Saturday, October 25th, 2014

Is 'pink slime' safe?

Texas Gov. Rick Perry tasted a hamburger containing lean, finely textured beef — called pink slime by critics — after a March 29, 2012, tour of a Sioux City, Neb., plant where the meat product is made. (Source: Associated Press)
Texas Gov. Rick Perry tasted a hamburger containing lean, finely textured beef — called pink slime by critics — after a March 29, 2012, tour of a Sioux City, Neb., plant where the meat product is made. (Source: Associated Press)

To show his support for the beef product known by critics as "pink slime," Texas Gov. Rick Perry on March 29, 2012, toured a Nebraska plant that produces what a press release from Perry’s office referred to as "a 100 percent beef, 95 percent lean, nutritious, safe, quality and affordable beef product that has been eaten by Americans for 20 years."

Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black sounded a similar note April 4, 2012, saying that the meat product is safe: "Lean, finely textured beef is the proper name, and it is a safe, widely used product," Black said.

PolitiFact Georgia dug into his safety claim.

Although the U.S. Department of Agriculture maintains the meat is safe, the agency announced in March 2012 that it would give schools more beef choices in the wake of public concerns about children eating "pink slime." McDonald’s and some major grocery stores have said they will no longer sell the meat.

Ready for a recipe?

The "lean, finely textured beef" starts from slaughterhouse trimmings with high fat content that are more susceptible to contamination because the meat is often close to the hide, which is highly exposed to fecal matter. Those trimmings are warmed in equipment that looks like a large, high-speed mixing bowl, which spins the trimmings to separate meat from fat that has been liquefied. Ammonium hydroxide is added to destroy bacteria such as E. coli that could make someone ill if a raw product were not cooked thoroughly. It is then mixed with regular ground beef. The federal government has approved the practice for slightly more than a decade.

PolitiFact Georgia found some concerns about the product’s safety in a 2009 New York Times article on detections of E. coli and salmonella in meat produced by the nation’s largest distributor of the product, Beef Products Inc. The article also said some federal officials were concerned the beef hadn’t been studied enough before it was approved.

Also, Canada has not permitted the meat product to be sold there.

However, other information supported the Georgia commissioner’s claim, including university studies that found the product holding up better than regular ground beef. "I was surprised," Jason Apple, a University of Arkansas meat science professor said in a news release about a study done by a student at the school. "I just assumed the lean beef trim would negatively impact the quality of the burgers, but it actually made them better in this study."

Also, food safety experts who were well-versed on the beef treating process told PolitiFact Georgia they didn’t have what one of them called "the ick factor" that many Americans are feeling about it. For the most part, they said they considered it safe to eat with the main problem being a lack of information about the beef provided by manufacturers and the federal government, particularly at a time when Americans want fewer chemicals and preservatives in their food.

The commissioner’s statement drew a rating of Mostly True.