Pink Slime: Psychology of the Ick Factor

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Pink slime has been getting a lot of publicity recently, none of it good.

The widely used beef and hamburger filler has parents and politicians upset, and an online petition created earlier this month urging the government to keep pink slime out of school lunches has a quarter of a million signatures and counting.

The processed product is defended by its manufacturers and the U.S. government as eco-friendly, allowing more of an animal's carcass to be used. It's not as nutritious or tasty as full meat tissue, but many foods contain harmless fillers.

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Pink slime sounds unappetizing, but it's been consumed for years. Though some have raised concerns about the safety of pink slime, there have been no reports of any problems or food contamination because of the substance.

Pink slime is regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which classifies it as "generally recognized as safe," a very common designation that applies to most foods we eat. Thus it's safe — or at least no less safe than any other consumer meat, which must be correctly refrigerated, prepared and cooked before eating.

The Ick Factor

The real problem with pink slime is the "Ick Factor" — it looks and sounds gross.

Part of the psychology behind the Ick Factor is labeling. The language we use when we identify things influences how we interpret them. As Shakespeare wrote, "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet."

We can call an old car "used" or "pre-owned;" we can call civilians killed in wartime "men, women and children" or "regrettable collateral damage." And we can call processed beef parts "pink slime" or "boneless lean beef trimmings."

It's only in recent years that psychologists have taken a serious look at what disgusts us.

Pink slime may not be appetizing, but it's not much more disgusting than what's in all-American hot dogs — you don't want to know what kind of "miscellaneous parts" go into those ballpark favorites.

Many people would be disgusted at the idea of eating another animal's skin and dermal fat — but they happily munch down pork rinds (made from fried skin), and leave the skin on cooked chicken and turkey.

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And let's not forget Jell-O brand gelatin, a favorite dessert since 1897. You can call it Jell-O, or you can call it flavored and colored powdered cow bones, cartilage, and intestines. Gelatin is made from collagen, an animal tissue (which is why many strict vegans refuse to eat it).

Feeding ground-up cow meat to children is a disgusting outrage, but feeding ground-up cow bones to kids is a delicious treat on a hot summer day.

For some consumers the issue is labeling, and having the right to know what's in the food they consume. It's a fair point, but ultimately the debate about the future of pink slime should rest on the science of safety instead of the psychology of disgust. Food processing — and especially meat processing — isn't pretty no matter what you call it or how you do it.