Pink Slime and ammonia consumption – the numbers

by Andrew Maynard on April 4, 2012

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:

From: Rudman D.et al. (1973) Ammonia Content of Food. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol 26, 487-490

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:

Based on Rudman D.et al. (1973) Ammonia Content of Food. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol 26, 487-490

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.

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{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

James April 4, 2012 at 7:48 pm

Great info!
Small typo at the end of the second paragraph: “It’s also been driven by concerns that antibacterial agents allow the use of animal protein that is **lore** likely to be contaminated by pathogens such as E. coli.” guessing you mean “more” :)

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Andrew Maynard April 5, 2012 at 2:20 am

Thanks :-)

Andrew

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Rosie Redfield April 4, 2012 at 8:24 pm

And the very expensive Roquefort cheese I’m eating right now positively reeks of ammonia!

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Aleks April 4, 2012 at 11:16 pm

Hakarl is strangely missing from this list! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/H%C3%A1karl

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Andrew Maynard April 5, 2012 at 2:20 am

Great link – thanks

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Rhonda April 5, 2012 at 8:57 am

Andrew, this is a fascinating example relating to the conversation about science in social media from a couple of weeks ago. Some of the stories on this topic – even by NPR – failed to mention the central point about ammonia in *other* foods besides pink slime.

Having said that, the very idea of what’s in pink slime and the fact that we feed it to kids by the millions is, at the very least, disturbing.

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Jeff April 10, 2012 at 3:19 pm

And what in this “pink slime” is disturbing??? I don’t get what you mean? If you do any other research on beefisbeef.com you will know that the only ingrediant is….well BEEF! Please don’t believe the media hype.

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Andrea August 21, 2014 at 1:23 am

When a website is openly dedicated to promoting Lean Finely Texture Beef, then you can assume BPI (the creator of the page) will only present the facts that support their argument.

The issue I see sorely overlooked in the debate is that of nutrition. According to Scientific American (http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/2012/03/27/pink-slime-deconstructed/), LFTB is around 70% insoluble protein where beef from muscle is only around 30% insoluble protein. That means it’s much harder (about 2.5x) for our bodies to use the protein in LFTB.

If I wanted filler to make my hamburgers cheaper, I could just as easily use chickpeas or quinoa, and possibly still come out with a more nutritious burger.

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Paula April 5, 2012 at 9:58 am

I know a lot about beef and I’ve actually taken the time to read extensively on this topic. What’s in “pink slime” is lean beef and the above mentioned food safety agent, which is puffed in gas form over the beef and not actually an additive. I don’t find it disturbing at all, I find it sort of reassuring that they’re making the meat safer for my family in this way. What I do find disturbing is neon-green, circus-animal shaped breakfast cereal and the rate of Red Bull and alcohol consumption among teenagers. C’mon folks, there are real food issues out there.

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Gillian April 5, 2012 at 11:46 am

As a vegetarian, I’ve found this whole hoopla over pink slime to be completely confusing. I have no idea why this is more disgusting than eating any other type of meat.

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bob February 6, 2013 at 9:01 pm

Seeing as how youre a vegetarian, your opinion means absolutely nothing.

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Chris April 6, 2012 at 3:25 pm

One issue with ammonia in beef is that upon dry heat treatment, Maillard-like reactions will occur, generating reactive and potentially unsafe byproducts from sugars and proteins in the beef. A question is whether, for normal beef cooking methods, the ammonia will evaporate fast enough to outcompete this reaction or not.

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Dave April 9, 2012 at 9:19 pm

Wait a minute! Are you telling me the University of Michigan is allowing you to use data that is 39 years old? Having formerly been in the PR business I can only wonder who is behind the “repair” job to the Lean Finely Textured Beef image.

As for the first item on the list, ammonia is a naturally occurring by-product of blue cheese making. It is not “puffed on” the cheese as it is with LFTB.

At least do second level research. The first item I picked to check on shot the first hole in your credibility.

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Andrew Maynard April 10, 2012 at 5:33 am

Hi Dave,

Thanks for your comment – I was wondering whether you were being a little tongue in cheek with your opening sentence – but maybe not. I sincerely hope that the we don’t reach the point where data within the scientific community are assigned a shelf life – otherwise we are sunk!

As I’m sure you noticed, the post makes no attempt to distinguish between sources of ammonia – it simply responds to expressed concerns that the use of LTFB lead to the potentially harmful presence of ammonia in food. As such, I’m not sure I understand your point about second level research and credibility. Unless you are questioning the credibility of the original paper, which I am sure you are not.

This piece by the way was posted because I thought people would be interested in the published evidence on ammonia levels in food, and because it contributes to the evidence base around pink slime – it’s what we do here. it has nothing to do with “repair” jobs. Sorry!

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Ginger Wireman April 10, 2012 at 12:48 pm

I associate ammonia with a horse barn. Whether puffed or sprayed, purposely adding it to my food sounds gross.

But I’m a grown up and if the ammonia is part of the food on its own, the natural chemical reaction of different ingredients – or fermentation – then I can deal with it.

To me the pink slime issue is that we have to use industrial addititves to our food to keep it ‘safe’. It may very well have been used effectively for a long time – but does that really make it right? Or okay?

We’ve been so bamboozled by food and manufacturers who sneak stuff into our food (the food they’ve carefully created demand for) after removing all viable nutrients or recognizable characteristics of the food. We have all sorts of non-plant or animal derived additives in stuff we eat, and it’s making us sick. Or even if they are – would we eat them if we knew? Take castoreum – beaver gland oil used for vanilla fragrance or flavor (there is some debate on the Web as to whether it is actually still used, but it would be legal if it were, and it’s “natural”.)

I “get” that the finely textured meat is using ‘all’ the meat. I understand that it’s less waste. But there would be even LESS waste (or perhaps, okay to have some waste product) if the overall quantity of beef produced wasn’t so overwhelming. I remember BEFORE McDonalds had sold 1 million burgers. Life was perfectly fine, and fat children were virtually non-existent.

I have access to the rural areas near where I live. I bought 1/4 cow from an acquaintence. Cut and wrapped it cost me $3.87# lb. Expensive hamburgers, cheap steak and roast. When I buy grass fed beef from the farmer’s market, it’s $4.99 lb. for pre-made patties. My free range chickens are $13.75 for a bird averaging 5# if I pre-order ten.

It’s expensive. But my family only eats meat at dinner about five times a week. If it were eight bucks a pound, we’d eat even less meat – and we’d probably be healthier (but fart more!)

If we silly overweight and obese Americans hadn’t bougth into the idea that we can lead practically sedintary lifestyles and eat meat at every meal would we be producing so much meat (at only about four packing houses) that food safety is such a concern?

Regardless of the food safety issues, the environmental impact is so detrimenta, I’m ready to shut down the majority of combined animal feeding operations, and large packing plants and go back to eating meat that was grown in closer to home.

I’m sad for the pink slime employees who are losing their jobs. Maybe they can start meat packing cooperatives, that buy local/regional meat and humanely kill and distribute it – and pay themselves more.

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Tom Cother April 10, 2012 at 1:42 pm

What we have all been exposed to here is a classic example of media sensationalism aimed at ratings rather than facts. Let’s all be good consumers and educate ourselves before we jump on the ban wagon. There are a plenty of credible sources out there we can use to make our own decisions. “A well informed consumer has the tools to, and will, make good decisions”.

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