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Published: Saturday, 3/31/2012

Editorial

The 'pink slime' lesson

Had the U.S. Department of Agriculture not suppressed information about "pink slime," consumers could have decided years ago whether they wanted the unappetizingly-nicknamed, ammonia-treated meat filler. Instead, government regulators worked with a company that profited from the silence, rather than allowing market forces to prevail.

Consumers have a right to expect transparency about all products they purchase, but especially about their food supply. The decisions by Kroger Inc., Giant Eagle, Wal-Mart, and other grocery and retail chains to discontinue sales of ground beef with the filler speaks volumes about the power of market choice.

Negative reactions from fast-food corporations such as McDonald's, Burger King, and Taco Bell also come into play.So does the backlash from parents who have forced the national school lunch program to enable schools to avoid the product starting this fall.

One of the mildest complaints from critics is that once-inedible food scraps, which include non-muscle parts such as fat and connective tissue, lower the protein content of ground beef when they're sterilized and added to the meat. Concerns also focus on the use of ammonia hydroxide to kill bacteria.

The USDA has allowed every pound of ground beef to include as much as 15 percent of the additive. Though pink slime may be proven as safe to consume at that level, as the USDA contends, regulators should not have allowed its presence in 70 percent of hamburger sales without letting Americans know.

According to media reports, a then- USDA undersecretary with deep ties to the meat industry authorized Beef Products Inc. to produce pink slime shortly before she left her government post in 1993. She then was named to the board of directors of Beef Products' main supplier, where she reportedly was paid $1.2 million over 17 years.

That was hardly the first case of a bureaucrat profiting personally from decisions that worked to the detriment of consumers. Still, the obvious conflict of interest should not be downplayed.

Two decades later, the USDA and other regulators should note the experience of "pink slime" in the marketplace, and learn a lesson about transparency.



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