Food fight!

A few months ago, there was a brouhaha over whether pizza sauce is a vegetable. It certainly is to me. But for years, I thought bacon was a vegetable. I always wondered why no one made salad bits to sprinkle on my bacon, which is a million-dollar idea if I ever heard one.

The latest food fight is over whether “pink slime” should be used in hamburgers. My gut instinct is that no, it shouldn’t be used in hamburgers. It should be left in bologna and hot dogs where it belongs.

Still, I was surprised at how many nationally known purveyors of fine burgers said they would stop using pink slime now that their secret ingredient was no longer secret. Until they said they’d stop using it, almost no one knew they were using it.

It turns out that beef “trimmings” used to be sold mainly as pet food because they contained too much E. coli and other bacteria that were harmful to humans. But then the beef industry started spraying these leftovers with an ammonia gas, killing the pathogens, and renamed them “lean finely textured beef,” which sounds so much more appetizing than “pink slime.”



It reminds me of a story I heard long ago from an old-timer in the advertising business. It seems a cannery had bought a batch of salmon with very white flesh. It tasted like salmon, but it didn’t look like salmon. Some genius in the marketing department came up with a great idea. The cannery printed “Won’t turn pink in the can” on the label, which, of course, was true.

I often wonder how many people who have savored the fish known as orange roughy in fine restaurants realize that for most of its history, that fish was known as a slimehead? There were plenty of slimeheads to go around until the name change. Now they are being hauled out of the ocean faster than they can reproduce. The orange roughy population would probably appreciate it if we started calling the fish slimeheads again.

It seems every week we have another debate about food. One year it’s trans fat, the next it’s sugar. Trans fat will kill you, sugar will kill you, cholesterol will kill you, salt will kill you, fat will kill you, carbs will kill you, not eating at all will kill you, overeating will kill you.

I just bought a half-gallon of ice cream, and on the lid it says it’s packed with calcium and vitamins A and D. I don’t think you have to have a Ph.D. in nutrition to realize that even with the vitamins and minerals, ice cream is not health food. But it does prove something that food writer Michael Pollan said about food marketing: “The more health claims there are on the label, the unhealthier the food.” Adding a multivitamin to a frosted doughnut does not magically make it a balanced meal.

Some clever scientist is sure to tell you that ammonia in its various forms occurs naturally in some plants, is used in food processing and is perfectly safe, and he would be right. But he also would be comparing apples and oranges to unsellable scraps of fat, sinew, effluvia and meat bits, pulverized into a pink paste and sprayed with ammonium hydroxide.

Is that how the food scientist makes his hamburger at home? Is this what he feeds to his children? Does he invite the neighbors over to watch this being made before grilling a few burgers for them on Saturday night?

There are many things that some people eat that others find supremely unappetizing — Limburger cheese, frog legs, fried crickets, raw oysters, haggis — but they don’t try to sneak these things onto your plate. Limburger is proud of being a stinky cheese; haggis is presented with all the flourish of Cherries Jubilee. They are all upfront about what they are.

If pink slime purveyors want to proudly put it on the store shelf, more power to them. Otherwise, we might think they have something to hide.

Jim Mullen’s newest book, “How to Lose Money in Your Spare Time — At Home,” is available at amazon.com. You can reach him at jimmullenbooks.com.

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