Most people have heard about the aptly-named ‘pink slime’ debacle that’s been thoroughly discussed in various internet news sites and other web fora. The more I read and think about what this mess signifies, the more I realize it can be easily reduced: manufacturers of food products, especially those products that require processes the average consumer finds unpleasant (i.e. slaughtering animals), thrive in an environment of secrecy and obscurity. Co-founder and executive director of the New York State Healthy Eating and Physical Activity Alliance, Nancy Huehnergarth, does an excellent job of providing several key examples of this unsettling fact in her recent article for the Huffington Post:
At almost every turn, it seems, we find the food industry working to thwart food system transparency. From lobbying to exempt LFTB from labeling, to industry’s fight against the labeling of genetically engineered foods; from gamesmanship designed to forestall or weaken FDA’s long awaited front-of-package nutritional labeling system, to ag gag laws; from relentless lobbying to weaken the 2010 federal menu labeling law, to industry’s refusal to label meat and dairy products that contain antibiotics and hormones, the food industry appears to be working overtime to hide information from the consumer. Public health attorney and author,Michele Simon likens the pink slime catastrophe to the Wizard of Oz — the curtain has been pulled back for all the world to see the reality behind this process. “A true free market assumes equal access to information,” says Simon. “We are far from it when it comes to our food.”
The fact is that many Americans simply don’t want to know what’s in their food. Personally, I’ve encountered a substantial amount of people who’d rather remain ignorant when it comes to knowing how their steak arrives on their dinner plate. But while this is indeed a sad truth, there are still plenty who do wish to know what exactly makes up the questionable goop of ground meat tagged Manager’s Special in their local market. Luckily (or unluckily, depending on your philosophical point of view), an unsettling aspect of the US meat industry was recently exposed.
If you haven’t seen the viral photos of the pink slime, then you’ll certainly be disgusted, especially if you’ve been unknowingly dining on the stuff like many Americans, but what’s more important than the revulsion is understanding the socioeconomic model that makes disgusting things like this not only possible, but likely.
Within the capitalist elements of our mixed economy, the ultimate goal is not to provide people with nutritious, high-quality food. The ultimate goal is to increase capital, plain and simple. There are several main methods of increasing capital. Under an older, more traditional model of goods-exchange, businesses increased their capital by selling their product at a lower price than their competitors, thereby making more money. As the twentieth century trucked onward however, it became more common to focus on production costs rather than numbers of overall sales (although overall sales is still crucial, of course). This slashing of production costs leads to the pitfalls many of us are familiar with: underpaid and untrained laborers, greatly diminished product quality, and general implementation of questionable business practices. The use of pink slime, kindly dubbed “lean finely textured beef,” is clearly just another way to cut costs, which is in the best interests of the producer.
It’s clear that our current system produces an environment where it’s beneficial for manufacturers of any product to seek the absolute cheapest way to produce their goods, even if breaking the law is required. It’s no surprise then, that the meat industry has been fighting tooth-and-nail any legislation that would create more transparency in their industry. After all, who wants to eat a hamburger with any percentage of “lean finely textured beef,” let alone feed one to their children?
It’s easy to point fingers at the meat industry, and indeed, they deserve their fair share of the blame, but it’s crucial to remember that the ultimate power lies in our hands, the consumer. When you go to your local market and pick up the Manager’s Special, you’re helping to increase the demand for poor-quality, antibiotic-pumped, factory-farmed meat. Ultimately, it is up to us whether or not we want more pink-slime infused beef or beef that is untainted and produced by ethical means, outside of the factory-farm industrial complex.
So whether you realize it or not, it’s important to be conscious of the choices you make when you stop by McDonalds, shop at your local market, or give your child a few dollars to buy a school lunch. Each dollar is essentially a vote for the kind of products and food-philosophy you want to see in the world. While going vegan or vegetarian is certainly an excellent (and probably the easiest) choice, it is crucial that meat-eaters think twice about where they’re casting their vote, because it makes a difference in their lives and the lives of their children.