“Pink slime” shouldn’t be in school lunches. McDonald’s and Taco Bell have already determined that “pink slime” is a public relations disaster and they refuse to use it, but the fast-food giants don’t get it, either.
“Pink slime” is used in two very effective ways. First and foremost, “pink slime” makes ground beef safer to eat by eliminating dangerous pathogens. But, “pink slime” is also a headline writer’s dream, which can be very important to media folks who are more interested in sensationalism than food safety. Here’s just a sample of this week’s headlines: “USDA buys ‘pink slime’ for school lunches;” “Partners in slime;” and “The school cafeteria mystery meat might be ‘pink slime.’”
So, what is “pink slime?” The short answer is ammonium hydroxide, which is used to treat hamburger and other food products to kill pathogens like salmonella and E. coli. Treating lean beef trimmings with ammonium hydroxide gives the product a distinctive hue and texture that sounds completely unappetizing to anyone. Scientists at USDA, however, say that ammonium hydroxide-treated beef is perfectly safe to eat.
Safe or not, “pink slime” was a softball MSNBC writer Alex Johnson hit out of the park. He called ammonium hydroxide “an ingredient in fertilizers, household cleaners and some roll-your-own explosives.” Not the type of stuff you want in your hamburger.
Further outrage was ignited this week when reporters found out USDA plans to purchase 7 million pounds of ground beef for the National School Lunch Program that contains the dreaded “pink slime.” The announcement has prompted one Texas mother to start an online petition to ban the ammonium hydroxide-treated products from school cafeterias, and in a letter to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, Bettina Siegel wrote, “We care deeply about our children’s health and ask that you and the USDA immediately put a stop to the use of pink slime in the National School Lunch Program.”
Siegel probably speaks for the majority of American parents who have heard or read anything about “pink slime.” It may well make hamburgers safer while being harmless to those who consume it, but “pink slime” is just a public relations nightmare.
Fortunately, there’s a safe alternative. It’s called irradiation and it was approved by the Food and Drug Administration more than a decade ago. In fact, irradiation is approved for use on food products in more than 40 countries to kill bacteria, including E. coli, and other contaminants such as viruses and insects.
Irradiation is the process of using “ionizing radiation” to destroy contaminants. But, similar to “pink slime,” some consumer groups fear the extremely low levels of radiation produced by irradiated meat.
Fears of irradiation, however, are misguided. Foodborne illnesses from E. coli and other contaminants present a much greater danger to our children. Indeed, consumer fears of irradiation are similar to those exhibited a century ago when pasteurized milk first came into use. That seemed to work out pretty well.
Scientists from around the globe believe irradiation is a silver bullet that can drastically reduce food contamination. It is not, they believe, a replacement for sanitation and other regulated food-safety practices already in place, but, it is a tool that can greatly increase food safety and minimize human suffering. What’s not to like about that?
The outrage over “pink slime” is misguided. We should be outraged that every hamburger in America is not irradiated.
A description of boneless lean beef trimmings and the use of ammonium hydroxide is provided by the American Meat Institute.