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Linda Thomas

Meet the man who called it 'pink slime'

Almost everyone has heard the name 'pink slime' which describes bits of cartilage, scrap cow parts and other chemically-treated parts that end up on U.S. ground beef. Most people don't know the name Gerald Zirnstein. He's the former government scientist who came up with that term.

Zirnstein is now unemployed. On his LinkedIn profile, Zirnstein says he is "pursuing a new career position" in the food, biotechnology or pharmaceutical industry.

He's been looking for a job since he blew the whistle on the U.S. Department of Agriculture's use of unlabeled beef by-products that were ending up in hamburgers in grocery stores, schools and fast food chains across the country.

PinkSlimeZirnstein says he made the pink slime reference to a fellow scientist in an internal, private email. That email became public, leading to outrage from consumer groups.

Since the story broke, all major grocery chains - including Safeway, Albertson's, QFC and Fred Meyer locally - have stopped buying the product the meat industry refers to as "finely textured beef."

Finely textured beef is made from beef trimmings that are heated to soften fat and then spun in a centrifuge to separate the meat. A puff of ammonium hydroxide, an ammonia and water mix, is used to kill bacteria.

The USDA at first said the product was safe, then decided to allow school districts to opt out of using the beef in school lunches. The government has at least seven million pounds of the stuff they were planning to ship to schools.

"You look through the regulations and a lot of that stuff was never approved for hamburger. It was under the radar," said the 54-year-old Zirnstein, who lives outside Washington, D.C. with his wife and 2-year-old son. "It's cheating. It's economic fraud," he told Reuters.

Zirnstein even worked in a meat plant growing up in Kansas. He has known about the "pink slime" since 2002 when he was working as a USDA food scientist and was assigned to a project to determine what was going into ground beef and whether the ingredients met federal regulations.

At the same time, the beef industry was asking the government to endorse a new product they called "lean finely textured beef" that was largely trimmings typically used for pet food and cooking oil. The USDA officials approved it.

Zirnstein says he was disgusted, and made his opinion known to co-workers in an email that called the processed product "pink slime." The email was later released to the New York Times as part of a Freedom of Information request for a 2009 investigative article on food safety. The newspaper article mentioned the slime reference in passing.

"I am really an involuntary whistleblower," says Zirnstein, who has no regrets about coming up with a name for the product which he's most upset about because "it isn't freaking labeled."

"It looks like pink slime," he says. "It is."

British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver also talked about the beef by-product on his show almost a year ago. In the video below, Oliver says 70 percent of America's beef is treated with ammonia.

Since all this talk about beef of questionable health and safety has come out, have you changed your eating habits?

By Linda Thomas

AP file photo

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About Linda
Linda is the morning news anchor and features reporter for KIRO Radio. This is her local news blog, with an emphasis on social media, technology, Northwest companies, education, parenting, and anything else that grabs her attention.

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