Pink Slime in Food, Hamburgers, and Ground Beef. For the sheer number of burgers they consume—about 40 billion burgers a year—Americans could rename their country Burger Nation.
But how many Americans knew that for many years most of their burgers were not made from beef, but from an ammonia-treated burger extender product derisively dubbed by agriculture department officials as “pink slime”?
The good news is that—as quietly as they began using the product ten years ago, three fast food chains stopped using it last December.
McDonald’s, Taco Bell and Burger King stopped using the burger extenders made from lean beef trimmings treated with ammonium hydroxide, but the event hardly hogged the headlines.
Last December’s decision was reported by The ArgusLeader, a newspaper that reports in South Dakota, home of pink slime’s manufacturer, by a New York Times blog and by the United States meat industry. But other than that, few consumers even knew that they were eating the stuff for over a decade.
For many years, Beef Products Inc (BPI) boasted that “pink slime,” its hamburger filler product, was found in 70 percent of all hamburgers sold in the United States.
But after the fast food chains stopped using the products, business fell by 25 percent and the company is worried other chains and retailers will follow them.
And worried it should be: the company stands to lose big bucks. According to the New York Times, while Beef Products does not disclose its earnings, its reported pre-decision production of seven million pounds a week generated about US$440 million in annual revenue.
Pink slime in food: ‘innovative’ product?
For decades, pink slime in food was not seen as “yuck,” in fact, but as a bestseller product. It didn’t only corner two-thirds of the U.S. hamburger market but was even touted as an innovative “solution to the beef industry’s embarrassing food-borne-illness problem,” notes food writer Tom Philpott, now an investigative reporter for Mother Jones.
The U.S. meat industry has been plagued with food-borne illnesses for many decades and health and agriculture officials have continuously struggled to remove deadly E. coli, salmonella and other pathogens from hamburgers and other meat products.
As officials tussled with this problem, Beef Products came up with a novel idea in 2001: injecting beef with ammonia.
But not just only. The whole idea was to take parts of the beef previously thrown away or turned into low-value products into high-value hamburgers that were both cheaper and safer.
The company began to process beef trimmings by grinding them. These were then liquefied and the protein was extracted from the trimmings in a centrifuge, resulting in a lean product that was desirable to hamburger-makers. The resulting hamburger filler was then treated with ammonium hydroxide gas to kill E. coli , salmonella and the other dangerous microbes.
The product was marketed on three selling points, Philpott noted. “1) it’s really, really cheap; 2) unlike conventional ground beef, which routinely carries E. coli, etc., pink slime is sterilized by the addition of ammonia; and 3) it’s so full of ammonia that it will kill pathogens in the ground beef it’s mixed with.”
That year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration signed off on the use of ammonia. Shortly after, officials at the Department of Agriculture went a step further: First, they endorsed the company’s ammonia treatment, saying it destroys E. coli “to an undetectable level.” Then, in 2007, when it began routine testing of meat used in hamburger sold to the general public, the U.S.D.A. exempted Beef Products, deciding that the ammonia treatment was so effective.
With the U.S.D.A.’s stamp of approval, pink slime in food became a mainstay in America’s hamburgers—without consumers even knowing it.
McDonald’s, Burger King and other fast-food giants mixed it with ground beef for its burger mixes. So did grocery chains, and even the federal school lunch program, which used about 5.5 million pounds of the processed burger filler in 2008 alone.
Because pink slime in food was a cheap alternative to genuine ground beef, lunch officials in 2004 increased the amount used in its hamburgers from 10 percent to 15 percent, to increase savings. Schoolchildren did not notice; in fact, in taste tests, some of them favored burgers with higher amounts of processed beef, according to a New York Times report in 2009.
But the touted solution was actually a hoax, Philpott says. It involved BPI “buying the cheapest, least desirable beef on offer—fatty sweepings from the slaughterhouse floor, which are notoriously rife with pathogens like E. coli 0157 and antibiotic-resistant salmonella,” then sending these “scraps through a series of machines, grind(ing) them into a paste, separate(ing) out the fat, and lac(ing) the substance with ammonia to kill pathogens,” he says.
In a segment of his ABC television show aired last spring, Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, food activist Jamie Oliver also criticized the burger extender. “Basically, we’re taking a product that would be sold at the cheapest form for dogs, and after this process we can give it to humans,” he said.
“I do not consider the stuff to be ground beef, and I consider allowing it in ground beef to be a form of fraudulent labeling,” said D.A. microbiologist Gerald Zirnstein, who had first called the processed beef “pink slime” in a 2002 e-mail message to colleagues.
No alternatives to pink slime in food?
Meanwhile, meat product manufacturers continue to struggle with the problem of bacterial contamination, and almost every month, batches of beef, pork and even poultry products are recalled for being contaminated with disease-causing bacteria.
Just a few days before the fast foods decided to stop using pink slime in food, the U.S. D.A. reported that a Nebraska meatpacker recalled more than 40,000 pounds of ground beef products distributed in 16 states after a test confirmed the presence of E. coli.
Thus, some consumer advocates fear that doubts raised over pink slime and the fast food chains’ decision to stop using it will discourage food manufacturers from developing new ways to keep deadly pathogens out of their products.
In some ways, pink slime isn’t new: lean beef long has always been added to fattier meat to produce the hamburger meat that Americans consume and ammonium hydroxide has long been used extensively in the food industry as a bacteria-killing gas, after its use was approved by the FDA in 1974 after an extensive review of the scientific literature and a rulemaking process showed that it was safe to use and worked by lowering the acidity of meat, making it inhospitable to bacteria.
