Factory food doesn’t stand a chance against consumers wielding their forks—and their wallets—for good.
Joseph Kony isn’t the only menace activists made famous this month. Thank America’s food warriors for boosting the signal on “pink slime,” the unappetizing meat scraps that are treated with ammonia and added to about 70 percent of American ground beef.
“Pink slime” is the repulsive industrial food product du jour, but it’s actually been a staple of beef production for years. The slimy additive, also known as “lean, finely textured beef,” is good for beef producers because it cuts back on waste and saves about 3 cents per pound of meat.
But suddenly, pink slime’s bad PR is poised to kill the goo’s use entirely. In the past few weeks, this meat additive popped up in hundreds of headlines. Hundreds of thousands of people signed online petitions pushing for a ban on the stuff. Several restaurant chains, grocery stores, and school districts committed to ditch pink slime-containing beef. Anti-pink-slime propaganda has been steadily oozing its way across the nation, and along the way, it’s provided a lesson on how consumers can wield their power to effectively reform America’s industrial food system.
Pink slime went viral thanks to a revolting name, a celebrity activist, and a think-of-the-children angle. The takedown kicked off in January when McDonald’s, at famed chef Jamie Oliver’s urging, voluntarily eliminated pink slime-loaded beef from its supply chain. Burger King and Taco Bell followed suit. But the real outcry began after activists traced the slime to the mouths of kids—a report showed that pink slime regularly appears in USDA-approved school lunch meat. The media churned out stories, food bloggers vilified the slime, online petitions to the USDA went viral, and concerned parents flooded their school districts with phone calls.
It worked. Kroger, Safeway, Stop & Shop, Wegman’s, Albertsons, and other national grocery stores vowed to stop selling ammonia-treated beef. The USDA announced that schools could opt out of receiving meat treated with ammonia, and several school districts stopped serving beef entirely until pink slime-free meat becomes more widely available. In the most significant move yet, pink slime’s producer, Beef Products Inc., announced yesterday that it is suspending production of the stuff at three of its four plants.
Obviously, government regulation is one of the best ways to protect consumers from dangerous substances. Food producers often resist change without firm, enforceable, and punishable rules from Uncle Sam, especially when reform requires cutting into their bottom lines. And the USDA hasn’t gone so far as to ban beef producers from using pink slime, or mandate listing the additive as an ingredient. But maybe it doesn't have to. With more and more grocers, restaurant chains and school districts voluntarily ditching ammonia-treated beef, an “official” outlawing might not actually be necessary to rid pink slime from the food supply. I’ve been awestruck at how quickly and effectively the national consumer base mobilized to eliminate this questionable, ubiquitous food additive.
Let pink slime guide the way. Let's start referring to Red 40 as “ADHD Red,” and Yellow 5 and 6 as “Cancer Yellow.” Jamie Oliver should ride his recent activist success to shine a light on the major problems associated with antibiotic use in the food industry, the same way he did with pink slime and sugar-loaded flavored milks before that. Advocates would be wise to highlight pthalates’ and other endocrine-disrupting chemicals’ ubiquity in kids’ products like plastic toys and snack food packaging. If pink slime teaches us anything, it’s that Big Ag and its industrial food cronies don’t stand a chance against consumers wielding their forks—and their wallets—for good.