Commentary: We should be outraged, but not over “pink slime”

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“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.

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Mark Heald    
Washington, DC  |  March, 09, 2012 at 06:45 AM

In all the articles I have read, the word "lean" was not used, but the words "fat", and "inedible trimmings" were used. I am very leary of this article because of the publisher, Drovers cattleNetwork, which can only be construed as an advocate of the cattle industry. This is mis-information at its worst.

Denver  |  March, 09, 2012 at 09:22 AM

While decrying a respected publication — one which could be called an expert source on things beef-related — you are committing an ad hominem fallacy. It’s wise to question media messages, but calling a message “misinformation” based solely on the source is short-sighted and shows your lacking willingness to be a critical, rational consumer of information. I’m curious; if you don’t trust what Drovers has to say about beef-related food safety, who do you trust? Every article or scrap of information I’ve read that blasts “pink slime” has been from bloggers, general media sources, celebrities who have NO training in agriculture or food safety (i.e. Michael Pollan), and other sources which are far from expert. As in, those sources are not very authoritative on the topic and might have minimal knowledge on the topic at best.

Mom of many    
Hong Kong  |  March, 09, 2012 at 07:13 AM

I think the issue is not as much the fact that the "pink slime" containing beef has been treated with ammonia, but that the "filler" that has been added is not of much nutritional value to those consuming it. I agree with Mark Heald, this in misinformation and trying to steer away the public from the real issue.

Wisconsin  |  March, 09, 2012 at 09:41 AM

Talk about misinformation - ammonium hydroxide is NOT ammonia! Get your facts straight Mom.

March, 09, 2012 at 08:22 AM

If they stopped feeding cows corn and let them roam like they should they would not have to use pink slime in the first place.

South Dakota  |  March, 09, 2012 at 09:00 AM

Please explain the science of how foodstuffs (corn vs. forage) makes a difference on contamination levels in food products, as in ground beef.

Robert Doering    
West Virginia  |  March, 09, 2012 at 09:31 AM

Nature has been protecting us from pathogens in meat through the process of DRY AGING for 1000's of years. Still holds true today. Most grass fed beef is processed this way, because it is processed at smaller facilities that still use this age old process. And there is plenty of research to back the effectiveness of dry aging against pathogens. I have spoken with USDA inspectors and they, also, confirm this. Not to mention the concentration of flavors and tenderness that is also benefit of this process.

March, 09, 2012 at 03:22 PM

I'm amazed at all the propaganda being thrown around in these comments. Get your facts from the ORIGINAL source - you know the old school professor's peer reviewed research articles!! 1.) ALL cattle contain E coli in their gut - grassfed, cornfed, candyfed, you name it! 2.) While dry aging does work - many of you missed the biggest problem - HELLO most contamination comes from cross contamination or human error in the processing unfortunately - ie. when the meat is ground and put through blades and extractors the outside surface that was dry aged is no longer contained and contamination can occur to ANY meat at this point regardless of aging - this is how you get hamburger no way around it - it's also why you can sear a steak and it rare and ground meat should always be cooked to a safe INTERNAL temp 3.) to the ignorant people who think Drovers is misleading - do better research - you're show your ignorance by making such statements 3.) Ammonia Hydroxide is not household cleaning ammonia - two different chemicals with different chemical makeup - science 101 I do think irradiation could work and would be a good solution, however before any of you comment further - learn the facts!!

Mike with cattle    
Kansas  |  March, 09, 2012 at 09:48 AM

You know Mark, I've never left a message on one of these sites before and read yours, and inintially said just let it lie. But you know, the problem with the internet is that people who don't know enough to know what they don't know stil spout off. So, since someine with a cattle industry link puts some facts out, you automatically discount it? I suppose you drink in what the sensation-mongering journalists have put out to get ratings, or accept stuff from the PEW trust, PETA, and CSPI as unbiased truth? Maybe if you look past your own bias you might actuallly learn something.

March, 09, 2012 at 10:27 AM

Actually, this article hits the nail on the proverbial head. Pink slime would not be needed and likely would never have been added to school lunch hamburgers if irradiation had been embraced as standard procedure for treating meats and other fresh foods. Perhaps now it will.

