Pink slime is everywhere in the news these days, just like Jamie Oliver.
These two rising stars are the Tom and Jerry of food and nutrition news. One rises at the expense of the other. The public is horrified. Kids are being poisoned. People generally freak out and demand action, first corporate, then government.
Pink slime is on the defensive. Jamie Oliver is ascendant. Getting people to watch you on TV pays a lot better than cooking for a living. It’s easier too.
We can see how perceptions are formed by presentation. The pink goo on the left is yucky and disgusting because is doesn’t look like we expect our hamburger to look. Besides, it’s being handled in an industrial setting by people wearing protective gear and rubber gloves – like they do at nuclear plants when there’s a radiation leak.
Meanwhile, on the right pink goo in a sugar cone, with a nice white background. It may have been in an industrial setting, too – but we don’t see it. There are also no protective uniforms and no rubber gloves.
So you can see how, at least at this point, it’s all about first impressions. Lost in this manipulation of the public is any balanced sense of the facts.
First, the players:
Pink Slime: The evil thing from evil faceless corporate giants (See pictures above)
The USDA: A corrupt federal agency that pretends to protect your interests
Of course, of all these descriptions, only the one about the USDA is correct. The rest are parts being played that don’t represent the real character.
One at a time, now…
Jamie Oliver: A reasonably good chef, and an excellent showman. He has honed his skills since he first tried to break into American show business by trying to scare kids about food in this embarrassing scene. To save you the pain of watching it, it goes like this:
Jamie asks the kids if they like chicken nuggets. They all raise their hands. Then, he puts on his sinister voice and tells them he’s going to show them the yucky stuff they are made of. He chops up a bunch of chicken, including skin, internal organs, cartilage, and other parts “that you don’t like” (as he tells the kids). Never mind that cartilage and chicken skin are actually served as special dishes in Japan, where the diet is notoriously healthy and the awareness and appreciation of food is way beyond anything in the UK or the US. It’s sufficient that kids don’t like it, according to Jamie. Let’s not even get into how appreciation of food would mean appreciation of all food an animal dies to produce for you.
He then grinds it all together, mixes it up, and pushes the resulting pink mess through a sieve. It doesn’t look good, true. But you try taking your favorite dish of fresh food and grinding it up this way and see how attractive it looks. Still, the point here shouldn’t be appearance. Jamie uses the appearance, though, as a precurser to how awful he says it all is.
He then adds a couple powders, one he calls a stabilizer, the other is flavoring. Depending on the ingredients these may or may not be good. Certainly, if you prepare food properly you won’t need these. Processed foods, though, require them.
He forms the pink gunk into nuggets, and fried them with batter until they come out looking like chicken nuggets. He then asks the kids if they want to eat one now that they have seen how they’re made. All the kids raise their hands. Jamie is stunned. It’s kind of like when you go all out for a haunted house for kids during Halloween and they just yawn at you.
And of course the kids are right. They saw chicken go in, maybe not the bits they ordinarily would eat, but when made into nuggets they were OK. There were no nasty chemicals, no nasty bacteria, no nasty viruses. The kids figured that out. All he had was the pink slime image, and it wasn’t enough of a yuck factor – even for grade schoolers.
Well, Jamie has learned. He’s fixed it all. Pink slime isn’t enough by itself. After all, lots of yucky looking things taste fabulous…babaganoush, Mexican mole sauce, liver pate, green beer…
Pink slime: We’ve already moved past this. It looks yucky, but clearly that’s not enough to set off a hysterical reaction. It’s meat bits, sinew and all that tossed into a centrifuge to separate the edible bits from the inedible bits. Presumably we get the edible bits. Now, “spun in a centrifuge” probably isn’t something you want to see on your dinner menu – it’s not as appealing as sauted in herb butter. But, there’s nothing obviously unhealthy about it.
Jamie needs more…
First, the pink slime that McDonald’s stopped buying but schools are still serving is made from cuts of meat that normally would be used for dog food, because they are fatty, sinewy and otherwise unpleasant. Well, Aunt Betty is fatty and sinewy, yet we still invite her over every Thanksgiving. So that’s not enough. Let’s throw in e. coli.
