The recent controversy over "lean finely textured beef" (LFTB), or "pink slime" as the media and activists love to call it, is reminiscent of the old TV commercial, "Where's the beef?" There just isn't much there there. But the flap is a symptom of something much larger: a kind of puritanical and purist view of food that is based not on science or facts but on intuition — and ignorance.
It's true that the way the beef product is produced sounds unappetizing. It's made from parts of the cow that previously were either discarded or used for lower-value products such as animal food. Treated to remove much of the fat and to make it inhospitable to bacteria, it's both healthful and safe. It offers other advantages as well. According to Jim Dickson, professor of animal science at Iowa State University, "It is estimated that using this process with the fat trim recovers 10–12 pounds of additional lean meat from each carcass. This means that we are using our beef resources more efficiently, which also means that we can meet consumer demands with lower prices and fewer cattle."
We should not forget that many meat-based processed foods sound sort of gross; consider, for example, head cheese, haggis, and the Pennsylvania Dutch delicacy called scrapple, which is known locally as "everything but the oink." But the "yuk factor" apparently doesn't detract from their appeal; these foods have been eaten for centuries.
Although LFTB has been used for decades by schools, leading fast-food outlets and major supermarket chains, suddenly it has become the object of ridicule and vilification, and users have abandoned it in droves. Know-nothing food activists have had a field day. The real (and ridiculous) agenda of many who are trashing LFTB is to get us all to go organic. According to food activist Michele Simon, "Pink slime is just one of many problems with industrialized meat. So let's hope this week's groundswell of interest in pink slime inspires Americans to demand labeling, buy organic or stop eating ground beef all together." And New York Times columnist Mark Bittman called the "pink menace" a symptom of a larger disease — "the industrial production of livestock on a scale that's far too large to sustain without significant collateral damage."
In short, if we insist on having any meat at all the activists seem to want us to eat only New York strip steaks and filet mignon from organic, grass-fed, free-range cattle that were raised listening to Peter, Paul and Mary protest songs.
Not surprisingly, while making a meal (so to speak) of the pink slime non-issue, the activists completely ignored a recent outbreak of actual illnesses from Salmonella bareilly contamination of a frozen raw yellowfin tuna product known as "tuna scrape." A hundred sixty people in 20 states and the District of Columbia have been infected, 26 of whom have been hospitalized. Scraped from the bones of the fish, it resembles ground raw tuna, so we hereby christen it "red slime."
Activists' sanctimoniousness toward food is part of a larger trend, one perhaps epitomized by Berkeley restaurateur and chief of the food police Alice Waters, who is unhappy that we "have been indoctrinated to believe that food should be fast, cheap and easy. And it's really that kind of thinking that is destroying the world." Tell that to poor people who can't afford organic free-range guinea hens or morel mushrooms ($1,280 a pound at your local Whole Foods).
This is the sort of New Age babble that worries the polymathic Dick Taverne, aka Lord Taverne of Pimlico. In his brilliant book, "The March of Unreason," Taverne argues that "in the practice of medicine, popular approaches to farming and food, policies to reduce hunger and disease, and many other practical issues, there is an undercurrent of irrationality that threatens the progress that depends on science and even [threatens] the civilized basis of our democracy," and that we ignore it at our peril. The undercurrent has now become a torrent.
Taverne decries organic food activists' resistance to many proven technologies, including agricultural chemicals and food irradiation, but he singles out in particular their intractable objection to genetic engineering of plants and animals. He believes that such resistance will prevent consumers of organic products from enjoying many nutritional and safety improvements to come. Taverne argues persuasively that the conflict over genetically engineered crops is the most important battle of all between the forces of reason and unreason, both because of the consequences should the opponents prevail and also because their arguments are so perverse and so consistently and utterly wrong-headed. He observes, for example, that if human intervention to induce genetic improvement of plants is "unnatural," we've been unnatural for 10,000 years; with the exception of wild berries and wild mushrooms, virtually all the grains, fruits and vegetables in our diets have been genetically modified in some way.
How ironic that on the subject of food production and security, the British Peer of the Realm gets it right, while the Berkeley food icon is out to lunch. With apologies to the Scottish essayist and historian Thomas Carlyle, of all the quacks who ever quacked, food activists are the loudest.
Henry Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is the Robert Wesson Fellow in Scientific Philosophy and Public Policy at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and a fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. He was the founding director of the FDA's Office of Biotechnology. Jeff Stier is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.