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Is It Safe To Eat Pink Slime?

Filed by KOSU News in Health.
March 9, 2012

Pink slime has been oozing back into headlines in recent weeks after McDonalds, followed by other fast food chains, announced it would no longer buy beef trimmings to fill out its hamburgers.

A product the beef industry calls “lean, finely textured meat” has been a fixture in the ground beef served in school lunches and fast food hamburgers for years. But after Chef Jamie Oliver demonstrated how pink slime is made on his TV show last year, and media reports suggested it may not be as safe as the government claims, alarm among consumers has been rising.

Now, thousands people are adding their name to petitions urging the government stop buying this stuff.

But what exactly is it? NPR’s Melissa Block went to Michael Moss, an investigative reporter for the New York Times whose stories in 2010 on the safety of ground beef earned him a Pulitzer Prize.

“They’re taken from the outermost part, and they happen to be the fattiest part of the cow,” says Moss. “So they’re put into a centrifuge which spits out the protein parts of the material.”

The term “pink slime” was in fact initially coined by a U.S. Department of Agriculture official Moss met who had seen the “bright pink, aqueous” stuff in a plant.

Sounds pretty unappetizing, but there is some appeal to the material: mainly it’s price.

“In the meat industry, there’s something called least cost formulations,” says Moss. “Companies will mix and match trimmings from different parts of the cow and different suppliers to achieve the perfect level of fatness. This material is … slightly less expensive.”

Cheap it may be, but because it comes from outermost part of carcass, it’s also more susceptible to contamination than other cuts of meat. That’s because it could come in contact with the cow’s hide, which could have excrement containing pathogens like the dangerous forms of E. coli.

The industry tries to purify the material with gaseous ammonia, which raises the alkalinity to a level that E. coli can’t tolerate. This method is thought to be effective by USDA’s food safety division.

But Moss’ s reporting has shown that school food officials said they did find the bad kind of E. coli in the material when they least expected to – in the trimmings. The company that manufactures it says it has a rigorous testing system in place. And none of the fast food companies that decided to stop buying mentioned safety concerns.

“And it’s entirely approved by USDA … and accepted as school lunch as component in ground beef they purchase,” says Moss. “So far they’ve been holding pat on the safety issue. They’re satisfied that their testing program and the way they handle and cook beef is entirely safe for kids.”

The agency also doesn’t require meat companies to label whether ground beef includes trimmings. That means the consumer has no way of knowing whether ground beef has this material or not.

But one way to get ground beef that you know does not contain material is to have butcher take beef and grind it there. But you may have to pay extra. [Copyright 2012 National Public Radio]

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