A few days ago, I got a few chicken tacos from my local Taco Bell, fixed like I always have them fixed–just chicken and cheese. (It’s been months since I’ve eaten the beef at Taco Bell because the quality has REALLY gone down, at least in my opinion–more about that later.) But the chicken has usually been a refuge for me.
I bit into the first of my tacos, only to realize that the chicken had an unusual sharp flavor, almost a cleaning-product flavor. Not only that, but it was oddly-textured. One more bite, and I realized there was another dimension to the bad taste–it tasted off, as if it had been kept past its expiration date.
As I peered into the depths of the taco shell, wondering if I’d gotten hold of some strange ingredient by mistake, a piece of “chicken” fell out…and it didn’t look the slightest bit like chicken. Instead, it looked like something that had been formed into the vague shape of chicken pieces. The color was nearly pure white–it almost looked like meat fat that had been reshaped.
I honestly don’t know what I got hold of that day, but all three of my tacos were like this–I tried bites out of each one, in the hope that maybe only one or two was affected. That wasn’t the case. Unfortunately, it was what I had spent my eating money on that day and I had long since left the store, so I had to try to salvage what I could of the meal. I ended up eating around the meat entirely and just throwing away the horrible “meat” product I had been served.
This disgusting taste, plus the slight nausea and dizziness I experienced about an hour and a half after eating what I could, convinced me that I had gotten hold of something terrible. And it looked and tasted a lot like what most people are describing as “white slime.”
What Exactly IS “White Slime?
The technical term is “mechanically separated chicken” (some pictures are available here). During mechanical separation, meat is basically sieved like flour (just under really high pressure) to get all the bones out, making it look a lot like meaty cake batter.
While the process sounds (and is) a little disgusting, in ways, it’s a more efficient way to get all the meat off an animal carcass, and it does reduce waste. And, after all, mechanically separated meat forms bologna and hot dogs, two things I’ve eaten in great quantities most of my life. In fact, this process has probably helped food prices over the years since it was introduced back in the late 1960s, according to the Wikipedia article.
So What’s the Big Deal?
There have been health concerns about MSM before, especially concerning connections between mechanically separated beef and mad cow disease. But, since outlawing beef from mechanical separation, this has been widely reduced. Unfortunately, keeping mad cow disease out of the meat does not stop other health concerns. The standout issue to me is that both mechanically separated chicken (“white slime”) and pork (“pink slime”) are treated with ammonia to kill bacteria before being packaged.
Knowing that ammonia is poisonous, and knowing that it’s used in a lot of industrial-strength cleaning supplies, this bothers me. Is ammonia what I was tasting in those tacos? Was the meat perhaps treated a little stronger with “bacteria-killing” solution to disguise the fact that it was a little past its expiration date, perhaps?
I worry that the addition of ammonia is actually making the meat product less nutritious and more poisonous. Whatever was in those tacos (whether it was simply spoiled meat, ammonia-treated meat, or a combination of the two), it did make me nauseated and dizzy afterwards, and I don’t usually react badly to any food. I don’t have the answers, but I do have some disturbing questions which need to be answered. Are we cutting corners too much just to make a profit, if slightly-spoiled or over-treated meat products are now being served?
The Wider Picture: General Fast-Food Quality
In the last few years, quality in fast-food cuisine has gone measurably down–I used to love Taco Bell’s ground beef, for instance, but ever since they got sued over it recently, the taste is no longer rich and slightly spicy, but kinda flat and over-reheated. Most people I talk to don’t seem to notice a difference, but then again, I get my tacos without lettuce, tomato, and sour cream, so the flavor of the meat itself is not overshadowed for me. I’m left wondering what exactly I’ve been eating all these years, to be honest.
It’s not just Taco Bell, though; foods at other fast-food restaurants that I used to love are no longer as good as what I remember, and I’m a very picky/sensitive eater, so I pick up on taste subtleties more often. The “cleaning flavor” has been sneaking into other types of food, too, and I’m wondering if the addition of ammonia is as necessary as people make it out to be.
Now, I know fast food is definitely not health food, but at least it’s supposed to taste like food, right? Even if what I got in those terrible tacos wasn’t “white slime,” I’d like to know what it was (or what it was supposed to be). The production of “white slime” and “pink slime,” while having existed for decades, seems to have taken a turn for the worse, and I’m afraid it’s mostly because of the bottom line.
More (and professional) research is needed to discover whether these strange tastes are a result of individual franchisees trying to stretch their dollar, or whether corporations are trying to cut corners to make a little more profit. But I really hope we all can get to the bottom of why cheap food production seems to be going a little too cheap. After all, when one cannot afford to eat anywhere but fast-food places, as is increasingly the case, that cheap and available food should still be edible!
For More Information
Mechanically-separated meat (MSM) article @ Wikipedia
Meat Product Chart @ ProPublica
Specified Risk Material article @ Wikipedia
Meat slurry article @ Wikipedia
Pink and White Slime: Videos @ Gothamist