Bad Meat Standards

Even the pro-corporate Grey Lady seems to be joining the “real food” groundswell. Mark Bittman, the NYTimes‘ Food Maven, weighs in on “The Pink Menace“:

…A little review: Lean Finely Textured Beef was born about 10 years ago, as an attempt to eliminate E. coli from ground beef. Using fatty beef trimmings, which are especially susceptible to E. coli and salmonella contamination, B.P.I. created a product that could be sprayed with ammonia (yes, that stuff, referred to by B.P.I.’s former quality assurance manager as “Mr. Clean,” in this dramatic piece by Michele Simon) to kill the bacteria. It was then mixed with “normal” ground beef. Voilà: safe hamburgers.
Except that despite B.P.I.’s claim that the ammonia treatment killed E. coli and salmonella, and despite the U.S.D.A.’s support for this process, those pathogens have been found in B.P.I. meat. Oops…
But pink slime, as Grist writer Tom Laskaway says, is the tip of the iceberg; it’s a symptom, not a disease. Remember why it was originally created — to eliminate bacteria found in ground meat. The fact that pink slime was a “solution” might lead you to ask: What’s the problem?
The answer lies in the industrial production of livestock on a scale that’s far too large to sustain without significant collateral damage. E. coli, found in the digestive tracts of cattle, is common on factory farms where cattle are fed only grain. (Their stomachs are meant to digest grass.) The incomprehensible quantity of manure produced by these cattle — also often containing E. coli — is deposited on the land, sometimes seeping into the water supply; that’s how you wind up with E. coli in vegetables. To make matters worse, “healthy” farm animals are routinely fed so many antibiotics that E. coli, salmonella and other pathogens are developing resistance to commonly prescribed drugs.
The Food and Drug Administration has just been given a golden opportunity — well, it’s a legal mandate — to remedy this. Ruling on a lawsuit brought last year by the Natural Resources Defense Council, a federal court decided that the F.D.A. must finally conclude whether the practice of routinely feeding antibiotics to farm animals constituted a threat to human health. If the F.D.A. decides that it does, it must ban the practice altogether…

See, MegaCorpAg is all about the forward-thinking solutions. People being poisoned by E. coli in their burgers? Don’t bother looking backwards, reconsidering the wisdom of feeding an unnatural diet to thousands of animals crammed together in life so that their carcasses can be bulk-processed “efficiently” — just slap a chemical patch on the assembly-line results! People complain about bleach-treated additives? Get the results legally redefined as “L.F.T.B.”!

And don’t bother switching to chicken sandwiches. Nicholas Kristoff, also at the NYTimes, worries about “Arsenic in Our Chicken?

… Big Ag doesn’t advertise the chemicals it stuffs into animals, so the scientists conducting these studies figured out a clever way to detect them. Bird feathers, like human fingernails, accumulate chemicals and drugs that an animal is exposed to. So scientists from Johns Hopkins University and Arizona State University examined feather meal — a poultry byproduct made of feathers.
One study, just published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, Environmental Science & Technology, found that feather meal routinely contained a banned class of antibiotics called fluoroquinolones. These antibiotics (such as Cipro), are illegal in poultry production because they can breed antibiotic-resistant “superbugs” that harm humans. Already, antibiotic-resistant infections kill more Americans annually than AIDS, according to the Infectious Diseases Society of America.
The same study also found that one-third of feather-meal samples contained an antihistamine that is the active ingredient of Benadryl. The great majority of feather meal contained acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol. And feather-meal samples from China contained an antidepressant that is the active ingredient in Prozac. Poultry-growing literature has recommended Benadryl to reduce anxiety among chickens, apparently because stressed chickens have tougher meat and grow more slowly. Tylenol and Prozac presumably serve the same purpose.
Researchers found that most feather-meal samples contained caffeine. It turns out that chickens are sometimes fed coffee pulp and green tea powder to keep them awake so that they can spend more time eating. (Is that why they need the Benadryl, to calm them down?)
The other peer-reviewed study, reported in a journal called Science of the Total Environment, found arsenic in every sample of feather meal tested. Almost 9 in 10 broiler chickens in the United States had been fed arsenic, according to a 2011 industry estimate.
These findings will surprise some poultry farmers because even they often don’t know what chemicals they feed their birds. Huge food companies require farmers to use a proprietary food mix, and the farmer typically doesn’t know exactly what is in it. I asked the United States Poultry and Egg Association for comment, but it said that it had not seen the studies and had nothing more to say…

