Maybe you're already familiar with this term, maybe you're completely in the dark about what it is. For you clueless ones, as well as you not-so-clueless ones, here's a little breakdown of what it's all about.
"Pink slime", aka lean finely textured beef (LFTB) or boneless lean beef trimmings (BLBT), is a beef-based food additive that is added to ground beef and beef-based processed meats as an inexpensive filler. Essentially, it's made from what's left of the fatty carcass tissue after the choice cuts of meat are separated from the bone. These trimmings are processed through a centrifuge, which separates about 95% of the fat from the remaining bits of beef. But it's often contaminated with bacteria and E. coli, so it's treated with a puff of ammonium hydroxide gas to kill all the bad stuff, then mixed with the hamburger meat.
This practice has been going on right under our noses for the past decade, up until recently, when famous chef Jamie Oliver has launched a crusade against the pink slime. He is among many food activists who have criticized it and created a major uproar across America. Following this outcry and bad publicity, to say the least, ground beef processor AFA Foods announced Monday that it is filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and selling its assets. The outcry over lean finely textured beef has had real consequences for other businesses. Last week, the governors of three states toured a plant of Beef Products Inc. (BPI), the main processor of cheap lean beef, and stated that this controversy is turning into a "smear campaign". All the negative media coverage and pressure has forced BPI to halt production at plants in Texas, Kansas and Iowa. McDonald's now refuses to use the "slime" in their beef patties and supermarkets and school districts are turning their backs, consequently making the demand plummet. Resulting in costing some 650 people their jobs.
Joe Schwarcz, a chemistry professor at McGill University and director of its Office for Science and Society, recently explained the process in the Montreal Gazette: “Ammonia gas is used to treat the beef slurry as it passes through specially designed stainless steel pipes. Some of the ammonia dissolves in the meat’s moisture and maintains the alkaline conditions needed to control bacteria. Neither the dissolved ammonia, nor the ammonium hydroxide it forms, presents a health concern. Ammonia is a product of protein metabolism and therefore routinely forms in the human body. It ends up being converted into urea, which is then excreted in the urine.”
Let's face it, it certainly doesn't help that it has been labelled "pink slime". The world caught a glimpse inside the meat-processing industry and reacted (or over-reacted?) with a harmonizing "ewwww". The keyword here being "glimpse". And the catchy name "pink slime" has definitely helped activists and critics fuel their campaign. No doubt about it, the whole process does sound gross. But does it make it overall evil? It most probably isn't worse than those brown sausage patties, yellow nuggets or pink cylinders, better known as hot-dog sausages. Truth be told, a lot of us wouldn't eat hotdogs if we watched them being made. Another interesting point is that those processed meats are preserved by agents stronger than ammonium hydroxide... gives you something to think about, doesn't it?
Many sources claim nonetheless that the filler is safe to eat, healthy and 100% wholesome. “Hamburger is not a completely safe product, but the BPI product is as safe, if not safer, than other parts of hamburger,” said Seattle-based food safety lawyer William Marler. “BPI has gotten crushed by public sentiment that this stuff is icky.” If the public is a
Otherwise, I want to point out that Health Canada doesn't permit the use of ammonium hydroxide in meat products. “Ammonia is not permitted in Canada to be used in ground beef or meats during their production,” the agency said in a statement... so there's no pink slime in Canadian burgers! The reason is apparently that no one has asked to use it. “Health Canada requires that all food additives undergo a pre-market safety evaluation,” the agency said. “Ammonium hydroxide added to meat would be regulated in Canada as a food additive. Therefore, Health Canada would need to receive a submission requesting a specific use of ammonium hydroxide in meat products before the substance could be considered for approval.” Any imported meat must comply with Canadian rules and standards, meaning LFTB cannot be brought into the country. So it’s not a matter of LFTB being banned in Canada, it’s just never been on the list of approved additives for meat. Another funny fact, we do allow ammonium hydroxide in the processing of cocoa products and gelatin... hmmm...
So, what happens now you wonder. Well, as the summer season is approaching, so is barbecuing, making meat producers predict that hamburger prices will rise seeing that they will no longer be able to use the cheap filler to mix with the higher quality cuts of beef. Therefore, the pink slime will have to be replaced by lean beef, which costs more. As I mentioned previously, there is no pink slime in Canadian beef, so perhaps the outcome will not be so bad for beef producers and consumers in the US.
Another outcome would hopefully be that consumers familiarize themselves with the system and technologies that produce their food. We have come a long way since the days when food was all processed in the family farm or the village butcher. Many of us still envision it this way when thinking of food production. One must bear in mind all these realities in order to assess the whole issue with a more educated and tactful viewpoint. Getting the straight facts will help you in deciding what are you are willing to accept as trade-offs within reasonable bounds.