What’s Wrong With Pink Slime?

  • It’s high in protein.
  • It’s low in fat.
  • It’s been treated to kill Salmonella and E. coli.
  • It’s lab-tested before it is shipped.

So what’s all the fuss about?

Gerald Zirnstein, a former microbiologist with USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, calls the product “pink slime” and doesn’t “consider the stuff to be ground beef,” according to a report carried yesterday evening on ABC National News.

The meat industry, including producers such as Beef Products Inc. and HRR Enterprises, Inc. call it Lean Finely Textured Beef, or LFTB – a far less catchy, but more accurate name.

Where does Lean Finely Textured Beef come from?

Producers of LFTB start with beef trim. This is the “waste” meat and fat that results from trimming higher quality beef cuts (such as steaks) to customer specifications, and is usually used to make ground beef.

The LFTB process begins by separating most of the fat from the beef. This is done by warming the trim and “spinning out” the fat in centrifuges. The result is a very lean beef: approximately 94-97% lean, according to Beef Products Inc. This lean beef can be mixed with higher-fat beef in order to produce low-fat ground beef and processed meat products.

But beef trim is notorious for carrying pathogenic bacteria – especially, E. coli O157:H7 and its close cousins, the non-O157 STEC bacteria. So Beef Products Inc. developed an ammonia gas treatment step to kill the microbes.

What’s the deal with ammonia? Is it legal? Is it safe?

Ammonia is formed naturally in the body as a result of protein digestion by bacteria that live in the intestines. The ammonia is carried in the blood (as ammonium hydroxide) to the liver; there it is converted to urea, which exits the body in the urine. It is normal and usual to find a certain amount of ammonium hydroxide in meat.

Ammonium hydroxide has been used as an antimicrobial agent in meat for more than 40 years. Its safety was reviewed in 1974 by the US Food and Drug Administration’s Select Committee on GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) Substances, who had this to say:

“Ammonia and the ammonium ion are integral components of normal metabolic processes and play an essential role in the physiology of man. Although there have been no significant feeding studies specifically designed to ascertain the safety threshold of ammonium compounds as food ingredients, numerous metabolic studies have been reported in the scientific literature. Extrapolation of these findings to the concentrations of ammonium compounds normally present in foods does not suggest that there would be untoward effects at such levels. In the light of the foregoing, the Select Committee concludes that: There is no evidence in the available information on ammonium bicarbonate, ammonium carbonate, ammonium chloride, ammonium hydroxide, mono and dibasic ammonium phosphate, and ammonium sulfate that demonstrates, or suggests reasonable grounds to suspect, a hazard to the public when they are used at levels that are now current or that might reasonably be expected in future.”

Ammonium hydroxide also is included in the USDA’s list of Safe and Suitable Ingredients Used in the Production of Meat, Poultry, and Egg Products (FSIS Directive 7120.1, Revision 2; last revised 4/12/10). It is used as a pH control agent in brine solutions for meat products, and as an antimicrobial agent for beef carcasses (in hot boxes and holding coolers) and boneless beef trimmings. Ammonia gas (anhydrous ammonia) is also used as an antimicrobial agent for lean finely textured beef.

Ammonia and ammonium hydroxide are among several antimicrobial agents that may be used on beef and poultry without labeling disclosure. Organic acid blends, calcium hypochlorite, chlorine gas, citric acid, lactic acid, and trisodium phosphate are other examples. All of these agents are considered by FDA and USDA to be processing aids rather than ingredients, when they meet one of the following criteria:

(a) substances that are added during the processing of a food but are removed in some manner from the food before it is packaged in its finished form;

(b) substances that are added to a food during processing, are converted into constituents normally present in the food, and do not significantly increase the amount of the constituents naturally found in the food; or

(c) substances that are added to a food for their technical or functional effect in the processing but are present in the finished food at insignificant levels and do not have any technical or functional effect in that food.

Do we need to worry about E. coli and Salmonella in LFTB from Beef Products Inc.?

Beef Products Inc. has adopted ammonium hydroxide treatment of its LFTB products in order to kill the pathogenic bacteria that may otherwise be present in the meat. And they’ve gone beyond USDA’s current pathogen testing requirements for these harmful bacteria. In July 2011, the company announced that it had initiated a “test and hold” policy in addition to its various preventative sanitation and food safety programs.

Every box of LFTB is sampled, and the samples sent to independent third-party labs for analysis. Every box of LFTB is held at the plant until the labs confirm that all specifications – including the absence of Salmonella, E. coli O157:H7 and other STEC bacteria – have been met. Only once the satisfactory results have been confirmed does the company allow its product to leave the premises.

