The internet uproar over pink slime seems to have started as a low rumble stemming from a less-than-accurate folk horror narrative that made the email and Facebook rounds many months ago.  That particular story, which included a laundry list of titillating, ghastly assertions, including one that mechanically separated meat contained, for lack of a better description, chicken lips and assholes, could be debunked in large part with a simple search at snopes.com.

But after a brief lull in the slimy action, during which concerned citizens, cyber-sleuths, and enterprising op/ed columnists presumably did some actual research, pink slime came roaring back into the internet consciousness. Appropriately dire articles started appearing everywhere, including in ostensibly legitimate, definitely link-ready news sources like the Huffington Post.

Furthermore, this new onslaught came with a hook.  A hook that would not be ignored.  A hook that put the scandal of ground-up chicken bones and buttholes to shame:

Buttholes or not, they are feeding this stuff to our schoolchildren.  THE CHILDREN.

Much to many food activists’ delight, the internet uproar over this revelation appears to be on the verge of destabilizing the whole pink slime industry, potentially stalling its growth and putting people out of jobs–or at least assuring it will not create any more jobs. The pink slime industry worries it’s a plot of some kind (by whom, they are willing to pay to find out, and have even demanded an inquest), while long-suffering (and now vindicated, to hear them tell it) food activists believe it’s evidence of a triumphant David vs. Goliath social media campaign, and that commercial upheaval represents an unavoidable growing pain of a much-needed food revolution:

What’s amazing about the current social media revolution is that it is bringing to pass something that food activists have been dreaming about for decades: If only consumers were more informed about the nature of the industrial food system, they would change their behavior. Well, guess what, with a little help from grass-roots viral marketing, the activists turn out to have been right.

No matter what, people seem attached to the notion that there is an agent involved. That someone is doing this to pink slime, for better or worse.

And yet, I suspect that underneath the awareness narrative that permeates justifications and attempts to legitimize Facebook and other social networking sites as substantive agents of positive social change, there is some kind of very weird cultural rocking behavior at work.  I’m not the first to note that the American middle class seems, as of late, unusually obsessed with food and its connection to everything from actual wellness to international politics.

Pink slime.  Monsanto.  Gluten-free.  High fructose corn syrup.  Mutant corn. Raw diets. Organic.  Fake organic vs. real organic.  Probiotics.

And, a twist:  The fixation is not just upon human food.  There are pet food versions of just about every single one of these nutritional issues.  Google “pet food controversy,” “dog food controversy,” or even “dog has terrible gas” and you’ll find articles like What’s Really in Pet Food, and dozens of message board discussions about dog food allergies, probiotics, and the mother of all dog-feeding controversies:  Raw (“evo”) diet vs. Commercial dog food.  The concerns here are identical to the concerns generally expressed by human food activists:  What is this stuff, who is making it, why is it so cheap, is it what that animal is “designed” to eat, who is profiting?

Something other–or something more–is at work than just the overdue nutritional enlightenment of a formerly bamboozled and ignorant population.  It’s something that we do without doing it–a cultural action that is at once the result of individual behaviors and totally out of any individual’s or group of individuals’ actual control.

Something unexpected, maybe, like folk behavior and superstition.  Fear of the unknown.  The same kinds of things that (in part) give us religious behavior and inspire us to buy creepy rabbits’ feet from carnies next to the bingo tent.  Secular voodoo.  Zeitgeist.

But it’s not bad luck or the devil we’re trying to keep at bay.  Or is it?

There is a seeming concurrence of emergent scientifically-backed information about the dangers of certain foods and a rise in the appeal of holistic medical approaches and preventatives,  the efficacy (or even safety) of which, ironically, may enjoy little or no scientific backing at all.  Science will stop us from eating Twinkies, but a lack of science won’t stop us from spending our paychecks at GNC.

Enter Harvey Levenstein:

[The] erosion of the reassuring personal relationships between sellers and buyers made them particularly susceptible to food scares. The media now became their major source of information about the safety of their food. Since much of this information was now scientific in origin, it was therefore the middle-class media — “quality” newspapers and magazines, and, later, radio and television news and public affairs shows — that played the major roles in disseminating it.

The residual Puritanism of the American middle class also helped make them susceptible to food fears. A culture that for hundreds of years encouraged people to feel guilty about self-indulgence, one that saw the road to salvation as paved by individual self-denial, made them particularly receptive to calls for self-sacrifice in the name of healthy living.

