Pique the Geek 20120401: The Things that we Eat. Pink Slime

(9 pm. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

Pink slime is a slang term, and not a terribly inapt one for what is technically known as lean finely textured beef or boneless lean beef trimmings.  Although I used the term pink slime in the title to get your attention, I think that it is a bit pejorative and shall use the term “the product” henceforth.

Since this is a meat product, it is regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and not the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).  This seems to me to have a bearing on how it has been approved.

There are a LOT of politics and hype surrounding the product, and I think that it serves my readers to look at the technical issues before we examine the political and PR issues.  You might be surprised where I come down on the safety and wholesomeness of the product.

The meatpacking industry is extremely competitive and any measure is taken to improve profit margins.  Because the meat packing industry is still largely a manual process, labor is an extremely large component of the cost of operation.  Any time a highly mechanized process can be introduced, a large labor cost saving is gained.  This is a major driving force for the introduction of the product.

After hand trimming of meat, there are always scraps that contain valuable meat along with lots of connective tissue and even more fat.  In the past this material was mainly used for pet food, but the profit margin for pet food material is much lower than material for human consumption.  Back in the 1990s the industry began experiments to attempt to find a way to recover the meat from these scraps for the human market.

The basic production process (there several variants, but all have these steps in common) involves dumping the bins of trimmings into a centrifuge fitted with a perforated liner (sort of like a toploading washing machine on steroids), applying heat, and spinning it rapidly.  The heat softens the fat, which is spun out through the perforations.  The temperature is controlled so that the fat is softened enough to be removed, but not so high that the meat is cooked.

After this mechanical treatment, a product is obtained that contains only about three to six per cent fat on a wet weight basis.  This material is then finely ground, producing a thin paste of meat mixed with residual connective tissue (we call it gristle in home kitchens).

Now the different processes diverge.  There are two major processes, the Beef Products, Inc. (BPI) and the Cargill ones.  Both depend on manipulation of the pH of the finely ground product.  Here is why that is important.

Ground meat of any kind is highly susceptible to bacterial contamination.  Solid pieces of meat, unless from a septic animal, are contaminated only on the outer surface.  Ground meats intimately combine the surface with the interior, and if pathogenic bacteria are present, contaminate the entire mass of the meat.  The defatted trimmings are particularly susceptible to this because of several factors.

First, many of the trimmings are from the surface of the wholesale cuts, so surface contamination is likely especially if it is kept in a stainless steel container which has not been properly cleaned – requiring the cleaning services of a company such as Astro Pak –  visit the website to learn more about their cleaning services. Second, the trimmings are pooled from many animals, so the probability increases that at least one animal in the mix has significant contamination.  Third, the temperatures attained to render the fat are not high enough to kill pathogens, because it is undesirable to cook the meat.  Actually, the temperatures used, around 100 degrees F, are actually near the optimum for bacterial growth!  Thus, other methods have to be employed to suppress the bacteria.

Adjusting pH is easy and cheap.  In the BPI process, the finely minced product is exposed to gaseous ammonia, raising the pH to the point that pathogens are killed with sufficient exposure time and agitation.  In the Cargill process, citric acid is used to lower the pH to achieve the same result.  In the Cargill process, the acid has to be neutralized with a base, usually sodium carbonate, to prevent a sour taste characteristic of acids from remaining.  Since ammonia is volatile and driven off by heat, the BPI process is more efficient and cheaper, and is the one more commonly used.

After pH treatment, the product is either used on site or flash frozen for transport to other facilities for a multitude of uses.  One very common use is blending with “real” ground beef for retail or wholesale marketing.  “Hamburger meat” can contain up to 15% of the product without being labeled as containing it.  I strongly object to this lack of labeling requirement, because I believe that we have a right to know what we are eating.  When used in amounts higher than 15%, it has to appear on the label.  Check out labels for cheap canned goods like hot dog “chili” sauce and other cheap canned meat products.  Most of us have not seen a picture of the product, so I rooted around and found one:


Why am I thinking of a big dog that chugs Pepto-Bismol?

Now we shall examine the safety issues associated with the product.  There is no reason to be scared of it.  Yes, I said that.  Whilst it might not be appetizing, it is perfectly wholesome.  The ammonia is volatile, and cooks out.  Besides, most foods contain ammonia in one form or another.  The same can be said for the citrate salts, except they do not cook out, but remain.  If you drink orange juice, you get lots of citrates.

However, it is not really meat.  Remember the connective tissue (gristle)?  That is primarily the protein collagen, and even the highest collagen containing real meat contains 6% collagen at maximum.  Most meat is only around 2% in collagen content.  Even though it is somewhat digestible, collagen is quite different than the principal proteins in meat, so it is NOT really meat.  That is another reason why I believe that labeling requirements are important.

Before we get into the political and public relations aspect of the product, here is my scientific opinions.  First, the product is safe and wholesome, if not appetizing in the pure form.  Second, it is much less likely to carry pathogenic bacteria than fresh ground beef.  Third, it is NOT meat, but rather a meat byproduct and properly should be on the label.  Forth, the Wikipedia entry for the product is rife with technical errors, and seems to me to be quite biased against the product.  Accept that entry with much caution!

Now we go to the politics and PR part.  There are LOTS of politics associated with the product.  Under the W. Bush administration, in 2001, the BPI process was accepted by USDA.  However, at that time it was still approved only for animal food.  In particular, the political appointee Joann Smith made the determination.  She soon after left USDA to join the board of directors at BPI!  I strongly believe that persons with regulatory decision making authority should have a five year cooling off period before being employed by ANY company involved with determinations made by that official.

