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Published April 23, 2012, 08:21 AM

By the way, which one's pink?

YANKTON, S.D. — Actually, there’s something encouraging cooking in the current uproar over “pink slime” — or, excuse me, lean, finely textured beef.

By: Kelly Hertz, Agweek

YANKTON, S.D. — Actually, there’s something encouraging cooking in the current uproar over “pink slime” — or, excuse me, lean, finely textured beef.

This is the kind of controversy that’s tailor-made for modern American attention spans, which tend to quickly lurch between exciting sensations (Jeremy Lin’s 15 minutes of “Linsanity”) to snapshot tragedies (the Trayvon Martin death in Florida) and back again. Somewhere in the middle, we have these cries of protest over the presence of a chemically treated meat product in our food system.

Pink slime is a beef filler product made of fatty trimmings, which are more prone to salmonella and E. coli contamination. To neutralize this, the product is sprayed with ammonia and then mixed with ground beef. According to a recent ABC News report, this filler — called lean, finely textured beef, or LFTB — can legally constitute up to 15 percent of ground beef without any additional labeling.

It was ABC News that unleashed the pink slime hysteria in March when it reported that 70 percent of the ground beef sold in U.S. supermarkets contained the filler — even meat that was labeled as “100 percent ground beef.” It also was reported that the product was used in some school lunch programs. From there, it blew up fast: I hadn’t heard of it until someone contacted us wondering if the Yankton (S.D.) School District used the stuff.

The uproar turned into public outrage in breathtaking speed, and forced the product’s maker, Beef Products Inc., with headquarters in Dakota Dunes, S.D., to suspend production at three of its four plants, leaving the plant in South Sioux City, Neb., open. Many people are at least temporarily out of work as a result.

It was at South Sioux City that Govs. Terry Branstad of Iowa, Rick Perry of Texas and Sam Brownback of Kansas, along with Lt. Govs. Matt Michels of South Dakota and Rick Sheehy of Nebraska, convened to defend the now-controversial product. They even came up with a slogan imprinted on T-shirts: “Dude, it’s beef!” Branstad also called for a congressional inquiry over the pink slime smear campaign, a description that is too nauseating for me to pass up here.

This story is generating headlines, as if our food supply and our stomachs were suddenly coming under attack.

But what has been less of a headline is the fact that none this is particularly new.

This filler product has been around for a decade; indeed, a USDA microbiologist coined the term pink slime 10 years ago. Also, it was the subject of a critical report by the New York Times in 2009. And the well-publicized dropping of the filler by several large supermarket chains and by McDonald’s happened last year — all to the sound of bored silence from consumers whose only concern was probably that the word “Soylent” doesn’t appear on their meat labels.

In fact, the issue of meatpacker “sleight of hand” with products has a long history. Bloomberg News recently recounted a historic furor over meat processing that occurred in 1906 after the publication of Sinclair Lewis’ “The Jungle,” a devastating exposé on the plight of immigrant workers in the meatpacking industry. Lewis also offered glorious details of how aging, rotted beef was repurposed: “There would come back from Europe old sausage that had been rejected, and that was mouldy and white — it would be dosed with borax and glycerine, and dumped in the hoppers, and made over again for human consumption.” Lewis referred to this dubious meat product as, curiously enough, “filler.” (One of the upshots from that public uprising was immediate federal action — remember, this was the vigorous era of President Theodore Roosevelt and a Congress that actually did things — which laid the groundwork for what, years later, became the Food and Drug Administration.

So, where on earth is the encouragement in all this?

First, it’s encouraging that people are getting excited about what’s in our beef supply, because it shows that they are actually taking an interest in where their food is coming from. As Mark Bittman of the New York Times noted recently, the Web has helped mobilize public curiosity and response in a way rarely seen before. He offered this observation from a food safety lawyer: “Before the Internet, companies and governments simply made decisions, assuming the public didn’t need to know or even care what was in their food. That is no longer the case.” Perhaps there’s some good that can come from a public that is made more aware of its food supply and facts about it, such as where it comes from and what it takes to produce it. For farmers, this could work as an opportunity.

Also, it has to be remembered that pink slime actually represents an effort to make safer food. It isn’t perfect, but many other processed foods could fall in this same category. Bittman noted that the safety part of the LFTB process may generally be working, citing a Centers for Disease Control report showing that incidents of E. coli O157:H7 illnesses have dropped 48 percent in the last decade.

So, perhaps the LFTB controversy represents a momentum toward Americans caring and understanding more about what they eat, which may even result in the pursuit of healthier foods, both by consumers and producers. And that may eventually be the biggest headline of all to emerge from this overcooked episode.

Editor’s Note: Hertz is managing editor of the Yankton (S.D.) Press & Dakotan. This piece originally appeared in the Press & Dakotan.