From Round to Square (and back)

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Friday, March 30, 2012

Just Do It Over (7)—Lean Finely Textured Beef

[a] Textured RF
A quick head's up for vegetarians. This topic is in the news, and it is not particularly pretty. Our job at Round and Square is to (try to) understand this vast, strange, culture of ours, so it won 't always be particularly palatable (literally or figuratively). Fair warning. Broccoli never looked this bad.

Let's get started, though. We'll pretend, for narrative purposes, that this all happens at the shop of your local butcher, just down the street—positioned between the bakery and the candlestick maker's shop. The dry goods store is across the street. This 1950s feel isn't meant to cover up the mega-meat business of it all (we'll get to that soon enough). It is just a way of thinking about a very peculiar cultural process.
[b] Monsieur Le Bouef RF
So, as the sun begins to peer over the horizon at the start of another day, the butcher stands—cleaver in hand—and considers the work to be done. I will spare most of the details of a cow or three being on the table. First, s/he cuts up all of the portions that get the big bucks. S/he has been doing this for some time now, and the process goes quickly and smoothly. There are ribs, flanks, sirloins, briskets, tenderloins, tops, rounds, and chuck. Lots of chuck. Those go onto the premium pile...or piles (1A, 1B, 1C). Don't worry. Mr/Ms Beef knows what to do.

If it's a small shop, s/he wraps them up in white paper and marks the price with a thick grease pen. It is heading to the butcher's window or your grocer's freezer. Morning traffic is just beginning to grow, and retail beef sales are ready to rumble. Done—a messy but necessary job in a society of carnivores, right?

Not so fast. The quality muscle and bone is gone, but there's still quite a pile on the stainless steel table in the back room. A key separation occurs at this point—a sort of parting of the leftover waters and a meaty do-over not often considered by consumers. The first parting is not particularly difficult. Off go the entrails and genuine muck. Lips...and stuff. That was easy. But they do not go into the garbage. No, no, no.

[c] Middles RF
That stuff will become hot dogs. We'll deal with that little sack of middles on another day. We have bigger slime to fry today.

The entrails are gone. Now what is lying there on the table is really pretty lean stuff. There is a fair amount of red in the heap, and you might not be particularly averse to throwing it into a stir fry...if you're really hungry...and eat meat. This is when it gets interesting, though, and when that little mound of lean-ish beef works its way into the headlines of American newspapers and the school lunch program decisions of districts from New Jersey to Oklahoma, and Michigan to Nevada. 

That kilogram of flesh has begun to resonate in our culture, and cultural resonance is our reason for being on Round and Square. Thinking about beef—it's what's for deliberation.

It gets packed off, too, but not like the hot dog fixings. It is sent to a meat processing plant, mixed with other "lean" scraps, and is then treated with ammonium hydroxide gas. Mmm, mmm. You might sense where this is going. It's all beginning to look a lot more like that hot dog than you thought when we first confronted this little legislative fantasy.
[d] Chuck RF
So out comes the ammonium hydroxide gas and thwaaaaaap, the trimmings are biochemically "clean." From there, it is a straightforward process of flash freezing it into pink bricks and transporting the poundage to supermarkets (or satellite producers), where it will be merged, in one way or another, with ground beef.

That's the process, and the USDA says it's safe. In the meantime, through a combination of whistleblowing, errant e-mail messages, and public outcry, the term "pink slime" has caught on. It has had notable effect on shared culture, and breaking bread together may never be the same again.

Retailers are racing for the exits, hoping to escape the quickslime that this has become for anyone who wants to sell any fine textures of beef. School lunch programs (and the bureaucracies that run them) don't know what to do with the many thousands of pounds of ammonium hydroxide treated beef in their freezers. The New York Times has given us a glimpse into the world of school lunch culture. Take a look.
New York Times/Pink Slime 
[e] Lean RF
There may or may not be solid evidence that lean finely textured beef is much of a health problem (beyond eating beef itself). The last thing I am is an apologist for the USDA or the beef industry. On the other hand, I don't have an axe to grind (so to speak) the other way.

What fascinates me about this whole topic is the way that words influence culture. We could push this as far as saying "words are culture," but I'll pull it back from that brink for now. Let's not kid ourselves, though. A big part of the "PR" problem for the beef industry is, well, the wording. While "pink" has a number of nice connotations in our cultural milieu (roses, cherry blossoms, and even light rosé), slime doesn't have much of an upside. In fact, there is only one side, and it is not particularly appetizing.
[f] Emotion RF
Isn't it funny that the conventional wisdom always has the bottom line focusing on things other than words? Serious changes—the kind that can cause people to lose jobs and international corporations to alter strategy (and revenue) in mid-course—don't seem to come from mere they?

Well, yes. That is my whole point. Cultural and economic change (because the economy is cultural—a point that economists would do well to consider more carefully than they often do) happens. Stuff happens. That's culture...and change. The role of words in all of this is fascinating for me. Language and culture are mixing their ammonium hydroxide gas-magic, and it is changing bottom lines everywhere. Let's think about that, and the impact that a phrase (and its accompanying imagery—never forget that) has had on the beef industry's bottom line. Crying fowl won't work in the Burger Court of American consumption. We would do best to analyze, reflect, and deliberate. 

We'll let Jon Stewart have the last word, but I have plenty of theoretical questions for a future post. Stay (at)tuned.

1 comment:

  1. very exciting post (for me at least). Doesn't this story come up every once in awhile though? "Pink slime" seems new though.

    I'm afraid of going off too much because at this point it's looking like a very central dissertation chapter is going to be about meat, but it's pretty fascinating how much Mongolians are taking to the labels of "ecologically clean product" attached to something that has been processed and packaged (minimally by Soviet era machinery, but still). Not that they then don't also go on about how "organic" etc. the mutton they just slaughtered with their cousin is. And how this all was just last year approved for export beyond Mongolia...