In early 2012, a photograph of what looks like soft-serve ice cream (or, as a more imaginative commentator put it, elephant excrement) began making the rounds on social media and Internet news outlets. The pink foamy substance is in fact “mechanically separated poultry” (MSP), a form of processed meat allegedly used to make McDonalds’ Chicken McNuggets.
The photo circulated amid and quickly became conflated with public outcry over “pink slime,” or “lean finely textured beef”(LFTB), to use the industry term for what is essentially pulverized beef trimmings soaked in ammonium hydroxide. News reports in March 2012 sparked controversy over the use of LFTB as an additive in hamburger meat sold in American supermarkets, fast-food chains, and school cafeterias.
Despite their differences in texture and animal source, the pink-foam photograph functions in many accounts as visual documentation of pink slime. (The abject nature of the latter is perhaps better captured by dysphemism than by cameras.) It is able to stand in for pink slime because it is decontextualized. Its original source cannot be verified, and claims to its provenance range from possibly hot dog batter to a factory somewhere in China. The medium close-up shot excises any clues to the surrounding industrial environment and labourers.
That is to say, it is a photograph. In the growing discourse directed at revealing (or merely confirming) the abominable conditions of mass-produced meat, the medium of choice is by far moving images. This photo emerges in contrast as a bewilderingly static image—an instant unmoored from ongoing mechanical processes and larger systems of production and consumption.
It almost goes without saying that the photo provokes revulsion. The radically artificial product it discloses is the stuff of dystopian science fiction, not Happy Meals, we would like to think. This response participates in what Timothy Pachirat discerns as the expansion of “the frontiers of repugnance”—an expansion that works in concert with ever-intensifying efforts to sanitize daily life. As Pachirat observes, such reactions are “predicated on … operations that remove from sight, without actually eliminating, equally shocking practices required to sustain the orbit of [our] everyday lives.” If pink foam/slime is disgusting, what do the other interlocking processes and products of the meat industry look like?