Pink Slime and Cochineal Bugs: The “Ick” Factor

by Shara Evans on May 2, 2012

Ignoring the crazy weather that March and April generated, the past two months have been particularly interested in the health world, as the United States population finally paid attention to just what exactly was in their processed food, namely, Lean Finely Textured Beef also known “affectionately” as Pink Slime.  Public attention appears to have been raised by an article published by ABC News, which claimed that 70 percent of ground beef in supermarkets contained the stuff. If you haven’t seen the video that goes along with it,  let me just give you a ‘taste’:

“Pink slime” is beef trimmings. Once only used in dog food and cooking oil, the trimmings are now sprayed with ammonia so they are safe to eat and added to most ground beef as a cheaper filler…. [USDA Scientists] warned against using what the industry calls “lean finely textured beef,” widely known now as “pink slime,” but their government bosses overruled them.”

Sounds pretty terrifying, right? It turns out that there are several every day products we eat that top ground beef in ammonia content.  So if it isn’t the potential health risks that upset consumers, what is it?  I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that, like me, most people find the idea of my cheeseburgers coming out of a soft serve machine to be more than a little disturbing.

In fact, so many consumers expressed concern and discomfort with the idea, that three primary manufacturers of pink slime have suspended production. Beef Products Inc  (BPI) halted production at three of its four plants and announced a campaign to restore confidence in the product.  Cargill has also cut production significantly, amid warnings of higher hamburger prices this summer and AFA filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy at the beginning of April.  Not to mention the swarm of fast food chains, beef producers, food distributors and restaurants who jumped off the bandwagon as well (McDonalds, Burger King, Tyson Foods, Safeway and Winn-Dixie to name a few). Even Walmart will be offering slime-free meat in the future.

So if all of this upheaval is due to the sheer “Ick Factor” of Pink Slime, what else is out there that might be able to create an equal level of controversy? The media has obligingly begun trumpeting a new cause in food safety, but this time it’s something far more upsetting than our hamburgers put at risk, it’s our Strawberry Frappucinos.

A barista working at Starbucks noticed that the company had recently switched to cochineal extract as the dye in their Strawberry Frappucino mix, as well as three other products at Starbucks.  As the barista was also vegan (and cochineal extract is apparently not), she sent a warning to the vegan community via the This Dish is Veg website, and from there it got picked up by several news agencies such as NPR, CBS, and USA Today. However, it wasn’t Starbucks’ suddenly non-vegan dye that caught the media’s attention.

In black and white, cochineal extract is made from crushed insects.  More specifically, crushing cochineal insects extracts the dye, which is a natural defense mechanism of the cochineal. The mixture is then filtered to remove the insect remains, leaving a pure form of the dye.  Much the same as pink slime, when faced directly with knowledge on where their food comes from, many consumers have found themselves not quite as desperate for that next Strawberry and Crème Frappe.

Starbucks has responded, stating that they switched the strawberry dye to cochineal extract as a way to move away from artificial dyes and will be phasing it out in favor of lycopene, which is tomato-based. But I imagine that many will be thinking twice before ordering up a Venti next time they’re at Starbucks.

Pink slime was approved for human consumption in 2001, but cochineal extract has been used since long before then. Although it dates back to the 15th century as a textile dye, it gained prominence as an additive to consumables in the 1980s. Today, it’s used not only in Starbucks Drinks, it’s also used in yogurts, juices, sausage and artificial crab.  The dye is  also heavily used in  pharmaceuticals and cosmetics. So what does all of this mean? Are consumers suddenly starting to pay more attention to what they eat?

My guess is that “Look what companies are putting in your food NOW!” is too tempting a byline for reporters, bloggers and everyone else to pass up, so more stories are sure to follow. What other food additives out there have the “Ick Factor” that media sensationalism craves?  No doubt we’ll hear soon enough…..



Images are all used from the Wikimedia Commons and are free for public use:

Ground Beef:

Cochineal bugs:

Related posts:

  1. Pink Slime and ammonia consumption – the numbers

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Amy May 2, 2012 at 3:44 pm

Just so you know, the photo of your so-called pink slime, is mechanically separated chicken. This is not BPI’s lean finely textured beef.


Shara Evans May 3, 2012 at 2:07 pm

Appologies, I should have double checked the image first. I’ve changed the image as well to avoid any confusion.



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