Home > Food, Internet, Media, News, Television > When Beef Isn’t Beef (But It Really Is) Everybody Loses or: ABC News Wikipedias “No True Scotsman”, Misses Point, Slanders Big Meat

When Beef Isn’t Beef (But It Really Is) Everybody Loses or: ABC News Wikipedias “No True Scotsman”, Misses Point, Slanders Big Meat

It’s a sad thing when I hear about the latest media shitstorm from Facebook.  About a week ago I noticed a couple posts about pink slime pop up in my feed.  These posts indicated that the ground beef I so love had been, for some time, contaminated by some other and disgusting product in a conspiracy by Big Beef to save money and screw me, the consumer.

Big Beef

I can only assume this is what Big Beef felt like when they realized they'd made us eat rat anus.

Terrified that I was now eating 65% oats and 35% rat anus, I pictured evil beef barons putting raccoon’s they found as roadkill and sewer rats into a grinder while cackling maniacally.  But Scott, I said to myself, you’re kind of a journalist now, what with your opinion blog, and you have a responsibility to be well-informed before you tell people how you feel.

Well, me, I’m right (surprise), and I decided that I should probably exert the minimum of effort before writing a scathing condemnation of Big Beef and at least read the Wikipedia entry for it.  It is, after all, what any major news outlet would do, right?

At this point, having read the whole article, I thought I must be missing something about the outrage.  This stuff is just beef that didn’t make the cut (haha! And my friends say I suck at puns.  Actually, I said that and they agreed, but now who is laughing?!) and was ground to be used that way.

Suddenly I found myself overcome by this strange feeling.  At first I couldn’t identify it, but then I realized what it was: I was ambivalent.  After hearing what little I had in regards to pink slime, I had no feelings on the issue.  This will not stand.

And so, encouraged to find some kernel of truth, plant it and let it sprout into a wonderful tree, I read about pink slime for hours.  And then, still unsure of how to feel, I read even more.  Eventually I hit a point where it felt like all I was reading was people saying the same thing in different ways.  I had found all the facts and now it was just opinion.

Now, I hate to let everyone down, especially with me being a liberal and all, but I’m going to stand up for Big Meat.   Seriously.

I guess you’ll want to know why.  Well, it’s simple.  Big Meat, specifically Beef Products Inc., was the victim of a vicious, well-planned smear campaign.  This campaign took the information and twisted it in such a way that there was no way anybody who saw the initial ABC News report could have walked away without hating BPI for their transgressions.

In the end, we all stand to lose.  BPI may lose its business, ABC News lost what little journalistic integrity it had (there wasn’t any to begin with, but I feel like now they’re in Fox News levels of integrity), and the consumers have been misled.  You can file the case of pink slime under B for “bullshit”, and you can stick it right next to other over-hyped public health scares that turned out to be bullshit, scares like living under the power lines.

What Is Beef?

Before I can even talk about the smear campaign, you have to understand where you have been lied to. I understand many of you will probably not be swayed by this post, but if you continue to do research you’ll find that there was no “case” here to begin with.

Anyway, one phrase you keep hearing is “100% beef” or “beef is beef”.  We keep hearing those words, but when it comes down to it what qualifies as beef is the heart of the matter.

Warning: contains beef and pink slime.

You can go to beefisbeef.com and see some of the myths  about pink slime.  As always, however, you have to be careful about your sources.  That site is run by BPI, so they obviously have a vested interest in it.  (Here’s a tip: their resource contains more truth in one sentence than the ABC News investigation in its entirety.)

Anyway, what qualifies as beef? What is beef, according to Webster’s Dictionary?  It is “the flesh of an adult domestic bovine (as a steer or cow) used as food”.  Okay.  But the dictionary definition doesn’t matter much, they don’t have anything to do with how food is labeled or defined.

That’s more the domain of, say, the UDSA. Those guys know their meat and where to put it, so what do they have to say about beef? The USDA defines beef as “meat from a full-grown cattle about 2 years old.”  Well shit, that’s basically the same thing as Webster’s definition.

Beef Cuts

Despite what this image shows, once killed cows do not separate into neat, colored shapes. It is quite messy.

Surprised?  Don’t be.  Beef is the meat from a cow.  There are varying grades of meat, cuts of meat and all of those other things, but the simple fact is this: for it to called beef it merely has to come from a cow.  It’s that simple. But then, I’m guessing you didn’t question that, did you?

