NEW YORK — "Pink slime" was almost "pink paste" or "pink goo."
The microbiologist who coined the term for lean finely textured beef ran through a few iterations in his head before pressing send on an email to a co-worker at the U.S. Department of Agriculture a decade ago. Then, the name hit him like heartburn after a juicy burger.
"It's pink. It's pasty. And it's slimy looking. So I called it pink slime," said Gerald Zirnstein, the former meat inspector at the USDA. "It resonates, doesn't it?"
The pithy description fueled an uproar that resulted in the main company behind the filler, Beef Products Inc., closing three meat plants this month. The controversy over the filler, which is made of fatty bits of beef that are heated and treated with ammonium to kill bacteria, shows how a simple nickname can forever change an entire industry.
In fact, beef filler had been used for decades before the nickname came about. But most Americans didn't know — or care — about it before Zirnstein's vivid moniker was quoted in a 2009 article by The New York Times on the safety of meat processing methods.
Soon afterward, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver began railing against it. McDonald's and other fast food companies later discontinued their use of it. And major supermarket chains including Kroger and Stop & Shop vowed to stop selling beef with the low-cost filler.The author of the term "pink slime" makes no apologies about his creation. Zirnstein, who has since left the USDA, said he thinks "pink slime" is a better descriptor than "lean finely textured beef."
"It says it's lean. Great. But it doesn't describe what kind of lean it is," said Zirnstein, who doesn't think the product should be mixed into beef. "Textured. What does that mean?"