I am so not lovin' this. Did you ever hear something or get an email that was so outrageous you think to yourself, "That cannot possibly be true." Such was my reaction when my DE (Designated Eater) told me he thought he heard something about ammonia being in McDonald's hamburgers. Sounded urban legendy to me. Turns out it's true.
So here's the beef. The New York Times reported that Beef Products Inc. wanted to find a way to use the cheapo, fatty beef trimming which fell on the slaughter house floor. They were already being sold to pet food and cooking oil companies but BPI thought they could make more money if they found a way to market the beef for human consumption. It didn't matter that these beef dregs (including most of the outside carcass) were contaminated with E. coli and antibiotic resistant salmonella.
Here's how they do it. First, pick up all the beef debris off the slaughter house floor and run it through a grinder to create a paste. This sludge then goes into a centrifuge where it is spun at high speeds to remove the fat. The resulting lean concoction is pumped through pipes where it is hit with ammonia gas. Then it's flash frozen and shaped into blocks. Customers mix these blocks into ground beef and it supposedly is toxic enough to sterilize the resulting burger from E.coli and salmonella.
In a 2002 email message Gerald Zirnstein a microbiologist at the USDA called this creation "pink slime." And went on to say that "I do not consider the stuff to be ground beef, and I consider allowing it in ground beef to be a form of fraudulent labeling."
The USDA apparently didn't share Zirnstein's concerns, because they approved the use of ammonia as a processing agent in food. And you'll love this, a lobbyist for the meat industry successfully argued that because ammonia was used to treat the product it wasn't an actual ingredient and didn't need to be listed as such.
Maybe this would be more palatable if the ammonia treatment process actually killed all the icky bacteria it was suppose to. The New York times story reported that "Since 2005, E.coli has been found 3 times and salmonella 48 times, including back-to-back incidents in August in which two 27,000 pound batches were found to be contaminated." These huge batches of dirty beef were destined for school cafeterias.
So who would buy this crap? Turns out McDonald's, Burger King and other fast food companies along with grocery stores and the federal school lunch program. The lunch program alone used an estimated 5.5 million pounds of pink slime last year.
You'd think that after the New York Times article that the big fast food companies might show some shame at feeding our kids ammonia laced burgers. Turns out making a cheap burger is more important than making a safe burger. McDonald's, Burger King and the agriculture conglomerate Cargill Inc (which supplies beef, eggs, oil and sauces for McDonald's) all reaffirmed their commitment to doing business with Beef Products Inc. Susan Forsell, vice president of quality systems for McDonald's said "McDonald's food safety and quality assurance standards are among the highest in the industry."
That's not saying
much if you're willing to serve "meat" treated with ammonia gas.
I emailed McDonald's and asked them WTF?? Actually, what I asked them was
far less profane, "Dear McDonald's, I read an article that says
McDonald's uses beef in its hamburgers that has been treated with ammonia to
kill bacteria. Is that true?"
Here's the reply I got. I think it is interesting to point out that I asked a simple yes or no question and got a six paragraph response. In addition to answering my question, the good folks at Mickey D's wanted to give me a little chemistry lesson.
“Hello Gaynol: Thank you for contacting McDonald's and for sharing your concerns. I appreciate the opportunity to share the following information with you. Please know that McDonald's food safety and quality assurance standards are among the highest in the industry. With extensive food safety measures in place throughout the entire supply chain process, McDonald's standards meet or exceed government requirements. McDonald's uses only 100 percent USDA-inspected ground beef in their hamburger patties.”
Now remember that the USDA has approved the use of ammonia treated pink slime, so using 100% USDA inspected ground beef is a meaningless fact when it comes to hamburger quality.
“Be assured that we do not add ammonia to our hamburger patties. In fact, ammonia is only used by our suppliers as a processing aid to kill harmful bacteria. This process is approved by the USDA and ensures safe, quality food.”
I really hate it when people answer questions I didn't ask. I didn't ask if they added ammonia to their burgers, I asked if they used ammonia treated beef. I also think it is really weaselly to use the term "processing aid." It makes ammonia sound like some kind of innocuous substance that doesn't remain in the meat. In fact if they didn't treat the meat with high levels of ammonia, it would be unusable because of bacterial contamination.
And now for my chemistry lesson,
“Additionally, ammonia is a basic building block of protein and occurs naturally in beef, both raw and cooked. It is a key component of the flavor of cooked beef. Ammonia is a naturally occurring compound in meats and fish - (fish and shellfish have more than beef). Ammonia is a nitrogen containing compound and so are proteins.”
Protein is made up of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen arranged as strands of amino acids Amino acids are molecules that contain an amine group and amines are derivatives of ammonia where one or more of the hydrogen atoms has been replaced. So technically McDonald's is right on this one. But just because ammonia occurs naturally in protein doesn't mean it's safe or palatable to treat beef scraps with ammonia gas in order to sterilize the product.
“As you may not know, lean beef trimmings are approved by the USDA and are a widely used and well-established industry practice. They are subject to the same stringent standards, and inspection and testing practices, required for all beef used in the production of our hamburger patties.”
"...lean beef trimmings" is a misleading way to describe the sludgy paste that goes into pink slime. I'm glad they have "stringent standards" since these standards allow them to use contaminated trimmings off the slaughter house floor. Just because the USDA approved this disgusting process dosen’t make it right or good for the health of consumers.
“McDonald's continues to work with its suppliers, local, state and federal agencies, our industry and others, to ensure these standards are rigorously maintained. And, more importantly, that we serve safe, high quality products to every customer, every time they visit our restaurants.”
I just can't believe that McDonald's is trying to justify the use of this pink slime and moreover crow about their dedication to "high quality."
“Again, thank you for taking the time to contact McDonald's.”
My pleasure, it's been migraine inducing corresponding with you folks.
The bottom line for consumers is that McDonald's and all the other companies that use pink slime have no intention of stopping. Beef Products Inc. estimates that their pink slime product is currently in 70% of commercially produced hamburger. Their company goal is to "have our products incorporated in all ground beef and other further processed meats produced in the United States."
So what can consumers do? I think the first order of business is to complain to the USDA about allowing this garbage into our food chain. Second, vote with your wallet and stop patronizing these business that put our health at risk. Consumers have all the power. Use your money and your time to support companies that don't lace our food with industrial cleaners.
The views expressed here are my own. They do not represent the views of Solid Ground, Operation Frontline or Share Our Strength.