What Is Pink Slime?

Alright.  Well beef is an easy one.  But all of the hype about pink slime portrays it like it’s not actual beef–that is, not the actual flesh of a cow.  Clearly they wouldn’t lie to us.  Big Beef are the ones foisting their low-grade slop onto us.

Not Pink Slime

This is NOT pink slime. This image, the top result for a Google Image search for "pink slime" is actually mechanically separated chicken. That's what's in your chicken nuggets. It may look nasty, but god damn if it isn't delicious.

What is pink slime?  Pink slime is the nickname given to “lean finely textured beef” or “boneless lean beef trimmings”.

As an aside, had the media used that name in its smear campaign I’d imagine there’d be less outrage.  After all, the name pink slime is pretty disgusting. The name pink slime comes from the description of one Dr. Gerald Zirnstein—a microbiologist who worked for the USDA in 2002.  In case that name sounds familiar: he’s the “whistle-blower” that informed ABC News about the issue.  Convenient that he happened to coin the disgusting name of the stuff, then happens to be on the news about it later.  Yeah, that’s not fucking suspicious, guy.

But anyway, pink slime is the result of a few things.  First, when they kill that about-to-be-delicious cow and start to cut it up for meat, there is a lot of stuff that doesn’t make it.  You cannot just cut the beef up according to the picture here and then have your cuts.  There are other things in there, and something has to become of them.

Some of the scraps aren’t usable because they come from near the surface of the skin or near various…orifices…of the cow that aren’t clean.  As such, they need to be, say, disinfected, before they could be served to people.  If only somebody could think of a way to use these scraps, you’d have to disinfect them to be safe for consumption, but then you could use every little bit.  That would save money and produce more meat.  Interesting…

Pink slime is, according to Wikipedia, “finely ground beef scraps, sinew, fat and connective tissue”.  These scraps are put into a centrifuge and heated, separating the fat from the good stuff.  It is then ground and run through a process where it is introduced to ammonia gas to kill off all those nasty food-borne illnesses.

Make no mistake, though, that pink slime all comes from a cow—making it all beef.  The process stated above was created by the food industry because otherwise those scraps I described had to be tossed out or used in other ways—such as dog food or cooking oil. (Interestingly, nobody would have an issue with eating cooking oil that is, in essence, partly pink slime.  But get that shit in your beef and it’s wrong?)

(Side note: read up on mechanically separated meat.  It’s in everything and it is goddamn disgusting.  Plus, Cracked has written an article with some interesting facts about the food we eat.  Hilariously, they covered pink slime well before ABC News.

Let me reiterate a point that you’ve heard: beef is beef, pink slime comes from cow meat, thus it is beef.  This point seems to be a contentious one and I simply do not understand why.

The Uproar

Angry mob.

We demand that our 100% beef product have labeling to indicate that it is two different kinds of 100% beef product in one package! Who's with me!

Most of the public attention drawn to pink slime came when ABC News aired a report that showed 70% of ground beef sold  in supermarkets has pink slime. Actually, they didn’t really so much show it as they did “state it without giving a source.”  From what I can tell there are two major arguments against pink slime.  The first argument is something along the lines of either “it’s disgusting” or “it’s not beef and the packaging is lying”.  The other argument surrounds supposedly dangerous chemicals said to be contained within pink slime.

I am, honestly, not even going to justify the uproar with an in-depth breakdown of what’s wrong with it. That is how stupid this outrage against Big Meat really is. Instead, I’ll sum it up with a couple convenient bullet points:

  • The defense BPI is mounting is hilarious in that it is so simple, so ingenious, but also so destined to fail.  Their retort to this mess: “Beef is beef.”  They do not feel they need to label anything because the meat going into your ground beef is, and has always been, beef.  I have never said beef so much in my life.
  • The argument that ammonium hydroxide should be labeled is moot, because it is a chemical used in the production process, not an ingredient.  The FDA monitors chemicals used for this purpose and compiles them into a convenient list of chemicals that may come into contact with food but that are safe for consumption.  See that list here. So yes, even the ammonia argument people are making is kind of pointless.  Ammonium hydroxide makes its way into so much of our food that to remove anything that has it would leave supermarket shelves empty.  Example products include jams, jellies, snack foods, baked goods, etc.

