Multiple news outlets are reporting on McDonald’s announcement that it was no longer using the controversial ground beef additive known as “pink slime” in its hamburger recipe. Pink slime is the name given to a process created by Beef Products Inc where trimmings (scraps of fatty pieces left over in the slaughterhouse after all the good cuts of meat are cut) is liquefied then run through a centrifuge to separate the fat from the protein. The process is completed by an ammonia bath in an attempt to kill pathogens. This process takes trimmings once destined for pet food and makes it a marketable product. Pink slime is a common, unlabled, food additive in beef.
Matter of Safety
If viewing pink slime through the lens of safety it has a mixed record. The NY Times reported in 2009 that the USDA “endorsed the company’s [Beef Products Inc.] ammonia treatment, and have said it destroys E. coli “to an undetectable level.” It was so successful in fact that the USDA provided the product an exemption from recalls and routine inspections in 2007. This meant Beef Products Inc was self-regulated and did not need to recall it’s products when an E. Coli or Salmonella recall was issued.
The NY Times in its report, however, busted Beef Products Inc bullet proof claim. It found instances of E.Coli and Salmonella in its products. Beef Products Inc stands by its product citing an extremely low instance of E.Coli (less that 1%) in its products.
There remains an open question of whether the filler provides a false sense of security. After all, it only composes around 15% of non-ammonia treated beef, which can contain E.Coli.
Even if pathogen free there remains the question of whether eating trimmings treated with ammonia is healthy or nutrious. Furthermore, should a consumer be given a choice through proper labeling. Although not technically adulteration because use of pink slime is sanctioned by the FDA the practice fits the definition. Adulteration, specifically economic adulteration, is the user of cheaper ingredients to extend and/or replace more wholesome ingredients. Pink slime is meant as a cheap filler for beef.
The FDA holds ammonia as a processing agent, which does not have to be included on the label. Thus, pink slime will not be found on the label or is labeled as “ground beef.”
The FDA classified ammonium hydroxide as Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) in 1974 after extensive review of the scientific literature and a rulemaking process. Ammonium hydroxide was one of 235 substances that were subjected to a full safety review by the Select Committee on GRAS Substances (SCOGS), an independent committee of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) that reported its findings to FDA. The SCOGS report to FDA concluded that:
“Ammonia and the ammonium ion are integral components of normal metabolic processes and play an essential role in the physiology of man…. the Select Committee concludes that: There is no evidence in the available information on…. ammonium hydroxide….. that demonstrates, or suggests reasonable grounds to suspect, a hazard to the public when [it is] used at levels that are now current or that might reasonably be expected in the future.” Select Committee on GRAS Substances (SCOGS) Review, Report No. 34, 1974.
GRAS status means that a substance is generally recognized, among experts qualified by scientific training and experience to evaluate their safety, as safe for its intended use. See generally 21 C.F.R. § 170.30.
While ammonia is safe whether eating the trimmings is healthy remains an open question.
What is clear is that consumers will be left in the dark about what they are eating and may not be able to make a choice in avoiding pink slime.
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