The International Food Information Council, the World Health Organization and the European Union also allow ammonium hydroxide, a mixture of water and ammonia, to be used in other food products like baked goods, cheeses and candy.
In fact, ammonia is also found naturally in the air, water, soil and in meat and other foods. Produced by organs and tissues of the human body and by beneficial bacteria living in intestines, it helps synthesize amino acids in the gastrointestinal tract.
The amount of ammonia used by Beef Products to treat pink slime in food is also only a tiny fraction of the ammonia that’s used in household cleaner, the company claims. This is important because too much ammonia is harmful and consuming ammonia orally can cause burns to the mouth, throat, and stomach.
A Washington Post report in 2008 described a BPI plant in South Sioux City, Neb., as a technological marvel that could be the “key to a safer meat supply.”
But that same year, the documentary Food Inc., authored by Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan, portrayed ammonia treatment as typical of the high-tech but quick fixes that agribusiness giants use to fudge on health problems created by industrial-scale agriculture.
Pink slime in food: ammonia treatment not even effective
But beyond the “yuck factor” of eating what was essentially pet food scraps laced with ammonia and the disgrace of false labeling as ground beef burger patties, is the fact that pink slime ammonia treatments did not effectively kill out the microbes as it was supposed to do.
In 2009 report of the New York Times revealed this, citing government and industry records that showed that despite being bombarded with the ammonia, the burger fillers had been contaminated with E. coli and salmonella many times since 2005.
Buyers were led to believe that mixing pink slime in food with a batch of ground beef ‘sterilized’ the batch. But far from doing so, the burger extender product actually added to the pathogen cocktail.
School lunch officials statistics showed that in some years Beef Products fared worse in tests for pathogens than the program’s two dozen other suppliers that use traditional meat processing methods.
From 2005 to 2009, Beef Products had a rate of 36 positive results for salmonella per 1,000 tests, compared to a rate of nine positive results per 1,000 tests for the other suppliers.
Since 2005, E. coli has been found three times and salmonella 48 times. In August 2010, two 27,000-pound batches were found to be contaminated, but thankfully, the meat was caught before reaching lunchrooms trays.
According to the Times report, confidential records of tests by the food giant Cargill also showed that from 2005-2007, the food giant, which used more than 50 vendors, suspended three facilities for excessive salmonella. Two of these were BPI plants.
Untreated beef naturally contains ammonia and is normally about six on the pH scale, near the acidity of rainwater and milk. The Beef Products’ study that won the U.S.D.A. approval used an ammonia treatment that raised the pH of the meat to as high as 10, an alkalinity well beyond the range of most foods.
But the Times obtained its own samples of pink slime in food in 2009, and when tested by two laboratories, these showed a pH levels of as low as 7.75. One point on the exponential pH scale and “could have a significant effect on the antimicrobial effectiveness of the ammonia,” Dr. Michael P. Doyle, a food industry consultant and director of the University of Georgia’s Center for Food Safety told the Times.
In 2010, in response to the Times’ report, the agriculture department revoked BPI’s exemption from routine testing and conducted a review of the company’s operations and research.
The department also reversed its policy for handling Beef Products during pathogen outbreaks. Previously, since it was seen as pathogen-free, the processed beef was excluded from recalls, even when it was an ingredient in hamburgers found to be contaminated.
Food industry priorities are the bigger issues
The controversy over pink slime “raises legitimate questions about whether the food industry is relying too heavily on chemical washes and other technology to kill bacteria instead of doing more to prevent the contamination,” the ArgusLeader quoted Patty Lovera in a report. Lovera follows food safety policy for the advocacy group Food and Water Watch.
“The pink-slime episode teaches us hard lessons about a food system that hinges on a few big companies churning out loads of cheap food,” Philpott said in Lessons on the food system from the ammonia-hamburger fiasco, an opinion piece for the Grist published in January 2010.
Philpott laid the blame on the fact that the profitability of large food companies was hinged on keeping costs as low as possible, citing the findings of The End of Food, a book by Paul Roberts.
“As companies scramble to slash costs, you get the rise of vast environmental calamities, like massive, feces-concentrating hog factories,” Philpott said.
Coupled with “human atrocities like slavery in Florida tomato fields and systematic worker abuse in factory slaughterhouses,” you get “public-health nightmares,” he said.
He lambasted the National School Lunch Program as a microcosm of the “cheap food system” that forced cafeteria administrators “to feed students lunch for US$2.68 per student per day.”
“Two-thirds of that outlay goes to overhead and labor, leaving much less than a buck to spend on ingredients. No wonder the lunch program is such a massive buyer of pink slime — 3.5 million pounds last year alone, as the Times reports,” he said.
According to the 2009 Times report, “despite some misgivings, school lunch officials say they use Beef Products because its price is substantially lower than ordinary meat trimmings, saving about $1 million a year.”
“I think it’s high time to start asking: do we as a society really want to be feeding children the lowest-quality food on offer? Processed in a manner so industrial that handlers need to wear protective gear and face masks, and so ineptly that deadly pathogens routinely survive the chemical onslaught?,” the investigative reporter said.
Pink Slime in Food, Hamburgers, and Ground Beef. Posted 10 January 2012. Updated 27 January 2012.