By David Jessup
The recent furor over “pink slime” – the unappetizing name given by critics to the filler found in most store-bought hamburger – misses an important point: the real health danger lurks elsewhere.
Pink slime, or “finely textured beef,” as the industry prefers to call it, is made from beef trimmings from slaughterhouses spun in a centrifuge to separate out some of the fat and bathed in ammonium hydroxide gas to kill bacteria. It makes up over 25% of what you’ve been buying as hamburger in grocery stores and fast-food restaurants.
Ammonium hydroxide raises the Ph level of the meat product from acidic to slightly alkaline, an environment hostile to bacteria such as the E. coli variant that has caused numerous deaths and massive hamburger recalls.
The chemical appears to be harmless – the USDA has pronounced ammonium hydroxide safe, and it’s used in other processed foods. But no one seems to ask the question, why is the meat so acidic in the first place as to foster bacterial growth?
The answer, it seems, is related to what the cow eats prior to slaughter. Here’s how internationally best-selling author John Robbins states it:
When cattle are grainfed, their intestinal tracts become far more acidic, which favors the growth of pathogenic E. coli bacteria, which in turn kills people who eat undercooked hamburger. Read full article.
Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, puts it this way:
“Most of the microbes that reside in the gut of a cow and find their way into our food get killed off by the acids in our stomachs, since they originally adapted to live in a neutral-pH environment. But the digestive tract of the modern feedlot cow is closer in acidity to our own, and in this new, manmade environment acid-resistant strains of E. coli have developed that can survive our stomach acids — and go on to kill us. By acidifying a cow’s gut with corn, we have broken down one of our food chain’s barriers to infections.”
The danger of bacterial contamination in grain-fed, feedlot beef is so great that antibiotics are routinely added to the animals’ feed. But minimizing this danger leads to another: the evolution of “super-bug” bacteria resistant to antibiotics.
According to a New York Times investigative report in 2009, slaughterhouses are so leery of bacteria-related recalls that many won’t sell their trimmings to hamburger grinders who insist on testing them. If these germs later show up in burgers, they don’t want them traced to their processing plant. That way the grinder, rather than the slaughterhouse, pays the price for the recall. Since the hamburger grinder’s output comes from a dozen or so sources, no one knows which source contributed the E. Coli. The invention of the pink-slime process was one hamburger maker’s strategy to solve this problem.
So if you want filler in your feedlot-raised, grain-fed hamburger, it’s a good thing it’s treated with ammonium hydroxide. But if you want to avoid “pink slime” altogether, it’s best to buy grass-fed and grass-finished beef, with the proper Ph balanced diet that minimizes bacterial contamination in the first place.
Oh, and did I mention the other health benefits of grass-fed beef, such as Omega-3 and CLA? But that’s the subject of another story…