Why Hot Dogs, Chicken Nuggets and Some Other "Meats" Are Way Grosser Than 'Pink Slime'
Photo Credit: courtesy of Beef Products Inc.
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If there's one thing America can agree on, it's that " pink slime" is scary. The hamburger filler made from processed beef trimmings has been in use for decades, but now, thanks to social media-fueled campaigns and traditional media coverage from Fox News to MSNBC, we're suddenly terrified of the stuff. But is pink slime really any worse than pink cylinders like hot dogs, or yellow nuggets of mechanically separated poultry? Probably not. But it seems to represent a discussion that's time has come.
After having quietly graced pre-made beef patties in the U.S. since the early 1990s, pink slime hit the mainstream in the 2008 documentary Food, Inc. An exec from Beef Products Inc. (BPI), which makes the pink product officially known as Lean Finely Trimmed Beef (LFTB) proudly welcomed the cameras into his futuristic facility, and said the product is in 70 percent of America's pre-made burger patties.
Then, a 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times expose that reported BPI had been lowering the levels of ammonium hydroxide used to treat LFTB, in response to complaints about the product's strong ammonia smell. These reductions in treatment caused several batches of burger destined for school lunches to test positive for E. coli and Salmonella.
Since the Times story, public outcry has forced several fast food joints to quit using the stuff in burgers, and supermarkets are dropping products that contain LFTB. When it broke on March 5 that USDA's National School Lunch Program had just purchased seven million pounds of LFTB to mix with ground beef, the anti-slime forces rallied again. This isn't the first time USDA's school lunch program has purchased LFTB, but judging by the pushback it might be the last. Campaigns and industry counter-campaigns have been waged, petitions circulated, and innumerable Twitter hashtags generated, all in the name of pink slime.
Nobody without a financial interest in Beef Products Inc., could argue with a straight face that LFTB isn't kind of gross. But does that make it evil? Processed meats like hot dogs, baloney and chicken nuggets seem, on the surface, no less icky than pink slime.
Unlike LFTB, many nuggets and cylinders are made with mechanically separated meat. Chicken, turkey and pork carcasses, already picked clean of presentable cuts, are pushed through filtering machinery under high pressure, removing every last scrap of tissue. The resulting fragments are used in chicken nuggets, turkey and pork sausage, and many other processed meats.
Mechanically separated beef, on the other hand, is no longer approved for human consumption due to concerns that bovine spinal cord fluid could spread mad cow disease. The final bits of beef are recovered via other methods that, while highly mechanized, are less traumatic to the carcass, minimizing spinal fluid leakage.
So if you're averse to ingesting spinal fluid, beef-based pink slime is actually a better bet than chicken nuggets or hot dogs containing pork or poultry.
The biggest difference between LFTB and most other processed meats lies in how they are preserved. LFTB is dosed with ammonium hydroxide to raise the slime's pH high enough to kill bacteria. These ammonium levels are not close to being toxic, but they still smell and taste foul, tempting processors to go light on the treatment to make the product more palatable.
While LFTB is an ingredient for extending ground beef, the other forms of processed meat I've been comparing to are finished products, stable at refrigerator temperatures because they've been preserved by agents stronger than ammonium hydroxide. Some legal preservatives have been linked to cancer, and the World Cancer Research Fund has recommended that people avoid processed meats altogether.