Levenstein isn’t talking about the first decades of the 21st century. He’s talking about the first decades of the 20th century–decades that witnessed a bizarre and fanatical health craze among middle and upper class (white) Americans.  This paranoid trend toward a disingenuous kind of bourgeois asceticism–a circus of lifestyle contortions involving strange exercises, medical machines, and rigid dietary restrictions–was depicted in Alan Parker’s 1994 The Road to Wellville, a comedic dramatization of the daily sexually-repressed goings-on of a holistic sanitarium run by enema-obsessed Dr. John Harvey Kellogg (THAT Kellogg).

One particular line resonates: “Health!  The open sesame to a sucker’s purse!”

Maybe it’s plain old social classism & snobbery.

To that effect, in Slate, Libby Copeland offers the following, from a demonstrative and especially interesting article on the social politics (historically and currently) of white bread:

…our choices about what we eat get mixed up with our perceptions of what is moral. “Today,” Bobrow-Strain writes, “showing interest in healthy eating is an essential piece of the performance of eliteness.” That’s why celebrities call their crash diets “cleanses,” and vegetables are confused with virtuousness. Food is shorthand for values.

While I recognize that it would be willful ignorance to deny that there are any number of entities out there that stand to benefit–and actively pursue benefiting–from serving the American public less-than-healthful, unappealing, or even dangerous low cost food, it is no secret that healthy living in 2012 is a seriously costly endeavor and a booming industry in and of itself.

I can’t help but wonder what other similarities there are to be drawn between the puritanical, guilt-ridden, health-obsessed middle-class American populations of 1912 and our…um…perfectly reasonable, even-keeled, and aware middle-class American population of 2012.

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BECKY PALAPALA is the author of many unpublished poems, diatribes, and terse letters, which she holds captive in a homely tote bag in her bedroom. The poems that escaped can be found in online publication at Strix Varia, Paper Darts, and in other nooks and crannies of the internet. In 2008-2009, she served as a poetry editor for Ivory Tower. After an iliadic battle with higher education, Becky graduated with a B.A. in English Literature in the spring of 2010. She currently lives with her husband, daughter, and dog on the outskirts of the Twin Cities, where she pines for her rivertown home and attempts to befriend the rabbit that lives in her yard.

5 responses to “Pink Slime Tsnewsami and the American Food Contamination Fetish”

  1. Before moving to Korea and coming to accept that dog and jellyfish will find their way into my stomach on a daily basis, and later coming to China and finding things like fake eggs and recycled buns (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/08/world/asia/08food.html) I used to care about stuff like what I was eating and why. I worked on an organic farm, ate and organic diet, and read books about why it’s evil to eat stuff that wasn’t made 2 miles from your doorstep.

    Now I don’t bat an eyelid when they tell me that the battery factory has been leaking into the rice fields, or that the milk plant has been serving up heavy metals, or even when I’m eating and the chef’s helping his child take a shit on the street in front of the restaurant.

    Man, I’d love some pink slime.

    • Becky says:

      Man, if we can say anything, it’s that we can count on Asia to make American food paranoia look like the nervous knuckle-wringing of elderly bitties.

      Fake eggs! Unreal.

      At least the pink slime is clean! We know that. They cleaned it all up with some ammonia! 🙂

  2. Richard says:

    This is a well considered essay on the reality of healthy eating versus the perception of such. I think the folks who don’t care what’s in McDonald’s food–who for example purposes only we might consider the lower class–are not really much different, intellectually, than those who blindly shop at Whole Foods because they believe the food there is automatically, if not magically “good” for them (the “higher” class). Picking food without understanding what’s in it goes both ways. And of course there is the preening that goes on once you walk in the door. “Look at me, I’m in Whole Foods, and I love being surrounded by all these other awesome folks who are just like me.” (Disclaimer: I love Whole Foods.)

    For me, eating intelligently (“healthily”) means knowing what’s in your food and choosing appropriately. The only way to purchase food grown or raised by others in this way is for the labels to be accurate. This is the problem I have with any food supplier/retailer, including those who include mechanically separated meat in their products. Let me know what’s in there, up to and including ammonia. Provide some understanding of what an acceptable amount of ammonia might be. Be transparent about it.

    I think the reason so many people look at large food suppliers (and large corporations in general, for that matter) is they feel like those who run these institutions will hide any negative details to make an extra nickel from the consumer. Naturally, health issues get more attention from us, but I think distrust of very large, for-profit organisms runs rampant these days.

    Except Apple. Everyone loves Apple.

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