As widely reported (and covered by The Society Pages’ Sociological Images), it took less than two months after an ABC News report about the use of “pink slime” in grocery store beef for manufacturer Beef Products Incorporated to close three of its plants. The industry came under intense scrutiny about this “lean finely texture beef” (LFTB) being used as an additive in 70% of ground beef in the U.S. Critics have pointed out that the product is in our school lunches, while defenders, including a bipartisan group of politicians and high ranking members of the USDA, have claimed the ammonia-treated bricks of beef product are actually safer and contain less fat than “normal” ground beef. They’ve suggested Americans are being misled by a smear campaign and a widely circulated image of what is actually “mechanically separated chicken,” Pepto-Bismol pink and oozing from industrial machinery.
In this roundtable we ask experts on the production and consumption of food to weigh in onthe public outcry and the larger lessons we might learn about the American meat industry, so many decades after Upton Sinclair.
First, we wondered, why has there been such a vocal reaction to pink slime—and why now? Marion Nestle, author of Food Politics, brought up the power of language and discourse, a “yuck” theme echoed by UC Santa Cruz’s Julie Guthman, the University of Minnesota’s Valentine Cadieux, and Michael Bell, author of Farming For Us All.
Nestle: Think [about the] power of the food movement and social media. This recent episode was kick-started by a school food advocate who wrote a letter to the USDA and collected signatures—more than 200,000 by the time it was over. That got press attention, and the company [Beef Products Incorporated] got defensive. Just the name “pink slime” poses a huge public relations problem.
Guthman: There is little doubt that the vocal reaction to LFTB is due to the “yuck” factor. When people learn about what goes on in much of industrial food production, especially involving livestock, they understandably become grossed out. Not all pay attention because they would rather not know, or choose to believe that the food industry must be sufficiently regulated to prevent harm. But when they do, the knowledge is unsettling.
Cadieux: I think that the dramatic nature of this processed beef trimmings incident has illustrated some unfortunate aspects of the way that contemporary engagements with food reform are structured by disgust and fear. The incendiary tone of both “pink slime” denunciations and defenses, for example, suggest a whole realm of desire to change or improve food that exhibits very strong compulsion to fix things and yet also seems to point to the way that this fixing may be inhibited by the way people repress their concerns about food. This tension seems really important.
On one hand, by connecting the dots between the use of antimicrobial agents, more efficient use of beef, and potential risks, say, of dangerous strains of e. coli (that have already received a lot of media attention in relation to “finishing” beef cattle in feedlots), the LFTB controversy opens a window into a larger and more systemic view of the food system—one that vindicates concerns that have been building …and suspicions that are often voiced about …the “sinister side” of the modern food system. On the other hand, both the dramatic reaction and the inflammatory nature of the press coverage seem to successfully dampen people’s systemic concerns… McDonald’s washing its hands of pink slime, for example, makes it seem like a problem that’s been solved… It also plays into people’s desire to trust the system (since they’re stuck eating in it anyway, to a large degree)…
I have to say, I was really frustrated by [chef and TV personality] Jamie Oliver’s segment about pink slime, and I think it’s a good example for trying to figure out how people who appear to be putting a lot of work into organizing food system reform may end up undermining food improvement efforts. Using the same methods he used in his attempt to gross kids out by showing them how chicken nuggets are made, Oliver tries to gross people out by using the sheer icky-ness of waste parts of meat… But this superficial dramatization not only plays right into good arguments about using food more efficiently (Is chicken connective tissue really that bad? It’s such an icon of healthy soup…), it also is incredibly dismissive both to the many actual reasons one might be concerned about the problems with meat production (e.g., labor conditions, animal welfare, or unhealthy ecological impacts) and also to the substantive ways people are working to fix these problems (e.g., more meaningful and transparent regulation, mechanisms for food industry accountability, or reducing the vulnerabilities of food producers and consumers that pressure them to use such problematic methods).
