Sunday, March 11, 2012

Did Someone Say Pink Slime?

Face it: School lunches have always looked a bit dodgy. Thick, overcooked casseroles. Spongy grey sandwich patties. Slabs of greasy pizza. Thus, when industrial beef producers suggested one more (cheap) processed ingredient, cash-strapped school districts gladly agreed.


Source: theblaze.com
So began the "Pink Slime" fiasco (picked up by the msnbc* Vitals blog, NPR's The Salt, and, of course, our friends at change.org). What is it? If you come from the ranch side of the equation, you refer to pink slime as lean, finely-textured beef (LFTB). Connective tissue and scraps from industrial butcher plants are mixed with ammonia gas or ammonium hydroxide, which degrades the protein matrix of collagen and elastin into component amino acids, and sterilizes the resulting goopy mass against microbes like E. coli. The final product can be blended into hamburger and other "finished" meat products.


So, what are the arguments against this bio-sludge (besides appearance)? First, consider nutrition: there's less in pink slime than in other meat products. There's a higher fraction of insoluble protein, which may be hard to digest, but on the plus side, there's less fat in LFTB than in standard ground chuck. Despite its off-putting look, the final material may actually have a composition closer to soy protein than beef.


pH meter
Source: General Tools
Second, how much ammonia is required? Levels high enough to raise the goop's pH to ~9 seem to kill all pathogens, but batches tested by the NYT back in 2009 showed pH levels as low as 7.75. So what? Well, since pH tracks logarithmically, that corresponds to 18x less total base, which might reduce any ammonia odors but correlates to increased bacterial contamination. 


Finally, it's all about the labeling. A generation of parents accustomed to fighting high-fructose corn syrup (oops, "corn sugar"), artificial dyes, and allergens in processed foods would prefer including ammonia in the final ingredient list. However, manufacturers - and the USDA - consider this a production step, not a discrete additive like ammonium phosphate (leavening agent) or ammonium chloride (licorice, baked goods). 


Mmm...beef.
Source: picturedepot.com
Time will tell if the public uprising surrounding pink slime will lead to cancellation of school lunch contracts. But processed meat products aren't going away anytime soon: consider chicken nuggets, hot dogs, sausages, or scrapple (if you're into that). Or the ubiquitous gelatin, made from bones and cartilage, which gives the gummy to bears and puts the gel in Jell-O


*Chemophobia update - Ye Gods, msnbc. Way to scare everyone. How about a scientific fact check? Ammonia is not a "pink chemical" - it's colorless, and you don't use it to leaven cakes (see ammonium phosphate, above). Backtracking to the original report, we see mention of flammability and building bombs . . .really? Ammonia is much more commonly used to clean floors and windows.

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