Ammonium hydroxide in food sounds dangerous, but distracts from real problems

This past spring break, after an exhausting experience of trying to fit into clothing that was clearly designed to look good on men only (a suit), I was ready for a snack.

Before I could even suggest McDonald’s, my mom gave me an explosive speech about pink slime, “And oh my god, do you know what kind of chemicals they’re putting in that stuff? Just awful! I’m going to stop eating meat altogether.”

And so my McDonald’s trips have come to an end.

In the same way that the Affordable Care Act has been dubbed ObamaCare or that Social Security is called entitlement spending, the name pink slime has destroyed any reputation “lean, finely textured beef” (LFTB) had.

Some history: LFTB has been on the market for the last decade or so but was described as pink slime by Department of Agriculture microbiologist in a 2002 email. More recently, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver has advocated for the product to be removed from school lunches.

And so the media uproar began.

There are a few things about the process that’s outraging American consumers everywhere. Maybe it’s the thought that ammonium hydroxide is an ingredient, that it’s a filler and not real meat or that scientists and consumer advocates have all deemed it unsafe.

None of those things are true, however.

The process that creates the so-called pink slime was developed by Beef Products Inc. (BPI) in an effort to remove E. coli and salmonella from ground beef.

The ammonium hydroxide that is used in the process of creating LFTB does not make it unsafe; in fact, it’s widely used in baked goods, cheeses, chocolate and other confectionery products. Moreover, ammonium hydroxide has been used in food products since 1974, when it was formally approved by the FDA.

So why are people so worried about it? We associate ammonium hydroxide with household cleaning agents and that awful smell. However, the amount that is used in food processing is nowhere near a toxic amount.

The other point of contention is if it’s real beef. Yes, LFTB is made from a de-boning process that uses every last scrap leftover from the beef carcass. I’m with you, that may not sound entirely appetizing, but that yuck factor is confusing some people into thinking we’re not even eating real meat. Beefisbeef, the website launched by BPI, reminds us that there has yet to be a process that makes inedible meat edible.

The Consumer Federation of America affirmed that the levels of ammonia used in LFTB don’t pose a health risk to consumers and even expressed concern that “manufacturers of hamburger patties may replace LFTB with something that has not been processed to assure the same level of safety.”

Tyson is saying that beef consumption is on the decline and Chik-fil-A’s everywhere are rejoicing. I say, watch out because rumors about chickens and the “all white meat” are next.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t take rumors about the food we eat seriously, but we should tune into the facts.

We also should be worrying about things out there which are more gross. Does anyone even know what’s in a hot dog? Bologna? Chicken nuggets? The meat in all of these items are often recovered from a more highly mechanized process that may procure things from the carcass we really don’t want to eat. Also, a lot of the processed meats are doused with preservatives that are more powerful than ammonium hydroxide and potentially could have worse health effects.

Mark Bittman of the New York Times points out that if pink slime was created as a solution for something, maybe we should spend more of our time worrying about the problem.

E. coli is typically found in the digestive track of cows who eat grain, but their stomachs are actually designed to digest grass.

“The incomprehensible quantity of manure produced by these cattle — also often containing E. coli — is deposited on the land, sometimes seeping into the water supply; that’s how you wind up with E. coli in vegetables,“ he said.

Still think pink slime is the problem?

There are more serious issues to worry about, and rumors about pink slime being beef tips soaked in ammonia is not one of them.

_Nishat is a senior in LAS._