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Who ever thought “pink slime” was a good idea?

Scientists are making great progress in finding new ways to make protein in the lab. But Grainews field editor Lee Hart won’t be having it for lunch anytime soon

Here are two “meat” items I can’t wait to sink my teeth into — petri dish burger fortified with pink slime. Boy, if that combo doesn’t whet the old meat lover appetite I don’t know what will.

Sometimes I think science and technology is out to sink the meat industry once and for all. On one hand we have a Dutch researcher who has come up with a process to marry stem cell material from a bovine with serum from a horse fetus and he gets that mixture to grow in a petri dish (in vitro) and become muscle tissue or meat.

Pink slime

And then in the good old U.S.A., the Department of Agriculture (USDA) has approved or renewed approval for the use of semi-waste beef products, fondly referred to as “pink slime” in school lunch programs. This “pink slime” stuff apparently has been around for 20-plus years. It is boneless lean beef trimmings, exposed to ammonium hydroxide to kill pathogens, and then used as filler in burgers and other products. One concern about pink slime is that it might not always be 100 per cent meat. Think about it.

Some meat packers and restaurant chains say they no longer produce or use pink slime, but do you know who or which ones? I don’t. And obviously someone is still cranking it out if the USDA is planning to use seven million pounds of it in school lunch programs.

I am not a particularly squeamish eater, and I dare say likely neither of these products is harmful. Probably if I was eating a burger made with either I’d never know the difference. You get enough ketchup and onions on a burger and they’re all great. But is the industry really at a point where we need either of these products in development or used in commercial food trade?

Protein shortage?

Have we really run out of the capacity to grow a healthy beef animal, finish it on grass or grain, knock it on the head, and then cut good recognizable cuts of meat off the carcass. With the “slime” product do we really need to be sweeping the floor and emptying the garbage can to get every last ounce of protein or anything else picked up by the broom? Products that by most standards might simply be better used as cat food?

And is there such a protein shortage that society needs to be funding research to grow petri-dish meat? Maybe the day will come when these materials will be critical to sustaining life, but I don’t think we are there yet. (In all fairness the report on producing in vitro protein said it would cost about $31,000 to make enough meat for one burger, so I don’t expect to see it on fast food restaurant menus any time soon.)

As I said earlier, these products are probably safe, but the bigger issue is that messing around with these odd-ball products can easily rattle public confidence and perception of the agriculture and food industries. Frankenfood walks again!

Consumer interest

Generally, I believe, most consumers are complacent. They just want good quality, healthy, reasonably (or cheaply) priced food. But when you get agriculture critics and the media peeing their pants over these so-called hazardous materials, the good old complacent consumer doesn’t know what to think. They hear something about it on the news, or their favorite TV talk show so it must be true. Obviously it is everywhere. And who handed the critics and the fear-mongerers the ammunition — the science and technology of the agriculture and food industry.

I remember 10 or 15 years ago the British Columbia dairy industry got nailed with a consumer backlash when it was revealed some producers were using bovine somatotropin (BST), or a bovine growth hormone, to enhance milk production. That news lit up the switchboards of dairy processors as fearful consumers called in, and some mothers claimed their kids were sick from drinking milk with enhanced BST. That ended the use of BST in B.C.

And it was science and technology that figured feeding animal protein back to animals made sense on paper, but nobody has to explain to Canadian beef producers the horrific impact of one case of BSE or mad cow disease. Maybe we shouldn’t do that anymore.

Certainly science and technology has a vital role in agriculture and food production, but there has to be some common sense applied as well. Just because we can do it, doesn’t mean we should.

Feeding guests

There is a line that Temple Grandin, the noted U.S. livestock behaviour specialist, used in a recent talk in Lethbridge, Alta., that I will probably repeat often. She was talking about animal handling and welfare issues but it applies widely to agriculture. “If agriculture is doing something now that makes you squirm at the thought of showing it to your wedding guests, then maybe you shouldn’t be doing it,” said Grandin. What a great litmus test.

My daughter’s wedding is coming up this spring, and who isn’t interested in saving a few dollars. But somehow I think any reception dinner that features dishes with pink slime or in vitro meat just wouldn’t fly. To heck with the budget, we’re sticking with good old fashion, tried, true and trusted gourmet, all-natural hot dogs — it’s the way nature intended us to eat. †

About the author

Field Editor

Lee Hart

Lee Hart is editor of Cattleman’s Corner based in Calgary.

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