According to the New York Times, If you like Big Macs, you're getting ammonia in every burger. It's part of "a mashlike substance frozen into blocks or chips [and] used in a majority of the hamburger sold nationwide," including that sold at McDonald's, Burger King, and other fast-food "restaurants," not to mention hamburger used in schools (where up to 15% of the hamburger can be "mashlike substance") and other institutional settings.
Doesn't that look appetizing? Those must be the frozen chips. Microbiologist Gerald Zirnstein calls the stuff "pink slime" and feels that allowing it to be called ground beef constitutes fraudulent labeling.
What is this pink slime, why does it have ammonia in it, and above all, why is it in most hamburger sold in the U.S.? Follow the money ...
The product itself came about thus:
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.
These "fatty trimmings," you'll notice, used to be used in pet food and cooking oil--that's the trimmings minus the ammonia. How do they get the product? They liquefy the fat of these slaughterhouse trimmings and extract the protein in a centrifuge, resulting "in a lean product that was desirable to hamburger-makers.." Thanks, but I'll pass on that. I don't want to eat slaughterhouse trimmings, really I don't.
These trimmings tend to be high in pathogens like e. coli and salmonella, as much of the fat is on the exterior of the carcass and possibly picks up said pathogens during the slaughtering process, handling, etc. I'm not completely clear on the whys, but the fact is, these trimmings are loaded with harmful bacteria. What to do, what to do?
Beef Products discovered that ammonia was effective:
Meat is sent through pipes where it is exposed to ammonia gas, and then flash frozen and compressed — all steps that help kill pathogens, company research found.
Of course, the reason there are so many pathogens in the first place is not only due to processing in the slaughterhouse, but also to the way beef is raised in this country. However, much of the blame can be placed on the processing of the meat.
The USDA was persuaded to label the ammonia a food processing agent, not an ingredient, so many of the end users didn't realize that the ammonia they were smelling wasn't there because of contamination, but because of processing. Officials in Georgia, where the product was used for prisoners' meals, returned nearly 7,000 pounds of the stuff because, even while frozen, the odor of ammonia was obvious. Other buyers of the product complained as well.
The company was forced to reduce the amount of ammonia due to the offensive smell, but that ended by allowing the pathogens to grow. Many instances of salmonella and e.coli have been found, despite the fact that the USDA exempted Beef Products from regular testing on the grounds that their method completely killed the bacteria. In fact, so completely did the USDA buy into the company's own data concerning safety, Beef Products didn't even face a recall of its product in most cases where several sources of beef (and beef products) were used by hamburger makers. That has changed now; the company will be under more scrutiny, according to USDA officials.
Is ammonia in food harmful? Well, when the Georgia state officials complained to the USDA about the product, they 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.
As for why companies use this slime, why else? To save money. It's cheap; a school official was quoted in the Times article as saying that it shaved 3 cents off the cost of preparing a pound of hamburger.
After reading this, all I can say is that if I didn't have a reliable source of grass-fed beef, I would most certainly have my own meat grinder by now, and I'd be making my own ground beef. As factory-farmed beef, it might be objectionable for all the usual reasons, but at least it wouldn't include pink slime or ammonia.