What do the experts say about LFTB?

I asked Dr. James Marsden (Regent’s Distinguished Professor of Food Safety and Security at Kansas State University) for his opinion.

There are,” he said in an emailed reply, “all kinds of ingredients in food products that can be falsely characterized as unappetizing when viewed out of context. When lay persons see the processes of cheese manufacturing, wine making and the production of the most high quality gourmet processed meats, some of the stages in the process are less than appetizing.

I think the criticism of BPI’s products are based on quality perceptions, not food safety,” Dr. Marsden added. “It should, however, be recognized that BPI made great strides in improving the safety of ground beef through their unique food safety processes. On the one hand, consumers demand safe foods and are right to do so; they also need to recognize that the production of safe foods requires processing interventions.

In other words, it might have an image problem, but Lean Finely Textured Beef – aka ‘pink slime’ – is safe to eat.


34 thoughts on “What’s Wrong With Pink Slime?

  1. A federal microbiologist coined the term “pink slime”. He was in a meat processing plant when he did, and is more informed than I or most of us. As the company points out, it’s not really pink. That’s because it contains so little muscle (meat to you and me). Let’s be honest, it is a heavily processed natural product, chemically treated to remove harmful bacteria. That chemical treatment has been tested safe. To me the question is, does it have food value? When I buy ground beef I am expecting muscle and some fat (of which I can select the proportion), and little else. Pink slime, is beef, in that it comes from cows. How can it be labeled meat? It isn’t muscle! And I have seen no argument against the statement that it is much less nutritious than unadulterated (but cooked) ground beef. That means it is not ground beef, and is not beef any more than the eyes, ears, or bones of beef cattle are. How much of it is in other products (like canned foods such as chili and stew)? How can we prevent stores and food suppliers from adding it back into the supply without informing the consumer? It would seem that the answer to that last question lies in the USDA requiring it to be listed as a distinct ingredient. “Finely textured beef” would be fine. We all know that means “pink slime”.


  2. The arrogance of the beef industry is astounding! Here’s the bottom line: I DON’T WANT TO EAT THIS STUFF!!! I eat steak and roasts. I don’t want scraps, and I don’t want to wonder what I am buying. I’m sure there are plenty of hungry pets to consume this stuff.


    1. Is it OK with you that meat companies do NOT need to test for Salmonella or E. coli O157:H7 or other pathogens on steaks or roasts? Harmful bacteria are not considered to be “adulterants” on intact cuts of beef.


  3. Two former USDA microbiologists take a different view. One, Gerald Zirnstein, the man who originally dubbed the product “pink slime,” said, “I have a two-year-old son…And you better believe I don’t want him eating pink slime.” The other, Carl Custer, added, “We originally called it soylent pink…We looked at the product and we objected to it because it used connective tissues instead of muscle. It was simply not nutritionally equivalent [to ground beef]. My main objection was that it was not meat.”
    Both men say the product was approved as safe by the USDA over their objections.

    Meanwhile, the problem pink slime was originally intended to solve, pathogens in meat, continues apace. Wired’s Maryn McKenna recently broke down the FDA’s annual report on the bacteria it finds on the retail meat it tests each year. “Almost 29 percent of ground-beef samples carried Salmonella strains that were resistant to six [antibiotics],” McKenna reports.



  4. I fully believe in “nose to tail” eating — using every edible part of the animal. BUT I will not eat anything that is so likely to be tainted that it must be “cleaned” before I eat it. I buy my meat from farmers I trust to raise clean animals in the first place — and use butchers who also know how to process safe meat. The thought of eating something contaminated but then “cleaned up” is disgusting. Would anyone eat anything that fell into an unflushed toilet no matter how much that food was “cleaned”? Gross.

    For those who don’t know how to get clean meat (hint: it’s not at your big grocer), visit eatwild.com or westonaprice.org. It’s easier than you think and is actually quite economical farm-direct. And you and your family are worth more than tainted meat!


  5. What you guys are saying makes sense if you really believe it’s just some extra meat that they’re spinning out. But if you think about it, there are some things unexplained.

    Like why, if this is just regular beef that gets spun out, why does it require additional treatment above and beyond the regular beef to make it “safer”? If they had a safer procedure, wouldn’t they just apply it equally across all their beef that shares a similar risk profile?

    Or is there something about this beef that necessitates additional processing? If there is, what would that be? You can be sure that in a factory where efficiency is measured in fractions of a penny they are going to use every part of the cow that they can get away with.

    Innovative? Certainly! Honest? Not really. Or rather, if this product is so great why hasn’t everyone been using it? There are a lot of companies that are coming out (Laura’s Lean Beef, for example) and saying that they don’t use it and are proud of their commitment to quality or whatever.

