Summer has finally arrived, but what’s on your barbecue? If offered a burger made from ‘lean finely textured beef’ you’d think of some kind of healthier meat without any gnarly lumps. Perfect for a kids’ brand perhaps. How about one from ‘boneless lean beef trimmings’? The word trimmings might make you start to wonder. But how would you feel about a burger made from ‘pink slime’?
In the US, this colourful name is given to an inexpensive filler that can be added to ground beef and beef-based processed meats. It’s a chemistry set product - finely ground beef scraps, muscle, fat and connective tissue are removed from bones at 38C in a centrifuge, forming a protein ‘paste’. This is then heated, processed and flushed with either citric acid or ammonia gas before being ground up, compressed and flash frozen into blocks. Until the recent outcry, over 70% of US grocery stores sold products containing pink slime.
It couldn’t happen here, as pink slime is banned from human consumption in the UK (though it is used in petfood). The EU has gone further. The European Commission wants a moratorium on cow and sheep ‘desinewed meat’ (DSM). This comes from flesh left on bones after slaughtering and is collected using a low-pressure extraction technique.
“In time, retailers and processors will be less apologetic about labelling”
Technically, operationally and morally DSM is distinct from the pink slime process as the low pressure applied means it produces a kind of texturised minced meat, rather than ‘slime’. It is also different from ‘Mechanically Separated Meat’ (MSM), where meat or poultry is forced through a sieve under high pressure.
Rightly, the EC doesn’t see DSM as a health risk. It also wants clearer product labelling so consumers can make choices about processed meats. It does have a point as currently the fairly pleasant-sounding ‘meat preparation’ process is used on-pack as the product descriptor.
However, the moratorium, which came into effect in late May, was rushed through. It also lumps together the DSM and MSM processes, insisting both should be labelled as ‘Mechanically Separated Meat’.
There does not seem to be a level playing field - the UK is threatened with a ban on DSM exports if it doesn’t comply. Yet, it would be perfectly possible for DSM or MSM to be imported into the UK from, say, Germany, Holland and Spain.
The Commission has asked EFSA for a ruling on what characterises MSM, which will be at least six months coming.
Consumers have strong attitudes on meat product labelling, and they also want to see the source, provenance and production process.
Perhaps good can come out of this. If clear and simple labels are applied to different meat production processes, shoppers can make more informed food choices. In time, retailers and processors will be less apologetic about processed labelling and, as with the egg market, consumers are likely to trade up to higher-quality standards.
And may pink slime never reach these shores.