Pink Slime Furor Is Reactionary Foodie Nonsense

Beefs and Beliefs

Pink slime is ground beef with a naturally occurring science-approved additive, so what's the panic about?

Published on: March 14, 2012

The "pink slime" furor of recent days is typical of foodie visceral reaction and fails all tests of logic and good sense.

In fact, it is typical of the mental direction too many in our nation have taken these days that their individual knee-jerk reaction should be put above truth or good sense. Personally, I'm glad consumers want to reconnect with their food. Sometimes, I tend to think their reactions are generally on target, even if we aggies don't like it. Yet it saddens me they so often flame out over things like "pink slime" without even searching for the truth.

The truth is that lean finely textured beef (LFTB), the product reportedly dubbed "pink slime" by Gerald Zirnstein, a former USDA microbiologist, is primarily a ground beef product.

The manufacturer, South-Dakota based Beef Products Incorporated, says it begins as a mixture of beef trimmings that is roughly half fat and half lean. It is finely ground and then spun in a centrifuge to remove most of the fat – BPI says the final mixture is 95% lean.

When I worked in meat markets we did this work by hand before grinding. BPI made it mechanical.

Just ground beef

So here's the first point of logic: At this point in our evaluation it is no different than any other ground beef product. Any presence of E. coli or Salmonella would be the same as in all ground beef, which is to say well distributed throughout the product.

In fact, that is the problem with all ground, uncooked beef products. Unlike whole roasts or steaks where such pathogens are contained on the outside and easily killed by cooking heat, with ground products they are spread throughout the insides of the product and must be thoroughly heated internally to be killed.

That is solid scientific theory and every case I have been able to find in which E. coli or salmonella has caused illness has been the result of undercooking a ground product.

Handling differences

BPI's product, then, simply trades mechanical "trimming" of the ground beef product for hand trimming by humans, which was the only the way it could be done for many, many years.

My next question then: Is it safer to let humans handle all that meat?

Isn't that where we get many other food-borne illnesses such as hepatitis?

I suggest it is not safer and at the very least the two processes are equivalent.

Nonetheless, at this point let's just say the only valid difference between what I'm going to dub AOGB (all other ground beef) and BPI's LFTB is the size of grind.

But there is one difference.

AOGB is ground onto foam trays and wrapped or put into plastic tubes or made into patties and sold pretty much as is. LFTB, aka "pink slime," is treated with ammonium hydroxide during processing to kill microbes before being sold.

Added difference

Ammonium hydroxide is the same compound found in household ammonia but it is a common food additive used to increase the food pH level and decrease microbial activity. Reportedly, it is used in baked goods, cheeses, gelatins, chocolate, caramels and puddings.

If there is a problem with BPI's LFTB, then, it logically would be in the safety or efficacy of ammonium hydroxide.

That compound was first approved in 1958 by the Food and Drug Administration under a classification system that more or less "grandfathered" a number of food additives based on the best science of the day as generally recognized as safe (GRAS).

In 1974 ammonium hydroxide as a food additive was reviewed again by FDA's Select Committee on GRAS Substances and again classified as safe. Here's what the committee said:

"Ammonia and the ammonium ion are integral components of normal metabolic processes and play an essential role in the physiology of man. Although there have been no significant feeding studies specifically designed to ascertain the safety threshold of ammonium compounds as food ingredients, numerous metabolic studies have been reported in the scientific literature. Extrapolation of these findings to the concentrations of ammonium compounds normally present in foods does not suggest that there would be untoward effects at such levels. In the light of the foregoing, the Select Committee concludes that: There is no evidence in the available information on ammonium bicarbonate, ammonium carbonate, ammonium chloride, ammonium hydroxide, mono and dibasic ammonium phosphate, and ammonium sulfate that demonstrates, or suggests reasonable grounds to suspect, a hazard to the public when they are used at levels that are now current or that might reasonably be expected in future."

If you want a digested version of this, it says ammonium and its variations are naturally occurring in our bodies and ammonium hydroxide and other ammonium products have never shown themselves to be detrimental at the levels they are used as food additives and preservatives.

At the time the 1974 review was made the committee gave ammonium hydroxide a Number 1 rating, which was the strongest of the three GRAS ratings. Here's that definition: "Self-affirmed. The manufacturer of this chemical or substance had performed all necessary research, including the formation of an expert panel to review safety concerns, and is prepared to use these findings to defend its product's GRAS status."

What to do?

Logically then, the only question left is whether we trust FDA's scientific judgment on ammonium hydroxide.

If we do and if order in our society is based on something more than personal experience and visceral reaction, we must clear "pink slime" and drop the derogatory moniker.

If we do not trust the science, the logical thing to do is demand further research and see whether ammonium hydroxide is cleared as a safe antimicrobial product.

If ammonium hydroxide were to be proved unsafe, however, that would call our society to mount a massive witch hunt in which all products containing it are rooted out and discarded. Considering its use in sweets, I could argue using truly valid science that might not be such a bad thing…