Pink slime: Or, the whole scrapple

My main thought on all this horror over “pink slime” is that it doesn’t sound any worse than any food-like product I’d expect to come out of a factory. I mean, what do you expect? The goal of the U.S. food industry is to produce substances that are chemically compatible with the maintenance of human life and that are aesthetically and culturally palatable to American consumers, all at the greatest possible margin of profit. Pink slime, duly flavored with extracts, shaped into a patty, topped with half the contents of the refrigerator and eaten by a model with juice dribbling down her chin, pretty much nails it.

But I get tired of reading only people I agree with, so I went looking for contrary arguments. And I ran across the website of Maureen Ogle, who is writing a book about, I gather, the history of Americans’ relationship with meat. Not surprisingly, she offers a bit of historical perspective on the matter.

In the 1970s, Ogle observes, when meat prices soared,1 consumers complained, and processors looking for ways to save money got approval from the USDA to mechanically debone beef carcasses to salvage every available scrap of meat. Later, after outbreaks of E. coli, processors began treating the scraps with ammonium hydroxide to sanitize them.

Pink slime, she argues, is the logical outcome of Americans’ insistence on eating as much meat as possible and, at the same time, on paying as little as possible for it. I certainly don’t argue with that. Nor will I waste much time arguing that pink slime is not, in fact, beef; there’s no point debating semantics. Whether it is safe for human consumption is an open question, but I don’t see much evidence that it’s any less safe than anything else coming out of Big Food these days. And I have to agree that most of the reaction to it is irrational: as I’ve said before, “It’s gross” is not an argument. I would add, finally, that I’m not happy about the waste of meat if the scraps formerly in pink slime are to be discarded, particularly if I believe the beef industry’s claim that 1.5 million head of cattle will be needed to make up the difference.2

Where I lost sympathy for Ogle’s tough stand for reason and accuracy, though, was when she observed that “The real problem… is that many food activists simply don’t understand how meat is manufactured.” On the contrary, I believe food activists understand very well how meat is manufactured: the problem is that meat isn’t supposed to be manufactured at all. To use that term accepts the severance of what we’re putting in our bodies from any biological origins — a fundamental fact of nearly all food in the United States of America, 2012, but a fact that I don’t accept as right, good, or justifiable. I believe that, deep down, most Americans don’t fundamentally accept that fact either: they merely ignore it until reports of pink slime force them to face it. And then they lash out — not at the root problem, but at whatever forced them to face up to unpleasant realities. They shoot the messenger.

The people shooting the messenger are wrong, at least on one level, and they’re behaving irrationally. But that doesn’t make the problem any less real. The problem is simply that meat is manufactured, which is precisely why most people don’t know, don’t understand, and don’t want to know or to understand what’s in the stuff they’re shoving down their gullets. The root of the mess that is our current “food system” is the lack of knowledge — not of the knowledge that Ogle is talking about, but of meaningful, intimate and personal knowledge.

In a related post, Ogle compares mechanical deboning to the sorts of ways people formerly used up every scrap of meat on a carcass, like making soup, and suggests that they’re essentially the same. But that’s facile. There’s a significant difference between, on the one hand, carefully simmering down bones to free meat and dissolve cartilage into stock, combining them, seasoning them, and shaping them into a loaf; and on the other hand, scraping off the cartilage and grinding it up as filler, chemically sanitizing it to cover the errors of farm and factory and kitchen and boosting its wan flavor with additional isolated chemicals. Whether there is or is not a significant difference nutritionally is not a question I’m interested in; neither my food nor myself is merely a sum over chemicals. The meal as a whole is different. The one springs from biological processes and is deeply embedded in cultural practices; the other is the product of a mechanical process, designed to be eaten mechanically.

