If you're trying to determine whether the ground chuck you buy in the grocery store contains so-called pink slime, or lean beef trimmings, you won't find it on the ingredient list. "It's not required to be labeled," explains Don Schaffner, a food scientist at Rutgers University.
But, chances are, it's there. An estimated 70 percent of the ground beef supply contains these lean bits of meat derived from muscle and connective tissue. The industry calls the trimmings Lean Finely Textured Beef.
With Thursday's USDA announcement giving schools the options to order beef that does not include these trimmings, and the publicity over the online petition initiated by The Lunch Tray blogger Bettina Siegel, which quickly drew more than 200,000 signatures, it's clear that there's a lot of disgust over the concept of pink slime. And with a name like this, how could there not be?
But Schaffner says the suggestion of an ooey, gooey liquid is deceiving. Lost in the social-media outrage, he says, is the understanding that lean beef trimmings are a way of taking fatty bits of meat and extracting the lean part.
"What the process does is take the mostly fat trimmings and heat them up so the fat becomes a liquid," explains Schaffner, "and then uses a process to separate the lean portion from the fat portion."
The safety concerns stem from reports that the lean beef trimmings are likely to harbor pathogens, such as E. coli or Salmonella and other bacteria. And Schaffner, who has worked as a consultant to the meat industry, says this is true. "The bacteria risk comes from the fact that these are pieces that are being cut away from the outside of the meat, and that's where the bacteria are likely to be."
The industry recognizes this, and has adopted a practice of treating the meat trimmings with a gas made of ammonium hydroxide. This kills the pathogen, but according to critics, even if it solves one problem, it creates another. They say using ammonium hydroxide is gross, and they worry about its safety.
The American Meat Institute defends the practice. "This is not the same ammonia you'd use in cleaning supplies," explains Betsy Booren of the AMI Foundation. "It's a gas, it's a different compound, and it's a well-established processing intervention that has a long history of success."
But consumer sentiment has been turning against meat treated with ammonium hydroxide for a while. In January 2011, McDonald's announced that it would no longer use ammonia-treated beef in its burgers. And other fast-food chains, including Taco Bell and Burger King, have made similar decisions.
And given that only an estimated 30 percent of the ground beef supply is free of these meat trimmings, it may now be a challenge for schools or restaurants to find certified ammonia-free ground beef.
Chef Ann Cooper, who oversees a school food program in Boulder, Colo., says she tried to find some Thursday, and her suppliers couldn't procure it. "They can't find any," Cooper tells The Salt. "My processor out of Denver can't find it for us."