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The Katzwer’s Out of the Bag: Don’t freak out; get the facts about ‘pink slime’

Published: March 30, 2012
Section: Opinions, Top Stories


“Pink slime.” Yuck. Try saying it: “pink slime.” The syllables feel gross in your mouth. Now picture it: a light pink—the same color as raw ground beef—gel oozing across your plate. “Pink slime” is the newest cause of parents everywhere since ABC had a report this month decrying its use in our fast food and school systems.

What the media has dubbed “pink slime” is actually called “lean, finely textured beef” (LFTB) by the companies that produce it. Making LFTB is the final process of slaughtering an animal for manufacture in which the final trimmings, composed of meat, fat and connective tissue, are stripped from the bone. These trimmings are then heated and placed in a centrifuge to remove approximately 90 percent of the fat. The leaner trimmings are then squeezed through a tube approximately the diameter of a pencil; while in this tube, the trimmings are treated to a negligible amount ammonia gas for less than a second that kills bacteria such as E. coli and salmonella.

That sounds disgusting. I can understand why parents are demanding that schools refrain from serving “pink slime” and I can understand why certain fast food companies have cut back on their use of the product. Yet LFTB is not as dangerous as people are saying.

Yes, the idea of ammonia in our food makes one’s guts clench in discomfort, but this process has been around since the 1980s and has not harmed anyone. In fact, LFTB is a boon. Our country is plagued with obesity; serving people leaner beef is a good thing. The ammonia is needed because the trimming process raises the likelihood of the meat containing bacteria like E. coli and salmonella. E. coli and salmonella hurt many more people each year than ammonia does.
E. coli causes 73,000 illnesses and 61 deaths a year, according to the The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, as cited in The Washington Post.

LFTB does not make up an entire hamburger patty; for many companies, LFTB only comprises 25 percent of the patty while the rest is unknown.

Many news sources are more interested in causing a stir than reporting these facts. Firstly, by using the term “pink slime”—which was coined in 2002—reporters are taking a side in the debate. The term is LFTB and, if you do not want to use the biased industry term, then come up with another one. How about ATT, ammonia-treated trimmings? Or MALEC, more ammonia, less E. coli?

In December 2009, The New York Times published an article and an editorial calling out the use of ATT—it will catch on—in which some key facts were incorrect. For instance, it reported that there were times when the ammonia treatment was ineffective and that Beef Products, Inc. (BPI), the company that created ATT, had to recall “two 27,000-pounds batches of processed beef.” Several days later the Times had to print a retraction, stating there was only one failed ammonia treatment and that the contaminated meat was discovered before it was shipped out, meaning that there was no recall. BPI has policies in place to make certain that no contaminated meat leaves their factories.

Also, the news story on ABC this month was hardly the first time ABC took a swing at ATT. The ABC show “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution” sends Brit Jamie Oliver around to attempt to reform school cafeterias in the United States and to combat obesity. On an April 2011 episode, Oliver attacked ATT. To show his point, he doused beef trimmings with liquid ammonia. This is nothing but inflammatory. For me it invokes that terribly powerful scene in John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” in which, since no one has money to buy oranges, the orange company is burning them by the cartload while people are starving just nearby. ATT is nothing like this. First of all, the ammonia is in gas form, not liquid, so the image is all wrong. Second of all, the ammonia is not destroying the meat, it is decontaminating it. Third of all, shouldn’t Jamie Oliver like something that is combating childhood obesity in the United States?

Some of the beef industry’s keenest critics have backed up BPI’s ATT; these critics include Carol Tucker Foreman, director of the Food Safety Institute for the Consumer Federation of America, and Nancy Donley, the president of Safe Tables Our Priority, a group that represents victims of food-borne illness, according to The Washington Post.

The newspapers and news shows need to stop painting BPI as an enemy when all they are doing is protecting people from serious food-borne bacteria. BPI has struggled to fight the negative press by taking out a full-page ad in The Wall Street Journal to defend ATT, launching a new website and trying to dispel the myths that surround ATT.

“We feel like when people can start to understand the truth and reality, then our business will come back,” Craig Letch, director of food quality and assurance for BPI, told The Chicago Sun-Times. “It’s 100 percent beef.”

Until people realize  there is nothing wrong with ATT, however, BPI will continue to suffer. The financial hit BPI has taken because of the negative press has forced the company to suspend operations at three of its plants.

Before demanding that schools and other food providers stop serving it, people need to get educate themselves about ATT. Not only is the amount of ammonia used in ATT so negligible that it does not hurt people, but the ammonia actually protects people. Safety should come first, but  knowledge should always come before action.