Let me put this another way: there has never been a case of illness in which the exclusion of pink slime would have prevented said illness.  Seriously. If anything our food is safer for it, since E. Coli is still a real problem and the rest of the meat that isn’t pink slime goes through no such disinfectant process.  While normally I would not suggest reading information from the company in question, the defense mounted by BPI is pretty free of propaganda, unlike the arguments against pink slime.  I’m looking at you, fucking Diane Sawyer.

The ABC News “Case”

The true story behind pink slime, the one that has seemed to get no attention at all, is the downright irresponsible and slanderous “investigation” by ABC News.  As I suggested, their investigation seems less like a journalistic foray into the seedy underbelly of Big Meat, and more like they had a slow news day and asked an intern (who happened to be reading Cracked.com) for an idea.

Within the first five seconds you have Diane Sawyer hilariously using the term “whistleblower” to describe their source for this investigation.  Let me make it clear off-the-bat that there was no whistle-blowing involved because there was nothing to report.  The inclusion of pink slime, while not highly publicized, was not hidden or discreet.  It is well within the standards of FDA and USDA regulations.  But this is their first step, and an intelligent one at that.  That said, just because the American public isn’t fully aware of something doesn’t make it a scandal.

South Park News Team

There is more subtlety in this picture than both ABC News reports on pink slime combined.

This “news” segment resembles less anything like journalism and looks more like the episode of South Park where the boys made a news show.  The tabloids were blushing when ABC News issued this report, realizing they’d finally been outdone.  If Diane Sawyer were implying any harder her head would have exploded, coating the screen in pink slime just to hammer home how disgusting we’re supposed to think it is.

Let me be even clearer here: ABC News did jack shit for research.  If they did, they then promptly ignored it in favor of sensationalizing this story.  For me, this issue took many hours research to really be able to write about. I did not slap this post together in ten minutes and call it a night.  Rather, I considered it a process.  First, I read as much as I could.  Second, I considered the sources of the information to take biases and agendas into account.  Third, I formulated an outlook on these events that seemed in line with fact. That is two more steps than ABC News did for this segment.

Instead of information, we’re provided a parade of us countless people who are quick to tell you how evil pink slime is, how it is not good for you and isn’t beef.  The parade pauses, briefly, so that we can learn about how pink slime is made. I’m honestly surprised they provided that slick animation of the process.  I wouldn’t have put it past them to show a picture of a cow shitting as they described the process, just to reinforce that pink slime is bad.

The video shows, numerous times, people saying they wouldn’t feed it to their children. This video is, in terms of composition, a masterpiece of propaganda.  We see someone wrist-deep in beef as the words “real beef” come up, and we get images of industrial factories when they use pink slime.  It’s a classic trick.  In fact, they use pink slime’s actual name all of once in the entire segment, and even then I feel like the volume was turned down and he mumbled it lest we call it anything other than pink slime.

LFTB

"You know, guys, Lean Finely Textured Beef just doesn't have the same slanderous ring to it as pink slime."

And what a powerful name that is.  Make no mistake, had they used its real name throughout the segment opinion may not have been swayed so easily.  I would argue that, out of a sense of journalistic integrity, they owed it to the viewers to use the real name, rather than pink slime, the entire time.  That word alone is propaganda.  Is it any coincidence that a disgusting term for this stuff was coined by a guy who decided to go on the news to get rid of it?  If your answer is anything but yes, you are tragically naive.

But I think, beyond everything, they portray the internal struggle at the USDA amazingly well–at least in terms of suiting their purpose.  ABC News would have us believe that this was a case of a higher-up corrupted by Big Meat versus the little guy, standing up for the consumer.  They link the move that the former undersecretary made from government service to working with the meat companies and imply corruption.  While they openly say that the move was legal before, they point out that ethical standards would not have allowed it now.  Make no mistake, dear readers, politicians that we put in office repeatedly have made far less ethically sound–but legal–moves and never been put under such scrutiny for it.

Now, I understand this was a short segment, coming in at just under three minutes, but ABC News spent more time painting this as a crisis and corruption than describing what pink slime is.   More of the video is devoted to people telling us how disgusting it is than people telling us what it is, and that is telling.  After all, any news outlet with the slightest hint of integrity would have made an effort to inform us of both sides of the topic.  Instead, ABC News opts to skip fairness and go right to the part where their ratings skyrocket because they manufactured a health crisis.

