Pink Slime in Ground Beef: Safety, Health Risk, & Bad Side Effects?

U.S. consumers rant over ‘pink slime’, while industry and DA say it’s safe

Americans are just about up in arms over ‘pink slime,’ livid over the fact that the unappetizing industrial sludge of cow connective tissue and low-grade beef scraps treated with ammonium hydroxide has quietly found its way into 70 percent of supermarket beef — and even school lunches across the nation.

Anger over pink slime has dominated the news for the past week. On March 6, “The Lunch Tray” blogger, Bettina Elias Siegel, started a petition to remove pink slime from school food. As of Tuesday, almost 200,000 people had signed. Siegel plans to present the petition to the United States Department of Agriculture.

Environmentalists, bloggers and health writers alike point out that McDonald’s isn’t known for its healthy and wholesome foods but it’s stopped adding ‘pink slime’ into its hamburgers since August 2011. Of course, the move was influenced by a campaign led by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, but other multinational burger chains like Burger King and Taco Bell have also stopped using it.

In 70% of supermarket beef, school lunches
But on March 6, an “ABC World News” article from Jim Avila shocked Americans when it reported that 70 percent of ground beef sold in U.S. supermarkets contains the ammonia-treated product.

Avila claims he was tipped off to the startling figure by a whistleblower at the USDA — who says he has quit his job out of disgust with the product.

Worse, while these ground-up tissues and scraps were previously used for only dog food, they’ve now quietly found their way into the nation’s ground beef supply since the 1990s. The U.S. Department of Agriculture plans to buy seven million pounds (3.2 million kg) of it for use in school lunches to feed the country’s kids over the coming year.

Pink slime was born out of a meat company’s clever plan to make money out of otherwise unusable beef parts, the New York Times reveals in a series of exposes in 2009. Faced with a glut of fat, connective tissue and other slaughterhouse trimmings, the founder of Beef Products Inc. developed a process that turned the largely unsellable remnants into hamburger fillers. Aside from its creator Beef Products Inc., ‘pink slime’ is also sold by Cargill Meat Solutions.

The trimmings are first put through a centrifuge to separate their fat and meat, then squeezed through a pencil-thin tube.

But because these trimmings are more prone to contamination with E. coli and salmonella, the trimmings are exposed to ammonia gas as these are being squeezed through the tube. This raises the meat’s pH and kills pathogens — but is also the crux of the ongoing controversy. That, and the fact that consumers aren’t informed through proper labeling.

Using ammonia gas to process food products this way is approved by the U.S.D.A. And yet the term ‘pink slime’ itself was coined by one of two whistle-blowing former U.S.D.A. scientists who are now campaigning against the unlabeled inclusion of the burger filler products in school lunches and supermarket ground beef.

Former U.S.D.A. microbiologist Gerald Zirnstein, who once worked in the agency’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, coined the term “pink slime” after touring a BPI production plant.

It’s “not nutritionally equivalent,” Carl S. Custer tells The Daily, while Zirnstein thinks ‘pink slime’ is “economic fraud” and “a cheap substitute.”