There’s been a lot of hype in the media over the last few days about “pink slime” in ground beef. There’s also been a lot of misinformation about the stuff.
It’s not slime. It’s beef. There are two different terms for it, boneless lean beef trimmings or finely textured beef. Both products start and end the same, but have one slightly different middle step. Here’s how we get it.
You know how you’ll get a steak from the grocery store, and it often will have a thin layer of fat around the outside. You “trim” the fat from the steak before you cook it, but usually you take a little bit of the meat off, too. You don’t usually spend a whole bunch of time getting that last little bit of meat separated from the fat, you just throw it away. This also happens at the butcher, but on a bigger scale.
Imagine taking all the trimmings from a whole cow (we’re talking around 500-800 pounds of meat, before trimming) and just throwing away all the good meat that is stuck to the fat that was trimmed off.
That’s a lot of waste.
This meat is perfectly fine to eat, it just happens to be closely attached to fat or connective tissue. And it is hard to separate. It is not contaminated with bacteria, it is not designated for pet food, it is just stuck to some parts of the animal that we would rather not eat. (Think of that last bit of meat stuck to a T-bone… you probably want to chew it off instead of throwing it away, right? That’s what happens in my house, anyway!)
Instead of throwing the meat away, there is a way to save the meat, while getting rid of the fat, bone, and connective tissue. The trimmings are put into a very big centrifuge, which is sort of like a giant, high-speed mixing bowl. The centrifuge spins around super-fast, and separates the fat from the meat. We keep the meat, but not the fat. Because almost all of the fat has been removed in the mixing bowl/centrifuge, what’s left is very lean.
Here is where the difference is between boneless lean beef trimmings and finely textured beef.
To get boneless lean beef trimmings, the lean meat is treated with a small amount of ammonium hydroxide gas. This gas changes the pH of the meat, which kills any bacteria that are present.
Ammonium hydroxide IS NOT household ammonia that is used for cleaning.
Ammonium hydroxide is a naturally-occurring substance that everyone (and every animal) already has in their bodies. It is commonly used as a food preservative, because in small amounts (like used to make boneless lean beef trimmings) it is not harmful to people, but does a great job of killing bacteria.
To get finely textured beef, the lean meat is treated with a little bit of citric acid, which also changes the pH and kills bacteria. Citric acid is similar to the acid in citrus fruits. Again, a naturally-occurring substance, and very safe in the small amounts used here.
Both ammonium hydroxide and citric acid are regulated by the FDA, and are safe products used in food processing.
At the end of this process, both boneless lean beef trimmings and finely textured beef are ground beef that is more than 90% (and close to 100%) lean.
Have you ever cooked with 94% lean ground beef from the grocery store? There is very little fat to drain when you brown a pound up in a skillet, and it falls apart into fine crumbles. But it doesn’t stay together well to make hamburgers or meat balls. And it does taste a little different from 80% or 85% lean ground meat.
Boneless lean beef trimmings and finely textured beef are mixed with ground beef that has a higher fat content (say, 70% lean or less) to bring it up to a lower fat content (say, 80% lean or more). The fat in the ground beef gives it more flavor, and helps the meat to stick together to make patties, or meat balls, or meat loaf, or whatever shape you want. The leanness of the ground beef makes it a little healthier for us.
Boneless lean beef trimmings and finely textured beef are both inspected by the USDA, and must pass safety testing just like any other meat product. If any ground beef (whether it includes boneless lean beef trimmings or finely textured beef or not) is found to have bacterial contamination, it is destroyed immediately and not sent to retailers. If it is found after some has already been sent to retailers, the entire batch is recalled immediately.
Here is a Meat MythCrushers video that talks about the use of ammonium hydroxide in boneless lean beef trimmings.
And this document from the American Meat Institute may help to answer some more questions.
It’s a complicated topic, and there are a lot of questions running around about this right now. What other questions do you have that I haven’t answered yet?
Great explanation! I’m passing it on!
Dr. Marybeth Feutz says
I’m glad I could help, Lana.
Lori Fazen-Fetterer says
FDA regulated? That sounds scary enough to me right there.
Dr. Marybeth Feutz says
Lori – All food preservatives or additives (preservatives in this case) are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. Even pasteurization, the process that is used to kill bacteria in milk, is regulated by the FDA. All it means is that the materials and/or processes used need to go through rigorous testing to be sure that they are safe. This step is in place so manufacturers and processors don’t (and can’t) use preservatives, additives, or processes that are not tested to be safe for human (and pet) consumption. I hope that helps. Let me know if you want any more information.
I wonder if my quarter freezer beef (from Dewigs) has “Pink Slime” in it. Do all processing plants use these processes, or just large operations?
Dr. Marybeth Feutz says
I think it is only the larger meat processors that use boneless lean beef trimmings, but I’m not sure. You would have to call Dewig’s to find out for sure. When you’re dealing with only one cow at a time with personalized cuts, it’s not going to be cost effective to invest in the equipment that is needed.
Chris the cow farmer says
Beef it’s what’s for dinner… Cook it who cares a cows a cow… Or go vegitarian …
Thanks for explaining that ammonium hydroxide bit, that does make me slightly less turned off by the idea. None the less, I know now why when I buy the chuck roast and grind it into burgers it just tastes better than the pre-ground beef.
Part of me thinks that this is partly a cost saving measure, and partly a child of ‘low fat everything’. IMO, The fat’s the best part, and by taking that away they’re ruining it, and the extra processing only worsens the texture.
Doesn’t explain though why the leaner is more expensive, are we paying for the processing just to get the fat out?
Dr. Marybeth Feutz says
Anthony – You’re right, a big part of this is a cost saving measure, I’m sure. Another big part of the lean beef trimmings is that we are trying to use all available parts of the cow. Before this process, there was a lot of meat that was wasted. Now we waste less.
You have a good question about the costs of lean ground beef versus fattier ground beef. I have some thoughts on that, but am not sure they are quite right. I’ll look more into that, and get back with you.
What a great explanation… I really wish “journalists” would have taken this approach in explaining this… but alas scare tactics rule the day I guess. Makes me wonder what else they are over sensationalizing to make a story.
This is a fantastic explanation Marybeth. Thank you for breaking it all down and making it less scary for those of us who have no idea all that is involved!
I’m glad it helped, Brandie!