“Pink Slime” the stuff hamburgers, hot dogs, and this week’s news are made of

The so-called “pink slime” can be found in hamburgers, tacos, hot dogs, and this week it was a primary ingredient in news stories. Similar to the larger discussion on the safety of this ground meat additive, it is debatable as to whether or not these news articles will have a positive or negative affect; or if they are just filler.

The media frenzy was triggered by a March 6 story on ABC News about an announcement from the U.S. Department of Agriculture regarding the purchase of 7 million pounds of ground meat containing pink slime. This meat is destined for school lunch rooms across the country.

Pink slime has been in the news off and on since 2009 when the New York Times did an expose on the additive. Beef processing plants set aside cartilage and meat scraps that cannot be sold as stand-alone products. These byproducts are then ground and mixed together. Ammonium hydroxide is mixed into the meat product to kill E.coli and other strains of bacteria. Adding the ammonium gives the product a pink appearance, which helps it blend in with ground raw meat.

At the end of 2011 pink slime hit the news again, when several fast food chains including McDonald’s and Taco Bell announced they would discontinue use of meat containing the filler.

Many of this week’s online news stories have been shallow, brief reiterations of the ABC News broadcast. Other national television news programs such as MSNBC, CNN, and NBC have picked up the topic and offered up their own versions.

Activist websites like Change.org have started petitions asking the U.S.D.A. to not move forward with the purchase and to stop buying any meat product that contains pink slime, according to an article in the L.A. Times.

Representing the other side of the issue are websites and spokespeople for the beef industry and several cattleman’s associations. These groups insist the meat additive is completely safe. They like to point out purchasing meat that contains this product helps school lunch programs keep within their limited budgets.

Based on this level of news coverage, one could be tempted to chalk this up as another debate between food safety alarmist and profit-driven corporate food producers, with the average consumer lost somewhere between the two. This approach is underselling the importance of the issue, or perhaps more appropriately the issues. Several important questions need to be asked.

There was the New York Times investigation in 2009, but where has the media coverage been since then? The use of pink slime in meat products has not only continued, but has increased since 2009.

Why is there not more media coverage of school lunch programs in general, or the issue of putting budgetary concerns before nutrition specifically?

Why do news articles refer to the beef industry as the culprit here? This implies that beef producers are somehow at the root of the problem. In reality articles should specifically refer to corporations such as Cargill and Beef Products, Inc. (two of largest producers of pink slime). Several online articles do reference the South Dakota based BPI, but not Cargill. Why is Cargill Meat Solutions escaping media scrutiny?

On the flip side, why is the consumer side of this issue being represented primarily by special interest groups with websites? Where are the interviews with local school officials and parents?

These are just a few questions regarding pink slime that the media have failed to ask, but the public deserves some answers.