US supermarket Safeway is the latest company to announce it will phase out ammonium hydroxide-treated lean beef trimmings from its ground beef. But the furore around this product shows the destructive consequences of allowing anti-industry prejudices to get in the way of sound policy.

I want the job of senior medical correspondent at CNN. If Elizabeth Cohen’s performance in a recent studio discussion about ground beef was anything to go by, the job involves pulling faces and saying ‘yuk’ while providing almost no worthwhile information whatsoever. I reckon I could do that - I bet CNN pays well, too - but I also hope viewers might be a bit more demanding.

Cohen’s gurning was in response to the decision by US supermarket chain Safeway to stop selling ground beef containing a product now widely labelled as ‘pink slime’. Safeway are following in the footsteps of other big names like McDonald’s in removing this form of meat from what they sell. What is this evil stuff and why is everybody ditching it now?

The manufacturers, Beef Products Inc (BPI) of South Dakota, prefer to call it boneless lean beef trimmings. BPI has pulled off a smart trick: making something deemed to be unusable for food into a safe and nutritious product. When a side of beef is being processed, as much of the meat as possible is cut off. However, some of the meat is just too tricky to separate by hand from fatty tissue, so it ends up being sent off for pet food or other uses. That’s a waste.

BPI found a way to separate this meat from the fat by warming the trimmings up then spinning them in centrifuges. This produces by beef fat and a product similar to ground beef, though the particles that come out are smaller so it has a different texture. It doesn’t bear much resemblance to ‘slime’. Then, to ensure it is 100 per cent safe - the parts of the animal used seem to be more prone to containing harmful bacteria than those normally used for ground beef - the company treats the trimmings with ammonium hydroxide gas.

Does this really look like ‘slime’?

Ammonium hydroxide occurs naturally in the human body (and in beef) and is used in a variety of food products. The company argues that in a typical cheeseburger, there is no more ammonium hydroxide in the beef than there is in the bun - and considerably less than is found in the cheese. Very small amounts of ammonium hydroxide - measured in parts per million - are sufficient to make the beef a hostile environment for bugs like E. Coli and salmonella. The trick is to apply enough ammonium hydroxide to the product to kill bacteria without imparting an alkaline taste.

Lean beef trimmings are not used on their own, but are mixed with a much bigger quantity of ground beef to create burgers. Currently, the maximum level of trimmings allowed in products for schools is 15 per cent. The product has been popular both with public institutions and with big companies. It is cheap and nutritious and seems to be at least as safe as ground beef from other sources. This previously unused meat helps to keep costs down and reduces food waste. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) not only approves the product, but buys large quantities of it. So, what’s the problem?

I first came across BPI when it featured in Robert Kenner’s Oscar-nominated documentary, Food Inc. (see a review here). BPI was clearly not worried about its product; the company let Kenner film extensively inside one of its plants. The boss of BPI, Eldon Roth, even took great pleasure in explaining the process of making lean beef trimmings and how he had personally worked on innovations that made sure it was safe to eat. But Kenner added some discordant music - and some judicious shot selection - to make what was innocent appear creepy.

In December 2009, the New York Times carried a long feature calling into question the safety of lean beef trimmings. The process by which lean beef trimmings are produced had been deemed so safe by the USDA that the company was excluded from routine testing of hamburger meat. But the article’s author, Michael Moss, pointed to tests undertaken by school-lunch officials, which had found E. Coli contamination in BPI products. However, the article also noted that ‘no outbreak has been tied to Beef Products’.

In passing, Moss quoted a private email by a USDA microbiologist, Gerald Zirnstein, who labelled lean beef trimmings as ‘pink slime’, the term now routinely used to describe lean beef trimmings. But it seems the real populariser of the term was our old friend, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver. In an astonishing segment for his US TV show, Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, he shows parents how he ‘imagines’ that ‘pink slime’ is made. This includes using a washing machine to demonstrate how the meat is separated and then pouring what looks like bleach over ground beef, as if that bore any resemblance to BPI’s process or product. ‘Basically, we’re taking a product that would be sold at the cheapest form for dogs and after this process we can give it to humans’, he said. Cue pictures of shocked parents and children.

Thus, this whole storm about lean beef trimmings has been largely the product of a scaremongering TV item that paraded the host’s complete ignorance on the subject while treating with reverence the off-the-cuff opinion of a single USDA employee in an email 10 years ago.

The show may not have had many viewers - it was shunted out of its original ABC slot to be replaced by re-runs of Dancing With the Stars - but it seemed to have an impact: one by one, big US chains like Burger King and Taco Bell stopped using ammonium hydroxide-treated products. In January, McDonald’s announced that it had removed BPI products from it’s burgers. That’s hardly surprising: the cost savings will seem a minor compensation for these firms when set against the potential damage to their reputations that this fuss has created. Yet the USDA has recently reaffirmed that BPI products are safe and they are still widely used in US schools, but the department has now agreed to allow schools to opt out of using products containing lean beef trimmings.

this is pink slime, but not 'pink slime'
What has been passed off as a picture of
lean beef trimmings on some blogs

The case of ‘pink slime’ matters for a number of reasons. Firstly, because while science can never be the final arbiter of political decision-making, we should at least test claims against the evidence. And the evidence is that there is little reason to be fearful about lean beef trimmings. Like any meat product that’s not prime steak, if you want to be 100 per cent sure of avoiding illness, you should cook it thoroughly. Doing so will certainly kill any E.Coli and salmonella. But in terms of nutrition and safety, lean beef trimmings compare well with regular ground beef. To say otherwise is at best ignorant, at worst downright untrue. The habit of some websites and news media in illustrating their stories about ‘pink slime’ with a picture of something pink and slimy - rather than a picture of lean beef trimmings - only exacerbates this misleading impression.

Secondly, we should have an equality of scepticism. We should take any company’s claims with a pinch of salt and check things out for ourselves - but we should be wary of claims made by food campaigners, too. From the debate so far, you might be forgiven for believing that lean beef trimmings were some unique and potent danger to our health. But there’s no evidence that anyone has ever been made ill by them.

On the other hand, there is a product beloved of many eco-foodies, one that is definitely not the product of some mass manufacturing process but is a known risk for E.Coli: raw milk. Some balance is required: unpasteurised milk is, by and large, safe to drink. Nonetheless, there have been plenty of cases of food poisoning directly linked to raw milk in recent years. The difference is that raw milk from mom-and-pop farms presses all the right buttons for those who love ‘natural’ food, while BPI’s process - with its huge scale and industrial methods - is frowned upon.

In other words, the myth of ‘pink slime’ is just the latest symptom of an anti-industrial prejudice among foodies. That’s a problem because industrial methods and economies of scale have allowed us to eat more cheaply and with better quality than ever before. Lean beef trimmings allow perfectly good food to be eaten by human beings instead of being wasted on animals.

Food campaigners often bemoan the way that big food companies will present their products as ‘farm fresh’ or ‘natural’ when they are actually produced on an industrial scale. But that is only a reflection of just how deep-seated these prejudices about food - constantly promoted by foodies - really are. The really misleading idea is that there is any benefit to returning to small-scale, organic, eco-friendly food production. Food production stopped being ‘natural’ when we invented agriculture 10,000 years ago.

Sadly, it seems that many of those willing to bash industrialised food production are prepared to distort the facts in order to promote their case. There’s a word for people like that: slime.