Would You Like Ammonia-Laced Pink Slime with That Burger?

Too bad. You don’t really get a choice. Is the beef industry trying to turn its customers into vegetarians? From the NY Times:

Eight years ago, federal officials were struggling to remove potentially deadly E. coli from hamburgers when an entrepreneurial company from South Dakota came up with a novel idea: injecting beef with ammonia.

The company, Beef Products Inc., had been looking to expand into the hamburger business with a product made from beef that included fatty trimmings the industry once relegated to pet food and cooking oil. The trimmings were particularly susceptible to contamination, but a study commissioned by the company showed that the ammonia process would kill E. coli as well as salmonella.

And this ‘beef product’–which isn’t actual meat, by the way–that was “once relegated to pet food and cooking oil”, who EATED it? Guess (boldface mine):

With the U.S.D.A.’s stamp of approval, the company’s processed beef has become a mainstay in America’s hamburgers. McDonald’s, Burger King and other fast-food giants use it as a component in ground beef, as do grocery chains. The federal school lunch program used an estimated 5.5 million pounds of the processed beef last year alone.

I suppose it’s not as bad as spiking school lunches with lead. It’s very Solyent Green sounding. Actually, Solyent Pink:

Carl S. Custer, a former U.S.D.A. microbiologist, said he and other scientists were concerned that the department had approved the treated beef for sale without obtaining independent validation of the potential safety risk. Another department microbiologist, Gerald Zirnstein, called the processed beef “pink slime” in a 2002 e-mail message to colleagues and said, “I do not consider the stuff to be ground beef, and I consider allowing it in ground beef to be a form of fraudulent labeling.”

It’s also very stinky (boldface mine):

In early 2003, officials in Georgia returned nearly 7,000 pounds to Beef Products after cooks who were making meatloaf for state prisoners detected a “very strong odor of ammonia” in 60-pound blocks of the trimmings, state records show.

“It was frozen, but you could still smell ammonia,” said Dr. Charles Tant, a Georgia agriculture department official. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Unaware that the meat was treated with ammonia — since it was not on the label — Georgia officials assumed it was accidentally contaminated and alerted the agriculture department. In their complaint, the officials noted that the level of ammonia in the beef was similar to levels found in contamination incidents involving chicken and milk that had sickened schoolchildren.

Beef Products said the ammonia did not pose a danger and would be diluted when its beef was mixed with other meat. The U.S.D.A. accepted Beef Product’s conclusion, but other customers had also complained about the smell.
Untreated beef naturally contains ammonia and is typically about 6 on the pH scale, near that of rain water and milk. The Beef Products’ study that won U.S.D.A. approval used an ammonia treatment that raised the pH of the meat to as high as 10, an alkalinity well beyond the range of most foods. The company’s 2003 study cited the “potential issues surrounding the palatability of a pH-9.5 product.”

Palatability, hunh? And, once again, an industry co-opted ‘regulatory’ agency is to blame:

The company says its processed beef, a mashlike substance frozen into blocks or chips, is used in a majority of the hamburger sold nationwide. But it has remained little known outside industry and government circles. Federal officials agreed to the company’s request that the ammonia be classified as a “processing agent” and not an ingredient that would be listed on labels.

This isn’t beef, this is industrial waste. Get it out of the food supply.

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25 Responses to Would You Like Ammonia-Laced Pink Slime with That Burger?

  1. Willy says:

    I used to work in an independent testing lab. One of the products that came in for testing was ‘mechanically deboned poultry’ or MDP…I called it ‘meat pus’.
    The company would ship it UPS unrefrigerated, sometimes sitting in the truck over the weekend. Mondays, we were always the first stop for that driver. The whole truck would smell sick, involuntary retching ‘sick’. Turned me off of any poultry product that couldn’t be identified as a single piece of meat (chicken nuggets, low price chicken patties, etc.) If it’s formed into some unnatural shape then it’s most likely meat pus.
    The stuff was so rancid that I preferred analyzing raw sewage (the local WWTP was another of our clients) to meat pus.
    We analyzed meat pus for calcium, the point being that elevated levels of calcium were evidence that the deboning process was out of whack and just grinding up bones. Yum!

