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‘Pink slime’: Is Canada really better off without it?

Carolyn Morris
Shine On
March 28, 2012

When celebrity chef Jamie Oliver launched his crusade against so-called "pink slime," a processed beef product added to burger patties in the U.S., the world watched in horror.  The media was buzzing with stories about how beef off-cuts were being processed with ammonium hydroxide, then mixed with hamburger meat.

McDonald's in the U.S. stopped using the stuff this January, and the media was quick to condemn the US Department of Agriculture's National School Lunch Program for buying the product.

All the attention has been bad for business. This week, Beef Products Inc, the makers of the controversial "pink slime" — or, as the company refers to it, "lean finely textured beef" — announced it was suspending operations at three of its four plants. It also took to the web to defend its unappetizing creation.

Related:  McDonald's ditches use of 'pink slime' in U.S. beef

Health Canada doesn't permit the use of ammonium hydroxide in meat products, so there's no pink slime in our burgers. But should Canadians be feeling smug?

Richard Holley, a food science professor at the University of Manitoba, not only thinks "pink slime" is fine, he thinks it's a better alternative to what is typically done in Canada.

"I see this as not an unreasonable process from a scientific perspective," he says. "It enables the recovery of high-quality protein from meat that otherwise would more than likely end up as mechanically separated."

You've no doubt noticed the words "mechanically separated" on many a meat label. It's a process that's been used for some time in Canada, and other parts of the world, where carcasses are put through a high-pressure filter and all the tissue is extracted, even some spinal fluid.

"[Mechanically separated meat products] can only be used in products that are frozen, because it has high bacterial numbers," says Holley. "What we've got here, with ammonium treated beef, is a chemical intervention that's reducing potential for E. coli contamination."

Related: Lab-grown burger created by scientists

And while Health Canada does not permit ammonia for meat products, it does allow it in the processing of other foods, including cocoa products and gelatin.

According to McGill chemistry professor Joe Schwarcz, the process is nothing to worry about.

"Neither the dissolved ammonia, nor the ammonium hydroxide it forms, presents a health concern," Schwarcz wrote in a recent Montreal Gazette article."Ammonia is a product of protein metabolism and therefore routinely forms in the human body. It ends up being converted into urea which is then excreted in the urine."

So is Canada better off without pink slime? Or, as food columnist Ari Levaux asks in the Atlantic, "Is pink slime any worse than pink cylinders, yellow nuggets, brown breakfast sausage patties, or any number of mystery meat products?"

"Probably not," he writes. "And for what it's worth, it isn't even slimy."

Check out this ABC news video about Beef Products Inc. suspended operations:

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