The industrial producers of feather meal, incidentally, having established that this factory-farming byproduct “can increase lean percent in broilers and swine, provide important by-pass protein for ruminants, and provide an economical source of protein for aquaculture diets“, decry the wasteful American squeamishness that resists using it in pet foods as a replacement for more expensive protein sources. How fortunate we are (she said piously) that no reputable American pet food manufacturer would import sketchy bulk ingredients from nations with thriftier recycling standards

45 replies
  1. 1
    samara morgan says:

    its just the “freed” market in action.
    why do you hate America, AL?

  2. 2
    butler says:

    I know they’re pro corporate (and pro fake-centrist and whatever) but haven’t they been on the food thing for a long time?

  3. 3
    RalfW says:

    I like my Soylent Green to have the added taste of ammonia and arsenic. Mmmmm.

  4. 4
    Steeplejack says:


    Bittman has been on the “real food” thing for quite a while and has been emphasizing it since he moved up from Times contributor to regular blogger (within the last year, I think).

  5. 5
    jayackroyd says:

    One f in Kristof.

    You’res in pedantry.

  6. 6
    Marcellus Shale, Public Dick says:

    is this one of those balloon juice weight loss club threads.

    the vast majority of people cannot afford alternatives to bigAg produced food. so, what they have access to as “real food” vs junk food. just at the time when people were starting to move away from processed food?


    widespread fear amongst the general populace that manages to avoid the wealthy and their necessary fools.

    its enough of an effort to get people to eat real food, and about as much as they can afford. telling them there is another level they have to get to have safe food, is just reinforcing the notion that they have no choice but to comply.

  7. 7
    Pengie says:

    @jayackroyd: I see what you did their.

  8. 8

    Happy to say my junior Senator has jumped on the anti-pink-slime bandwagon. But he voted against DREAM so Markos would rather see Denny Rehberg take his place.

  9. 9
    Amir Khalid says:

    If you taught them chickens to play guitar, they’d all be Keith Richards.

  10. 10
    ericblair says:

    @Marcellus Shale, Public Dick:

    the vast majority of people cannot afford alternatives to bigAg produced food. so, what they have access to as “real food” vs junk food. just at the time when people were starting to move away from processed food?

    I’ve given up and now just eat fingernail clippings.

  11. 11
    Mickey says:

    There is a really good documentary called “Food Inc.” that explains all this. It was done before the pink slime scandal but they do show the process and everything they talked about is still relevant.

    I can sort of see both sides of this issue and don’t see the corporations that industrialize this as villains (except for Monsanto which is a different issue).

    People want cheap food and that is what they are trying to provide. They have to industrialize things and cut corners with things like pink slime to do it. So it’s not black and white.

    We do have options to buy organic food, grass fed beef etc. but it’s more expensive so consumers go for the cheaper stuff.

    I don’t expect most of you knee jerk, gloom porn, “all corporations are evil”, Cole apologists to understand.

  12. 12
    trollhattan says:

    But, but, but…I was lectured in comments a while back that I simply didn’t understand the process and my choice to not consume the pink gloop nor subject my family to it was an ill-informed one. And also, too, sausage!

    Too a crisp hell with this industry and its defenders. My vote is to arm the FDA like SEAL Team Six and turn them loose. What we get instead is Iowa making it a crime to go undercover at processing plants.

    There, all fxd.

  13. 13
    Anoniminous says:

    As a side benefit CAFOs have been a major contributor to the evolution and spread of antibiotic resistant pathogenic bacteria.

    See? Not all bad.

  14. 14
    Keith G says:

    If we could get the average daily meat intake of Americans to follow nutritional guidelines, this would be a much easier issue to tackle.

  15. 15
    Marcellus Shale, Public Dick says:


    are they gluten-free?

  16. 16
    Anoniminous says:

    @Keith G:

    If the average American would follow recommended nutritional guidelines we’d also lower Health Care expenses.

    I ain’t holding my breath.

  17. 17
    Bubblegum Tate says:



    This cracked me up. I’m kind of surprised I haven’t ever seen it used non-jokingly, though.

