The taste of pink slime

Posted on January 17, 2018

Several coauthors and I have an article out today in PLOS ONE where we test whether ground beef containing a certain amount of finely textured beef (better known as pink slime) has a different taste.

You may remember the ‘scandal’ years ago about pink slime. My view is that the media gave a very distorted view of pink slime and its consequences for food safety. A court agreed, as one of the companies hurt by the news coverage forced Walt Disney Co. (who owns ABC News) to pay a settlement of $1.9 billion.

Finely textured beef (FTB) is making a comeback, being mixed with other beef trimmings to make ground beef. The benefits are many. It reduces food waste, lowers the price of beef, and makes it easier to produce lean ground beef. Some companies have even claimed that it improves the taste of ground beef, making it more tender.

Could this be true? Can this thing called ‘pink slime’ really taste good? That is what we set about to test. We asked individuals to taste beef patty samples that had

  • no FTB
  • 15% FTB by weight
  • more than 15% by weight (the exact percentage is proprietary)

The most important thing about the experiment you need to know is that it was a blind taste test. The subjects had no idea that we were studying FTB, and had no idea how the three beef samples differed.

Below is a figure depicting the three types of taste-tests we conducted.

(1) Taste-test of plain beef samples

First we asked subjects to taste bite-size pieces of ground beef, with no seasoning, not even salt. After tasting each of the three samples, they were asked to rate its tenderness, juiciness, flavor, and overall satisfaction on a scale of 1 (dislike extremely) to 9 (like extremely).

The results, shown below, show that subjects like all three levels of FTB about the same. There is some weak evidence that beef with 15% FTB has a higher tenderness rating than the other two levels of FTB, but there was no statistically significant differences in juiciness, flavor, or overall satisfaction.

This is interesting, but how relevant is this experiment? I mean, who actually eats plain ground beef? This is America! We eat ground beef with lots of ketchup, chili powder, and veggies (note: veggies should only be eaten as part of a hamburger or taco).

(2) Sliders

To perform the experiment in a more realistic setting, we gave subjects three ground beef patties, each with a different level of FTB, and asked them to make identical sliders (small hamburgers) with them. We had nearly every conceivable topping they could want, as well as drinks and side items. They were then asked to take a bite out of each slider and rate its overall satisfaction. Once this was completed for all three sliders we allowed them to finish their meal, and once the meal was complete, they were asked to rate each slider again.

As before, they didn’t know the difference between the burgers, or that we were studying FTB. All they knew was that each patty was distinguished by a different color toothpick.

The results are shown below. Not only are the ratings nearly identical, the differences are not statistically different. Clearly, consumers like hamburgers the same regardless of whether it contains no FTB or 15% FTB. So pink slime doesn’t improve the taste of ground beef, when eaten as a hamburger, but it doesn’t degrade its taste either.

(3) Hypothetical choice experiment

Finally we presented the subjects with a [hypothetical] choice between the three ground beef types, and varied the price of each type to see if they would be willing to pay more for one type of the ground beef than another.

The table below shows both the setup of the choice experiments and the results. Remember, the subjects didn’t know the beef types differed by FTB. They only knew that one had a red toothpick, one had a blue toothpick, and one had a green toothpick. Whenever two or more ground beef types had the same price, roughly the same percentage of subjects choose it. This means that subjects were indifferent between the taste of ground beef made with different levels of FTB.

What we learned

Though there is some evidence that plain beef samples are more tender when it contains finely textured beef, that evidence is weak, and for the most part consumers like the taste of beef the same regardless of whether it has no FTB or 15% FTB.

Of course, if consumers knew that some beef patties were 15% made from this stuff the media calls ‘pink slime’ they would probably like the patties with beef slime less. That’s just the nature of humans. Give someone two identical tomatoes, and tell them one is organic and the other isn’t, they will say they like the taste of the organic tomato better even though their chemical composition is the same. Taste is not separate from psychology, as taste is both a physical and a mental sensation.

However, as long as consumers don’t know that ‘pink slime’ is being added to traditional ground beef, they won’t be able to tell that anything has changed. After all, FTB may be finely textured beef, but it’s still just beef.

Note: the authors received no payment from any company for conducting this research.

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