Another lawsuit last week over news reports about "Pink Slime" and the damage done to people's livelihoods means more media attention to a topic that engenders immediate disgust with most shoppers. If the food system has learned anything from the market fallout over lean, finely textured ground beef, its that being safe isn't good enough anymore (if it ever really was). Media and other critics of modern food production are ramping up the attack on products that, even if they're proven safe to eat, they deem to be too high in the unnatural "yuck factor." Here are seven of the next potential targets grocers need to be aware of.
Gelatin. Vegetarians in particular may want to avert their gaze from this description. This common ingredient in everything from Jello dessert to gummy candies to ice cream to frosted cereals to yogurt is the product of a not particularly appetizing process involving the controlled chemical digestion of collagen found in the skin, boiled bones, connective tissues, organs and intestines of pigs, chickens and cattle. If lean finely textured ground beef is "pink slime," then gelatin certainly qualifies as "pig-skin jam."
Carrageenen. The vegan-acceptable form of gelatin, this seaweed extract is created through a process of harvesting, drying, grinding, filtering and cooking cultivated seaweed in a hot alkaline solution. Used like gelatin as an emulsifier and thickening agent to keep foods shelf-stable, it also is sometimes injected into meats to help them hold water. Although long considered safe and actually listed by USDA as an organic product, the additive has recently been attacked by one organics advocacy group as an unacceptable synthetic ingredient. If that attack gets traction, get ready for increased media attention on this "seaweed slime."
Transglutaminase. Used in a variety of commercial applications, from binding small pieces of raw meat together to form whole cuts, to maintaining the integrity of sausages without use of casings, to improving the texture of meats like sushimi and ham, to thickening and strengthening doughs and dairy products, to even creating novel products like lamb and scallop combinations or meat and vegetable pastas, transglutaminase is made by refining animal blood or fermenting vats of Strep bacteria. Transglutaminase comes from the same family of enzymes that cause human skin and hair to hold together and blood to clot. This one's already been stuck with the less than flattering name "meat glue."
Mechanically separated meat. Ironically, the ubiquitous Internet photo that helped launch the pink-slime flap was not a photo of lean finely textured ground beef at all, but instead of mechanically separated chicken (and debate even exists as to whether the photo really shows that, or is instead a clever forgery). Regardless, mechanically separated meat and mechanically separated poultry exist. They are USDA-approved processes for recovering the edible parts of meat formerly left on animal and bird carcasses because they were too cost-prohibitive to remove by hand. Used since the 1960s, the mechanical separation process has been refined based on the original technique of passing the remaining carcass parts through a seive under pressure to remove meat from the bones. Contrary to Internet conventional wisdom, the process does not grind whole animal carcasses. Mechanically separated meat is used in cheaper processed meats like hot dogs, frozen entrees and chicken strips. Can you say "flesh batter?"
Carbon monoxide. Taking advantage of the same biological mechanism that causes it to bind to the hemoglobin in human red-blood cells and asphyxiate people exposed to high levels in car exhaust and faulty home furnaces, modified-atmosphere and controlled-atmosphere meat packaging uses a trace of carbon monoxide gas (along with others like carbon dioxide and nitrogen) to help prevent packaged meat from turning brown in the coolor. Such controlled packaging has been a boon to the now-estimated $10 billion case-ready meat segment--the only method by which many small retailers without an in-house butcher have been able to maintain a meatcase. By preserving the color of pre-packed and shipped meat longer, it has helped spare part of the estimated $1 billion retailers lose yearly from marking down or throwing away meat that, although perfectly safe, is no longer attractive enough to move. Meanwhile, study after study has proven the process safe, as well as the fact that beef color says nothing about whether beef is safe or unsafe to eat due to age. Look for this "exhausted meat" to continue to draw undue attention.
Sand. Silicon dioxide, or sand, is added to many foods and pharmaceuticals as an anti-caking agent to absorb water and prevent other ingredients from binding together. It can be found in salt, dry soups, spices on snacks, coffee creamer and others. Made by either boiling it out of solution or adding chemicals to precipitate it out, it is widely considered to be safe. At the same time, it is also commonly used in a wide array of non-food products that consumers might find disconcerting, including commercial glues, paints, greases and lubricants, paper, plastics and coatings. Let us call this ingredient "Grit's What's for Dinner!"
Antifreeze. The colorless, nearly odorless, clear, viscous liquid known as propylene glycol is widely used in foods, from solvents for colorings and flavorings to a emulsifer. Unfortunately, this chemical cousin to the poisonous chemical ethylene glycol is also commonly used as an airplane de-icer, a plasticer, a photographic film developer, a hydraulic fluid, even one of the oil dispersants used to clean up the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon spill, and, yes, automotive antifreeze. "Antifreeze for recipes," anyone?
The point is not to offer the media even more easy opportunities to make what many at the farm level saw as an unecessary, unwarranted and silly attack on food technology as was the criticism of lean finely textured ground beef. The unfortunate fact of food-system life is that literally thousands of food ingredients and processes can be attacked with clever enough presentation and language.
Where does that leave the food retailer? When it comes to countering consumer's initial impulse of disgust triggered by unflattering media, according to the research of Brown University professor Rachel Herz, an expert on the psychology of smell and emotion and author of the new book That's Disgusting: Unraveling the Mysteries of Repulsion, disgust is a natural impulse, but it is also a learned impulse. What disgusts us depends on our culture, psychology and our expectations, she says--and disgust can be most piqued when we are surprised by an ingredient--as many believe was the case with pink slime, which in spite of critic's characterizations is still simply beef. Disgust that is learned through cultural cues (as critics of tobacco have successfully demonstrated, for instance) can be unlearned,as well, she argues (much as society has unlearned earlier dusgust based on racism and other prejudices.) It requires creative understanding of the psychology of disgust and perception about consumers and the culture surrounding them.