  18. 18
    Randy P says:

    I’m a long-time meatatarian but more and more feeling like I don’t want to support factory farming on moral grounds. This just adds health grounds to it. The problem is that if you eat meat in a restaurant, you have no control over the source. And i’m still, like it or not, ready to go 100% veggie.

  19. 19
    Comrade Dread says:

    Cripes. Makes me want to become a vegan.

  20. 20
    butler says:

    @Steeplejack: Didn’t Pollan also have a column there for a while?

    Whatever the case, it always seemed to me like the Times is way into food porn, and that the “real food” movement would be related to that.

  21. 21

    In fairness, the problem with ground beef is less with the industrialized approach to raising animals and more with the industrialized approach to meat packing. There’s a reason the massive recalls are always for ground beef and never for steaks and roasts, even though the meat is coming from the same animals and the same packing plants, and even though steaks are more likely to be cooked too rare to kill off pathogens.

    Industrial ground beef is produced using processes that are designed for efficiency rather than hygiene. They grind together meat from thousands of animals, so that one badly butchered animal can contaminate the meat from all of them. At the end of the day, they take any ground beef they haven’t been able to package, refrigerate it, and put it back into the hopper to start the next day, which makes the problem even worse.

    I’m not trying to say that disgusting feedlots and overuse of antibiotics are just fine. They aren’t, and we need to look at better ways of raising animals even if it means prices go up a bit. But the problems with animal husbandry are largely orthogonal to the ones with the meat packing industry. We could clean up meat packing a lot without touching the feedlots, and the packing industry would still have problems with contaminated ground beef even with free-range cattle.

  22. 22
    El Cid says:

    It’s so valuable for the American consumer to help them afford quality meat that no one cares to tell them what their “beef product” contains, though we’ll still be charged full price as if it’s just containing the normally categorized “meat” parts.

    You know, because in free markets, why do consumers need information not provided to them upon the choice of the producer?

  23. 23
    meander says:

    On the subject of arsenic in chicken feed:

    A short paper in the open-access, peer-reviewed journal Environmental Health Perspectives by researchers from Johns Hopkins University summarized the problems created by the use of arsenic in chicken feed. They write: “The U.S. Geological Survey has calculated, based on arsenic concentrations measured in poultry waste, that between 250,000 and 350,000 kg arsenic is annually applied to land in the United States (Rutherford et al. 2003). Although roxarsone, the predominant arsenical added to poultry feed, is an organoarsenical, there is strong evidence that the drug is converted into inorganic arsenic within the chicken (Arai et al. 2003) and is also rapidly transformed into inorganic arsenic in wastes and soils (Garbarino et al. 2003). Elevations in soil arsenic levels have been reported in fields where poultry wastes have been applied (Gupta and Charles 1999). This form of arsenic is readily leachable and may therefore move into groundwater (Rutherford et al. 2003).”

    Basically, this means that if poultry farmers that have arsenic-contaminated waste are being responsible, they will treat it like toxic waste, thus eliminating the opportunity to use chicken manure as fertilizer on fields, or make it far more difficult to incinerate the waste to generate energy (the combustor would need sophisticated emission controls that remove the arsenic from the exhaust). I don’t know if environmental agencies are cracking down on use of arsenic-containing wastes, but if they are, that would be a big incentive for the industry to stop using roxarsone and other arsenic compounds.

    The full paper (which lists references cited above in full, of course) is available for free at the journal’s website.

  24. 24
    trollhattan says:

    @Randy P:

    I’ve found at least the locally owned and operated restaurants in my area are very good at specifying the source of their ingredients, including meat. I know that’s not true everywhere and unpossible with many, perhaps most chains. (Local places that serve burgers grind their own meat.)

    The good news, such as it is, is the same places that do this have the best food so I’m not losing out on anything.

    Back in my traveling-for-bidnez days it would have been a whole lot tougher.

  25. 25
    Violet says:

    @Randy P:

    The problem is that if you eat meat in a restaurant, you have no control over the source.

    Some of the better restaurants are now listing the sources of their food, including meat, poultry and seafood, but they are not cheap restaurants. The good news is, the trend has begun and hopefully will trickle down. I’ve seen some of the more moderately priced restaurants in my area boast about their food sources on their menus, especially when locally sourced.

