Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us
Author:Moss, Michael

One of the most successful approaches to marketing lean beef turned out to be the most controversial. It didn’t involve needles or brine or merely trimming fat off with a knife. It involved ammonia. This created the leanest, least expensive, most-commonly eaten burger America had yet seen—that is, until the public caught on and the lean, ammonia-processed beef came to be known as “pink slime.”

This material—which the USDA preferred to call “lean finely textured beef”—is produced by taking pieces of beef from the fattiest parts of the cow—ranging up to 70 percent fat—that has previously been diverted to pet food or tallow. The material is then put through a high-speed centrifuge that spins much of the fat off, leaving a mash that has the virtue of being quite lean, with all but ten percent of the fat removed. It is then formed into 30-pound blocks, frozen, and shipped to meat plants, where the blocks are combined with other beef trimmings to make hamburger.

The defatted beef became popular with the companies that make hamburger for another reason: It was 15 percent cheaper than the naturally lean meat from South America, where ranchers raise their cattle on grass, forgoing the fat-inducing process of corn feeding that is typical in the American beef industry. The money to be saved was significant, and not only to grocers and restaurant chains like McDonald’s, who bought hamburger made with the defatted beef. The USDA itself realized that it could shave up to three cents off the price of every pound of hamburger it was buying for school lunch programs.‖

In the early 1990s, the USDA gave the green light to its burger suppliers to start using the defatted processed beef as a component in ground beef. The largest producer was a company called Beef Products Inc., based in South Dakota, but it had an additional step in its production that would prove to be its undoing. Beef Products Inc. began treating its processed meat with ammonia gas to kill any pathogens that might be present. This threat of contamination was more of an issue with the defatted material because it came from parts of the cow carcass most exposed to the feces that harbor E. coli. Meat gets tainted by E. coli in the slaughterhouse when these feces accidently get smeared on the meat during butchering. Adding the ammonia—which also gave the material a pink hue that was brighter than normal beef—was tricky. The company’s experiments in methodology led to cases where the ammonia either failed to kill pathogens or tainted the meat with its powerful smell. In 2003, officials in Georgia returned nearly 7,000 pounds to the company after cooks who were making meatloaf for state prisoners detected a “very strong odor of ammonia” in 60-pound blocks of the trimmings. “It was frozen, but you could still smell ammonia,” Charles Tant, a Georgia agriculture department official, told me. “I’ve never seen anything like it.” Nevertheless, ammonia was soon being used as an additive in an estimated 70 percent of the hamburger sold by grocery stores and restaurants.a

Disturbed by the ammonia, officials in the USDA’s school lunch program fought to have its presence disclosed on the labeling but were overruled by others at the agency who were persuaded that ammonia should be viewed as just one of the many chemicals the industry uses in processing meat that are not subject to public disclosure. But the issue didn’t go away. In 2002, a USDA microbiologist, Gerald Zirnstein, sent an email message to colleagues in which he wrote, “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 this same email, he called the processed beef “pink slime.”

Zirnstein’s “pink slime” moniker became public when I first published it in 2009, having obtained his email in the course of reporting on Beef Products Inc.’s struggles with the ammonia treatment. The article I wrote set in motion a cascade of events. The company vowed to improve its methodology, the USDA pledged to step up its scrutiny, and some parents—in Manhattan and Boston—contacted me to say that they had begun pressing their school districts to stop serving burger that used the defatted material. Far more significantly, one of the biggest users, McDonald’s, would initiate a slow-burn change in corporate policy that led, in 2011, to the chain discontinuing use of the defatted beef in the hamburger it served. Beef Products Inc. staunchly defended its product as safe and nutritious, but when word of the move by McDonald’s got out, a surge of public scrutiny led to a plunge in Beef Products’ sales.b

And still, the USDA tried to vouch for pink slime, using an argument that the meat industry had been wielding for years in its effort to get Americans to eat more beef. Sure, the stuff was cheap, and yes, the ammonia was making it safe to eat. But what made it vital to the U.S. food supply system was something else: its low level of fat. This made it a crucial ally in the war against childhood obesity, as the secretary of agriculture, Tom Vilsack, said in a press conference on March 28, 2012. “That’s one of the reasons we have made it a staple of the school lunch program,” he said. “We are concerned about obesity levels, and this is an opportunity for us to ensure that youngsters are receiving a product that is lean and contains less fat.”

By then, however, the meat industry was starting to worry that pink slime had opened up a Pandora’s box of issues with the potential to erode the sale of all meat. Experts were quoted saying that a tipping point may have been reached in which people in all walks of life, without regard to their ability to pay more money for food, were becoming aware of, and anxious about, what went into manufactured foods. As Phil Lempert, a food industry consultant, told one reporter, “I think we are going to see a whole new concern and interest in what’s in our food and I think that is just going to build.”