Bell: The tongue doesn’t have eyes and ears, and yet the visual and social cues of food are central to taste. So the images we have about food and the ideas we hear about food shouldn’t matter to taste and our sense of delight or disgust over what enters our mouths. But, of course, the tongue, the eyes, and the ears are all connected to that dim organ within the head that the cognitive scientist’s instruments find flashing with occasional light. Take a vibrant image about our food that comes from a social cue that so many of us trust, like ABC news, and one of those occasional lights flashes. All of which indicates that much of what the tongue tastes is culture. …Despite the growing power of so-called “social media,” the pink slime story shows, alas, that television remains social media supreme in our culture.
We went on to ask these scholars whether they were surprised by any of the reactions from the public or politicians. All seemed to see the story “play out” precisely as they would have predicted.Nestle: Everyone behaved exactly as expected. The meat industry argued that the product is safe… Consumer groups… said even if it was safe, it was most definitely not acceptable. The government back-tracked and is offering choice and labeling. Congress complained.
Guthman: Not really. At least some of the public is becoming increasingly suspicious of industrial food production. The problem is that rather than calling for more regulatory scrutiny… and the reduction of processes that are inhumane or of questionable safety, they turn to the apparent alternatives in the local, organic, small, and artisan-produced. Many food scares have been a huge boost to the alternative food system, and it appears that this one may be, as well. So, I am not surprised, but frustrated, that there is not a greater political effort to reform the industrial food system, [only to] build the alternatives, to which not everyone has access or interest.
Cadieux: Even though I am not exactly surprised by the superficial engagement with the systemic issues that the LFTB controversy flagged, I have been disappointed by the repeated failures to build a more meaningful conversation around these issues. Every time I heard a frustrated, snappy reaction to the “pink slime” critique that pointed out the disparity between the high levels of disgust being leveled at LFTB and the low level …of evidence pointing to its harmfulness, I’ll admit that some optimistic part of me was hoping that there would be a follow-up along the lines of, “However much we may not think lean beef trimmings are necessarily something to be this upset about, we do recognize that people experience a lot of fear and disgust in relation to the modern industrial food system, and why is that?”
Bell: Although I agree with my good colleagues that there wasn’t much [surprise], I did delight in one happy aspect of the storyline: the courageous government scientist Gerald Zirnstein versus the corrupt political appointee Joann Smith. …As corrupt as our politics increasingly are, we are still blessed with a relatively bribe-free civil service… How about a movie here, Hollywood? Call it “Gerald Zirnstein.” It worked for “Erin Brockovich”!
Taking a wider view, we asked our experts what “pink slime” and the public disgust and discussion surrounding it illustrates about consumption and the American food industry. Marion Nestle was succinct on this point:
Nestle: It strongly suggests the need for transparency about where foods and ingredients come from and how they are made.
Our other panelists elaborated along similar lines:
Bell: What does it tell us about the food industry? That most of us are too busy with the various details of our lives to pay close attention …to our own health and that of our communities and the land. That is true of all of us… I can’t read all the labels and know all the studies ([let alone know] what studies haven’t yet been done but should be). I know more about these matters than most… but that’s what I am paid to pay attention to. There’s a ton I don’t know, especially about matters of concern outside of my professional specialization. [In a way, transparency only] increases the volume of what I could know but I probably never will.
So what do we do? Form relations of trust …networks of individuals we can turn to, generally shaped strongly by class, social heritage, gender, locality, and other dimensions of our social location …and to the generalized trust we invest in institutions, logos, and cultural stories. “Pink slime” for a moment shocked us—maybe we shouldn’t be so trusting. Yet what was scariest of all was not that there is pink slime in our meat. Rather, it was that we cannot safely ignore the basis of our relations of trust about what is safe to ignore. Still, ignore we must. The temptation to soon forget pink slime is huge.Guthman: It illustrates that we should be much more concerned with how food is produced than with the current concern about how much we eat (here I refer to the so-called obesity epidemic). ….It is striking that one of the key factors by which LFTB is defended is that the process of heating up the various meat scraps and by-products separates the fat from the usable protein, thus rendering a lower fat, “healthier” product. Yet, ammonia gas is being used to treat this “meat” because it comes from parts of the cow more prone e.coli contamination—and the ammonia itself could do other damage to human health. [Plus], the reason e.coli is so present is owed both to grain-fed diets that upset cattle guts (as Michael Pollan has written about) and the fast line speeds in slaughterhouses that encourage cross-contamination (as Eric Schlosser has written about). In other words, the reason e.coli is a problem in the first place stems from the industrialization of livestock.
