Is Pink Slime Bad for Your Health?

fast food, fastfood, red meat consumption (Image credit: Hamburger via Shutterstock)

Pink slime, which recently received widespread attention following a March expose by ABC News, is essentially scrap beef, minus the fat, that has been treated with ammonia and mixed into hamburger.

The trade group the American Meat Institute recommends referring to this product as "lean, finely textured beef," perhaps because "pink slime" has a pejorative ring to it. However,  "lean, finely textured beef" sounds like the caviar of meat, and this product is among the lower quality types of beef sold for human consumption, pink slime is probably the less disingenuous term.

There's no question that pink slime is gross. But is it really a health hazard?

To answer this, we have to consider whether there are health risks associated with the beef scraps used in pink slime, and whether there are risks associated with consuming ammonia.

First, the presumptive beef with the beef. After the choicest bits of cattle are removed for steaks and the less desirable parts are removed for hamburger, there's still something left over called trimmings, which are about 80 percent fat and 20 percent meat.

Companies such as Beef Products Incorporated (BPI) and HRR Enterprises heat up these trimmings, and centrifuge out the fat, producing beef they claim to be 95 percent lean. They then inject that product into small pipes along with ammonia gas, which makes the meat more alkaline and therefore inhospitable to bacterial growth.

Because a normal, non-pink-slime-containing hamburger is not processed with ammonia, this step raises the question of why pink slime needs the extra antimicrobial treatment. According to BPI, as quoted in the Pulitzer-winning 2009 New York Times article that first brought widespread attention to pink slime, beef trimmings include "most of the material from the outer surfaces of the carcass." As a result, trimmings are more likely to come into contact with bacteria such as Salmonella and harmful strains of E. coli.

The addition of ammonia solves the problem of bacterial contamination, but lapses in the ammonia treatment process can and do occur. In 2008, BPI temporarily decreased their ammonia levels in an effort to diminish the product's foul odor, and this may have led to spate of Salmonella contamination that year.

But assuming the pink slime in your burger has been properly treated with ammonia, is the ammonia itself a hazard? As many of those opposed to pink slime have pointed out, ammonia is a household cleaner and not fit for human consumption, to which many pro-pink-slime advocates have responded: it's also a natural compound that is produced in the body.

In point of fact, ammonia is naturally produced in the body — as a waste product. Ammonia is responsible for the odor of urine, which exists in part to ferry ammonia waste out the body.

That said, because ammonia is a waste product, the body is very good at getting rid of it. Consequently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration lists ammonia as "generally recognized as safe" in the quantities used in pink slime. Ammonia is also found in puddings, baked goods, and other products. In fact, in a cheeseburger that contains pink slime, the cheese on top may contain more ammonia by weight than the beef patty.

Ultimately, there are many reasons to avoid pink slime, and just as many reasons not to worry about it. In pink slime's favor: it conserves a huge amount of meat. BPI claims that use of pink slime saves 1.5 million cattle from slaughter per year. (On smaller farms, beef trimmings are composted or used in chicken feed, but such reuse isn't as prevalent or profitable on an industrial scale).

In the "con" column: lapses in the ammonia treatment process may allow pathogens into the food supply, although such contamination can occur at other parts of the hamburger production pipeline as well. And pink slime is undeniably low-grade meat, containing more indigestible protein from sinew than normal cuts of beef. But it's hard to argue that pink slime is significantly less healthy or even more disgusting than the hamburger it supplements, which can contain meat from cow heads and esophagi.

For many, learning about the contents of hamburger may be another reason to cut back on red meat. Others who still balk exclusively at the disgustingness of pink slime may be relieved to hear that McDonalds, Burger King, and a half-dozen grocery store chains no longer use pink slime in their burgers.

For anyone else who accepts hamburgers as perhaps gross, but still tasty, then it may be a case where it's better not to know how the sausage is made. 

Pass it on: Pink slime, when processed incorrectly, may contain harmful pathogens.

Food Facts explores the weird world of the chemicals and nutrients found in our food, and appears on MyHealthNewsDaily on Fridays. Follow MyHealthNewsDaily on Twitter @MyHealth_MHND.  

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MyHealthNewsDaily Correspondent