Alberta  |  March, 09, 2012 at 01:16 PM

To Freethinker, Thank You! Someone finally pointed out what the ACTUAL point of the article was! Halelujah!

Cowman's Wife    
Texas  |  March, 09, 2012 at 10:41 AM

The beef/ag industry continues to do an extremely POOR job addressing issues like pink slime, hormones in milk, etc. So many of the everyday consumers are completely in the dark about a lot of this stuff, & they simply believe what is fed to them by the media. What the heck are the producer groups doing to get the right information out to the public--not much! I know much of the info will fall on deaf ears, but if 10% of the people get better informed, that is a start.

Michigan  |  March, 09, 2012 at 11:19 AM

I've decided to sell my entire herd and just get into the pink slime business. Heck, has anyone tried cutting out the middle man, skipping the beef, and just frying up a straight "slime burger??" Bet it's great! Slime, it's what's for dinner. Whatever.

USA  |  March, 09, 2012 at 10:48 AM

Sounds like pink slime could be a ripe for professional agitator propagandists.

Tammy Fields    
Washington  |  March, 09, 2012 at 11:39 AM

It is my belief that this is more of consumer's demand for a right to know what is in their food. Was the story sensationalized? Probably. Is it valid that consumers are demanding to know what is in their food and how it is handled? Absolutely. Instead of getting all confrontational about this issue, as beef producers of food for the world, we need to keep the consumers and what their wants, needs, and desires are, and be pro-active in marketing that. I think we are headed back to an era of buying local. From local producers, meat shops, farmers markets, etc... What if we used our heads, and started to think of the end game, instead of getting on the fight? Be solution oriented!

Texas  |  March, 09, 2012 at 12:29 PM

Local diversified farms - the way to go. Mono crops and mono heards are not a good idea and not the way God designed the world to work. Deseases amoung lifestock and crops could lead us to the next potoato famine if we do not go back to the family farm system of growing our food. We need to quit limiting the people that want to sell meat and veggies locally in order to favor big factory meat. That is how to solve this problem. Free up farmers and ranchers to market locally.

Amy Sipes    
March, 09, 2012 at 12:57 PM

I'm a meat processor. I would love to hear how "pink slime" makes ground beef safer. Please explain this in further detail. You have repeated this sentiment throughout your editorial. Now, back it up please. Thanks.

Robert Doering    
West Virginia  |  March, 09, 2012 at 05:55 PM

Household ammonia is dilute ammonium hydroxide, which is also an ingredient of numerous other cleaning agents, including many window cleaning formulas. In addition to use as an ingredient in cleansers with other cleansing ingredients, ammonium hydroxide in water is also sold as a cleaning agent by itself, usually labelled as simply "ammonia". It may be sold plain, lemon-scented (and typically colored yellow), or pine-scented (green). Commonly available ammonia that has had soap added to it is known as "Cloudy ammonia".

Robert Doering    
West Virginia  |  March, 09, 2012 at 06:01 PM

Thank you, Katy, for your condescending and borderline insulting commentary. "Ignorant" I think is the word you used. Maybe a little background will help you. 1. My family has been raising beef in this country since before the Revolutionary War. I have helped butcher our own beef on my Grandparents kitchen table since I was old enough to pick up a knife. My job was to clean up the bones and trimmings for grinding. But you would not know that would you. 2. Our farm has been 100% grass fed since the 80's since my Grandfather said, "If they can't survive on grass, I don't want them." I direct market to the consumer, many of whom have visited the farm. 3. A growing percentage of consumers are not happy with our current food system. Trust has been lost. I remember the beef boycotts of the 70's. We could be headed that way again. 4. Quality of my product is my number one concern. Thus, I have to take personal responsibility for what I sell (not something most livestock farmers have to deal with based on the commentary on this page). I have done my research, visited slaught houses, interviewed butchers, workers, and USDA inpsectors. 5. The inspectors basically said that it was a waste of time testing dry aged carcasses because the incidence of pathogens is almost nil.