[Another overlooked point is that] the hormones regularly given to beef up cattle are analogs to DES, a synthetic estrogen that [has been linked in humans to] infertility and gonadal cancers and [in animals] to obesity. ….My point is two-fold: conventional food production often involves processes that are quite deleterious to health that do not necessarily manifest as fat, and what is making us fat may not be all about the calories and fat in what we eat.
Cadieux: There does seem to be something profoundly illustrative of the U.S. food complex in our failure to incorporate into public discussion… how what is wrong with meat is symbolized by our need to disinfect (purify) it, without having to specify or prioritize precisely what needs to be fixed. The way that LFTP coverage has focused so much on the disgust itself, without explicitly exploring why disgust might be so prevalent, seems to be a central way that the issues opened up by the “pink slime” reaction are quickly closed again. Especially against the backdrop of so many people tossing around food system memes of Michael Pollan’s, the amount of excitation that pink slime motivated seemed like it might offer people a more detailed view into the challenging realm of changes that need to be made. I’ve just spent a term reading Julie Guthman’s new book Weighing In with colleagues and students, and I was hoping all this disgust around pink slime would be an opportunity for the kind of “problem opening” that she does really nicely.
However, what I think we’ve seen instead is a retreat from acknowledging complexity in the food system and a reinforcement of more categorical, black-and-white ways to try to make food better: no pink slime (for some venues) or no cages (for pigs or chickens for some fast food chains), not “more regulatory and inspection oversight to make sure the food system reflects publically negotiated values” or other, greyer changes… potentially less satisfying (not a categorical win all at once), but also potentially more meaningful (especially to the degree that they keep problems open to continuing change, rather than letting everyone breathe a sigh of relief, [then] go back to ignoring the problems and not being disgusted).
Valentine Cadieux also brought us back to Julie Guthman’s earlier point about the enshrining of “locavores,” artisan foods, farmers’ markets and the like:Cadieux: Letting people relieve their disgust with industrial food by buying expensive artisanal food is not an adequate basis for reforming a food system. Figuring out what makes food better and what food system changes to prioritize requires more than making sure that your butcher grinds your hamburger before your eyes, and even more than making sure you know the farmer that beef came from. Food problems are not going to be fixed by blinding ourselves to the complexity of the food system or by assuaging disgust by aestheticizing food retail facades or by feeling so good about farmers’ markets (wonderful as they are) so that we can turn off critical faculties and hope we’re adequately redeemed while we rush through the rest of our more guilt-provoking grocery shopping.
In the cases of contamination scares, like recent ones surrounding peanut butter and spinach, sales of those products dropped precipitously. We wondered, will people change their eating habits in the wake of pink slime?
Nestle: I suspect many people will stop eating hamburger for a while.
Bell: While there is huge temptation to go back to one’s established relations of trust about what is safe to ignore, this is also the kind of moment when someone might happen upon an alternative network of trust and maybe give a closer listen… And who knows, maybe they’ll find out where to buy pasture-raised beef and decide to trust that the farmer in the farmer’s market hasn’t done something poisonous, rather than trusting that the supermarket and everyone and everything behind it hasn’t.