The claim Jamie makes is that these cuts of the cow are more prone to harboring bacteria than other cuts, particularly e. coli. However, since e coli can be found on any cut of meat, the rest of the cow isn’t 100% safe either. He doesn’t give a convincing explanation of just how much more e. coli prone these cuts are, so we can’t decide if the risk is a little greater or a lot greater. However, he’s not alone in this assertion, let’s just take it at face value. Machine separated meat is more likely to be contaminated with e. coli.
Ammonia: That e. coli bit doesn’t matter, though. The e coli is just an excuse to get to the real villain of the story – ammonia. The ammonia is added as an antimicrobial to kill any bacteria that might have snuck into the pink slime. So, from this point of view, the pink slime should be less likely to have e coli than any other non-ammonia treated cuts of meat. But don’t dwell on that. The point was to plant e coli in the back of your mind, and to build a case against the pink slime.
The star of the case now is the ammonia, specifically ammonia hydroxide. That leaves two things to consider:
1- What is ammonia and how dangerous is it to consume?
2- What are the risks of eating the same food not sanitized with an ammonia solution?
As to the first, ammonia sparks terror into most of our hearts because it’s that potent stuff we use to clean toilets. Who would want to consume that?
Well, we not only consume it – our bodies produce ammonia. If our bodies didn’t produce ammonia, we would die.
Possibly it’s most visible form is in the urine we excrete. Urine is not a highly recommended beverage, but it is generally safe to drink in limited quantities. People stranded with no water need to drink it to survive. Other people, such as Ghandi himself, drank a bit daily for health reasons. (We’ll not get into that here.) Urine is often used topically for the treatment of various skin conditions as well.
For more about ammonia hydroxide, I refered to the International Food Information Council Foundation.
“Both ammonia and ammonium hydroxide are very common compounds, found naturally in the environment (in air, water, and soil) and in all plants and animals, including humans. Ammonia is a source of nitrogen, an essential element for plants and animals. Ammonia is also produced by the human body – by our organs and tissues and by beneficial bacteria living in our intestines.
Ammonia plays an important role in protein synthesis in the human body. In brief summary, all living things need proteins, which are comprised of some 20 different amino acids. While plants and microorganisms can synthesize most amino acids from the nitrogen in the atmosphere, animals cannot. For humans, some amino acids cannot be synthesized at all and must be consumed as intact amino acids. Other amino acids, however, can be synthesized by microorganisms in the gastrointestinal tract with the help of ammonia ions. Thus, ammonia is a key player in the nitrogen cycle and in protein synthesis. Ammonia also helps maintain the body’s pH balance.”
Not only that, but ammonia is used extensively in food processing. Not just hamburgers, but in:
Baked goods, cheeses, chocolates, confectioneries, candies, puddings, condiments, relishes, soy protein concentrates, snack foods, jams, jellies, breakfast cereals, egg products, fish products, fruit and vegetable products, and beer.
And that’s just the short list, but you get the idea.
So, unless you are extraordinarily careful about what you eat, you’re likely getting ammonia treated food in your diet from several sources.
“But, wait? Isn’t ammonia poisonous?”
Well, like many things, that depends on how much you ingest. If you take a few swigs of your household cleaning ammonia, you’ll get some nasty burns and a good bit of unpleasantness. There are many things that are toxic in high concentrations, such as water, yet safe or even necessary in smaller concentration to our health.
Very few people drink ammonia in these amounts primarily due to the smell. Even a drop of ammonia has a distinctive and anything but appetizing smell to it.
One drop smells that bad, yet you can’t smell a hint of ammonia in your ammonia treated food. That gives you an idea of how little residue there is.
Which brings us to the next part of the equation:
Foods that haven’t been treated with ammonia will be more likely to carry bacteria such as e-coli and salmonella. Simple as that. That’s why fresh vegetables should be well washed before eating at home. All fresh foods have a risk of bacterial contamination. Since processed foods are generally made from fresh foods at some point in their origin, we have to be especially careful. These foods are cut up, handled and processed in bulk, exposing them to a greater likelihood of contamination.
So, if you want to cut ammonia traces from all your food, you’ll have to eliminate all processed foods. No candies, no cereal, prepared foods. You could, of course, make these foods from scratch yourself, but even that process entails the risk of contamination. Often, home kitchens are less sanitary than industrial processing plants. If you don’t sanitize these processed foods, there is a greater likelihood that they will carry bacteria.
E-coli is clearly deadly.
Ammonia hydroxide in small amounts is mostly yucky. No evidence has been established to show that it is harmful in the amounts used to treat food.
