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"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”.

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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.” 

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