NEW YORK Pink slime was almost pink paste or pink goo.
The microbiologist who coined the term for lean finely textured beef ran through a few iterations in his head before pressing send on an email to a co-worker at the U.S. Department of Agriculture a decade ago. Then, the name hit him like heartburn after a juicy burger.
Its pink. Its pasty. And its slimy looking. So I called it pink slime, said Gerald Zirnstein, the former meat inspector at the USDA. It resonates, doesnt it?
The pithy description fueled an uproar that resulted in the main company behind the filler, Beef Products Inc., closing three meat plants this month. The controversy over the filler, which is made of fatty bits of beef that are heated and treated with ammonium to kill bacteria, shows how a simple nickname can forever change an entire industry.
In fact, beef filler had been used for decades before the nickname came about. But most Americans didnt know or care about it before Zirnsteins vivid moniker was quoted in a 2009 article by The New York Times on the safety of meat-processing methods.
Soon afterward, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver began railing against it. McDonalds and other fast food companies later discontinued their use of it. And major supermarket chains including Krogers and Stop & Shop vowed to stop selling beef with the low-cost filler.
Bettina Siegel, a food blogger who posted an online petition asking the USDA to stop using the filler in school lunches, said the controversy isnt based on the term alone. She said consumers are just upset that the filler is not what they think theyre getting when they buy 100 percent ground beef.
But Siegel acknowledges that the name doesnt hurt her cause, either. She said the term filled a vacuum in the public arena about the filler; her petition, Tell the USDA to STOP Using Pink Slime in School Food had more than 200,000 signatures within a week.
Beef Products, which makes the filler, blames its plant closings on what it calls unfounded attacks. About 650 jobs will be lost when plants in Amarillo, Texas, Garden City, Kansas, and Waterloo, Iowa close on Friday. Another plant in South Sioux City, Neb., will remain open but run at reduced capacity.
Still, the company, based in South Dakota, said its not considering changing the fillers name. Instead, Beef Products set up a website, beefisbeef.com, to combat what it calls media-perpetuated myths about the filler.
Meanwhile, the author of the term pink slime makes no apologies about his creation. Zirnstein, who has since left the USDA, said he thinks pink slime is a better descriptor than lean finely textured beef.
It says its lean. Great. But it doesnt describe what kind of lean it is, said Zirnstein, who doesnt think the product should be mixed into beef. Textured. What does that mean?