A Minute With...

Anna Dilger, meat science expert

4/3/2012  8:00 am

The recent controversy about “pink slime” – the name given to a certain type of ground beef – has hurt a number of businesses, including one, AFA Foods Inc., which has declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The Pennsylvania company has said news coverage of its treated boneless lean beef trimmings has contributed to the company’s financial problems. Anna Dilger, a professor of animal sciences at the University of Illinois, discussed “pink slime” in a recent interview with News Bureau intern Jackie Schultz.

Just what is “pink slime,” and how long has it been present in ground beef?

image of professor anna dilgerBoneless lean beef trimmings, finely textured – what the news media have termed “pink slime” – is one type of beef product that is produced from trimmings of beef. When beef is being made into steak and roasts, lean meat and fat that is not part of the steak or roast being made is trimmed away. These trimmings are ground and make up the ground beef or “hamburger” that you buy at the store. Sometimes these trimmings contain a lot of lean meat. Other times these trimmings are mostly fat; to cut the lean parts away from the fat is very time-consuming and labor intensive. That fat can be used for cooking oil but then the lean meat is lost and not being used for its best purpose.

By heating these fat trimmings, the fat starts to melt and can be more easily separated from the lean meat through centrifugation. However, sometimes these fat trimmings are more likely to harbor E. coli contamination. Ammonium hydroxide (ammonia plus water) is used to increase the pH of this meat and make it an unfriendly place for bacteria. The result of these processes (the heating, the centrifugation and the ammonium hydroxide treatment) is a product called boneless lean beef trimmings, finely textured. This product is then mixed with other ground beef trimmings. It is 100 percent ground beef.

So, does “pink slime” pose any danger?

Ammonium hydroxide was declared safe by the FDA in 1974. It is used in several types of food processing including in the manufacture of baked goods, chocolates and cheeses. Ammonium hydroxide also occurs naturally in foods such as beef, dairy, fruits and vegetables. The slight increase in ammonium hydroxide of boneless lean beef trimmings, finely textured do not pose any risk to humans. In fact, the use of ammonium hydroxide to control microbial growth is one way to improve the safety of beef products.

The importance of this process is that it maximizes the lean meat yield from beef animals. The fat trimmings that boneless lean beef trimmings, finely textured originate from are edible; however, they are often too fatty to be of use in ground beef. By separating the lean meat from this fat, the amount of ground beef that can be recovered from a single animal is increased. This is both a positive for consumers in that it helps to keep ground beef affordable and for the environment in that it increases the efficiency of agricultural production.

If it's not dangerous, why has there been so much publicity about it and why have several school districts chosen to stop buying it?

Recent reports have frightened consumers and led them to believe that this “pink slime” was a new, unregulated, unsafe addition to their meat when in fact, it has a long tradition of safety and acceptability throughout the food industry. These reports have implied that ammonium hydroxide is unsafe and unnatural, which again, is simply untrue. Unsuspecting consumers are being needlessly scared over products that are safe and wholesome. The addition of boneless lean beef trimmings, finely textured to ground beef trimmings is a safe and cost-effective means to manufacture ground beef for use in hamburgers, casseroles and all sorts of tasty beef dishes. The unintended consequence of these sensational media reports is that ground beef will likely be more expensive in the future and additional cattle will need to be raised and processed in order to make up for the lost production.

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