  26. 26
    Jennifer says:

    Point of contention: pink slime was never intended to wipe out e. coli in ground beef – the company claimed that it would, but never produced any data to back it up. Of course, in the days of the Bush administration, that was no problem. Pink slime was born because it allowed the inclusion of the parts of the carcass most likely to be contaminated with e. coli – the fatty trimmings from the surface of the meat – to be used, thereby lowering the cost of a pound of ground beef by around 3 cents. The Bush administration took BPI’s word for it that the ammonia killed the e. coli and did not impose USDA testing to verify that it did; subsequently, after consumer complaints about the ammonia smell in the beef, BPI changed the formula, using less ammonia, and e. coli started turning up in their product – which was then mixed in with ground beef and contaminating the entire batch. So now, consumers were not only eating ammonia, but they were getting the e. coli, too!

    This is not a new issue. I blogged on this almost two years ago here as the result of this NY Times article from Dec. 2009.

  27. 27
    JGabriel says:

    Anne Laurie @ Top:

    People complain about bleach-treated additives? Get the results legally redefined as “L.F.T.B.”!

    Ammonia treated additives, not bleach.

    Normally, I’d let it go, but it’s very dangerous to mix up bleach and ammonia — the fumes’ll kill ya!


  28. 28
    Svensker says:

    But the good news is that soon the poultry processors will be policing themselves! Dept. of Ag. will no longer inspect plants. Cuz you know how tough those guys can be on themselves!

  29. 29
    catclub says:

    Isn’t it amazing to realize — after eading this tasty tidbit — that the US Big Ag meat producers did not have the major mad cow outbreak — which comes from feeding mad cow brains and scrapie infected sheep brains, to other live cows? Instead the Brits and the the French pioneered this particular money saving approach to feeding and raising livestock.

    Just a little late copying those sockulust yurpeens.

  30. 30
    Yutsano says:

    Cheap, fast, or good. Pick two.

  31. 31
    ThresherK says:

    Mmmm….iceberg (lettuce).

    The great majority of feather meal contained acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol.

    Reminds me of The Onion headline celebrating how the nations’ poor youths are getting all the antibiotics they need from McDonald’s hamburgers.

  32. 32
    JGabriel says:


    So now, consumers were not only eating ammonia, but they were getting the e. coli, too!

    MMM, almost as good as tire rims and anthrax!


  33. 33

    Personally, I think all the food inspections should be turned over to FDA rather than USDA. USDA has undergone complete regulatory capture and isn’t really capable of policing food anymore. FDA hasn’t gotten there and is less likely to because they aren’t involved in the promoting foods side of the business. Of course I also think nutritional guidelines should be created by NIH rather than USDA, so I’m obviously shrill.

  34. 34
    Jennifer says:

    Those above bemoaning the unaffordability of clean food – you can avoid pink slime altogether by purchasing ground chuck or ground round instead of hamburger meat. They don’t contain pink slime and they’re better for you due to the lower fat content, and not that much more expensive.

    You can also look around online for the lists of foods that it’s better to buy organic – sorry I’m too lazy to do it right now, but the #1 one is potatoes, which are literally smothered in harmful chemicals. You can selectively choose organics based on this information without completely blowing the food budget.

    Another thing you can do to protect against e. coli and other pathogens on raw food: spray with hydrogen peroxide followed by a spray of white vinegar, leave it for a couple of minutes, then rinse with water. Neither peroxide nor vinegar is toxic and the combination of sprays will kill more pathogens than bleach. Just don’t mix the two together in one bottle – for whatever reason, studies have found that a spray of one followed by the other is much more effective (doesn’t matter whether you use the vinegar or the peroxide first).

  35. 35
    muddy says:


    lowering the cost of a pound of ground beef by around 3 cents

    I’m happy to pay 10 cents more a pound NOT to have it in there. Of course they are not really doing it to save consumers 3 cents a pound. It’s as ridiculous as someone driving around town trying to get 2 cents less on their gallon of gas. So not cost effective, besides being assholery.

  36. 36


    Of course they are not really doing it to save consumers 3 cents a pound.

    No, they’re doing it to increase their profit margin by 3 cents a pound. Multiply that by a few million pounds of ground beef and you’re talking about a meaningful amount of money.

