost daily updates, tracking developments and citing further reading. Debate circulates about safety, nutrition, profit, labeling, and most especially, the use of slime in school lunches, but all of that only circumnavigates the big fat bovine in the room: industrialized food and the distance it puts between us and what we eat.  It’s too big for real oversight, too big for real control, too big for real transparency.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist, let alone a meat executive to figure out that no one wants to eat meat labeled “85% beef, 15% stewed ammonia-treated sinew.”   Knowing this, executives at Beef Products, Inc., together with officials from the USDA, decided to simply label the product “beef.”  They didn’t blink an eye because they don’t have to look us in the eye.

In response to public outcry, they assure us that the trimmings are free of pathogens; the ammonium hydroxide is sprayed in FDA-approved levels; the slime is nutritious because it’s lean; the meat is safe.  Blah. Blah. Blah. They don’t get it.  Would you ever clean meat scraps off your kitchen floor, simmer them, treat them with an ammonia gas, and serve them to your guests?  I say we can eliminate pink slime just on the premise that it’s disgusting.  As for safety, it’s probably “safe” for me to pop an earthworm in my mouth, swirl it around a bit, and then swallow it.  That doesn’t mean it’s OK for some food executive to sneak a few bloodsuckers into my macaroni for bulk and call it “naturally enriched.” Consumers deserve the opportunity to make educated choices about what they eat.

Given that over 240,000 people have signed Siegel’s petition to remove slime from school lunches, I think a lot of people agree:  safe or not, we don’t want to eat pink slime.  So far, Siegel’s efforts have paid off as late last week, the USDA agreed to let schools opt out of purchasing ground meat containing pink slime. That’s a step in the right direction, but with slime in 70% of supermarket ground meat, eradication won’t come easily.  And with so many layers between the consumer and the producer, from feedlot to slaughter, to processing, distribution, preparation, and retail, how can we hope to know what the food industry will do next?  What will happen to all those trimmed bits of profit potential?  Perhaps producers could let them ripen for a while then surreptitiously reintroduce them as green goo: an aged, tender, and lean, green meat pâté.  Too bad they missed St. Patrick’s Day for that roll out.

In the meantime, I will avoid the whole slippery mess by continuing to serve my family meat I’ve purchased directly from a local farmer, minus the slime, the goo, and the poo. If you can find a real farmer, you might consider that too!

Note:  If you want to know more, click here for a one-stop-shop with news, video, and the pink slime petition.