  2. addie says:

    Hey Mike, it’s me Addie. Now, what was I saying about factory farming and the irresponsible nature of the entire biz? Ammonia, MSRAs, big meat=corruption in the government?
    The planet (the humans on it) needs to scale back its meat-eating and therefore its meat production. If people cant go veg 7 days/week, at least try for 2 or 3. It’ll get the ammonia out of your system, at the very least!
    Happy New Year, by the way, and keep up the good work on the blog.

  3. Mike says:

    Mechanically deboned poultry and this ammonia treated beef are processes that increase the amount of meat for people to eat without increasing the number of animals that are killed. Here is an excerpt from a paper:
    “Approximately 3 million cattle were slaughtered in Canadian federally inspected plants in 1997 (Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada Statistics, 1997). Most of this beef is boned in plant and the meat is sold as boxed beef. During this process, as much as 11 kg of meat is left attached to the bone (Duerr & Earle, 1974). This could result in approximately 32 million kg of edible meat protein disposed of or sold at a lower price as inedible by-products. The present bone-rendering and tallow systems are, therefore, wasting high quality edible protein. Many mechanical methods have been developed to recover proteins but 16–20% protein is left in the bone residue after these processes ( McCurdy, Jelen, Fedec & Wood, 1986).
    Several researchers have investigated the use of alkaline solutions (sodium hydroxide) in combination with sodium chloride to extract proteins and used acid precipitation to recover the proteins (Duerr; Jelen; Lawrence; McCurdy and McCurdy). When looking at the problem from a meat scientist/muscle biologist point of view better methods are available for extracting myofibrillar proteins. The most obvious is the use of sodium chloride and different phosphates to extract proteins. The most common methods for extraction and purification of myofibrillar proteins takes advantage of the fibrous nature of these proteins and the effects of high ionic strength on the solubility of these proteins. Salt is commonly used in processing to solubilize myofibrillar proteins to provide the glue that holds together sausage and boneless ham products. Salt interacts with charged amino acids on the proteins causing a shift in the isoelectric point that leads to an increase in hydration of the proteins, and increased solubility ( Hamm, 1986). This hydration is pH sensitive. At higher pH, the swelling is more pronounced than at lower pH ( Hamm, 1986). It has also been reported that pyrophosphates allow for swelling of myofibrils to increase the extractability of the proteins ( Offer and Paterson, B.C., Parrish, F.C. and Stromer, M.H., 1988. Effects of salt and pyrophosphate on the physical and chemical properties of beef muscle. Journal of Food Science 53, pp. 1258–1265. Full Text via CrossRefPaterson). Polyphosphates are used to both increase ionic strength and increase pH ( Trout & Schmidt, 1983). Therefore, a combination of sodium chloride and phosphate should be as effective as dilute sodium hydroxide to extract protein from bones.
    A major challenge to the economic recovery of proteins extracted from bones is the recovery of these proteins from a very dilute solution. Researchers have used acid precipitation to recover myofibrillar proteins from extraction solutions (Duerr; Jelen; Lawrence; McCurdy and McCurdy). However, it is possible that with this method, proteins are denatured and the resulting ingredient would be less functional than recovering proteins that remain in their native state. Returning protein solutions to physiological ionic strength (0.18) results in the precipitation of the filamentous myofibrillar proteins and may maintain the functionality of these proteins as an ingredient in processing.
    The objective of this project was to investigate different bone types and solutions for extracting proteins from beef bones, evaluate different bone to extraction solution ratios for protein extraction and evaluate the extracted protein as an ingredient in finely comminuted sausage products. about the use of ammonia to extract more meat from bones:”

  4. addie says:

    That is interesting. Thanks for the clarification. This subject–of using as much of the animals as possible –came up at a conference recently. To wit: that it’s actually less wasteful of, more respectful to, the carcass to use all of it.
    Still, if I were you, I wouldn’t eat a sausage unless you nuked it, and even then….
    P.S. sodium chloride and phosphates…. hard on the environment, after the processing is done? This is a sincere question, by the way. Not a cranky one.

