03/26/2012 01:43 pm ET Updated Mar 26, 2012

Pink Slime Needs Ammonia Because Of USDA Regulations, Former Inspector Says

Being a supporter of pink slime today must feel a lot like being a star in the sky at 6 o'clock in the morning. As much as you just want to keep on shining, it's becoming increasingly clear that sunrise is right around the corner. Today's news that Beef Products Inc, the manufacturers of pink slime, was shutting down several of its plants marked the first of what will surely be many rays of star-blocking light.

Still, pink slime's proponents are trying. The latest defense of the ammoniated beef trimmings comes in the form of a Food Safety News op-ed by John Munsell, a USDA meat inspector-turned-critic of the USDA.

Munsell persuasively argues that the main reason beef trimmings have to be sanitized with ammonia hydroxide -- and thereby become pink slime -- is Beef Product's need to adhere to a USDA technicality, rather than a danger intrinsic to the kind of beef that goes into it. Namely, the USDA considers E. coli bacteria to be an "adulterant" only in certain forms of beef. Munsell writes:

Although USDA has declared E. coli O157:H7 to be an adulterant, the agency conveniently states that the E. coli is an adulterant only in ground beef and in boneless trimmings destined for ground beef. However, USDA allows intact cuts of beef surface-contaminated with E. coli to be shipped into commerce.

The USDA has "zero tolerance" for such adulterants, so any product sold as ground beef directly to supermarkets and restaurant chains has to be treated with a sanitizing "kill step" to get ride of all pathogens. In the case of boneless beef trimmings, that means exposure to ammonia gas -- rendering it into "pink slime."

But some of the meat that ends up being sold as ground beef first leaves the slaughterhouse as an intact cut, and so is not required to get treated with any kind of sanitizing "kill step."

In other words, Munsell isn't saying that there's something so great about pink slime. But he is arguing that the alternative to pink slime -- whole cuts of beef, processed on-site -- is riskier than most are willing to admit.