I‘ve been following the Lean Finely Textured Beef (aka Pink Slime) story with interest for a few days now, and have been struck by how tough it is to dig up hard facts on what the basis of the concerns are here – beyond an instinctive distaste over finding out what goes into today’s processed foods.
One of the issues that is raised repeatedly is the use of ammonia as an antibacterial/preserving agent. Although ammonia in the form of ammonium hydroxide is Generally Regarded As Safe (GRAS) by the US FDA and is not associated with ill health in healthy individuals at low concentrations, there has been some resistance to its use as a processing agent and additive. This has been driven in part by the philosophy that “less is more” when it comes to adding stuff to food. It’s also been driven by concerns that antibacterial agents allow the use of animal protein that is more likely to be contaminated by pathogens such as E. coli.
But how much ammonia is there in Pink Slime-augmented beef compared to other foods?
A fact sheet from the South Dakota Department of Agriculture estimates that a beef patty containing Pink Slime will contain around 200 parts per million ammonia – or 0.02 grams ammonia per 100 grams of meat. That on its own is not a lot of help if you are trying to work out whether eating a burger or two is likely to lead to ammonia-overload. Fortunately, In 1973 a paper was published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition that listed the ammonia content analyzed in a wide range of foods.
Here are the findings from the paper:
The table requires a bit of explaining:The first column after the food type gives the total amount of nitrogen in the food, in grams of nitrogen per 100 grams of food. The next column to the right gives what percentage of this is associated with ammonia – NH3.
To make the data a little easier to understand, here they are in terms of the amount of ammonia per 100 grams of food – I’ve also ranked them from the greatest concentration to the least:
Interestingly, the 1973 burger only had around half the ammonia content of a 2012 Lean Finely Textured Beef-enhanced patty. But there are plenty of foods here that top the augmented burger in terms of ammonia content – including onions, mayonnaise, margarine, salami, and cheese.
These figures don’t detract from yuck factor associated with discovering what goes into some food products (you know what they say about sausages…). But they do help put the ammonia exposure into context.