|A beef grinding operation. Photo by USDA/Wikimedia|
In the past few weeks, the controversy surrounding “Lean Finely Textured Beef," otherwise known by its colorful moniker "pink slime," has raised many questions about the state of our food system. Created by Beef Products Inc., this product was invented ten years ago to turn fatty beef trimmings, which are highly susceptible to contamination by E. coli or Salmonella, into a product safe for human consumption. Previously these trimmings had only been fit for pet food and cooking oil. However, by liquefying the trimmings and using a centrifuge to separate the fat and sinews from the meat and then spraying it with gaseous ammonia they could be safely mixed with regular hamburger meat and sold to an unsuspecting public.
You probably have heard Lean Finely Textured Beef referred to as “pink slime” in the news. The term was coined by a USDA microbiologist in 2002 in an email sent to colleagues, who went on to say "I do not consider the stuff to be ground beef, and I consider allowing it in ground beef to be a form of fraudulent labeling." Nevertheless, it continued to be sold to school lunch programs, prisons, grocery stores, and restaurants across the country. In fact, some studies estimate that over 70 percent of all hamburgers sold contain “pink slime.”
Consumers have been outraged to find out that this ingredient and the ammonia used to produce it was never labeled on the food they were eating. The USDA says that “Lean Finely Textured Beef” did not have to be included on food labels because the ammonia used was classified as a processing agent. However, over the years there were many complaints about products that contained “Lean Finely Textured Beef.” Complaints mainly centered around the sometimes strong ammonia smell which could make the product unpalatable. In response, the company began reducing the amount of ammonia used in production. As a result, several batches which were intended for school lunches tested positive for salmonella in 2008. (You can find more details about this in an investigative piece written by Michael
Moss in 2009.)