  37. 37
    Jennifer says:

    Well, my guess is that it’s increasing producer profits by more than 3 cents a pound – the 3 cents a pound savings is the hook they used to get the school lunch program to buy into it. No one knows how much more the producers are making by using it.

  38. 38
    Tone In DC says:

    @Amir Khalid:


    No, Keith’s still around. Arsenic will kill ya.

  39. 39
    Martin says:

    Actually, the best part of this is the economic conditions that led to its expansion.

    Remember a few years ago when Chinese dog food had additives that killed dogs? Well, the US public took notice and they’ve shifted notably away from larger pet food producers that were big consumers of this meat waste toward smaller food producers, many of which don’t use it at all. Our pets were the market for this stuff, and that market has been drying up because we care a lot about our pets. But the industry still needed to find a home for it all – the price of beef all along the food chain depends on generating revenue from every step – so instead of feeding it to our dogs, we’re increasingly feeding it to our kids, because we decided our dogs were too good for the additives.

    Humans are incredibly bad at weighing risks across a broad spectrum. We’re good at reacting to immediately presented threats, even when that reaction makes no goddamn sense in the larger context.

  40. 40
    Tone In DC says:


    To a crisp hell with this industry and its defenders. My vote is to arm the FDA like SEAL Team Six and turn them loose. What we get instead is Iowa making it a crime to go undercover at processing plants.

    May these purveyors of foul poultry end up crispy, indeed.

  41. 41

    Also, too, the mad cow disease scare means we aren’t allowed to feed it to cattle anymore, either, which is the other way industrial agriculture would use stuff like this. ISTR that there was some discussion of hydrolyzing meat leftovers to amino acid soup, which would kill all the prions and make it safe to feed to animals again. I guess that’s too expensive compared to just adding the crap to school lunches.

  42. 42
    catclub says:

    @Martin: “We’re good at reacting to immediately presented threats, even when that reaction makes no goddamn sense in the larger context.”

    Applies for values of good that sometimes == bad.

  43. 43

    […] only a tiny part of what is wrong with industrial agriculture. Although a highly charged tiny part. Ann Laurie over at Balloon Juice points out that the New York Times is now making it clear that there is something deeply wrong […]

  44. 44
    Li says:

    @Mickey: I’m not sure that you understand the article. The point is that the ‘cheap food corporations’ are not only hurting their customers with their awful dreck, but also hurting all of the rest of us who opt out by breeding superbugs that kill and maim people regularly, and by contaminating the water supply with all sorts of drugs via the farm animal waste stream. Just from that article: Tylenol can cause liver damage in humans, God knows what it might do to other life forms. Prozac can broadly effect nervous function, and the newts downstream don’t need antidepresants I’m sure, except perhaps to deal with being bummed about their liver failure. And then there is all of the other stuff. How does dumping Cipro into the groundwater effect the soil bacteria? Who knows, but we’re doing it anyway.

    Basing every decision on greed is not a responsible way to run a society.

  45. 45
    Tomc says:

    What we have all been exposed to with this “pink slime” coverage is a classic example of media sensationalism aimed at ratings and not based on facts. Now some clear facts here. The only differences between the trimmings used to make ground beef, as the consumer recognizes it, and the trimmings used to make LFTB is the lean beef to fat ratio. LFTB starts by using higher fat trimmings. To achieve the higher lean ground beef that we all desire economically, the lean is separated from the fat and the lean is added back into the ground beef. Nutritionally equal or even improved due to higher lean content. On to the subject of ammonia hydroxide. The association of ammonia used as a cleaning agent is very misleading. After the lean beef is separated from the high fat trimmings. Food grade ammonia gas, which is naturally occurring in many foods including beef, is used to slightly elevate the ph of the product. Elevating the ph of the beef creates an environment that is unfriendly to bacteria. So the intent here is truly food safety. Next, I have seen a lot of back and forth about labeling. This is a tough one. There are some questions that have been posed many times. Do you label it ground beef with lean beef added? Or, do you put on the label ammonia used to elevate the level of already existing ammonia? Contrary to what many might believe, this debate has been going on throughout for quite some time. The next thing we should be asking ourselves is, who’s going to suffer? Well, simple economics will tell us we, as consumers, will pay more at the meat counter due to the lose of lean beef in the market place. I would encourage that we all do some research for ourselves and not buy into the media hype. A well informed consumer now has the tools to, and will, make good choices.

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