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American Meat Institute: "Pink Slime" Is "Safe, Wholesome And Nutritious"

By Anthony Todd in Food on Mar 9, 2012 3:00PM

Do your hamburgers contain ammonium-hydroxide treated meat? Photo by Frank, Jr.
On Wednesday, we posted on the USDA's purchase of 7 million pounds of ammonium hydroxide-treated beef previously rejected by fast food companies. The story immediately gained interest among our readers. The treated beef, which former USDA scientist Gerald Zirnstein dubbed "Pink Slime," is made of otherwise unusable bits and pieces of beef that are particularly prone to bacterial infection. The treatment was designed to sterilize it.

The problem: it may not work.

However, the American Meat Institute, a lobbying organization that represents 95 percent of the beef industry, responded to the concerns and their president claims that the product—which they call "boneless lean beef trimmings"—is "safe, wholesome and nutritious."

This stuff isn't just in school lunches: the pink slime/BLBT/whatever you want to call it, is part of about 70 percent of the ground beef sold in American supermarkets. This led that same former USDA scientist to claim that he only eats hamburger he grinds himself. There have also been some questions about the rigor of the USDA evaluation of the treatment process. When the product went through the approval process at USDA, an undersecretary of agriculture said "it’s pink, therefore it’s meat." The product's swift approval made hundreds of millions of dollars for the companies that produced it.

The USDA has limited the use of BLBT to 15 percent of any ground beef (an odd choice for a safe and wholesome product) but there is no requirement that products containing BLBT be labeled as such.

The American Meat Institute, in its statement, minimized the usage of Ammonium Hydroxide, claiming it is just one possible process for making BLBT and emphasizing that the resulting product is 100 percent beef. According to AMI:

"One process uses food grade ammonium hydroxide gas, something commonly used in the production of many foods, to destroy bacteria. Whatever process is used, it is all done under the watchful eye of USDA inspectors and according to strict federal rules...The fact is, BLBT is beef. The beef trimmings that are used to make BLBT are absolutely edible." They also claim that "BLBT is a sustainable product because it recovers lean meat that would otherwise be wasted. The beef industry is proud to efficiently produce as much lean meat as possible from the cattle we raise."

It's worth noting that ammonium hydroxide is nothing but household ammonium: the stuff you use to clean your floors. Whether it's officially labeled "food grade" or not may not make much of a difference to consumers when evaluating this product.

We sent Rob Levitt, butcher and owner of The Butcher & Larder, AMI's complete statement to see what he thought about the process. He responded immediately and decisively.

"I think the pink stuff is gross," said Levitt, "and I think the AMI's defense of its use is ridiculous. This isn't the only problem we face, though. I opened The Butcher & Larder to be a place where people could shop and feel good about knowing the origin of their food. It is a stretch, but if parents are concerned about what their children are eating, they should try to control it. Vote with your dollar. I know it is hard for some families to pack a lunch, but if ammoniated meat product is the alternative, then voices must be raised.

"Let's see if the folks at the AMI would like to do shots of 'food grade ammonium hydroxide gas.' Are they happy to feed their children chemicals? How about instead of trying to meet the global demand for lean beef, we teach people to eat less beef, but be picky about what they are eating. With quality beef, a little goes a long way."

A request to the AMI for photos of the treated meat or of the treatment process was unanswered at the time of publication.