What's so gross about pink slime?

Curator's Note

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?



Thanks, Sarah, for starting the week off with your fine insights on such a provocatively revolting image. I think you're right that these sorts of images stoke a cultural wide anxiety about what we can't see happening in our food production systems and that what *is* happening is far worse than we could possibly imagine. But, of course, as you point out, these sorts of images do enlist our imaginations, especially when we encounter them without any explanatory context. It's much easier to imagine we're eating pink elephant poo (or worse) when we don't know—and know we don't know—what we're eating. Funny to consider that the push by industrial food producers to keep their work out of the public eye actually provokes the worst of suspicions rather than, as is the intended aim, allaying them.

Sarah this photo is permanently burned into the consciousness of so many and while I hadn't thought about it before you're exactly right that the disconnected and static nature of the image makes it ever more anxiety-provoking. We wonder and worry about what is going on all around it, and where that elephant-poo grossness is bound. One thing that I found to be a positive about the whole pink-slime debate was how many parents I know - parents who generally stand on the sidelines of the great food debates - were drawn in to speculating about how horrific the products being passed off as 'food' for kids really could be. Perhaps it's because of the staticness of this static image; it became something on which to pin disgust, an easily shared and easily understood (to be awful) image that spurred more conversation on the soccer sidelines that any of the longer-form (and ostensibly more horrifying) recent reveals about the meat industry have done.

Thank you for such an inspiring post. I completely agree with you and the commentors above. The image is also a reminder of the weirdly fine line between the beauty and disgust of the science fictiony artificiality that you mention. The thought of having to eat that -also completely decontextualized- version of what used to be actual, mass-produced animals is disturbing. The image shows us the unmistakenly disgusting side of that artificiality, something that so many other images (and clinical discourses surrounding food) fall just short of. What's most revolting about that picture is the sadly familiar ideas and values it mirrors.

Sarah, I'll echo the thoughts of the other comments above and thank you for starting the theme week off so nicely. There are a few themes in your post that I want to highlight to see if we can bring them out for further discussion. What I was most struck by in your post was the connection you allude to between the decontextualization of the process of food production captured within the image, with the more general decontextualization of most consumers from their food. This is clearly an arresting image. The visually shocking depiction of something that we might be eating, coupled with the evocative re-labeling of the product as "pink slim," created quite an uproar across the US and no doubt caused many to reconsider the way they look at meat. In your final line, you suggest that the "pink slime" controversy might help push us to examine other industrialized processes within the meat industry. I wonder if the opposite might not happen. Since we have a largely alienated and deconxtextualized relationship to food already, it seems easy for people to compartmentalize "pink slime" as one problem in an otherwise acceptable industrial food system. Especially with the consequent push back against LFTB that saw it removed from many products (for example school lunches) there is the danger that people will be satisfied with the solitary win and not move further. Since food is already decontextualized for us, and this photo and the conversation about "pink slime' similarly decontextualize the product and process from the larger system, it seems unlikely that the critique and activism will move beyond the specific instance of "pink slime" to examine the dysfunctions of the food system itself. What do you think about that? Is the decontextualization a double-edged sword in this regard? On a related note, I'd also appreciate some additional thinking on the specifics of this image versus the discussion of LFTB. You mention that discourses about "pink slime" tended to help consumers conflate this image of MSP with LFTB, giving fuel to the movement to ban LFTB from school food. Was there a similar movement around MSP? If not, is this a symptom of the decontextualization discussed above? I'd be interested in your thoughts on the implications of the conflation you discuss above.

Sarah’s thought-provoking post and the comments from others raise interesting questions about the paradoxical nature of our relationships with food today. Although many people seem to be more concerned about what they eat, simultaneously there seems to be a disconnection between the final products consumed and the means of producing our food. Because much of our food, especially meat, comes pre-packaged in clear, shiny cellophane wrappers at supermarkets, we sometimes do not consider how it arrived there in the first place. In other words, the “pink slime” image demonstrates that the focus of our concern often becomes the outcome because that is what is most visible to us while the raw ingredients that go into the “slime,” the labor producing it, and the means of producing it all too often get overlooked. As far as the “end-results” of food consumption, this post also made me consider whether the visual aesthetics of “pink slime” and naming were vital reasons that there was such an outcry about it. In other words, if the pink slime were visually more aesthetically-pleasing or appetizing, would there have been as much concern? If the “pink slime” was labeled as being composed of products other than meat, would people have been more accepting of its use in the final products?

And sorry to be so late in responding to them; the site interruption kinda threw me off. You’re all articulating thoughts that I struggled to fit into this short post. In particular, Aaron, I think I was trying to telegraph the compartmentalizing effect you mention with my last paragraph and reference to Timothy Pachirat’s work, but didn’t quite get it across. I absolutely agree with you—the photo and accompanying media storm over pink slime invite a sort of collective venting, in which this one image/instance and our attendant disgust displace a potentially more meaningful critical reflection on system-wide “dysfunctions,” as you put it. One of the many contradictions I couldn’t manage to get in here is that, according to some sources, the process and ingredients of pink slime aren’t all that disgusting, relatively speaking (we eat a lot worse, basically). And yet, as Hannah points out, however problematic this displacement is, it does place some critical attention on the meat industry, which is nothing to scoff at. Here’s one view that hasn’t been expressed here: what if you find this image appetizing? One of my friends swears as much, and I don’t think he’s merely trying to be perverse. As Helle rightly suggested, the foam’s extreme artificiality dances a fine line between appealing and revolting. I’d be willing to bet that it falls on the revolting side for most folks, but that’s not to deny the potential appeal. This reminds me that, slime aside, the foam pictured here is not altogether unlike the gourmet foams made by molecular gastronomists. Likewise, the incorporation of body parts that (we would like to think) are normally cast off is not unlike the ethos of snout-to-tail butchery. Which I guess just brings me back to the rhetorical question of my title…

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