When my boyfriend was a kid, his dad was constantly accusing him of wasting meat. “You’re done? But you could make a sandwich out of that!” he’d exclaim, before snatching the chicken wing and picking it clean. Now no matter how much meat either of us suck off a bone, we always accuse the other of having enough left for another meal. Sometimes, we may be right.
By all accounts, America is a wasteful country, especially when it comes to food. The EPA put our food waste at about 34 million tons for 2010, less than 3% of which was recovered and recycled. Globally, about one third of food goes to waste, and much of this rots in landfills and spews methane gas into the air. For many of us, this waste is avoidable, but inconvenient to change. It’s difficult to compost unless you have a backyard (or want to schlep all the way to the farmer’s market, ugh).
Sometimes you buy fresh produce for the week only to have it go bad when you get invited out for dinner instead of staying home and making those kale chips. Sometimes the idea of eating the same turkey and cheddar sandwiches for lunch for the whole week is unbearable, “forcing” you to ditch the leftover cold cuts and buy yourself a burger.
Which brings me to slime, particularly of the pink and white varieties. You’re probably already aware of Pink Slime, or by its more pleasant name, “Lean Finely Textured Beef” consisting of ground up fat and connective tissue left on cow carcasses. Then you have White Slime, which is made by scraping even more meat off the bones. Finally there is something called “Advanced Meat Recovery,” (which is definitely not what Freegans are trying to call what they do these days) a process in which, “a machine removes edible tissue from beef and pork bones,” which I guess gets even more meat off these bones than the White Slime. Do read all about it.
Beef Products Inc., the company that started producing the slime, probably did not have noble intentions of minimizing waste when it came up with the idea. It was allegedly, “interested in expanding its business by using fatty beef trimmings that normally would go to waste or to pet food.” (Not that we should be feeding our pets ammonia-laced or E. coli contaminated meat either.)
Much of the outrage surrounding the Pink Slime controversy focuses on the visceral; you watch the videos of this stuff being churned out and think “gross, I would never put that in my body!” Fun stuff like ammonia hydroxide is added to the meat, as White Slime was labeled unfit for human consumption out of fear that spinal tissue could get in there and carry Mad Cow disease.
Make no mistake, this is not how we should be producing and consuming food. Being grossed out is pretty much the right reaction. However, that is the fault of the way meat is being produced. I worry that many are mistaking an aversion to the additives and the conditions in which this meat is made with an aversion to the meat itself.
Congresswoman Chellie Pingree of Maine said of the slime, “It's wrong to feed children a slurry that was formerly only used for dog food.” This just highlights our system of meat production that leaves room for unhealthy “dog grade” meat, but it also shows an unfortunately distant opinion of how meat works.
In America, and many other first world countries, we have good meat and bad meat. Chicken breast? Good. Chicken Feet? Bad. Beef steak? Good. Goat? Weird. Pork chop? Good. Pig heart? Gross. Sure, some of these notions are challenged in America’s immigrant communities and artisanal, hipster enclaves, but the public face of American food still follows these rules.
Which, naturally, leads to waste. Where my grandma would be fighting for the chicken gizzards, today none of my friends regularly use them. Day-old meat sauce is immediately cause for suspicion, tossed along with expired milk even though we all have refrigerators for a reason. I’d be willing to bet at least half of America’s roasted chicken carcasses are thrown away instead of being boiled into stock. Then again, I’m sure if someone told my grandma -- who grew up eating squirrel pie on a farm in Virginia -- that someday she could buy pre-packaged chicken breast and ground sirloin in a sterile supermarket right next to the milk and the bread, she wouldn’t be complaining.
I’m sure it’s the same reason you don’t hear many complaints when supermarkets and fast food chains come to traditionally impoverished areas: no one wants to scrimp and save every morsel of food, terrified of anything going to waste. What freedom to eat more than just lentils and rice! What joy to throw out old cheese, not worrying that there will be no way to replace it. How great to get to be a part of the modern workplace, knowing you don’t have to spend your time tending gardens and slaughtering animals in order to feed your family.
The problem is that there's a price to such abundance, which is mass-produced, ammonia-treated meat that can easily carry E. coli because of the conditions and means of slaughter. Yes, we have more freedoms elsewhere, but should this really be the consequence? There must be a middle ground.
It would be great if instead of all this slurry, Big Meat would just make a bunch of beef stock and then we’d have soup to serve for hundreds more people, but that’s not going to happen any time soon. The change has to come from our side, possibly with an acceptance that we don’t have to eat meat every day for every meal. Even if that’s too much to ask, If we are killing these animals at this rate, the least we can do is not throw half of them away before they even hit the butcher counter.
The pink slime debacle is an opportunity to make a few choices about how we eat. It’s an opportunity to get our meat ground at the butcher instead of buying pre-packaged stuff with no labels, but it’s also an opportunity to re-evaluate what and how we consume. Maybe buy and eat a whole chicken, gizzards and all, instead of just the breast meat. Try walking that extra mile to compost. And for god’s sake are you really going to throw that rib out? You could make a sandwich out of that!