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Fire up the grill: Pink slime burgers are back

Charlotte Hilton Andersen is the author of the book The Great Fitness Experiment: One Year of Trying Everything and runs the popular health and fitness website of the same name, where she tries out a new workout every month, specializing...

But was pink slime meat ever really dangerous?

It was one of the first viral videos: Who can forget all the news footage of machines spewing slimy "meat" that was a pink just shy of neon? I still remember watching it and fervently wishing I was still a vegetarian. Yet was it ever really as awful as we were led to believe?

Just in time for grilling season — pink slime meat is making a comeback.

Back in 2012, there was widespread panic when YouTube and news stations played footage of the meat byproduct being produced. Consumers demanded it be gone and within just months of the story airing, sales were down 80 percent, several factories were closed and thousands of employees lost their jobs. Several major grocery chains refused to carry anything containing the stuff.

But the panic was overblown, says the meat industry. According to Cargill, one of the largest manufacturers of lean finely textured beef (what it's really called), "pink slime" is 100 percent lean beef trimmings treated with citric acid to kill bacteria. It's the citric acid — a natural acid found in many fruits like lemons and oranges — that gives the stuff its characteristic nauseating pink shade.

Meat producers maintain that the trimmings were held to the same USDA standards as the rest of the beef and that citric acid is a natural preservative used in everything from yogurt to candy to organic granola bars. While it might have been unappetizing, food producers say it was never unsafe and the public was never in any danger. Indeed, one manufacturer filed a defamation suit against ABC News saying that it maliciously and willfully misled the public about the safety of it.

Which might be good news considering that rising food prices have been yet another casualty of the recession. Have you bought meat lately? Did you nearly pass out from sticker shock too? Beef prices alone have doubled in the past four years with no end to the increase in sight.

So suddenly lean finely textured beef isn't looking so bad anymore. I mean, hey, that almost sounds gourmet right? It's lean. It's textured. It's... still pink slime. But once it's cooked it all looks brown, right? With six mouths to feed, including three pre-teen boys who eat like grown men (but still throw tantrums like children), I may have to get over that lingering visual image reminiscent of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. And I'm not the only one rethinking the food budget as Cargill says sales of the beef byproduct are rising quickly.

However, if you still want to stay on the safe side, experts say it's easy to avoid. Stay away from processed foods containing meat like pasta sauce, lasagna and pre-made hamburgers. You can also purchase cuts of beef from a butcher and ask them to grind them into ground beef while you wait.

What's your take on pink slime? Do you avoid it? Don't care? Become a vegetarian?

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