Fast Food Myths Debunked: The Story Of Pink Slime, Grade D Meat, and Fake Onions

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Fast food restaurants are an easy target for urban legends. The combination of cheap, quick, and impossibly uniform meals generates a lot of suspicion. How could they pull it off without strange ingredients or crazy chemicals, right?

Actually, you’d be surprised at how normal fast food meals really are. The truth is these companies aren’t cooking up anything out of the ordinary. But where’s the fun in that? While it’s definitely more exciting to tell tales of supposed disgusting ingredients, here are a few fast food myths that you should probably know aren’t true.

1. Is Taco Bell beef “grade D” meat?

The first Taco Bell opened its doors in 1962 in Downey, California. Restaurateur Glen Bell attempted a few other food-related entrepreneurial businesses before creating the now-famous fast food giant. Bell’s tacos were so popular that he started a franchise only two years after opening his first restaurant, and the rest is history.

Taco Bell has been going strong since the 1960s, and now has over 7,000 locations. They recently changed their logo for the first time in 20 years and launched a rebranding campaign at their newest cantina location in Vegas. Taco Bell is bringing Tex-Mex into the future with on-site swag, new digital menu boards, more transparency with their ingredients and kitchens, and even tapas options.

But Taco Bell’s history hasn’t just been full of fun and Nachos Bell Grande. Back in 2011, a lawsuit was filed claiming the “beef” the restaurant was serving its customers was only 35 percent meat. Other claims began circulating, saying the meat was in fact “grade D”, that it was only fit for dog or cats to eat, and that soon the Bell would be closing its doors.

The lawsuit was eventually dropped, and Taco Bell has been open about their seasoned beef, stating that the composition of the meat is 88 percent USDA inspected beef, and 12 percent water, spices, and some preservatives. To set the story straight, the company launched an ad campaign explaining their ingredients.

Yes, there are some fillers in Taco Bell’s meat, but you’re getting real beef, pork, and chicken. Incidentally, Taco Bell representatives declined to comment for this story. But their ad campaign presents their side of the story quite clearly.

“Our beef is 100 percent USDA inspected, just like the quality beef you buy in a supermarket and prepare in your home,” the ad says. “The only reason we add anything to our beef is to give the meat flavor and quality … So here are the REAL percentages. 88% Beef and 12% Secret Recipe.”

2. Do White Castle sliders contain real onions?

If you’ve never experienced a late night Crave Case run, you’re missing out. White Castle belly bombers have been a staple of the midwest since 1921. Their small square burgers can be bought by the dozen and are the perfect cap to a night out. 

A White Castle burger is unique in shape, size, and flavor. These tiny sliders fit in the palm of your hand, are made from square patties, and come topped with their signature grilled onions. It doesn’t get much more American than tiny hamburgers you can enjoy by the fistful. However, some strange rumors began circulating regarding the onions found on top of each burger—that they might not be onions at all. 

The first peek of this rumor can be found on the Snopes message board back in 2006. People were claiming the onions added to the sliders weren’t onions at all, but pieces of cabbage soaked in onion juice. This rumor has been following the fast food chain since, despite White Castle denying the use of cabbage year after year. You can see onions listed as an ingredient on the restaurant’s website. Their Vice President Jamie T. Richardson denies the use of cabbage. 

“I confirm 100 percent we use onions, not cabbage, in the sacred art of slider preparation,” Richardson tells Urbo. Rest assured everyone, your beloved sliders are still full oniony goodness.

3. Are some burgers made of “pink slime?”

Before 2012, not many people seemed too interested in the process their burgers and hot dogs went through before arriving on their plates. They didn’t need to see how the sausage was made, you could say. Or maybe people didn’t think they should have to think much of that process, so they didn’t. Then an ABC new story broke about “pink slime,” and everything changed.

Technically, the first time the words “pink slime” appeared in the media was back in 2009. The New York Times published a story about the processing plant Beef Products Inc., and their sanitation method for killing dangerous bacteria like E. coli and salmonella…a process that basically included dumping ammonia on the meat.

In this story, Beef Products Inc. has just started processing fatty meat trimmings, which were originally only used for pet food or cooking oils. BPI made these trimmings, also known as lean finely textured beef, into a mashable substance, used the ammonia treatment to sanitize the product, and used it as filler in ground beef packages for grocery stores, fast food chains, and even the federal lunch program.

This filler lowers the fat content in ground beef, and no labeling is required on products that contain this specific type of processed beef. The lack of label regulation is what upset microbiologist Gerald Zirnstein, who used the term “pink slime” in an email back in 2002. But when ABC’s story broke in 2012, BPI was under attack. The story focused on the unsavory look and texture of the processed meat, introducing the term “pink slime” into the lexicon. This colorful nickname and the associated ammonia treatment created panic and outrage in consumers across the country.

