Lessons from ‘pink slime' hysteria

By The Gazette Editorial Board

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We can now take a deep breath after a week of hyperventilation over “pink slime.” That’s the less-than-appetizing label slapped on what’s actually called “lean finely textured beef,” processed beef trimmings mixed into common ground beef products.

Critics of these trimmings questioned their safety, and pointed out that ground beef labels don’t fully inform consumers.

Throw a term like “pink slime” into a few frantic news cycles, and the results are predictable. Some consumers recoiled from the notion of chowing down on “slime.” Grocery chains, including Hy-Vee, announced they would stop selling finely textured beef.

Then came some second thoughts.

We found out that trimmings have been added to ground beef for two decades since the USDA deemed the product safe. The icky-sounding ammonium hydroxide treatment actually kills dangerous E. coli bacteria and also is used to treat other foods. Pulling the product from shelves could cost hundreds of Midwest jobs and make food more expensive.

And it’s possible that lean finely textured beef could be replaced by additives or fillers far less desirable.

Now, Hy-Vee, for one, has decided to sell ground beef both with and without lean finely textured beef, clearly labeled. Gov. Terry Branstad and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack are riding to the defense of the processors who make it.

We think some lessons can be learned.

Food processing isn’t always pretty, but companies should not follow a what-we-don’t-know-won’t-hurt-us approach to disclosing processes to consumers. We should have knowledge of what goes into the food we eat, why it goes in and how it might affect us so we can make informed choices in the marketplace. Hy-Vee shoppers now have that choice. One of the best inoculations against hysteria is transparency.

We in the media business also have a responsibility to do a better job of making sure consumers are served the whole story, not simply the most salacious, slimy trimmings.

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