    So it’s obvious that there are at least some people in the beef industry who think it is not appropriate. That’s something to keep in mind while you’re repeating the industry boilerplate response.


    1. Beef trim – which is used by meat companies to prepare ground beef – is highly susceptible to carrying large numbers of bacteria, including pathogens such as Salmonella and E. coli. Unfortunately, most companies take the “let the consumer kill the bugs by cooking the meat” approach. BPI, on the other hand, has chosen to minimize the microbiological risk to consumers by using ammonia treatment.


      1. That certainly does make them sound like angels. Looking out for us. It makes me wonder why they haven’t been out long ago spreading the word about this wonder product!

        But seriously, I think it’s far more likely that BPI has taken the “what’s the cheapest way that we can make the most money” and “lawsuits are expensive” approach.

        But that’s just my corporate cynicism talking.

        So let’s take a different tack here. This product is really just meat, right? It’s just meat that has undergone some additional processing to make it safer, by your reasoning.

        And yet somehow it’s cheaper. So it’s gone through additional (no doubt costly) steps, and it’s still cheaper than regular ground beef. Why is it cheaper if it’s just regular meat that’s gone through additional safety processing?

        Because it’s a byproduct. And nobody in the industry would pay the same for this byproduct as they would for regular ground beef.

        And you know what? Neither would consumers. By not including this byproduct on the labels, you are denying the consumers the right to know that what they are buying is considered “cheaper” (inferior?) by those that have purchased this product for inclusion in their ground beef.

        You can say that the lower cost is passed on to the consumer, but I seriously doubt that is the case. Do you think your supermarket lowered their prices the day that they started including LFTB in their ground beef? I don’t.

        Here’s the real kicker. This product is “low-fat” so it is included in ground beef mixes to reduce the fat content. I don’t know about your supermarket, but mine charges *more* for low-fat ground beef. So it’s likely that they’re actually charging me more for a product that costs them less.

        Now, my local supermarket (shoprite) hasn’t made a claim one way or the other (I’m guessing that means they use LFTB! Costco and Publix certainly weren’t shy about declaring that their ground beef is byproduct free!).

        Does anyone have a Kroger around to compare prices?


  6. Whatever.
    The fact that corporate America cares so little about consumers and solely on profits that they would need to convince us that a “filler” previously reserved for pet food is healthy?
    Ridiculous, yet par for the course in this day and age.


    1. Every time you eat hamburger – even hamburger that does not contain LFTB – you are eating ground up beef trim. Exactly the same meat that is used to produce LFTB. It was never reserved for pet food. That is a fallacy.


    2. Whatever is right. Some people hear what they want hear. FTB is the same meat you get when you buy steak. It is cuts like Sirloin, Round and Chuck. No fillers. Period. Remember, steak has fat and connective tissue too. Grinding it up doesn’t change a thing.

      You’re making a great case against hot dogs and other sausages.

      Cynicism is no substitute for informed reasoning and it does not advance the cause of food safety and nutrition.


  7. I’ve been in one of the Cargill plants and I am very familiar with this process.

    They only use the outer layer of fat that is trimmed off. It still has some meat on it and they recover that meat. It is a complete falsehood to say that it is mostly connective tissue.

    I have also held FTB in my hand and it is not the least bit slimy. It is, however, very fine because it is finely ground during the process. It’s actually much less slimy than retail ground beef because it is very low in fat.

    There’s nothing wrong with FTB. The use of ammonia is a separate discussion.


  8. In terms that should be understood by anyone who has ever purchased a bone-in cut of meat, and then prepared a meal, the issue is about yield. Even the best cooks may be unable to carve all of the high quality meat from in their raw material.

    Profit and sustainability would not seem to be at cross purposes here. Consumers don’t seem to want, “butts and beaks”, so producers strive to do much of this work for those who can’t properly wield a knife. I agree that the processes may not be pretty and sellers may wish to represent their products in the best possible light. However, the concept of getting the most out of the raw material, safely and economically, is entirely reasonable.


  9. There may not be anything unhealthy about ‘pink slime’, but I think I have a right to know if it is being used in the ground beef I purchase.
    I asked Walmart if they use the filler in their ground beef and they will not answer. They only say they guarantee their product.
    I would like to know if they use it, but they will not confirm or deny.
    I will NOT be purchasing any meat from their store until they give a
    yes or no answer.


  10. This I do know—when I was a child we tested questionable meat by giving some to the cats. If they ate it, we knew it was safe for us to eat. We never got sick.
    My current cats will not eat grocery store hamburger meat, not raw, not cooked. They will eat hamburger meat from our tiny little mom and pop market, with relish!
    I’m glad I became vegetarian 17 years ago!


