“When I’m at the grocery store, I’m not sure what to get. I always look for all-natural meats without antibiotics. Does that mean there is no ‘pink slime’ or ammonia in the meat?”
What is most important to you, no antibiotics or no pink slime—ammonia-treated or otherwise? Producers of natural beef (that is, beef that’s minimally processed and without artificial flavors or coloring, chemical preservatives, or any other artificial or synthetic ingredient) may or may not use antibiotics or growth hormones; there is no third-party verification like there is with beef that’s certified organic.
Pink slime is only an issue in ground beef. Less sensationally, but more accurately called lean finely textured beef (LFTB), it is made from the fatty trimmings left over after a beef carcass is divided into cuts of meat. “Picture a T-bone steak on your plate,” explained Sarah Klein, food safety attorney at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “After you finish eating, there’s an eighth of an inch of meat left on the bone, and an eighth of an inch on the fat you’ve left on your plate. That’s what we’re talking about.” Basically, the scraps are heated and spun in a centrifuge to separate the meat from the liquified fat. It’s an example of “Waste not, want not,” taken to the nth degree; depending on the size of the steer, an additional 13 to 30 pounds of meat are retrieved in the process. Some would call this corporate greed; others, corporate thrift.
LFTB is not especially pleasant to think about (or look at, if you remember that scene in Food, Inc.), but I don’t like the idea of squandered meat rotting in a landfill either. Neither does renowned animal scientist Temple Grandin. And you have to agree that LFTB is far from the most repugnant thing you’ll see if you peek behind the curtain of industrial food production. “There are things that are far more disturbing,” said Klein, “from food safety to the humane treatment of animals and workers.” I’m with her.
News to me, though, was no matter what kind of ground beef you buy, including natural and certified organic, it may contain LFTB. Even organic? Really? “There’s no problem if the underlying substance was organic,” said Klein. “It’s less troubling than soy filler.”
Okay, now to this ammonia business. Here’s the deal: Since 1974, small amounts of ammonia compounds have been used to increase the pH level and thus kill pathogens like E. coli 0157:H7 and salmonella in meat as well as in chocolates, cheeses, baked goods, and many other foods. In the case of certified organic ground beef, a producer will rely on citric acid (basically, lemon juice).
Do these antimicrobials really work? This question has been raised by a number of people, from industry whistleblowers to reporters such as Michele Simon. Indeed, the thought of food treated with substances such as ammonium hydroxide (ammonia combined with water)—which is approved by the USDA, the FDA, and the World Health Organization—gives lots of people the willies.
Fair enough. But before you completely freak out about this, it’s important to note that ammonia in trace amounts is a common component of air, soil, water, plants, and animals.
And that includes humans. Your liver produces ammonia after it breaks down proteins used by your body’s cells. Nitrogen in the ammonia combines with other elements (including carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen) to form urea, which travels through the bloodstream from your liver to your kidneys. Healthy kidneys filter urea from your blood and you excrete urea every time you pee. You could argue, in fact, that ammonia is as natural as it gets. For the record, there is no evidence that ammonia causes cancer, and it doesn’t have anything to do with BSE (Mad Cow).
That said, supermarket chains are responding to the public outcry about LFTB with alacrity. Websites from ABC News to Coupons, Deals and More have published lists of grocery stores that carry LFTB-free ground beef.
CSPI’s Sarah Klein said that this response is more about the grossness factor than food safety. In a package of LFTB-free ground beef, there will be meat from multiple animals, and still a risk of contamination unless you cook the meat thoroughly, she emphasized.
Me, personally? Aside from trying not to obsess over rotting meat in landfills, there are times when I’ve asked my butcher to grind a single piece of beef chuck for me. More and more, though, I like processing the meat myself to make burgers from scratch. Coarsely ground with a generous amount of fat, they’re about as far from LFTB as you can get.
So it won’t kill you. But would you buy meat that contains pink slime?