Salmonella is deadly.
So we have deadly vs. yucky (and either “maybe not good for you, but we don’t have any evidence of it yet” or “just fine.”)
Frankly processed foods are mostly crap. We all know that already. This ammonia hydroxide and pink slime bit of Jamie’s, though, is a sideshow. It gets lots of attention. But, besides helping Jamie’s career profile, what
does that accomplish? Attention is better focused on eating healthy in general. Episodes of hysteria feed into the whole phobia about food that too many Americans suffer already.
And in Jamie’s case, I think he’s really upset that food is treated with so little respect. I’m with him there. The problem is, as we saw with his chicken nuggets fiasco, is that too many people don’t share that respect.
So, instead of finding ways to help educate people about respect and appreciation for food, he goes the easy route – he uses scare tactics.
Instead of respect, we get millions of Chicken Little’s running around, terrified of the food. I’ll say that again…Terrified of food! The very stuff that gives us so much pleasure, that gives us life and health.
Worse yet, hysteria will result in politicians “doing something.” Imagine we get a full ban on treating food with ammonia hydroxide. What will happen?
Food processors will have to find another anti-bacterial treatment. God knows what that will involve, maybe something with a warm a fuzzy sounding name – something less scary than ammonia. (Agent Orange anyone?) And then in 20 or 30 years, we find out that stuff is 1000 times nastier than we ever dreamed ammonia could be.
When people can stop getting worked up over scare phrases like “pink slime” and start actually tasting and appreciating food, most of these problems will solve themselves.
Maybe Jamie could take a page from Alice Waters and be a bit more positive about food. It won’t grab the headlines, but we’ll all be better off in the long run.
What can you do?
Well, for one, stop eating so much processed food. And learn about food sanitation. E. coli can make itself at home on alfalfa spouts as easily as on meat, so you need to be aware of how to handle and store food. If you do want to eat processed meat from McDonald’s, then you should be thankful that it’s treated with ammonia. Actually, even the ammonia is not a guarantee that it will be free of e. coli or other nasties. It’s one of many precautions. The last thing a company like McDonald’s wants is for e. coli to be traced to its burgers, so you can be pretty sure they are doing what they can to make crap processed food as safe as possible.
Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for the people who supply food to your kids at school cafeterias. Between the private supplier and the lunch plate, there are a whole lot of bureaucrats and school board employees who will suffer few to no consequences if there’s an outbreak of e. coli. If that results in a lawsuit, you get to pay twice – because any settlement will come out of your taxes.
Even then, though, the risk is slight. And there is risk of bacteria or disease in everything you eat. So eat well, avoid processed foods, and take basic precautions when handling food (or when judging how others handle your food). Let your stomach do the rest. It’s surprisingly good at knocking out the little nasties that do get through.
John Stossel followed up on this, and recorded the results…lost jobs and lost companies.
It sounds awful! ABC’s reporting frightened most school systems so much that they stopped using that form of meat. The food company lost 80 percent of its business.
But the scare is bunk. What ABC calls “pink slime” is just as appetizing as other food.
“Bunk is the polite word,” Dan Gainor of the Media Research Center says. “ABC went on a crusade. Three nights in a row back in March, they pounded on this.”
Well, why shouldn’t they, if there’s something called “pink slime” in beef?
“Because it’s not pink slime. It’s ground beef.”
Then how did this all get started?
“A couple activists who used to work for the FDA didn’t like this really cool scientific process that separates the beef trimming so you get the remaining ground beef. So they coined this term deliberately to try to hurt this company.”
The company, Beef Products Inc., does something unique. It takes the last bit of trim meat off the bone by heating it slightly. That saves money and arguably helps the environment — not using that meat would waste 5,000 cows a day. In 20 years, there is no record of anybody being hurt by what ABC and its activists call “pink slime” — what the industry just calls “lean beef trimmings” or “finely textured beef.”
“Everybody constantly says, ‘You should eat leaner beef.’ So when we try to eat the leaner beef, then they take that away from us, too,” Gainor said. “The company … has received awards for how good a job they do for consumer safety. It was just one constant hit job.”
An effective one. After ABC’s reports, Beef Products Inc. closed three out of its four plants. Seven hundred workers lost jobs.
All for the entertainment value of pretending to care about health. Read John’s column here.