However unsightly pink slime—sorry, “lean finely textured beef”—may be, BPI isn’t doing anything illegal, and its products are safe to eat. Companies use the ammonia treatment in many other processed foods. Still, the backlash was considerable. People drew up petitions to get the pink slime out of school lunches, and many fast food restaurants and stores stopped using BPI products. Because of this, BPI took a massive financial hit. They felt ABC had targeted them specifically and created an unnecessary panic about their products, and the company filed a lawsuit against the news agency. The Walt Disney Company, ABC News’ parent, later admitted to settling the lawsuit for at least $177 million.

Of course, transparency should be taken very seriously in the food industry, and consumers do have the right to know what they’re eating. However, BPI isn’t the only company who uses by-products, chemical treatments, or questionable/grotesque ingredients. How is it fair to single them out?

4. Do McDonald’s hamburgers rot?

Come one, come all, and gaze upon the mummified hamburger! It’s been sitting under glass for weeks, months, years, and yet it stays unchanged, as intact as the day it was made. Watch it on this webcam!

It’s not hard to find an array of do-it-yourself McDonald’s burger tests. As a culture, we’re obsessed with the supposed fact that these burgers don’t rot, even when left for years. What could it mean? Well, preservatives, of course. Lots and lots of preservatives. The implication is that these burgers aren’t “food” at all, just plastic-like food-type constructions.

But here’s the truth: Even though you can find lots of old McDonald’s burgers looking pretty good months and years later all over the internet, the effect has nothing to do with preservatives.

J. Kenji López-Alt, an author and culinary consultant for Serious Eats, decided to test some burgers and get to the bottom of this burger mystery. López-Alt set up an experiment with specific variables to compare the decomposition process of homemade hamburgers to McDonald’s burgers.

Previous internet “studies” tended to ignore specific variables during their experiments, which could definitely cause a difference in the test results. To perform a truly scientific experiment, López-Alt tried to account for everything.

He carefully selected the elements he wanted to test: The size of patty, the role of the bun, moisture levels, if there’s something in the beef that stops decomposition, and whether or not how the burger is stored is a factor.

López-Alt built his experiment with three home-ground burgers with store-bought buns, and six McDonald’s burgers and buns. The burgers were arranged in various combinations and set on top of a bookshelf in his home for 25 days; this guy was dedicated.

McDonald’s hamburgers are made from 100 percent USDA beef, the company reports, with no added chemicals. López-Alt dispensed with the common story right away: It wasn’t the heavy use of strange chemicals that keeps the burgers from rotting. But what’s with the general lack of mold?

López-Alt points out that mold needs a few things to grow: First of all, mold spores need to be in the air, those spores need moisture, and they need a supportive climate.

At the end of the 25 days, López-Alt found that the McDonald’s burgers did not rot—but neither did the homemade burgers. All of the burgers shrank and lost weight because of significant moisture loss. Because these burgers dried out so quickly, mold couldn’t establish a foothold. This, of course, has nothing to do with preservative chemicals in the fast food burgers; the foods simply didn’t provide the right conditions for microorganisms.

This isn’t to say that McDonald’s burgers are healthy, of course, but they’re not made from preservative-filled Frankenmeats. A McDonald’s representative referred us to the company’s website in lieu of comment.

5. Are most fast food workers teenagers?

Whenever there’s talk about raising minimum wage or increasing the pay scale for those working in the fast food industry, you hear the same refrain: Most of the industry’s workers are young and just working for pocket change, so why bother paying a living wage? Of course, this claim couldn’t be further from the truth.

Center for Economic and Policy Research reports that 30 percent of workers in fast food are teenagers, and the other 70 percent of people are 20 years and older. That’s right: 70 percent of the workforce in the fast food industry are adults trying to support themselves and their families on as little as $7.25 an hour. Eighty-five percent of these workers have a high school diploma, and more than one-third have some college experience.

These workers aren’t simply young people working for petty cash. They’re people trying to survive on the some of the lowest wages in the nation.

You might also think that the low minimum wage creates a “foot in the door” for better-paying jobs within the same company. That’s not how it works, though. The National Employment Law Project shows that 90 percent of workers in the fast food industry are “front line” workers, 2.2 percent hold upper-level managerial positions, and one percent own a franchise. These jobs don’t support the upward mobility dream.

Fast food jobs aren’t easy, either. Most employees work long hours and even risk their health and well being. Hart Research Associates found that 87 percent of fast food workers have been injured on the job, and 78 percent of those have suffered multiple injuries.

In short, it’s tough work. And on top of all of that, fast food workers have to listen to myths about the products they’re peddling! It may not be a wage increase, but at least we can dispel some of the conspiracy theories that circulate around our nation’s favorite meals.

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