In 2002, Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), a USDA agency, scientist Dr. Gerald Zirnstein coined the pejorative term pink slime.  Look, I have headed a large organization in FDA and know that even scientists can be have biases.  I do agree with his thesis that the material is not really meat, and I also hold that unless properly presented on a label that it should not be allowed.

That does not mean that additives are always bad.  After living in New Orleans, I know that the folks there love their coffee with roasted chicory root added.  If on the label, that if fine.  If left off the label, the chicory is an adulterant.

I have done lots of looking, and I can not find the date where USDA approved the product for human consumption.  In any event, it is here with us now.  Perhaps a clever reader can find the date and share it with us.  I would appreciate that very much.

Just last month the product received lots of publicity, mainly from several ABC News reports.  I am not convinced that those reports were not somewhat biased, and certainly were sensationalized.  These reports have caused a cascade of actions, and more than a few folks have been laid off because of them.

Without going into all of the sensationalized details of the stories, beyond the scope of this piece, I believe that ABC News really overstated the negative aspects of the product whilst understating the positive.  I am not really a fan of the product, but I refuse to demonize it, either.

After the ABC reports, it got really political.  Because of public outrage (in my opinion by the hyperbole of the ABC coverage), stores that sell ground beef overreacted by saying that they would not sell ground beef with it in their products, and many fast food chains did the same.  Now three of four BPI plants are idle, and the workers laid off because of it.  That is overkill.

Then the Republicans got into it, trying to make political points.  It is typical for them to do that, but in fairness I really feel for the folks who were laid off over a sensational series of reports that were not backed with good science.  The Fox “News” Channel does it all the time when the topic is renewable energy sources, so please do not think that I am targeting ABC in general.

It turned into a circus in March, with the governors of Texas and Nebraska, along with the lieutenant governors of Nebraska and South Dakota (all Republicans) toured the Nebraska BPI facility to sample ground beef products made with the product in question thus promoting it.  The media coverage is split along the usual lines, with most of the media being critical of the product and the Fox “News” Channel being supportive of it.

All in all, there are many worst threats in foods that we eat all of the time.  For example, there is a strong correlation betwixt regular consumption of cured meat products and bowel cancer.  Trans fats are strongly linked to heart disease.  Soft drinks are a leading contributor to obesity, linked to diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.  I can go on and on about that.  However, the difference is that you KNOW that the bacon is cured, because it says so on the label.  You, for the most part, KNOW if you are getting trans fat, because it is on the label (unless the per serving amount is under 0.5 gram).  You KNOW that soda is full of empty calories because it is on the label.  As an aside, the high fructose corn sweetener industry is trying to get the term “corn sugar” approved for that product.

You do NOT know if you are getting this product because it is NOT on the label unless it exceeds 15% of the ground beef content for the particular item.  That is wrong.  USDA made the decision not to require label information because BPI and others convinced USDA that since the product is made only from beef (and a few additives), it is just beef that is ground a little more finely than the rest of the ground beef.  We have already established that it is not chemically the same as real meat, but it does come from beef, so technically it is beef.  It may be beef, but it is NOT meat.  A femur from a bovine is beef, but it is not meat!

To summarize, the product is, in my opinion, a cheap filler used to extend ground beef products to increase revenue for the meat packers.  By the way, it is not approved for retail sale in its pure form, but only to meat packers and food producers.  That seems strange to me.  My gut feeling is that if people were to see it, they would turn against it.  The product is not harmful, but I believe that consumers have a right to choose whether or not to eat it.

This may all be moot before long.  Almost all fast food outlets are discontinuing use of the product, along with all of the major grocery chains.  Even Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club have announced that they will offer ground beef that does not contain the product, sort of a de facto labeling.  Even USDA has announced that it will allow individual school systems to choose commodity ground beef that does not contain the product.

How much of the product are we talking about?  The four BPI plants had a combined capacity of 900,000 pounds per DAY!  Their capacity after shuttering the three plants is about half that now.  I do not know how much that Cargill and other manufacturers produce.  It was not clear to me whether the 900,000 pounds was raw material input or product output, but you get a really ridiculously large number on an annual basis if you assume that that figure is product output.

The bottom line is that this product is safe and nutritious although in its native form not very appetizing.  It should be allowed to be added to ground beef products or even used in its pure state, but labeling should be required where ever it is added.  It is an additive; it is NOT meat.

Well, you have done it again!  You have wasted many more einsteins of perfectly good photons reading this offal!  And even though Rick Santorum admits to himself that he will NEVER be President when he reads me say it, I always learn much more from writing this series than I possibly hope to teach, so keep those comments, questions, corrections, and other feedback coming!  Remember, no science or technology concern is off topic here.  I shall stick around for Comment Time as long as comments warrant, and shall return tomorrow evening around 9:00 Eastern for Review Time to cover anything that I missed.

As far as my medical issue goes, the progress is maddeningly slow.  My little finger is getting a bit more motion, but I am not happy.  I am still pushing ibuprofen and wearing the splint, and there is not much more that I can do.  I had to do some business last week, and since I still can not write, The Girl had to fill out some forms and write a couple of checks for me, although I signed them, after a fashion, at the bank and courthouse (car tag renewal).  Speaking of her, she and The Little Girl are due back tomorrow afternoon after visiting her sister for the weekend.  I can hardly wait.

Warmest regards,

Doc, aka Dr. David W. Smith

Crossposted at

The Stars Hollow Gazette,

Daily Kos, and at



  1. a meatless piece?

    Warmest regards,


  2. I very much appreciate it.

    Warmest regards,


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