Then you get the follow-up video:

Having done their damage, ABC News continues in the trend of irresponsible reporting by opening up with an organic grocer talking about what his view of meat is.  Now, I may be a little crazy, but doesn’t it seem like an organic grocer would, you know, have an interest in portraying the stuff you get in the supermarket as being disgusting?  Isn’t that the kind of hidden agenda that the reporter should consider before just shoving the guy onscreen?

Beyond all that, what you’ll note is suspiciously absent from both reports is an opposing viewpoint: someone who wants to say that hey, guess what, meat is meat, beef is beef, and this stuff is both of those.

Nixon

That guy wouldn't lie about anything.

Oh wait, they totally did.  But in their fine tradition of journalistic excellence, they show Janet Riley, VP at the American Meat Institute, clearly pissed right the fuck off.  I cannot overstate how hilarious and disheartening their choice of that part of the conversation really is.  You see Ms. Riley, clearly upset, basically yelling at this reporter trying to get it through his thick skull that pink slime is fucking beef.

Short of drawing devil horns on her and implying that she is sexually promiscuous, I don’t know that ABC News could have done much more to paint her as the least credible person they’ve ever interviewed in the history of interviews.  They make her look worse than Richard Nixon, for christ sake.

The desperation and frustration on her face is clear.  To the average viewer it would look exactly like she had something to hide, or perhaps that her discomfort with the situation was a last-ditch effort to cover up the horrible truth of pink slime.

Instead, I have this image of the ABC reporter calling her and, for forty minutes, asking the same goddamn question: “Why aren’t you relabeling the meat?” in the hopes of eliciting from her the exact reaction we see in the video.  The editing on that part is pretty clear, when he is sitting in that sweet video conference room and then we cut to her, it’s a disjointed, jarring cut.  He did not pick up the phone and connect with Ms. Riley already that frustrated.  He provoked her.

It’s the frustration you’d feel if someone points to your dog and says “That’s a cat.”  You try to explain to him, repeatedly, that it’s a goddamn dog, but he won’t listen.  That, my friends, is exactly what Ms. Riley was trying to do to ABC News, but they just wouldn’t stop insisting that goddamn dog was really a cat.

Conclusion

There is so little actual information about this product, to say nothing of the debate, contained within the report that I would hesitate to use the word informative at all.  What ABC has shown us is a collection of interviews with people who are telling us what ABC wants us to think: this stuff is disgusting.  This stuff is not meat.  That dog is a cat.

Fox News

The gold standard of neutrality when compared to ABC News.

When you get down to it, that is what ABC News has done here.  They have managed to redefine beef.  They have taken beef and with all of the force they could muster said “that’s not beef.”   They have called a dog a cat and we, the American public, have bought it.

I don’t know that it surprises me that we did, either.  This is not some small-time news station, but a national outlet.  ABC clearly put their best and brightest behind this cluster-fuck of an investigation, and they produced a slick piece of propaganda.

Before I end this, I want remind everyone here that while Big Meat is portrayed as faceless and callous, and as being in bed with the government to pass off substandard product, there are faces behind this.  In the wake of ABC’s blatant display of journalistic slander BPI closed down three of its four planets.  Because of this report 650 employees of BPI are out of a job.  If production doesn’t resume soon, those 650 people will be permanently unemployed.

It is not their fault they worked for that company, nor should they suffer because of the media outrage.

And in case you are wondering, many of the BPI employees have come out in support for their employer.  I’m sure part of that motivation is to save their jobs, but from what I’ve read some of them just don’t seem to understand why BPI was targeted this way.  Beyond that, many of them have come out to say that they would, and do, eat product containing pink slime.   Amazingly, the news hasn’t bothered to tell us the story of the 650 plant workers out of a job because ABC got a hard-on for taking down Big Meat.  Instead, we hear about the heroic housewives who have saved their children from pink slime at school and supermarkets.  Bless you all, your quest is an honest and noble one.

ABC news has created the next “vaccine causes autism” scare. (By the way, if you believe that vaccines cause autism, I’m sorry.  Then again, if you believe that your children never stood much of a chance anyway–with or without a vaccine.)  They have instituted a full-on firestorm targeting pink slime, a firestorm based upon half-truths and misrepresented information.