Laffayette  |  March, 15, 2012 at 11:38 AM


Robert Doering    
West Virginia  |  March, 09, 2012 at 06:02 PM

cont... 6.[1].pdf you can do you own research from there. 7. My beef is dry aged for 21 days. I chose a butcher that dry ages every carcass and cleans his grinder between carcasses, thus, no cross contamination. 8. Eco157 is a product of using antibiotics and corn in feed, as it survives in the rumin environment created by the extreme acidity of the cornfed animal. Regardless the pathogen can not survive the dry aging process (see research). 157 does not survive well in the rumin of grass fed cattle. As cattle person, I am sure you understand the preconditioning programs to get calves ready for the feed lot. This is because calves coming off of grass back up when their diet is dramatically changed. And it takes close to two weeks for their rumin to adjust to the new diet. 9. The trimmings used to make pink slime are a by product, which used to go into pet foods or rendered for other products. We use our trimmings and fat to make tallow, which in turn my wife turns into soap, which we use and she sells. The leavings from the rendering process are fed to our chickens... whose eggs we eat and sell... whose bodies we consume. 10. Mixing those trimmings (pink slime) into products and not labelling those products as such is fraudulent at best. If the industry is so confident about this process and the "added safety" of the product, why do they not proudly proclaim their product contain "30% pink slime for your safety." 11. But hey, the consumer and producers such as I are enemies in you eyes, apparently. Or the commenters here would not be so insulting and condescending. Thanks, for replying and allowing me the chance to expound.

Common Tater    
Missouri  |  March, 09, 2012 at 08:27 PM

I would opine that Robert, here, is the obvious King of the arrogant and condescending writing style.

Jenny Sabo    
Montana  |  March, 09, 2012 at 08:09 PM

How about requiring that meat is raised on pasture, and harvested locally, and treated in a manner that keeps it safe from the beginning, not tries to cure it at the end. Radiation is no more acceptable than ammonium hydroxide. "Tiny amounts" in one hamburger, a lifetime of irradiated foods- does that not have the chance to accumulate to toxic levels?? Americans are not complete dolts, and trying to hide this kind of toxic practice is foolish at best. "Profit before all" always leads to pitfalls in the end, does it not? This all sounds so much like the beginning of the 20th century and the muckrakers.

Common Tater    
Missouri  |  March, 09, 2012 at 08:30 PM

How about requiring that people actually know things about what they post...nothing you are advocating to be "required" would guarantee safety.

Arlington VA  |  March, 09, 2012 at 09:46 PM

I am totally disgusted that this was fed to us without our knowing about it. It is a crime pure and simple. And where are any published studies about long term effects from eating this crap? Are there residues of this ammonia product present? Is it carcinogenic? So many questions. I for one will only eat ground meat from now on that I grind myself, or from Whole Foods, McDonalds etc that are cetifying they are "slime" free. Yuk!

Mom of 4    
Deptford NJ  |  March, 09, 2012 at 10:35 PM

Forgive my typos above, I inadvertantly posted my comment in the middle of proofing.

Ontario  |  March, 10, 2012 at 01:18 PM

Well said Katie - I fail to see the arrogance (well, maybe telling people to get their facts straight but hey, if the shoe fits.......). Robert Doering - I just wanted to call you on your observation that ammonium hydroxide is just ammonia and water. A weird and wonderful thing about chemistry - the compound often in no way resembles it's constituent elements. Table salt is a compound of the very caustic and unstable element sodium and the toxic gas chlorine, yet it is essential to life.

Robert Doering    
West Virginia  |  March, 12, 2012 at 06:47 AM

JamesD, I do understand basic chemistry, that is why I understand that basic household ammonia is the very same as ammonium hydroxide, only the household ammonia is diluted. From wiki... "Ammonia solution, also known as ammonium hydroxide, ammonia water, ammonical liquor, ammonia liquor, aqua ammonia, aqueous ammonia, or simply ammonia, is a solution of ammonia in water. It can be denoted by the symbols NH3(aq). Although the name ammonium hydroxide suggests a base with composition [NH4+][OH−], it is actually impossible to isolate samples of NH4OH, as these ions do not comprise a significant fraction of the total amount of ammonia except in extremely dilute solutions.[4]"

KS  |  March, 11, 2012 at 01:15 PM

Sorry but I can not agree that spraying food with ammonia is safer than the risk of other diseases -- there are no long term studies showing the problems from it. Lets face it you don't drink or eat ammonia you clean with cause it can kill you and it's the same stuff only very dilute.... not my idea of safe. Local Grain fed and grass finished beef do not have the incidence of feedlot beef for contaminants (even small feedlots are better than the huge ones). The answer isn't in doing away with the beef industry but it certainly isn't also saying that adding ammonia is safe either.