In 2007, an international group of twenty-one scientists meeting in Washington was poised to open another, even more threatening Pandora’s box that the meat industry would scramble to close. The scientists were nearing the end of a five-year effort to identify the most likely causes of cancer. Rather than undertake their own research, the scientists waded through seven thousand published studies to reach a consensus on the cumulative findings. They paid close attention to the quality of the research, dismissing results they saw as unfounded or flawed by their methodology. Some of the most obvious suspects were let off the hook for lack of evidence. For instance, foods heavy in sugar, particularly fructose, had been linked to cancer in some studies, but the group of reviewing scientists found this evidence to be “limited” and so downplayed the significance. They didn’t want to overstep or be alarmist. Indeed, this was the second report from the scientists, who were working under the auspices of two groups, the World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute for Cancer Research, and when they released their first report in 1997, they found the evidence linking meat to cancer was equally poor.

This time, however, the scientists reached a very different conclusion about red and processed meats: They found that a decade of subsequent studies offered “convincing” evidence that these meats increased the risk for colon cancer. In this case, the culprit, if there is one, may not be saturated fat. The scientists cited a natural substance in meat called haem, which they identified as promoting the formation of potentially carcinogenic compounds. They also suggested that cooking meat at high temperatures produced a group of more than one hundred substances—known as heterocyclic amines and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons—that can cause cancer in people with a genetic predisposition. The risk of cancer may be especially acute in processed meats and tracks with the quantity eaten, the scientists noted. The studies they examined indicated that eating red meat was safe at amounts up to 18 ounces a week. But the scientists said that they could find no level of consumption at which processed meats were safe. Every 1.7 ounces of processed meats consumed per day increased the risk of colorectal cancer by 21 percent, they said.

All this presented a threat to the beef industry that was potentially worse than any panic about saturated fat, which it was handling quite adeptly. Cancer was far scarier to consumers, as it was impossible for the industry to fix with solutions like trimming fat or promoting the zinc in beef. Nine months before the scientists’ report came out, word of their conclusions reached the ears of the beef producers. Duly alarmed, they turned to the most powerful weapon at their disposal: the beef marketing program, created by Congress and overseen by the USDA. Using the checkoff monies, the industry launched a massive preemptive strike to undermine—and, if possible, discredit—the scientists’ report before it reached the American people.

Getting behind the scenes of this undertaking would normally require some investigative reporting, but because of the public nature of the beef marketing program, the effort is laid bare in hundreds of pages of records, records that are available to the public—one has only to ask. According to these records, the industry used $1.2 million in checkoff funds to activate an internal management group it called the “Cancer Team.” With these same funds, it also retained the services of a consulting firm called Exponent, which provides expert witnesses to industrial clients under legal duress. In recent cases, Exponent helped win a favorable settlement for an insurance firm whose client had allegedly exposed Peruvian villagers to a mercury spill, assisted Uruguay in defending a new pulp mill from environmental concerns raised by Argentina, and helped defend an oil company the government of Yemen had accused of damaging farms. For the beef producers, Exponent conducted its own analysis of the research examined by the scientists for their cancer report. It found flaws in the studies that it said weakened the evidence; later, the firm found mistakes in the cancer report itself. The scientists and cancer organizations defended themselves by arguing that the flaws were minor and inconsequential to the overall findings, but Exponent was firm in its conclusion: The scientists had overreached, and the evidence linking beef to colon cancer was unreliable.

The Cancer Team also set to work shaping the media’s coverage of beef and thus public opinion. The team’s activities on that front were detailed in an audit performed for the Cattlemen’s Beef Board, which oversees the collection of checkoff monies from cattle growers. Cancer, the audit noted, was “an emotional and frightening issue,” and several industry officials interviewed called it much more of a threat than the mad cow disease scare that had surfaced a few years earlier. Indeed, these officials said, one would have to go back to 1977 to find a menace comparable to the cancer report. (That was the year that the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, chaired by Senator George McGovern, released a report that claimed high-fat diets caused cancer, and unlike the USDA’s own nutrition guide, the committee urged people to reduce their consumption of red meat.)

The Cancer Team used an analytical firm, Carma, which evaluates media coverage for a wide range of clients, from Apple to JP Morgan Chase to General Mills, to study the recent media coverage of beef. The Carma reports tracked everything from published recipes to articles about issues like food safety, animal rights, and diet and health; identified industry foes and friends; and kept a special eye out for journalists who were unfriendly toward beef.

With this guidance in hand, the Cancer Team then used focus groups to pinpoint the most current consumer concerns about diet, exercise, and nutrition. They then prepared stories to give to beef-friendly media outlets and first showed them the focus groups, choosing the ones that were likely to produce the warmest feelings for beef among consumers. Using that feedback, it developed a string of messages designed to undercut the cancer report’s conclusions.

“Cancer risk is not about diet alone,” one such message said. “Lifestyle factors—including tobacco and alcohol use, obesity, and lack of physical activity—can significantly increase cancer risk.” Another one: “Put risk in perspective. Obesity and lack of physical activity have a 2–3 times higher risk association.”

In the end, the blows from the cancer report were significantly softened by the industry’s counterprogramming that called the causes of cancer “complex” and placed the “emphasis on moderation and balance,” the audit found. News coverage focused on many other aspects of the scientists’ work on cancer, including links to body fat and the possible preventative powers of garlic. From the beef industry’s perspective, the cancer report proved to be merely a close call. “Overall, beef checkoff messages reached more than 3.1 million consumers, and media reports frequently noted that red meat is safe in moderation,” the audit said. “Media coverage increased consumer awareness but there was no change in consumers’ likelihood to eat less processed meat or red meat.”