But I think the final point is this: this product was cheap.  As a result, you can bet your Sweet Baby Ray’s that prices on ground beef and processed beef products are going up.  That is to say nothing of school districts who now have to replace all of their beef with different, more expensive beef because of the outrage.  While some may argue that it’s a small price to pay for better food, I ask you this: do you honestly think you can taste the difference?  The same burgers your mouth was watering over last summer are the same ones that you’re now deriding as unfit for consumption.

Oh, the winds of change.

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  1. April 20, 2012 at 7:03 pm

    Fantastic article, I commend you sir for helping to tell the truth about Lean Finely Textured Beef! That dog is NOT a cat!!!!

  2. April 20, 2012 at 8:14 pm

    I don’t remember telecommunicating with you, but I must have. In one article you have written what I have spent weeks trying to say since this hysteria hit the fan. Thank you

  3. April 20, 2012 at 10:08 pm

    Thank you guys for the comment. I do appreciate it, and the general visitation stats for the day support that this is still a hot topic (it’s my second most visited post).

    I’ve heard some feedback (not posted in comments) that this hysteria is just a free market at work. I’m firmly behind the idea of your money being your vote, and thus not using your money to support pink slime. The only thing is that I think Americans were misled through propaganda into making this decision, rather than arriving at it of their own volition.

    Nonetheless, I’ll be keeping an eye on the issue for any developments, and I sincerely hope that the 650 unemployed plant workers soon find themselves in less uncertain times.

  4. Tiffany
    April 21, 2012 at 3:10 am

    Thank you for taking the time to see both sides. I wrote this when the hysteria hit….

    Every person is allowed their opinion. Just as every person is allowed choice. That is part of being an American. But what happens when the word of one turns into the word of a few then quite a few and then the media gets involved, uses inaccurate or only bits and pieces of truth mixed with lies.  Well you get mass hysteria. People panic, they judge not on facts but well… On a tunnel visioned opinion. 3,000 people lose their jobs. Children (the same cute little faces you were trying to “protect”) go without health insurance, much needed medications, clothes and some times even food. 
    If you take 3,000 lost jobs and an average family has 2.5 children that is 7,500 children suffering because one persons opinion influenced a few, then quite a few and the media involved the nation. We are all allowed our opinion, we are all allowed choice but completely bringing down a company (which is not the only company that makes this product), demanding and petitioning that it’s product be banned, allowing hysteria to be spread across our nation, watching stores refuse to carry the product (denying people to choose that product if they wish), and refusing to open the tunneled vision and study the facts about the product you are against, makes me wonder. Do we really have a choice? Does our opinion even matter? In the case of the lunch tray and LFTB it seems the only opinion and choice that mattered was that of its founder and those she allowed. If you don’t like something don’t buy it. If you don’t want your childrens school lunch to have it, pack them a lunch or take it up with your school district. Why cause a nation already struggling with food supply and demand issues, a nation with the highest unemployment rates in history to get rid of a product that has been consumed for over 20 years, that is USDA approved, that is safe, nutritious and sustainable, that allows as much to be harvested from a cow as possible saving 1.5 million head of cattle each year? I think we should all step back become familiar  with the product and educate everyone on what it really is, no P****S****, LFTB. Because really the only reason the nation calls it that is because that’s what one person that turned into a few, that turned into quite a few, allowed the media to spread it to the nation and that’s all they know it by. So let’s say we stop the hysteria and educate each other and allow a company to make a product they have made for 20 years, allow supermarkets to sell the product and let people have an opinion and make their own choice.
    I am a mother of 4. My husband works for bpi. My 12 year old son suffers from severe depression and anxiety disorders. My son a child who was bullied for many years in school has attempted suicide 3 times, thankfully I found him in time to save him. With medication my son laughs, smiles and plays again. If bpi is forced to stop all production my husband looses his job, my four children will have no health insurance and we would not be able to afford my sons medications. I fear without his medication my son would try to take his life and if I was unable to save him, that I would be burying my baby at the age of 12. Why? Because one person turned into a few, then quite a few, that turned into media, then the nation and no one took the time to see both sides.
    Make an educated choice. My family thanks you for taking the time to see both sides.

  5. ted8910
    April 21, 2012 at 7:34 am

    This is a great! Finally, someone who understands! I would like nothing more than to shake the hand of the author! THANK-YOU!

  1. May 6, 2012 at 4:06 pm

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