KS  |  March, 11, 2012 at 01:17 PM

ps ... and for those who are saying ammonia isn't the same as ammonium hydroxide perhaps you should look up the info on chemicals again as it is the same just suspended in liquid and diluted.

Linda Walker    
California  |  March, 12, 2012 at 01:05 AM

Do any of you realize that you can create your own safe hamburger at home? Just go to your supermarket and purchase round steak, rump roasts or whatever cut you wish and grind it up. You may have to purchase a meat grinder because many of you do not have "Grandma's grinder" that has sat unused in the back of the cupboard. Voila', no pink slime and fresh hamburger at your fingertips.

Phinneus T    
Massachusetts  |  March, 12, 2012 at 07:08 AM

Great point Linda Walker. I have not bought store hamburg for some time. Have a grinder and buy pot roast when on sale and grind my own. Many 'things' can be made safe for human consumption, but would they be wholesome products we would want to knowingly consume? 'Safe' would mean that consuming the 'product' would not cause disease or contain dangerous pathogens or contaminants. The bottom line here, like in most anything, is MONEY! Parts of the beef that were once not consumed by humans are now used to extend beef and there is a nice profit in that. So yes, I agree be skeptical about research results until you know who profit$ from those results. Then be really skeptical. Next time in the store ask where their hamburg is they don't know.

limousin herd    
IN  |  March, 12, 2012 at 06:24 AM

Whether it is ammonium hydroxide or irradiation, we are not only killing pathogens, but the healthy enzymes essential for fighting human diseasses. Please , someone address this issue. same with pasturization

Washington  |  March, 12, 2012 at 11:15 AM

Pink Slime is the name of a short story I hope to have published next week. I've been doing a lot of research on the topic from the sensationalism to the scientific. There's much more to the issue it than the headlines.

Mike V    
Central TX  |  March, 14, 2012 at 09:58 AM

Please send it to, it would be of great interest to the masses!

Wyo  |  March, 12, 2012 at 04:15 PM

Only one question for Greg..............what makes you think that the same types and media who sensationalize and use misinformation about beef trimmings......would not do the same thing for irradiation? In my way of would likely become an even worse PR disaster for the beef industry than "pink slime" is.

Virginia  |  March, 16, 2012 at 12:10 PM

Morons. When I was a kid, we could eat our meat rare, or even raw with no problem. The answer is easy, find out why/how we our contaminating our food and let's stop it. It was contaminated 50 years ago, why is it now? We're doing something different now, what is it?

Alabamas  |  March, 16, 2012 at 12:15 PM

Its Bush's fault.

Kansas  |  December, 26, 2012 at 01:38 PM

It's true, I read it on the internet.

Kansas  |  December, 26, 2012 at 01:42 PM

When schools opt for tabloid sensationalism rather than sound science to base decisions, it makes a person wonder exactly what do they teach at school in the science classes?

Judy, a consumer    
Canada  |  December, 27, 2012 at 08:55 AM

Thanks Katy and Mike with cattle. People so need to do their homework about food and food safety. Consumer's need to take responsibilty for how they store, handle and cook foods. Ecoli, samonella etc. are naturally occurring and can be in all kinds of foods so consummers need to treat foods properly i.e. cook hamburgers through.

Judy, a consumer    
Canada  |  December, 27, 2012 at 08:55 AM

Thanks Katy and Mike with cattle. People so need to do their homework about food and food safety. Consumer's need to take responsibilty for how they store, handle and cook foods. Ecoli, samonella etc. are naturally occurring and can be in all kinds of foods so consummers need to treat foods properly i.e. cook hamburgers through.

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