Pink slime a learning opportunity for Canada

Trust issues The furor over the beef additive comes at a time when 
consumers are leery of industry and government

Reading Time: 3 minutes

The pink slime controversy is poised to become an infamous part of our cultural food lexicon — it’s gone viral and unfortunately, it’s given the beef industry another black eye.

Pink slime refers to lean finely textured beef, or LFTB, an additive used as filler in ground beef. In fact, it really is still beef. LFTB harvests the bits of meat left on trimmings and fat by separating the two using heat in a centrifuge. Afterward, the product is treated with food-grade citrus acid, compressed into bricks, and frozen for shipment to processors who mix it with ground beef.

Until a former USDA microbiologist blew the whistle on the practice, the public was largely unaware that this filler could comprise as much as 15 per cent of their ground beef. The USDA still considered the product meat, with no need for any special labelling.

The reaction in the U.S. has been swift and visceral. McDonald’s won’t touch the stuff.

Most in the industry would agree that while it may be pink, and it may appear slimy, LFTB is still meat — technically. But if most of us were honest, we would admit that given the choice, we’d pass on the pink slime and take the 100 per cent fresh ground beef option.

The American public was never given that choice and that’s why they are angry. Astoundingly, the U.S. beef industry seems incapable of recognizing this. Instead of offering an apology, they’re trying to pummel the public with scientific facts showing the LFTB is safe. Meanwhile, hundreds of workers have been laid off at Beef Products Incorporated plants where LFTB was made.

Detached from consumers

In Canada, we need to watch this very closely, even though we don’t use LFTB. Perhaps more importantly, we are bearing witness to how incredibly detached the American beef business is from its end-users. If we’re smart, we’ll learn from their mistakes. If we’re complacent, we’ll repeat them.

Food industry analysts have taken notice of the fiasco because it signifies a paradigm shift. The consumer force has finally been roused from its discount slumber, and it is not in a good mood.

In 2008 and 2009, two national U.S. newspapers served the LFTB story to readers and nothing happened. So what’s changed? Nothing — at least not overnight. What we’re seeing now is the inevitable explosion when widespread mistrust and consumer disconnection reach critical mass.

We’ve come to expect jittery consumers in Asia, in part because of China’s poor record with food safety. But North Americans have been nothing less than stoic when it comes to food — as long as it was provided cheaply and easily.

Two factors have helped create this perfect storm of consumer cynicism — climate change and the financial meltdown of 2008. Global warming really began hitting the public radar in the mid-’90s. Conservative think-tanks, funded by a private sector afraid of expensive climate regulations, went into overdrive to discount the evidence, and the issue became intensely political. It culminated into a war on science, which to this day calls into question the processes and even motivations of the world’s smartest minds.

In 2008, the U.S. economic system ruptured after years of systematic financial deregulation that spawned the subprime housing crisis. Adding insult to injury, taxpayers had to bail out the very corporations that the government had failed to protect them from.

Americans have learned the hard way not to trust their government to protect them from a predatory corporate world, so when pink slime hit the news again in 2012, the public noticed. So what if the USDA and industry researchers say LFTB is safe?

Psychologically, Canadian consumers aren’t in the same bad place right now as our American counterparts, but we easily could be. It’s imperative we carve out a different, higher road before we run out of eyes we can afford to have blackened.

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