  11. Why are you making this stuff seem ok? It makes me question your entire blog. It’s disgusting, and seems that you are only presenting the industry’s ‘version’ of what this is, which is it’s basically poison on so many levels. It’s also basically just filler, and they are parts of the cow NOT considered fit for human consumption and you can’t use more than 15% of it in ground beef, and 70% of supermarket beef contains it. It is mostly made of connective tissues, not meat, and is not very nutritious. Why do they use ammonia in the first place, too? Because the cows and meat are diseased, and rather than create healthy cows, they want to put poison it with ammonia and irradiate our foods instead – not treating the cause of e-coli, but only masking it and treating the symptom of a much larger problem. USDA Organic Beef does not contain any of it – Get the facts: http://www.eatlikenoone.com/what-is-pink-slime-beef-how-to-avoid-it.htm or http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/headlines/2012/03/is-pink-slime-in-the-beef-at-your-grocery-store/


    1. If you knew anything about biology, you’d know that connective tissue doesn’t contain myoglobin.

      Still with me after that big word I just used? Good. Let’s continue.

      Myoglobin, which creates the pink and red hues we see in meat (including ground beef and LFTB) is present only in muscle — not connective tissue.

      Bottom line: There’s no connective tissue in LFTB. It’s 100% muscle, or, as we like to say, “meat.”


    2. Speaking of get the facts…if you think USDA organic beef has no e-coli and doesn’t require any special treatment for it, then you are very uninformed of how e-coli comes to be in beef of any kind in the first place. E-coli comes from cow manure which will end up on the hide of the animal. In the process of slaughtering, it may get on the carcass. And in the process of cutting the carcass, e-coli may get to the meat. If it gets on the surface of a steak or roast, cooking will kill it. If it is in beef that it is ground, it may be through out the ground beef and unless thoroughly cooked, the e-coli may pass on to the consumer intact. I’m certain that organically produced beef is just as likely to have e-coli as any other production method. So our safest path is to use processes that kill the e-coli (or any pathogen) before we ingest them.


  12. Seventy percent of US hamburger contains “pink slime” says Beef Products, Inc., the company that produces it. “We are shooting for 100 percent”. The USDA allows up to fifteen percent of pink slime in a pound of hamburger – with NO labeling requirement.

    Slaughter house floor wastes, (meat bits, blood, fats, connective tissue, etc) are the feedstock of pink slime. Grist’s Tom Philpott explains pink slime this way: it’s “the cheapest, least desirable beef on offer — fatty sweepings from the slaughterhouse floor, which are notoriously rife with pathogens like E. coli 0157 and antibiotic-resistant salmonella. (Beef Products, Inc. or BPI) sends the scraps through a series of machines, grinds them into a paste, separates out the fat, and laces the substance with ammonia to kill pathogens.” http://grist.org/food/2010-07-30-ask-umbra-on-pink-slime-in-hamburger-meat/

    HOWEVER, ammonia has NO effect on infectious Mad Cow prions which may be in the pink slime wastes:

    To prevent the spread of Mad Cow prion disease, slaughterhouses are required to remove “SRM” – specified risk materials- the parts of a cow known to harbor the highest concentrations of prions. SRM include the skull, the brain, trigeminal ganglia and eyes, the tonsils, and the spinal cord and the vertebral column including the dorsal root ganglia, spinal vertebrae, all of the spinal cord tissue and the small intestine. Power tools, including chain saws, are used to cut up the carcasses.. It is unavoidable that potentially prion infected wastes from high risk tissues end up on the blood-soaked slaughterhouse floors – to be incorporated into the pink slime.

    BLOOD can transmit infectious prions diseases including BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy – mad cow disease): World Health Organization: ” A wealth of data from studies of blood infectivity in experimental rodent models of TSE have been extended by recent studies documenting infectivity in the blood of sheep with naturally occurring scrapie and in sheep transfused with blood from BSE infected cattle [Houston et al., 2008]; of deer with naturally occurring CWD [Mathiason et al., 2006]; and (from epidemiological observations) in the red cell fraction (which includes significant amounts of both plasma and leukocytes) of four blood donors in the pre-clinical phase of vCJD infections [reviewed in Brown, 2006; Hewitt et al., 2006].” http://www.who.int/bloodproducts/tablestissueinfectivity.pdf

    See http://www.thirdworldtraveler.com/Health/MostDangerousJob_FFN.html – witnesses, INCLUDING WORKERS, describe slaughterhouse floors: Carcasses swing so fast along the rail that you have to keep an eye on them constantly, dodge them, watch your step, or one will slam you and throw you onto the bloody concrete floor. It happens to workers all the time.
    ” We wade through blood that’s ankle deep and that pours down drains into huge vats below us. ”

