Pink Slime: What is it exactly?

After several days of following articles, posts, tweets, links, etc. about this topic, we think the following blog post on Common Sense Agriculture’s Blog is the most descriptive, accurate summary explaining what the media is calling ‘Pink Slime’. Feel free to tell us or Jeff what you think. Check out the links at the end of the post for further reading.


Pink Shirts, Pink Ties and Pink Slime

By Jeff Fowle, Editor of Common Sense Agriculture’s Blog

“Pink Slime” has hit the media yet again in recent days. Several of my friends in social media have inquired what my thoughts were on a number of videos and news reports: Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution ‘70% of Americas Beef Is Treated With Ammonia,’ Fox News Report ‘Pink Slime in 70% Of Ground Beef,’ and ABC News ‘Where You Can Get Pink-Slime Free Beef,’ were the three most cited.

Can you imagine taking fresh picked fruit, misting it with ammonia hydroxide to eliminate bacteria, sticking it in a blender, cooking it, putting it in a jar and then selling it for human consumption? Most of us do, by purchasing jelly and jam to go with our peanut butter.

Can you imagine taking fresh picked lettuce or spinach, misting it with ammonia hydroxide to eliminate bacteria, putting it in a package, selling it, buying it, opening it, adding croutons, tomato and ranch dressing and then eating it? Many of us do, purchasing prepackaged salad to eat before supper.

This post is not intended to promote, nor condemn the practice of utilizing ammonium hydroxide, but rather to present some facts and allow you to make your own decisions. This is not a “new” process, nor is it solely utilized by the meat industry. The questions are those that I have been asked over the past four days.

1.       What is ammonium hydroxide?

Ammonium hydroxide is ammonia mixed with water and is found naturally in the air, water, soil, all plants and animals and is produced by the human body. All living things need proteins, which are made up of twenty different amino acids. Plants and micro-organisms can make most amino acids from nitrogen in the atmosphere, but animals cannot. Ammonia is a very important in the nitrogen cycle, protein synthesis and helps maintain the body’s pH balance.

2.       Is ammonia really used in food processing?

Ammonia in a variety of forms is used for leavening, pH control and surface finishing. Ammonium bicarbonate and phosphate are used as leavening agents ‘yeast food’ and dough strengtheners and are listed as acceptable in natural and organic food markets. Ammonia hydroxide, while already present in muscle tissue, is added to muscle that is not immediately packaged (more on this later) to change the pH to eliminate and reduce risk of ecoli and salmonella bacteria. The list of foods that ammonium hydroxide is used in includes: cheeses, chocolate, pudding, relishes, jams, fruits, vegetables, cereals, sports drinks and beer, to name a few. Remember, ammonia is naturally occurring and plays a vital role in maintaining health of both plants, animals and humans.

3.       Is ammonium hydroxide safe?

In 1974 the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) listed ammonium hydroxide as GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe). It is also recognized as being safe by other countries, the European Union, the JECFA (Joint Expert Committee of Food Additives) of the U.N.’s FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) and the WHO (World Health Organization). Ammonia vapor can be harmful at high levels, as can consumption of the liquid form. While it is possible, in theory, to consume a lethal level of ammonia, because of its very strong smell and taste, a human or animal would be repulsed and unlikely to actually eat it. When used in the processing of fruits, meat and vegetables, only food grade ammonium hydroxide is utilized and the ammonia evaporates prior to packaging.

4.       Do they really use ‘dog food’ meat?

Hamburger is muscle and fat tissue that is not sold as retail cut. Trim, the muscle and fat that is cut away from steaks, roasts and stew meat, has always been utilized in hamburger. As a rule of thumb, younger animals yield less hamburger; older animals tend to yield more hamburger.  The reason that older cattle yield more hamburger is simply due to the fact that their muscle tissue tends to be tougher and less desirable in the form of steaks Younger cattle are typically more tender, thus more of their carcass goes to retail cuts. Whether an animal is young or old, fat is trimmed from the muscle and then added back in order to package a hamburger product that is “lean.” I share this because historically all the trim was utilized in hamburger. However, in the 80’s, “lean” became the demand and so the trimmings of fat were removed and used for other purposes, ie dog food. It was quickly realized that there was a tremendous amount of high quality lean beef being lost in providing “lean” product and so a process to stop the waste was developed. For me personally, when I have a steer, heifer or bull cut and wrapped for the freezer, I have our butcher put all of the trimmings into hamburger. I like the fat. Fat is where the flavor comes from and without it, patties fall apart.

5.       Is the process described in the reports accurate?

Trimmings and cuts deemed to be low value (the chuck and top round most often)  are set aside for use as hamburger, sausage and other products. All of the muscle is trimmed by hand to establish a lean product and trimmings. The trimmings are then heated and put in a centrifuge to separate the remaining muscle from the fat. It is then “misted” with ammonium hydroxide to drop the pH and address the potential risk of ecoli and salmonella due to the heating and it evaporates; it is not “poured” in, or thrown in a washing machine as depicted by Jamie Oliver. The lean product then has fat added back to it in an amount to provide a “lean” label and have the ability to maintain the form of patty. As a side note, some carcasses are “too lean” and fat has to be added to the lean in order for it to retain its shape as patty; fat often from another carcass. Also, as a personal note, where I have my beef cut and wrapped, I ask my butcher to add some pork fat to my hamburger to add a unique flavor…the essence of bacon J.

In conclusion, I leave you with the following thoughts. Ammonium hydroxide is naturally occurring and safe for consumption. Trimmings are used with low value muscle for making hamburger and sausage and to eliminate the risk of ecoli and salmonella, are misted with ammonium hydroxide. I do not like “lean” hamburger and instruct my butcher to include all of the trimmings, no fat missing (sometimes adding pork fat), so I can barbeque juicy and flavorful burgers. However, I also eat burgers at fast food establishments, diners and café’s and trust that they are safe to consume, despite being dryer and a bit less flavorful due to its lean nature. I leave you to make your own decision, but I for one will continue to eat burgers that contain lean beef retail trim (also referred to as ‘pink slime’) and wear pink shirts and ties.

Here are some additional links for reference:

Boneless Lean Beef Trimmings (BLBT) Is A Safe and Wholesome Beef Product

BPI Ground Beef Gets Support From Food Safety Leaders

Engineering A Safer Burger