Away From the Bench

The world outside of the lab

You Can’t Do That…to Beef

I wasn’t planning on commenting on the pink slime issue because it’s all over the news, but my husband asked me last night, “What is this ‘pink slime’ they are talking about?”  So I guess that means not everyone knows what’s going on with this stuff.  The word ‘slime’ always reminds me of You Can’t Do That on Television, which I thoroughly enjoyed watching as a kid.  Who wouldn’t want to get slimed every time they said, “I don’t know?”  Double Dare also had some great slime activities.  And Ghostbusters – they actually had PINK SLIME in the second movie!  I guess the 1980’s was the decade of slime (pun intended?).

Ok, let’s get back on track.  ‘Pink slime’ in reference to foodstuffs came into the public consciousness last year when Chef Jamie Oliver made it his mission for Americans to eat healthier on Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution.  Yet, it was back in 2002 when USDA microbiologist Gerald Zirnstein toured a beef production facility and saw the meat filler being produced, which looked like pink slime to him.  So he called it ‘pink slime’, even though the USDA refers to it as ‘Lean Finely Textured Beef’.  Pink slime is used as a lower-cost filler for processed meat products, usually ground beef.  The official USDA term sounds more appetizing, although it’s production may not be so palatable.  The outermost part of the cow is mostly fat, but when it is heated and spun really fast in a centrifuge, any protein left in the tissue separates from the fat.  This protein is mostly connective tissue, which is composed of different amino acids (the building blocks of protein) than those found in muscle tissue (the meat you usually eat).  Essential amino acids are those you must get from your diet because your body cannot produce them.  Connective tissue contains very little of these essential amino acids, which decreases the quality and nutritive value of the meat.

Not only is pink slime lesser of a protein product, but it is removed near the cow’s hide and the likelihood of contamination, especially from E. coli and Salmonella bacteria, is significantly increased.  Every problem has a solution, of course, and the beef industry’s solution is to treat this protein product with ammonia hydroxide gas to attempt to kill the bacteria that can kill you.  The problem is, this doesn’t always work well – these pathogens have been found in 51 batches of meat slated for the federal school lunch program since 2005.  Even though the USDA considers this gassing process safe, it still turns my stomach.  Furthermore, the USDA does not require foods that contain pink slime to be labeled, and it’s possible that last package of ground beef you bought at the grocery store contained this filler, as the USDA still considers this 100% beef.  I’m almost certain that frozen beef burrito you bought at 7-11 had some pink slime in it.

Luckily, there is a movement toward reducing pink slime in the food that we eat.  McDonald’s, Burger King, and Taco Bell have already discontinued using pink slime-containing products.  The public outcry over pink slime in school lunches recently persuaded the USDA to offer school districts the option to purchase pink slime-free products.  This story continues to develop, as a major pink slime producer, Beef Products Inc. just suspended operations at 3 of its 4 plants on Monday.

So if we continue to use the pink slime to keep our food costs down, would you rather be eating E. coli or ammonia hydroxide?  If you answered, “I don’t know,” you would have a bucket of slime on your head (if it were 1986).  I think any movement by the food industry towards more natural, whole foods is a good idea.  Let’s look on the bright side of all this:  at least we aren’t making sausage out of children.

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2 thoughts on “You Can’t Do That…to Beef

  1. So, by definition, do products labeled organic not have pink-slime? I think I can answer my own question as yes, but just wondering.

    Also, what about products labeled all natural?

    I saw that episode of Jamie Oliver’s show and I thought I’d never eat beef again. It turns out that I’m no good at being a vegetarian so we try to eat organic meat.

    • You are right. USDA Organic-certified products do not contain pink slime. I don’t think ammonia hydroxide is considered ‘organic’ 😉
      The USDA only regulates the term ‘all-natural’ for meat and eggs. Other products that claim they are natural are not regulated. From the USDA: “As required by USDA, meat, poultry, and egg products labeled as “natural” must be minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients. However, the natural label does not include any standards regarding farm practices and only applies to processing of meat and egg products. There are no standards or regulations for the labeling of natural food products if they do not contain meat or eggs.”
      By that definition, all-natural beef should not contain pink slime, since that is heavily processed. However, there is no guarantee other products are natural, even when labeled. Watch-dog groups such as The Center for Science in the Public Interest have brought several class-action lawsuits against companies that falsely advertise ingredients or healthfulness.

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