Guthman: Sure. After Michael Pollan wrote the New York Times’ “Power Steer” on the hazards of corn-feed beef, many turned to grass fed beef, and the market has grown for pasture-raised pork and chicken too. My concern is that the alternatives to which many consumers turn are costly—and that is by design. The way these alternatives work, organics being the prime example, is that producers who care to meet the standards for a particular alternative label and get inspected and certified by a third party agency are rewarded with a price premium for the efforts. This voluntary form of regulation allows producers who “do good” to be rewarded by consumers willing to pay more, but it leaves the rest of the food system unconscionably under-regulated—agribusiness can produce food as nutritionally debased and toxic as it can get away with. Alternative ways of production also cost more than “conventional methods” because the yields per acre of land are much lower. Pasture raised cattle take up more land, and cattle produced without antibiotics and hormones do not grow as big. What I am suggesting is that the sole focus on alternatives as a way to escape the problems of the food system have contributed to the bifurcation of the food system: high quality, healthy food for the few; cheap, standardized, and nutritionally debilitated food for the masses.
Cadieux was more cautious about long-term changes in eating habits in the U.S., but hopeful that scholars would begin to look more deeply at food around the world:
Cadieux: …I’ve been reading some suggestions recently that U.S. consumers may already have reached “peak meat,” with per capita meat consumption declining in the past several years. Whether this reflects a trend that will continue or not, the more interesting question might be how the larger systemic issues reflected in the LFTP controversy play out in patterns of meat consumption elsewhere. As a social scientist, I would like to see U.S. agri-food scholars open up to understanding how “the world” is already being fed (even acknowledging those many parts that are hungry) via systems so complex many of us can’t even imagine them (and instead imagine much of the world as waiting to be fed by our modern improvements…). Especially as other places with strong agro-ecological and food cultures face the problems that come with and from modern capitalist food production, I would like to see us paying particular attention to conditions that help people find ways to address systemic problems, not just close off awareness of those problems.
Finally, we asked our panel whether this might be the year in which we see better regulation—not just in financial markets, but in our food production, as well.
Nestle: I don’t expect regulatory changes. This is an election year.
Guthman: That would be great, but thus far regulators have taken the side of industry. But that does not mean that public action isn’t effective. Already, the public outcry over LFTB has caused to major supermarket chains, Walmart and Kroger, to stop selling hamburger containing it. One major processor has idled three plants and another has filed for bankruptcy. (Don’t be persuaded by [counter-arguments about] the loss of jobs—there are plenty of jobs to be had in more sustainable forms of meat production). … [E]ven when public action does not lead to more regulations, sometimes the campaigns for more regulation scare the corporations producing the questionable stuff. This is a very important message for those interested in food activism. It’s not just enough to change your own consumption habits, but it is possible to have an impact on conventional food production through hard-fought campaigns.
Cadieux: Much scholarship on improving food focuses on more transparency in food chains and giving more purchase to what values are represented there—but for that purchase to be meaningful (through regulatory, consumer, or direct action of food producers and others), I see the need for changes in the knowledge culture around food. Current interest in food seems promising, but what I hope we learn from pink slime is how to move beyond quick fixes for disgust to more sustained knowledge linked to actions to make food less disgusting.Bell: In the end, I guess this depends in part on what one means by “regulation.” To put it another way, it depends upon regulation by whom. Much of the regulation of food now takes place in the various corporate codes of best practices radiating throughout the food industry, often putting smaller players at a huge disadvantage as they struggle to keep up with the documentation associated with protecting the next bigger player up the food chain to the consumer. I think Marion is right that there will be little action on the part of state-led regulation, and that Julie is also right that there will be, and has been, an immediate reaction on the part of corporate-led regulation. The unfortunate result will in part be to give those next bigger players bigger whips to control how and what we eat. I hope Valentine is right that, more fortunately, the result will also be to motivate a few more folks toward collective action toward food we can eat not with disgust, but with gusto.
Kyle Green is in the sociology program at the University of Minnesota. He is the author, with Doug Hartmann, of “Politics and Sport: Strange, Secret Bedfellows.”