"Pink slime" has been oozing back into headlines in recent weeks after McDonalds, followed by other fast food chains, announced it had stopped using beef trimmings to fill out its hamburgers.
A product the industry calls "lean, finely textured meat" has been a fixture in the ground beef served in the free school lunch program and fast food hamburgers for years. But after Chef Jamie Oliver demonstrated how "pink slime" is made on his TV show last year, and media reports suggested it may not be as safe as the government claims, alarm among consumers began surging.
Now, thousands people are adding their name to petitions asking the government stop buying this stuff.
But what exactly is it? NPR's Melissa Block spoke to Michael Moss, an investigative reporter for the New York Times whose stories in 2009 on the safety of ground beef earned him a Pulitzer Prize, to get some answers.
"[Trimmings are] taken from the outermost part, and they happen to be the fattiest part of the cow," says Moss. "So they're put into a centrifuge which spits out the protein parts of the material."
The term "pink slime" was in fact initially coined by a U.S. Department of Agriculture official Moss met who had seen the "bright pink, aqueous" stuff in a plant.
Sounds pretty unappetizing, but there is some appeal to the material: mainly its price.
"In the meat industry, there's something called least cost formulations," says Moss. "Companies will mix and match trimmings from different parts of the cow and different suppliers to achieve the perfect level of fatness. This material is ... slightly less expensive."
Cheap it may be, but because it comes from the outermost part of the carcass, it's also more susceptible to contamination than other cuts of meat. That's because it could come in contact with the cow's hide, which could have excrement containing pathogens like the dangerous forms of E. coli.
The industry tries to purify the material with gaseous ammonia, which raises the alkalinity to a level that E. coli can't tolerate, Moss says. USDA's food safety division says this method is effective. And the company that manufactures it says it also has a rigorous testing system in place.
But Moss' s reporting has shown that school food officials have found the bad kind of E. coli in the material where they least expected – the trimmings.
"It's entirely approved by USDA ... and accepted as school lunch as a component in the ground beef they purchase," says Moss. "So far they've been holding pat on the safety issue. They're satisfied that their testing program and the way they handle and cook beef is entirely safe for kids."
None of the fast food companies — McDonalds, Taco Bell and Burger King — that decided to stop buying trimmings mentioned safety concerns, either.
And even if it's been banished from a lot of fast food burgers, the material is probably still in a lot of ground beef sold at the grocery store. Except it's impossible for consumers to know that since USDA doesn't require meat companies to label whether ground beef includes trimmings.
But one way to get ground beef that you know does not contain the slimy trimmings is to have your butcher grind it right there in front of you. But you may have to pay extra.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Now to an uproar about Lean Finely Textured Beef. That's the official name. It's known by detractors as Pink Slime. It's a product made from leftover meat trimmings that are treated with chemicals, namely ammonia, and then added to hamburger. And recent reports showed that the USDA buys millions of pounds of the product for school lunches.
The practice has come under sharp critique by the celebrity chef and food activist Jamie Oliver. On his TV show he calls it shocking.
(SOUNDBITE OF SERIES, "JAMIE OLIVER'S FOOD REVOLUTION")
JAMIE OLIVER: In America, they've come up with technology that can turn this into something that ends up in your school food. Pink Slime is allowed in any school in America.
BLOCK: Well, now thousands of people have added their names to online petitions, raising safety concerns, and calling on the government to stop buying ground beef that includes the questionable product.
For more we're joined by New York Times investigative reporter Michael Moss, who won a Pulitzer for his reporting on the dangers of contaminated meat.
Michael, welcome back to the program.
MICHAEL MOSS: Thanks for having me.
BLOCK: This term, Pink Slime, I gather was sort of introduced widely to the public in one of your reports. What are we talking about when we're talking about Pink Slime?
MOSS: This is a mash-like material that's derived from trimmings from the beef carcass. And they happen to be the fattiest part of a cow and so they're put into a centrifuge, which spits out the protein parts of the material. It has a rather a bright pink hue and an aqueous type nature to it. And thus the, you know, thus the term Pink Slime was used by a USDA official who had seen it in the processing plant.
BLOCK: And the benefit of it is that it's cheap, right? I mean, that's why people use it.
MOSS: Yeah, you know, an art of formulating ground beef, there's something called least cost formulations. And companies will, you know, mix and match trimmings from different parts of the cow in different suppliers, to achieve kind of the perfect level of fatness. And this material has the attribute of being slightly less expensive than the low-fat material that's typically derived from grass-fed cows from South America.
BLOCK: Now, that brings us to the ammonia. Why is that added? What does it do?
MOSS: Well, because this material is derived from the outermost part of the carcass, it's most susceptible to E. coli, which is the pathogen that gets onto beef through excrement, which is on the hides of cows. And they came up with this method that consists of adding a gaseous ammonia to the material that raises the alkalinity to a point that makes the material inhospitable to the E. coli pathogens.
BLOCK: And what about that? First, does it work? And, second, what about the ammonia gas itself? Is that harmful?
MOSS: So, the gas itself is approved by the federal government as being entirely safe. The safety question caught my attention because it was none other than the school food officials who were testing the material regularly who found that, on numerous occasions, in fact, they were finding E. coli 0157H there when they were least expecting it because of the ammonia process.
The company says that it has a rigorous testing program that goes beyond the federal government's standards, but still, it was there and there's some question about how foolproof that is.
BLOCK: We recently saw that McDonald's and Taco Bell and Burger King have all said they're not going to be using this anymore in their hamburgers and other products. Was that specifically because of these safety concerns or was it just public relations?
MOSS: I think their public statements were more like we had, you know, reformulated and found other sourcing material for our burgers, so they didn't comment directly on, you know, either the safety concern or the wholesomeness issue that surrounds the material.
BLOCK: You know, I'm looking at a statement from the American Meat Institute, which says that this - what they call boneless lean beef trimmings - is, in fact, beef and that the USDA has said this is safe and you're abiding by our rules. Are they right about that?
MOSS: Well, you know, when I was doing the original reporting, one of the - a beef industry consultant who was working with the producer of this material, he sort of pointed out that - look, I mean, on one hand, I think they deserve some applause for using parts of the carcass that, you know, heretofore were going into cooking oil or pet food and actually turning it into something that's consumable.
So that certainly is one viewpoint out there and, as we mentioned, it's entirely approved by the USDA and, up to this point, accepted by school lunch officials as a component in the ground beef that they purchase.
BLOCK: Michael Moss is working on a book about the processed food industry. Michael, thanks for talking to us.
MOSS: My pleasure.
BLOCK: And if you're curious how to avoid what's called pink slime, you can read about it at our food blog, The Salt, at NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.