The one is, in short, known intimately; the other is known analytically — a distinction I could make in, for example, Spanish (conocer, to know personally, versus saber, to know of or to know that) but not easily in English. If I raise and kill a pig and make scrapple, I know both the pig and the scrapple in much the same way that I know my sister. (No offense to my sister; it’s meant as a complement to the pig.3) If I buy a frozen hamburger patty (or scrapple, for that matter) from the supermarket, I’m buying a product whose ingredients and “nutrition facts” I can list but of whose origins and nature I know nothing. The steer has been treated as a machine, the food is “manufactured,” and I, ultimately, have accepted my own role as a machine.

That difference between “pink slime” and what most people would consider beef cannot, in the end, be analyzed by breaking down each into its component parts and comparing them, because that sort of analysis is precisely the problem. Reducing our food, and ourselves, to a collection of analyzable chemicals created the possibility and indeed the inevitability of pink slime; that we are more than collections of chemicals is a fact that must be grasped intuitively. Reason, of the reductive scientific sort that Ogle takes as her battle cry against “scolds,” cannot entirely be the solution to the problem of the food system, because that sort of reason created the problem in the first place: it permits only one kind of knowledge, when what’s missing is another. But certainly irrational fearmongering and finger-pointing isn’t the answer, either. Let me propose a different way of thinking about the matter, which is not a new one but, in fact, a very old one.

In his essay “Remarks on the Southern Religion,” Allen Tate has some choice observations on the dangers of abstraction. The metaphor he uses is that of a horse:

Religion, when it directs its attention to the horse cropping the blue-grass on the lawn, is concerned with the whole horse, and not with (1) that part of him which he has in common with other horses, or that more general part which he shares with other quadrupeds or with the more general vertebrates; and not with (2) that power of the horse which he shares with horsepower in general, of pushing or pulling another object. Religion pretends to place before us the horse as he is. Allen Tate, “Remarks on the Southern Religion,” in I’ll Take My Stand (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Press, 1977 [1930]), 155–175. (Quotation from pp. 156–7.)

This, Tate argues, is the value of religion: that it asks us to see the horse neither as a member of an abstract set, nor as the sum of its practical value to us, but as the whole that it is. The modern scientific mind denies that such a horse exists: yet, he insists, “there is a complete and self-contained horse in spite of the now prevailing faith that there is none simply because the abstract and scientific modern mind cannot see him.”

This modern mind sees only half the horse — that half which may become a dynamo, or an automobile, or any other horsepowered machine. If this mind had much respect for the full-dimensioned, grass-eating horse, it would never have invented the engine which represents only half of him. The religious mind, on the other hand, has this respect; it wants the whole horse, and it will be satisfied with nothing less. Ibid., p. 157.

Whether it requires a religious mind to see the whole horse is a question I won’t try to address here, and Tate himself observes that modern religion isn’t much help in that regard, anyway. I could as easily call it a humanistic mind — the sort of mind that studying the humanities ought to cultivate. Regardless, I will insist, á la Tate, that there is such a thing as “the whole scrapple,” ostensibly contradictory though that phrase may be, that I want the whole scrapple and will be satisfied with nothing less — and that if the modern, scientific mind had much respect for scrapple, for sausage, for soup and stew, it wouldn’t have invented pink slime.

Anybody who insists that the two are equivalent, or that there’s no such thing as “the whole scrapple,” is welcome to stop by my house for a bite of the chicken pie I made for dinner tonight from the scraps and simmered carcass of a roast chicken. Or you can have a frozen hamburger patty from the supermarket. Your choice.

  1. It wasn’t just meat prices, actually: the root problem was grain, which is needed to fatten cattle but which we began shipping in massive quantities to the USSR after a series of bad harvests there, while simultaneously building nuclear bombs with which to destroy it, the result of which was that Americans were taxed to pay for the destruction of their supposed enemies while also suffering high prices at the supermarket so that we could first feed them. As if we were Hansel and Gretel’s witch.
  2. Say for the sake of argument that a beef carcass yields 500 pounds of meat — that’s a good average. Then 1.5 million head of cattle will yield 750 million pounds of meat. Are we really going through two and a half pounds of pink slime per person, per year, in this country? I suppose we may well be. Dear lord.
  3. My brother once named a stuffed pig after our sister, a similarly unwelcome compliment.