  5. Rob Jase says:

    Anyone else out there immediately think of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer season 7 episode about the DoubleMeat Palace?
    The secret ingredient that made the burgers taste so much better than the competitors was meat.

  6. Liz says:

    I have thrown away a handful of whole chickens and chicken “parts” in the past three years because once I opened the casing, I nearly choked on ammonia-like fumes. I’ve never had that problem with sausage or ground meat, surprisingly.
    While I appreciate efforts to eradicate e.coli & salmonella from our food supply, there has GOT to be a better way.

  7. mk says:

    Is it reasonable to assume other meats available in the market (or online/mail-order) are treated this way? Bison? Elk? I haven’t had beef (or “beef”) in quite a long time. Just curious.

  8. Silver says:

    I have a naive, stupid question. I know little of the ways of “dietary ammonia.”
    Would very high, consistent intake of the meatslurry, etc., tend to raise venous ammonia to the minimally elevated range? Even in patients without other evidence of compromised hepatic function (normal transaminases, etc., no NAFLD/NASH?)
    Or would intake of the meatslurry shortly before a venous ammonia draw tend to raise ammonia levels to that high-normal range?
    The paper on the beefproducts website says that it is, of course, entirely safe. But I think it’s just possible they may have their own agenda. Actually, this is kind of an underwhelming paper overall.
    I have a handful of patients who are presenting with trace-elevated venous ammonias (drawn for rule out encephalopathy), otherwise normal workup, and I can assure you that any protein in their diet consists of “meatlike substance.”
    Obviously there are other metabolic/toxic encephalopathies, but if the remainder of the hepatic workup is clear, then those are less likely in the list. Hence the naive question.

  9. Demha says:

    Well at least you won’t get heartburn from eating this beef!

  10. Paul Murray says:

    Fun with food: purchase some fried chicken and strip off the skin with its artificially tasty layer of “spices”. Then smell the actual meat.

  11. addie says:

    To Silver. I googled “venous ammonia beef” and came across this paper. It’s an old study, but it might be interesting to you:
    We1,2 have confirmed the findings of others3-6 that there is an elevation in acid secretion from Heidenhain pouches of dogs, in which the portal venous blood is diverted around the liver. The elevated secretion is intimately related to the ingestion of food.2-5 We thought the humoral secretagogue involved might be a product of protein breakdown in the lumen of the intestine. Since ammonia is one such product which can conveniently be measured, we set out to study serial venous blood ammonia levels after feeding dogs with and without shunts around the liver, seeking to determine whether there is a correlation between these levels and the rate of gastric acid secretion. The ammonia curves obtained after feeding normal dogs and men were surprising and are the subject of this report.

  12. Kaleberg says:

    I always associate the reek of ammonia with seriously spoiled meat. Isn’t it a product of the protein breakdown process? Of course this explains, in part, how the price of “meat” has been so stable since the 1980s when the price started to soar. I tend to buy my meat, and vegetables for that matter, from suppliers I know and trust. Most people don’t have this luxury.
    In the old days, the regulators would have required better labeling. You couldn’t call something shot full of ammonia a beef burger, you’d have to call it a beef-monia burger or something, but regulation has fallen on hard times. For most people, it’s don’t ask, don’t tell.

  13. El Cid says:

    Hey, c’mon, Beef Products Inc. are good sports. If your processed beef trimmings product is proven to be infected with E Coli, they’ll buy it back.

