No Ethical Obligation to Label Pink Slime

So, unfortunately, we now all know what “pink slime” is. It’s the ‘lean finely textured beef‘ (LFTB) that is produced by mashing and sterilizing scraps of beef. It looks disgusting, and the production process is unappealing. But then the same could be said for a lot of food ingredients.

Public outrage has followed the revelation that LFTB is finding its way into school lunches and into packaged ground beef. There have been calls for a ban, and calls to require that products containing LFTB be labeled. Both ideas are unwarranted.

(I should point out I have no personal stake in this debate. I haven’t eaten beef in over 20 years. As far as I can tell, the complaint is very roughly that producers of ground beef are mixing in a little bit of what is essentially all-beef hot dog meat.)

Being against the use of LFTB in the food system is more or less equivalent to being in favour of waste. In producing LFTB, the beef industry is being efficient in harvesting every last shred of meat from a carcass. So banning pink slime could even be bad for the planet, since if you ban something used as a filler in ground beef, and if you don’t at the same time reduce the demand for ground beef, you need to raise more cattle in order to meet demand. And beef cattle, as we all know by now, are ecologically pretty bad.

And while we’re on the topic of alternatives, it’s worth reading what the Consumer Federation of America has to say. The CFA has released a statement (PDF) advocating for LFTB. The CFA notes that while LFTB may be “icky”, it is at least safe, and whatever filler hamburger makers use to replace it may well be less safe.

Still, even if LFTB is safe, and good for the planet, what about the right to choose? Why not label products containing LFTB so that consumers can choose? After all, in a free society it’s good for people to have choices, even if they are liable to make bad ones sometimes.

But as I’ve written before, there’s no blanket right to know what’s in the food you’re eating. Wanting something — including some piece of information — isn’t the same as having a right to it. If high-end food companies and retailers want proudly to label their products as “LFTB Free” or “Pink Slime Free,” they have (and should have) the right to. But that’s a far cry from forcing labelling, and even further from banning a product that is yucky, but useful.

About Chris MacDonald

I'm a philosopher who teaches at Ryerson University's Ted Rogers School of Management in Toronto, Canada. Most of my scholarly research is on business ethics and healthcare ethics.
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