    “For eight and a half hours, a worker called a “sticker” does nothing but stand in a river of blood, being drenched in blood, slitting the neck of a steer every ten seconds or so, severing its carotid artery.” (nighttime cleaning crews) = “Workers stand on the belts, spraying them, riding them like moving sidewalks, as high as fifteen feet off the ground. Workers climb ladders with hoses and spray the catwalks. They get under tables and conveyer belts, climbing right into the bloody muck, cleaning out grease, fat, manure, leftover scraps of meat.”

    “The scariest job, according to Jesus, is cleaning the vents on the roof of the slaughterhouse. The vents become clogged with grease and dried blood.”

    The USDA buys 7 million pounds of pink slime hamburger for US school lunch programs. Autism rates in California soared after it was discovered USDA okayed feeding of downer cows to school children. downercattle.blogspot.com/2009/05/us-government-sues-westlandhallmark.html and http://www.care2.com/causes/is-there-an-autism-epidemic-not-exactly-but.html

    Scientists claim to be mystified as to what is causing Alzheimer’s, a prion disease that is claiming over 6 million US victims. Other prion diseases may include an epidemic of Autism, Frontotemporal Dementia, Parkinson’s Disease, soaring cases of early onset Alzheimer’s (victims from age 30 to 65) and Creutzfeldt Jakob Disease . Scientists have proven variant Creutzfeldt Jakob Disease is caused by meat from infected BSE/mad cows. It is time to admit the US meat supply is contaminated with infectious prions wastes, potentially in this pink slime product adulterating our hamburger supply, just as Dr. Murray Waldman and Dr. Colm Kelleher warned us in the mid 2000s:

    “Could Alzheimer’s be infectious? ”

    SEE reply posted by:
    Dr. Murray Waldman, coroner for the city of Toronto, Canada:
    “In answer to the question how would Alzheimer’s (AD) be transmitted, I
    have written a book “Dying For A Hamburger- Modern Meat Processing and the Epidemic of Alzheimer’s Disease” that
    hypothesizes that AD is spread by how we in North America and Europe feed and process meat,
    mainly beef. If you study the rates of AD and its geographical distribution, you will
    find that rates start to soar when a country becomes meat eating (i.e.
    Japan and Korea in the 1960s) and rises even faster when it adopts a
    fast food culture (the US and Western Europe in the 50s and 60s) and
    remains low in vegetarian countries (India) and those without a
    processed meat industry or fast foods (equatorial Africa)…Murray ”

    .[Interview with Dr. Colm Kelleher author of “Brain Trust:The Hidden Connection Between Mad Cow and Misdiagnosed Alzheimer’s Disease” recorded November 16, 2004. video about 1 hour long – well worth the time

    http://www.healthydepartment.com/alzheimers-disease/interview-mad-cow-and-misdiagnosed-alzheimers-disease-4541.html ]
    Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) and sporadic Creutzfeldt Jakob Disease (sCJD)
    are sister prion diseases, transmissible, infectious by medical
    equipment, (scopes, etc.) dental and eye equipment, blood, urine, feces,
    saliva, mucous (aerosols: possibly by coughs & sneezes) Doctors
    frequently misdiagnose AD and sCJD one for the other. The symptoms and
    neuropathology are almost identical. If variant CJD is caused by eating infected beef, I believe
    Alzheimer’s and other prion diseases are also caused by eating bad beef – served up by a corrupt USDA in bed with the cattlemen and meat packers industries.

    Helane Shields, Alton, NH hshields@tds.net http://www.alzheimers-prions.com/


    1. @Helane:- Tom Philpott notwithstanding, slaughterhouse floor wastes are NOT used in Lean Finely Textured Beef. The same beef trim that is used to produce ground beef is also used as the meat source for LFTB. Also, autism has nothing to do with downer cattle. Slaughterhouses aren’t a pretty sight, but lets keep our facts straight.


      1. Good luck getting any facts into the heads of people who listen to dear old Tom.

        Thanks very much for this post, by the way. I’m so frustrated that people’s squeamishness may end up causing so much more food waste. If we’re going to kill cows for food, the least we can do is use the whole animal.


        1. well you eat it then i dont wont internal organs tounge are any of this gross stuff. we have to pay to much for a pound on this crap to get somthing beside quality beef. and i dont call organs quality
          thank you.


    1. You have about the same odds of becoming ill from produce as you do from meat products. At least with meat products you can kill pathogens by cooking them.


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