“Pink Slime” backlash prompts response

Last week’s announcement by the United States Department of Agriculture that schools would have alternative options for lean finely textured beef set off a media frenzy that prompted scores of grocery chains to stop selling the beef. Businesses such as Kroger, which operates Ralphs and Food4Less, Safeway, which operates Vons, and Target, have all said they would stop selling the chemically-treated beef.

“Pink slime” refers to lean finely textured beef that has been treated with ammonium hydroxide, which supposedly gives it a pink, foamy texture. The USDA claims that lean finely textured beef is safe, but consumer concern is driving supermarket chains to pull the product from their shelves.

Critics claim that eating the treated beef is unsafe, while others do not see any health concerns.

“It’s just ammonia and water,” said Jim Oltjen, specialist in the Department of Animal Science at UC Davis. “It helps kill bugs and bacteria. It’s no more exciting than what we do on a carcass routinely when we spray it with organic acids. It’s a really weak vinegar solution, so that’s been done for years. Nobody ever seemed to get excited about a little vinegar sprayed on it.”

Ammonium hydroxide is a naturally occurring compound in all plant and animal life. According to the International Food Information Council Foundation’s website, the FDA approved ammonium hydroxide as a “generally recognized as safe” food additive in 1974. It is a common ingredient in many processed foods, and has also been approved for use in other countries.

“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 near future,” according to the Select Committee on GRAS Substances.

Aside from the ammonia issue, critics claim that lean finely textured beef is unsafe because it contains fillers, which may include parts of the cow like connective tissue. Critics also allege that ammonium hydroxide is added because these other parts are more susceptible to pathogens.

Chains such as Whole Foods claim that their beef has always been free of ammonium hydroxide.

“We don’t use it in our meat, and we haven’t ever,” said Beth Krauss, a spokesperson for Whole Foods. “Our quality standards require no artificial colors, flavors, preservatives. Ammonia [is] the main ingredient that’s not acceptable, according to those quality standards.”

Almost all of Whole Foods’ meat production is done inside the stores, according to Krauss.

“The vast majority of ground beef that we sell is ground in-house from whole muscle meat, Krauss said.“We grind it several times a day to maximize freshness, and anything that is ground outside of the store is tested for ammonia before it comes to us.”

“Pink slime is a misnomer,” said Oltjen. “[There has been] a lot of excitement over naming some ground beef trimmings as slime.”