What I’ve been trying to figure out, since the processed beef “pink slime” story broke this month is this: Are we just reacting to what Benjamin Radford at Discovery News calls ”the ick factor”
? Or does pink slime (which the industry understandably prefers to call “lean finely textured beef“) actually pose a health risk? And does anything in the flurry of recent coverage help us sort that out?
It’s worth looking at the coverage that began in early March with a story in The Daily by David Knowles and an ABC News segment by Jim Avila.
Let’s stipulate that some of this response derives from the very term “pink slime,” which tends to stimulate the “ugh” response.
“Pink”—not so bad. But “slime”? Have you ever heard anyone use that word in a positive, how-attractive-your-slime-covered-dinner-is kind of way?
So what is pink slime, or, um, finely textured beef?
It comes from a rather commercially clever use of scraps—fat and meat removed from standard meat cuts
. These remnants are spun through a centrifuge to separate the beef bits from the fat. The rather soupy meat mixture is then squeezed through a thin tube and exposed to a puff of ammonia gas.
The gas reacts with water in the meat to form a trace amount of ammonium hydroxide. This reduces acidity and kills (fairly reliably) any pathogenic bacteria lurking in the beef.
But are there any actual health problems associated with slime?
This got a much tougher look a couple of years ago when Michael Moss at the New York Times did some terrific work looking at the risks—both chemical and bacterial—associated with the product, noting particularly that the vaunted ammonia treatment didn’t always kill pathogenic bacteria.
The paper’s strongest coverage this round comes from KJ Dell’Antonia, who writes the Motherlode blog. Dell’Antonia is consistently (my opinion) one of the best science science writers at the Times today. Her post deftly summarizes the major issues and addresses directly the unpleasant covert aspects of our government’s behavior: “Someone, somewhere, thought we wouldn’t buy a product labeled ‘ground beef—with added trimmings, connective tissue and ammonia.”
She also notes that that the ammonia, put in context with our other chemical exposures, doesn’t seem especially worrisome.
And I tend to agree there too. What’s more interesting to me—and what hasn’t been covered especially well in the slime stories—is that foods that are ammonia-processed are remarkably widespread
. Among them are breads, pastries, cheeses, chocolates, breakfast cereals, sports drinks, fruits, vegetables
….in other words, if we’re going to worry about chemical processing, beef products need to stand in line.
Another smart piece from Amy Hubbard at the Los Angeles Times notes that even the consumer-advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest isn’t particularly alarmed about pink slime, noting rather depressingly that a lot worse things go into the daily diet. The center does plan to investigate whether the super-processed beef bits are less nutritious than regular beef.
As the Houston Chronicle points out in a recent editorial, the real issue here is transparency
. Our government should not be colluding with private industry in hiding additives from the consumer.
And, in fact, there are signs that the USDA is tending to agree.
In an interview with Food Safety News, the agency’s food safety head, Elizabeth Hagen, emphasized that the product is considered safe and added: “It seems to me that the larger issue here is labeling and transparency.”
But one more point, just to complicate the story. You’ll recall I mentioned that the USDA has agreed to allow schools to choose slime-improved beef or to reject it. But it turns out that the regular, unprocessed ground beef alternative, lacking that super-lean filler, has a higher fat content
. Another health story, anyone?