Pink slime needs to fire its agent and hire the guy who reps sweetbreads.
Pink slime is the unfortunately evocative name for ground-up beef scraps, fat and connective tissue that is heated and spritzed with ammonia before making its way to our plates. It's also known as "lean, finely textured beef," which is less disgusting, but not evasive enough to shield it from a blogging mom in Texas, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver and ABC News, all of whom contributed to the stuff being bounced from countless grocery stores and Congress demanding the USDA ban it from school lunches.
The tale of pink slime is being widely touted as a coup for social media. ("Pink slime outrage goes viral in stunning display of social media's power," announced the Washington Post.) "Pink slime" has frequently been the day's top Google search term in recent weeks.
We prefer to think of it as a coup for descriptive language.
Sweetbreads are the thymus gland of a young animal, usually a calf. "Neither sweet nor bread," says Merriam-Webster.com, which placed the delicacy at the summit of its Top 10 Surprising Food Words list. No. 4 on the same list: Rocky Mountain Oysters. "These oval delicacies are the testicles of any of various animals—sheep, bull calf, mountain goat—found in the Rockies."
Foie gras is the liver of a force-fed duck. Headcheese is a loaf of hog parts (including, but not limited to, feet.) Hot dogs are, well, they're too many things to list here. But some of those things would make pink slime blush.
"This is all about euphemism," says Craig Sirles, associate professor of English at DePaul University. "The meat industry uses the euphemism lean finely textured beef for a product that is essentially what's left over after the butchering process, except that it's been liquefied. The public calls it what it looks like—pink slime.
"The old term 'offal' refers to various viscera, organs and other leftover product from butchering; the meat industry now uses the term 'variety meats,'" Sirles says. "The etymology of offal underscores its unappealing nature: it comes from the Middle English word that literally meant "to fall off."
Other dishes that go by more pleasing monikers?
"Chilean sea bass," Sirles says, "which is actually Patagonian toothfish—how many people would order toothfish in a restaurant? And squab—that's a pigeon.
"French gastronomical terms often allow us to feast on things that don't sound very pleasant in English," he adds. "Escargot rather than snails or joues de boeuf en daube rather than ox cheeks."
The meat-processing industry and the governors from meat-producing states are trying to undo the linguistic damage, countering "pink slime" with a "Dude, it's beef" campaign, complete with T-shirts. But it may be too late.
"The pink slime genie is out of the bottle and it's almost impossible to get it back in," says Jim Motzer, a public relations instructor at DePaul who teaches crisis management courses.
"The greatest parallel I can think of is high fructose corn syrup," Motzer says."'High fructose' sounds bad and junky and as much as science supports that the body processes it just like any other processed sugar, consumers can't get over that mental block of equating it with junk food."
On its retaliatory website, beefisbeef.com, the beef industry defends pink slime from an intellectual standpoint (scientists call it safe), as well as an emotional standpoint (it's a sustainable practice, farmers do it, it creates jobs).
"But if you're a mom and you hear the term pink slime," Motzer says, "it doesn't matter if the greatest scientists on Earth say it's safe. You're like, 'It's pink slime. I'm not touching it.'"
Language is particularly critical when it's applied to food, Motzer says. "Food is so emotional. We put it inside our bodies, so there's the intellectual, but the emotional is so strong."
"There's nothing good about the word 'slime' when you're talking about food. As my colleague said, it's basically onomatopoeic."