  14. daedalus2u says:

    This is just like the Chinese melamine problem. That ammonia will show up as “protein” in the standard tests. If the normal pH of meat is ~6, and they have added enough ammonia to raise it to ~9, they have neutralized every carboxylic acid group and made an ammonium ion (which is non-volatile).
    Unless they modify the test and actually measure for ammonia separate from protein, there will be a tremendous incentive to use as much ammonia as possible and leave the residual ammonia as high as possible because that ammonia will show up as “protein” which is probably how the value of the “stuff” is calculated.
    In the body, ammonia is detoxified in the liver by being converted into urea. Minor amounts are also excreted in urine and sweat. Normally some urea is added to the gut where it is hydrolized to ammonia as substrate for gut bacteria. The pH of the stomach and gut are both low enough that most of the ammonia will be present as ammonium and shouldn’t cause too many problems, so long as it is not much more than maybe 10% of protein intake. Any excess protein in the diet is oxidized and that liberates ammonia which must be detoxified in the liver to urea. However there may be rate effects where ammonia from excess protein is liberated slowly while ammonia from ammonia-processed beef is released all at once.

  15. Tschäff says:

    While this is truly disgusting, and I may never eat beef again, I remind myself if they were selling something toxic, there would be lawsuits, people would be dying left and right, I don’t see any of that happening.

  16. Rob says:

    All the more reason to buy ground chuck / sirloin / actual cut of beef – better if you can watch butcher grind it.

  17. al stehr says:

    I don’t trust big companies any more and since having caught safeway and costco rewrapping old ground beef with fresh I won’t buy it from them. I contacted the government food inspection agency and was politly brushed off. Both were happy to take the meat back to shut me up. After hearing about pink slime I will not eat any meat that is not in an identifiable form. Wheat is also slowly killing us and ranchers know not to feed it to cattle in copius amounts until the final weeks in the feed lot. It is acidic, inflamitory,and messes humans up in many different ways and leads to an agonizing old age.

  18. Jan says:

    Just a note to let you know that even with my glasses on I can barely read your information etc. I am 72 and thought nmy eyes were pretty good I can even read without my glasses on but after this one I find that even though your eyes are great not all the people that try to read this can see good. I for one have a very difficult time reading your mail.

  19. Conny says:

    That’s why i’m always saying, only buy meat from trusted sellers. Yes it might be more expensive, but it’s worth it. Most people tend to only look at the price when buying a product and that’s the main problem. You just can’t get everything cheap, quality has it’s price. But unfortunately most people don’t realize this.
    Even if someone doesn’t has much money to spend, there’s an easy solution: Eat less meat. Eating meat every day isn’t healthy at all by the way.

  20. MacTurk says:

    “With the U.S.D.A.’s stamp of approval”…..Mother of the flying angels I do not believe in!!
    I worked in McDonald’s for a while, during my stay in the USA. I have never eaten any of their products since.
    This stuff sounds vile.

  21. Jon says:

    Is there a risk here that when the ammonia becomes volatile during cooking, that it will then react with other chemicals created during the cooking process (amines, amides, etc.) to create harmful by-products?

  22. DeucePrez says:

    I’m a little skeptical of the article itself, despite the gross sounding product.
    Why so many typos in the article? In fact, what ANY typos?
    1) EATED (not “ate”)
    2) Palatability, hunh? (not “huh”)
    3) …is used in a majority of the hamburger sold nationwide.
    (wouldn’t “hamburgers” fit better?)
    4) Solyent Green/Solyent Pink (“Soylent Green/Pink”)

  23. kevin says:

    At present is this process being used on any other livestock and slipped into our food supply

  24. NeedtoKnow says:

    I have been asking several advocates without any clear-cut answer. I understand that ground beef is washed in ammonia-that means all of the ground beef pre-packaged stuff in supermarkets. But does the same apply to ground Turkey & Chicken? I often buy these ground meat packages but I WILL DEFINITELY stop if this applies even to ground chicken/turkey. & sausages too? Please help.

  25. Paul says:

    Yuk!!! Do you know if same applies in the UK? if so time for me to start considering very carefully where i buy my meat from.

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