Friday, April 6, 2012

The Death of "Pink Slime"

As I reported earlier in my Jamie Oliver post, the makers of "finely textured lean ground beef" have had a pretty difficult couple of weeks. From Gerald Zirnstein (a USDA microbiologist) coining the phrase in 2002, to Kit Foshee bringing his concerns to GAP (the Government Accountability Project) and their Food Integrity Campaign in 2008, and the closing of three of four plants by Beef Products International, and the news that AFA Foods have entered Chapter 11 because of the current storm this week, things have moved pretty fast in the last while.
Beef by-products undergoing processing at a BPI plant. Image sourced: Chicago Tribune

The idea of ammoniating beef to kill e. coli bacteria allowed mechanically separated beef to enter the human food chain--before that it was only approved for use in pet foods. Things started to go off the rails when it was claimed that ammoniated beef trimmings would transmit this e. coli-killing ability to ground beef it was mixed with-- a claim that was never tested.
Ammoniating beef was found to be so effective that, in 2007, "exempt from routine testing of meat used in hamburger sold to the general public." From the beginning, finely textured lean ground beef was seen as both a cheap extender of ground beef (ground beef could conatain up to 15% ftl ground beef without any requirement to list it as an ingredient), and as a way of ensuring that the traditional ground beef was somehow protected against e. coli contamination.The problem was that, at the concentrations required by the USDA, ground beef mixed with ammoniated ground beef smelled bad. Bad enough that shipments of it were occasionally returned as having been spoiled during transport, when in fact they just smelled that way.
Ammonia concentrations were reduced to meet these concerns--thus negating both the ammmoniated beef's protection from e. coli and the alleged "knock-on" effect of protecting the meat it was mixed with.It should be noted, however, that no case of e. coli contamination has been traced back to BPI's ammoniated beef, although there have been several e. coli-related ground beef recalls in the last decade.
Thankfully, ammonia has never been approved as a treatment method for ground meat in Canada, nor is it supposed to be imported (although there seems to be some fuzzy areas around the importation rule, with Health Canada Canada allowing finely textured meat to be "used in the preparation of ground meat" and "identified as ground meat" under certain conditions). With pretty much every major fast food operation in the US using pre-made hamburger patties buying ground beef with the allowed 15% of ammoniated beef, one is left to wonder if any Canadian operation ended up using US-made patties.
Ammonia isn't the only compound used in food processing. For example, we've seen a rise in the use of cellulose as a food extender in the last while, and a report on food fraud has just been published in the April Journal of Food Science (not available online, but there's a press report). In fact, there's an entire site dedicated to food fraud reporting.  On the USDA website, you can get a list of the various chemicals used in industrial food production (links to a pdf). I wish I could say that it was as easy to find something similar on the CFIA website, but it's not. The CFIA websiteseems to be a bit more producer-friendly and a little less consumer-friendly. On the plus side though, there is a dictionary of food additives, available both online and as a downloadable pdf, a guide to meat cuts and the words used on packaging, and some basic food-handling tips.

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