School meals containing ammonium hydroxide, also known as treated ground beef or “pink slime”, are OK, says the Department of Agriculture, despite growing opposition from parents and various groups. Even, McDonald’s, a company not exactly known for healthy, wholesome foods, stopped adding ammonium-treated meat into its hamburgers since August 2011. Celebrity chef, Jamie Oliver, as well as other retractors are said to have influenced McDonald’s into excluding the additive. Other fast-food outlets have also stopped using it, including Burger King and Taco Bell.

According to The Daily, approximately 3.2 million kilos (7 million lbs) of ammonium-treated beef have been scheduled as part of school lunch programs in US schools. Approximately 6.5% of ground beef destined for schools will have ammonium-hydroxide added.

Ammonium hydroxide is used as an antimicrobial additive in food – it is a food additive. The US FDA (Food and Drug Administration) classes ammonium-hydroxide food additive as GRAS (generally recognized as safe).

The USDA (US Department of Agriculture) claims its purchases of ground beef meet “the highest standards for food safety”. The Agency stressed that it only allows products into commerce that it is sure are safe.

This begs the question, which is being currently voiced through many channels “If ammonium-hydroxide is not good enough for these fast food chains, how come the US government says it is good enough for schools..?”

US schools, agricultural and health authorities call ground beef with ammonium-hydroxide added “lean fine textured beef”. It comes from Beef Products Inc., as well as some other companies.

Over the last few days, an online petition asking the US government to stop feeding “pink slime” to schoolchildren collected nearly 20,000 signatures. Yesterday, “pink slime” became the most commonly searched keyword in Google and Twitter (USA).

Dr. Gerald Zirnstein coined the term “pink slime” in a USDA memo. Pink slime is boneless beef trimmings, or such products that have gone through a centrifuge. In the USA, it is sold by several companies, including Cargill Meat Solutions and Beef Products Inc.

Beef Products Inc. raises the pH of the beef trimmings by adding ammonium hydroxide to destroy harmful microbes, such as Salmonella and E. coli. Cargill, on the other hand, uses treatments that lower the pH.

USDA-approved beef trimmings have their fat and meat separated by putting them in a centrifuge. The lean beef is then squeezed through a pencil-thin tube. While being squeezed through, it is exposed to ammonia gas. The gas and water in the meat react, raising the pH of the meat, which kills pathogens (harmful microbes).

Ground beef
Ground beef

By the end of the process, the beef is 90+% lean and is delivered in meat supplies throughout the USA. It rarely makes up over 25% of the final meat products that people buy and consume.

A great deal of controversy surrounds the use of ammonium hydroxide in ground beef. With celebrity chefs, tabloids and other media have entered the circus of headline grabbing, it is very difficult for the consumer to gather any useful data.

Even the New York Times over the last few years has published so-called serious concern articles regarding ground beef safety, only to have to retract what it wrote, as occurred with mischaracterizations of Beef Products Inc’s safety record.

Written by Christian Nordqvist