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Celebrity Chef Jamie Oliver mistakes a common, safe food processing agent with household cleaner

File this one under the No Good Deed Goes Unpunished department: When it first developed the process to treat ground beef with trace levels of ammonia hydroxide to help abate the seemingly intractable problem of E. coli contamination in that staple product, Beef Products Inc.’s process was considered groundbreaking. The South Dakota company has been credited in large part with helping reduce the incidence the U.S. Food Safety & Inspection Service found of E. coli positives in ground beef samples from 4.5 per thousand in 2009 to 0.8 per thousand in 2011.

Little wonder, then, that many in the ground beef business began a concerted push-back after McDonald’s, Burger King and Taco Bell staged high-profile announcements in December announcing those chains would no longer purchase the company’s beef trimming products that one former FSIS employee hung with the catchy name “pink slime.”

Several complained it was a meaningless rejection of safety-enhancing product technology based solely on celebrity hounds misrepresenting both the process and the product. As one Facebook observer summed up for many, “Sadly funny that USDA made E coli 0157:H7 enemy No. 1 in ground beef, yet a company with a safe method to destroy such pathogens in fresh beef is admonished by those who have lack of brain to understand safe science.”

What it is (and is not)

So what exactly is “pink slime?” And how can (and should?) you explain it to consumers?

Boneless beef trimmings

BPI’s boneless lean beef trimmings are made of the meat that comes along with the fat when it is trimmed from beef cuts. It is equally inspected with the cuts, and is virtually identical in nutritional analysis with 90/10 ground beef. Media assertions to the contrary, boneless lean beef trimmings are composed of 100 percent edible meat. Because that meat is nearly impossible to separate from the fat using a knife, it would traditionally been used in cooked beef products after the tallow was cooked out. BPI’s process makes it possible to extract that additional meat while preserving it uncooked for a more value-added use.

 "BPI produces a boneless lean beef product from trim that is usually lost,” says meat consultant Chuck Jolley. “Its primary uses are for hamburger patties, taco meat, chili and sausages. It has two primary benefits: It's a very low-cost [ingredient] and it is as close to an absolutely safe product as humanly possible to produce."

A good portion of the media attention regarding the product was started by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, the self-appointed school lunch crusader who has also criticized products he considers unacceptable like flavored milk. Oliver explains BPI’s process by showing a roomful of children meat cuts being run through a clothes dryer, after which he douses them with household ammonia.

Apparently the celebrity cook has confused the caustic household cleaner with the ammonium hydroxide gas used in BPI’s process. Categorized as one of FDA’s Generally Recognized as Safe food additives since 1974—and thus considered so safe it need not be included on product labels—the gas is introduced onto the surface of the grindings in just high enough concentration to raise the pH enough to inhibit growth of E. coli and other bacteria.

The real story to tell

If there’s a downside to using the beef trimmings, which estimates say 70 percent of retail ground beef does, it’s that retailers could risk a sense of betrayal from consumers who mistakenly believe all ground beef is ground using traditional processes, especially if they’re led to believe it’s only to improve profit by capturing efficiencies. However, a little education about some realities of modern meat production can go a long way toward alleviating that risk.

The farmer’s ethical and moral defense of eating meat has always argued that it’s our obligation to eat as much of the animal that was sacrificed to our needs as possible. Today’s environmental ethic has also adopted that sentiment as a belief, as well. What better explanation of the rationale for using beef trimmings than that one? Meat that was formerly wasted or converted to lesser value can now be converted to a better use, honoring the moral obligation not to waste, even as it’s made safer and of better quality. Meanwhile, the fact we can extract more usable meat from each animal means we ultimately need to raise fewer of them, thus meeting consumer demand even as farmers reduce their environmental footprint. It’s the ultimate definition of “sustainable.”

Granted, it’s difficult to defend the reputation of a product so smeared in the media as “pink slime,” but the reality is that an innovator in providing a low-cost, safe, innovative, sustainable product lost 25 percent of its business overnight in December, simply because one arm of the food chain capitulated to a combination of celebrity, activism and lazy journalism. How does that encourage a safer food chain?

Comments about the issue? Let your Nebraska farmers hear them. 

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