The Branding—and Rebranding, and Re-Rebranding—of Pink Slime

What to eat. What not to eat.
Oct. 25 2012 3:48 AM

The Sliming

How processed beef trimmings got rebranded, again and again and again.

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So how did all these careful phrases get transformed into pink slime? According to the lawsuit from Beef Products Inc., the words pink slime were rarely placed in articles about the industry until spring 2012. Since then, they've showed up almost 5,000 times. In a four-week stretch starting March 7, the lawyers write, "Defendants used the phrase 'pink slime' 137 times on the ABC broadcasts, ABC online reports, and in social media postings." The lawsuit also says the network knew that finely textured beef wasn't all that slimy to begin with. The filing includes several images of the product, both as evidence of its not-so-nasty texture and to counter another claim by ABC that the product looks like Play-Doh. "When Defendants called [lean finely textured beef] 'pink slime,' consumers understood that Defendants were indicating that LFTB was a noxious, repulsive, and filthy fluid," the lawyers write. "The ABC Defendants' description of LFTB as 'pink slime' and 'Play-Doh' was knowingly false."

Leaving aside the question of what ABC really knew, it does seem clear that the network's branding blitz did a lot to promote the panic. The word slime suggests bacterial contamination; it even has a meaning in the lab, referring to a subset of gooey polysaccharides secreted by many microorganisms. The pink part only makes the phrase sound more fleshy and disgusting—like human genitals painted with a film of protozoa. But the labels tell a story that doesn't match the facts. In truth, the trimmings paste is not particularly unhealthy. Consumer watchdog groups seem to agree that ammoniated, processed beef is no more unsanitary or unappetizing than the other minced and remixed concoctions that emerge from the nation's meat factories. (It might even be the better choice.) Even Jim Avila of ABC News has conceded, "We've never said 'pink slime' is unsafe."

There's a symmetry to this. The beef industry tweaked its product and its brand, and it turned some sorry beef trimmings into a sprightly sounding, profit-making item called lean finely textured beef. Then ABC and others undid the market by offering up their own version of the product. Reconstrued as pink slime, the beef trimmings became a cash cow for the media. According to the lawsuit, ABC had dropped behind CBS in the ratings for 25- to 54-year-olds not long before the network began its coverage of the scandal. By the end of Slimeageddon, it was back in front and by a broader margin.

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It's also true that the pink slime brand had its own miniature evolution. In the story for the Daily that started all the fuss in March, one of the two "whistleblowers" at USDA told reporter David Knowles that they'd started with a different name. "We originally called it soylent pink," he said. It's plain to see why this early label didn't stick. Soylent pink isn't so disgusting on its face—soy is food, after all—and the dated reference to the movie Soylent Green seems to miss the point. In that film, of course, the mystery food is made out of people. By going from soylent pink to pink slime, the critics switched the framing from its supposed lack of authenticity (finely textured beef isn't what you think) to its supposed lack of cleanliness (finely textured beef is fetid and disgusting).

In the end, though, the pink slime panic does boil down to a crisis of authenticity. The same ex-USDA inspector told Knowles that "my main objection was that it was not meat." Gerald Zirnstein, the microbiologist who typed out the words pink slime in an internal email, went on to write, "I do not consider the stuff to be ground beef, and I consider allowing it in ground beef to be a form of fraudulent labeling." In an excellent essay on the dispute from back in March, Ari LeVaux points out that Zirnstein's gripe “is hardly damning criticism—it's like complaining that 2 percent milk is being labeled as whole milk."

It's not the first time that a panic over food ingredients has contained a hidden question of philosophy. Should we say a mash of beef trimmings is a kind of meat or not? What is the nature of beef itself? It may sound absurd to quibble over which cow parts count as flesh and which ones don't, but such debates form the basis of decisions made in government and by consumers, too. Consider the fight over whether it's OK to rename high-fructose corn syrup. The corn producers want to call their stuff corn sugar, but the people who grow beets and sugarcane don't want to lose their lock on what we've come to call real sugar. Never mind that one may be no more unhealthy or unappetizing than the other. Whether you're talking about a mash of beef trimmings or a corn-based sweetener, it's the labels that make the difference.

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Slate’s coverage of food systems is made possible in part by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

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