I was at the sheep pasture today, and I have to say, the cow there was very cute. The idea of eating cows bothers me a little and I do not eat a lot of meat. However, I'm not a vegetarian either. When I first read about boneless lean beef trimmings my first reaction was "what an excellent idea." Imagine my confusion over the current hullabaloo about "pink slime" a new derogatory term for a food that's been in the system for a while.
Here's the idea. When a butcher finishes cutting what can reasonably be separated from bone, what is left is beef trimmings. It is too costly to recover the bits of muscle from the trimmings by hand. So, much of it could go to waste.
Some food processors then use mechanized means of recovering some of the meat from the trimmings. It used to be that what was recovered had too much connective tissue in it to be consumed by people. But Fido doesn't mind gristle the way we coddled humans do. That's why it used to be considered "only suitable for pets." Around 20 years ago, some manufacturers improved the process, separating the connective tissue, resulting in a product picky humans actually like. It is nutritionally the same as lean ground beef because it is lean ground beef.
This sounds like a good idea to me because it means less waste in the food system. In fact, it can be reasonably referred to as a "sustainable practice." By some accounts it reduces the number of cows that must be killed by over 10,000 per year.(1)
Reduce the cost of food by removing a source of waste and providing a nutritious and safe product. All sounds good to me.
So, what is the hub-bub?
I hear: "It is a waste product, only suitable for pets. It shouldn't be served to humans!"
As I've already explained, it was never a safety consideration that made it only suitable for pets. It was a quality consideration. Process improvements removed the gristle making it palatable to people.
Remember, pet food companies don't want to poison your pets any more than human food companies want to poison you. Harming your customer, human or otherwise, is a fast track to bankruptcy.
"But isn't pink slime full of ammonia, a household cleaner?"
No. In fact, producers of boneless lean beef trimmings don't necessarily use ammonia to treat them for food safety. One company considered very forward-thinking in food safety chooses the ammonia treatment to help assure the routine safety of their product.(2)
Apparently, the notion that "pink slime is full of ammonia" was popularized by Jamie Oliver on his TV program. I like Jamie Oliver. But remember, he is a cook and entertainer, not a food scientist. Food scientists everywhere will tell you the same thing: Ammonia is in your body now; it is in your food naturally; it is part of life. Small amounts are not an issue. The process of treating food with ammonia in small amounts is proven safe and has been in use in many food products for decades.(3) The purpose of the treatment is to reduce the risk of food borne illness; this is a good thing.(4)
"But isn't that food safety step because the food would not otherwise be fit for human consumption?"
As already explained that's not true for two reasons: 1. The step is not universally used to treat lean beef trimmings; 2. The step had nothing to do with introducing lean beef trimmings into the food supply. What allowed that was the removal of connective tissue for palatability not the safety of the meat.
Processing food has inherent risks. Food companies are highly motivated to mitigate those risks.
"Would you eat 'pink slime'?"
I would not go out of my way to seek out or avoid boneless lean beef trimmings. It doesn't bother me that it is not explicitly on food labels. It isn't a new mystery food introduced into the system. It's just a more efficient use of scarce resources.
I am not enamored of the food processing industry. I have concerns. This is not one of them.
Eric Esterling is a registered dietitian (RD) with a Masters in Nutrition and a passion for dispelling bad science reporting.
(1) Foodie Villain of the Week. Center for Consumer Freedom; March 15, 2012. Available from: http://www.consumerfreedom.com/2012/03/foodie-villain-of-the-week/
(2) Shin, Annys. Engineering a Safer Burger: Technology Is Entrepreneur's Main Ingredient for Bacteria-Free Beef. Washington Post; June 12, 2008. Available from: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/story/2008/06/12/ST2008061200002.html?sid=ST2008061200002
(3) Questions and Answers about Ammonium Hydroxide Use in Food Production. International Food Information Council Foundation; 2009. Available from: http://www.foodinsight.org/Resources/Detail.aspx?topic=Questions_and_Answers_about_Ammonium_Hydroxide_Use_in_Food_Production
(4) Donley, Nancy. In Defense of Food Safety Leadership. Food Safety News; March 17, 2012. Available from: http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2012/03/in-defense-of-food-safety-leadership/