"Pink slime" scare sensationalized: UBC food safety expert
North American consumers are all worked up about “pink slime” in beef. But the product isn’t used in Canada, and experts say the scare is based on “fabricated sensationalism”.
For weeks, social media and press reports from across North America have been buzzing over the ammonia-treated beef filler, with U.S. consumers lashing out over its use in their national school lunch program. But Health Canada says ammonia is not permitted in beef produced north of the border, and officials have confirmed that the same rules apply to imported meat.
And even if ammonia-treated beef was allowed in Canada, Allen suggests that many of consumers’ fears about the process are unfounded.
“The one thing that’s kind of lost in all this discussion is the fact that this practice is generally recognized as safe. The World Health Organization, the Food and Agricultural Organization—both of these organizations have deemed that the use of ammonium hydroxide in beef is safe,” said Allen.
“I think the consuming public does not like the idea of their food being manipulated, even though pretty much anything we eat is processed in one way or another. And that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a bad thing.”
What is “pink slime”?
Pink slime is the nauseating term used to describe what the beef industry calls “Lean Finely Textured Beef” (LFTB)—a byproduct of meat processing that’s often used as filler in American beef products.
It’s made using scraps from butchered beef, such as connective tissue and fat trimmings, which are simmered, then spun in a centrifuge to separate the fat before being treated with ammonium hydroxide. The ammonia is used to kill bacteria and other pathogens that could be dangerous to human health.
“From my perspective, this strategy is intended to recover more meat per animal, and provides a lower-fat alternative that’s likely cheaper than what can be obtained without this practice,” Allen explained.
Critics of LFTB say its use is unfair to consumers not only because of the ammonia used in processing, but because it’s technically not real meat (and consumers paying for beef generally want the real thing). The New York Times also reported a few years ago that harmful pathogens like E. coli and salmonella were still found in school lunches using the product, despite the industry’s claims that ammonia is an effective treatment.
One of the most compelling and high-profile critiques of pink slime came from celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, whose television program featured a somewhat frightening (and exaggerated) simulation of how the product is made. Since it aired last year, consumer pressure has convinced McDonald’s restaurants and other fast food chains to stop using the filler.
“In the end, it’s ultimately consumers who will decide if they’ll buy this or not. And right now, it appears that at least for the time being, sensationalism is winning out moreso than fundamental science,” said Allen.
“There’s nothing to indicate that this is a health risk or a concern to consumers based on the scientific data we have."
Allen recalls a scene from Oliver’s show, in which he pours a bottle of household cleaner (complete with skull-and-crossbones warning) into a tub of ground up meat. The horrified faces of audience members illustrate just how effective this demonstration is—this practice must be unsafe, right?
But from a scientific standpoint, Allen says Oliver’s demonstration doesn’t really hold weight.
“It’s not science. It’s completely fabricated sensationalism. But in the end, it’s still the consumer’s choice. If you don’t want to eat finely textured beef that’s been treated with ammonia, that’s fine. Consumers won’t buy it, and the industry will have to adapt,” he said.
Health Canada’s stance on ammonium hydroxide
In an email to the Vancouver Observer, Health Canada spokesperson Gary Holub said ammonium hydroxide is listed as a permitted food additive under Canada’s Food and Drug Regulations. Currently, it may only be used in the processing of cocoa products, in gelatin, and in unstandardized foods (products not subject to the agency’s regulatory standards).
“Ammonium hydroxide added to meat during the manufacture of processed meat products would be regulated in Canada as a food additive. Therefore, Health Canada would need to receive a submission requesting a specific use of ammonium hydroxide in meat products before the substance could be considered for approval in meat products in Canada,” read the email.
“Health Canada requires that all food additives undergo a pre-market safety evaluation before they may be approved for use in retail food in Canada. Only if a safety evaluation identified no safety concerns would the requested use be considered for approval.”
What some experts have pointed out is that there is no real ban in place against ammonium hydroxide in Canadian food production, or even for its use in meat.
“It’s not illegal. It’s more or less that no one has actually asked to use it in Canada, which begs the question, I wonder what they would do if someone did?” said Allen.
“Either way, the end result is that in Canada it’s not currently being used, which I don’t think most consumers are aware of.”
Consumers are also likely unaware of the fact that ammonia is used as an additive in—or at least in the processing of—countless other foods produced around the world. One of the main companies producing LFTB in the U.S., Beef Products Inc., has an extensive list on its website identifying typical uses of ammonium hydroxide in food. They even state that the substance is naturally found in many proteins. Ammonia compounds are also commonly used in baking (available at stores in the form of “baker’s ammonia” and sometimes used to make ammonia cookies).
Not being overly worried about the use of ammonia in foods, Allen says there are other, more pressing health and safety concerns related to meat products. He explains that one of the most important ways to avoid risks and diseases like E. coli is to ensure proper cooking—using thermometers to check for safe meat temperatures.
Cuts at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency
Of course, household and food service precautions must be bolstered by sufficient government regulation and enforcement by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). Unfortunately, some say the latter will soon start to suffer as union representatives revealed this week that as many as 344 jobs are expected to be cut from the agency.
Cutbacks announced in the 2012 Federal Budget mean that over 19,000 public service positions across Canada will be eliminated. For the CFIA, plans to cut costs include removing “regulatory burdens to decrease industry burden” and moving from “eradication activities” to “containment strategies”. The Public Service Alliance of Canada said Wednesday that the agency could lose up to 100 inspectors, and around 40 veterinarians who certify animals and meat products.
“That’s a bit of a setback, because a lot of these inspectors were hired as a result of what happened in 2008 with the national listeriosis outbreak. So in that perspective, we’re kind of undoing what we did to take a step forward…perhaps we’re taking a step back at this time,” said Allen.
However, Allen also noted that while the CFIA is a key player in Canadian food safety, it’s not the “be-all and end-all” when it comes to consumer health.
“Food safety doesn’t start with inspection. It starts with food production, and if food production is done properly, we minimize our risks," he said. "Inspection can help in reducing food-borne disease, but it’s not where efforts on food safety should be placed, at least with regards to our food system.”