McDonald's said this week that it was no longer using the controversial ground beef additive known as "pink slime" in its hamburger recipe. Taco Bell and Burger King have also reportedly repudiated the "slime," which consists of spare beef trimmings that have been treated with ammonium hydroxide to make them safe and at least semi-palatable.
The move came after "Food Revolution" and "Naked Chef" star Jamie Oliver made public calls for chains to abandon the "slime," which has been manufactured by Beef Products Inc since 2001. Some are pointing to his advocacy as a central factor behind McDonald's decision.
Even if Oliver was the most prominent critic of "pink slime," though, he wasn't alone. The New York Times raised serious doubts about "pink slime" in a 2009 investigation of the product. It was also criticized in the 2010 documentary "Food Inc."
Part of the criticism stems from a general sense of disgust. People don't like hearing that they're eating spare trimmings of beef from strange parts of a cow. Nor, for that matter, do people like to hear that they're eating ammonia.
The USDA, for its part, approved of the ammoniated beef trimmings. In 2007, when it mandated increased testing for most ground beef, it specifically exempted "pink slime," even though the ammoniated beef comes from the parts of the cow most likely to harbor pathogens. The USDA argued that the beef's ammonia treatment would kill any bacteria lingering in the beef.
And there's some evidence that the USDA wasn't wrong to call "pink slime" safe. Indeed, a Jan. 9 editorial in Food Safety News argued that the public backlash against pink slime had more to do with fear-mongering on the part of figures like Oliver than with any rational assessment of the product itself.
That said, the Times found evidence that linked Beef Products' ammoniated beef to dozens of cases of salmonella and E. coli, so there's at least a fighting chance that it's less safe than conventional beef. Moreover, using "pink slime" only cuts the price of ground beef by about three cents a pound. Aren't you willing to pay less than a penny more for your quarter-pounder to avoid gambling with your health?