USDA internal discussions of Pink Slime revealed: "We are taking a beating from the media"

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has released a set of internal discussions about "pink slime", shedding light on early efforts to respond to public outcry over its presence in processed food.

It is its first response to a FOIA request, filed by Government Attic, requesting copies of its deliberations. Though the USDA invoked expemptions to avoid publishing "open and frank discussions and expressions of opinion necessary for agency decision makers to make informed decisions," the documents reveal confused USDA staffers rushing to formulate an institutional response to public concern.

"We are taking a beating from the media lately," remarks one anonymized correspondent. "Yeah, I think the “pink slime” refers to finely textured beef (FTB). I seem to remember the “pink slime” reference being used in the NY times articles last year on the treatment of FTB with ammonia. The FTB is commonly used in ground beef at up to 20% of the meat block so [TV presenter] Jamie Oliver may have viewed the FTB as a type of “filler” in ground beef (even though we do not)"

Pink slime refers to a paste of cartilage, low-grade trimmings, sinew and other animal bits that was until recently found widely in fast food, TV dinners and other low-end beef products. Public interest focused on the presence of ammonia in the mix and its disgusting characteristics in general.

Found in pet food until its approval for human consumption in 2001, pink slime was used by McDonalds and and other beef-industry lynchpins until they suddenly abandoned its use. One manufacturer subsequently filed a lawsuit against ABC News claiming that the coverage amounted to a "concerted disinformation campaign" against what it prefers be known as lean finely textured beef.

One email discussion thread among USDA staffers suggests internal confusion over transglutinase, an associated substance used to press bits of meat together to make them look like bigger bits of meat.

"Yeah, what’s up with that 'meat glue?'," wrote an anonymized correspondent. "Had a very angry comment on the survey from a customer who couldn’t find that, and I couldn’t find anything good on the issue either."

"Apparently transglutaminase is the name of “meat clue”[sic] which I found out by reading the news clips today," writes another staffer.

"Oh yes, we also call it TG," came a reply from an USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) Technical Information Specialist. "Got to love the TG and the pink slime!"

"Get ready for a bunch of pink slime questions!" one staffer warns in another email thread.

On another redacted email exchange, someone at the USDA is directed to "Check it out on Yahoo web search, type in pink slime". Another reports trouble finding information on mechanically separated beef. A third recommends that "standardized text would be beneficial since this issue is bound to surface again".

Also included in the tranche were inquiries from a writer at Gourmet magazine about beef disinfected with ammonia: "I have a hunch that you all are inundated with pink slime questions."

Another staffer, who inadvertantly forwarded a pink slime inquiry to someone not involved with the pink slime situation, apologizes for the error:

"Oops! Sorry [redacted] I forwarded the wrong inquiry to you," they wrote in an email. "Sorry to ruin your morning with thoughts of pink slime."

"The mention of anything pink seemed kind of cheerful," came the reply.

Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service intra-agency emails regarding “pink slime,” 2010-2011 (PDF Link) []


  1. Am I the only one who thinks that pink slime is kind of a good idea (minus the ammonia part — although has it been proven that ammonia remains in the slime?) We want to use all of the animal right? This is efficient and leads to fewer dead animals.

    Not that I regularly eat anything that contains the slime, but if I do spend a buck on a hamburger, I’m not going to be too picky about what’s in it.

    1. Umm, no. Animals that are already being given ridiculous amounts of antibiotics also tend to be where diseases and viruses are most prominent. Not to mention that you don’t need to be eating ammonia, either. Or do you not recall the mad cow disease issues?

      If you spend a buck on a hamburger, what do you expect other than garbage? 

      1.  The ‘ammonia” used is ammonium hydroxide, an aqueous solution of ammonia, not ammonia gas.

    2. My understanding of the whole pink slime wasn’t that it was an issue of “ew, slime and ammonia”, which is what the media fixated on, but rather the fact that these trimmings are generally pretty high in pathogens, and if you actually use enough ammonia to kill the pathogens, the meat is more or less terrible-tasting.

      So what was happening in reality is they’d get the setup certified, customers would complain about the horrible-tasting “meat”, and then they’d dial back the ammonia to try to reach a compromise between flavor and danger, which seemed like a recipe for disaster.

      1. Thanks. This is helpful. I was having trouble with the “ew, slime and ammonia” tenor of of all of this, since plenty of the food we eat is highly processed (some of it for good reason), and the details rarely are palatable. The ammonia bacteria balance issue does seem particularly risky though.

      2.  Outside nervous tissue and the prion implication of it, what about trimmings makes them more susceptible to pathogen infection?

        1. They tend to be pulled from areas of the animal with the highest exposure to gut contents (ie poop) making contamination more likely.  Add to that the inherent problems with mixed/ground meat products: The interior of a piece of meat is sterile, but its exterior can easily be contaminated. Grind it all up together and now everything can become contaminated. Now you have a product where contamination is quite likely, hence the ammonia. 

          1.  Considering the carcasses are gutted and washed long before any meat is removed I’m not sure how exposure to gut contents is an issue.

            And, yes, ground meat products are inherently more dangerous as one is less likely to get any contaminant up to “kill” temps, but I’m not sure how that makes pink slime any more risky than other ground products.

    3. I could be wrong, but the sinew, cartilage, and low-grade trimmings are what used to be processed for dog food. Mostly because dogs can better digest it, if humans can digest any of it at all.

      In essence, they figured out a way to use dog scraps to boost the overall amount of ground beef being sold for human consumption. That’s why your basic fast food burger is around the same price as a can of dog food.

      And if I were to guess, that reflects about the amount of respect the owners of the fast food restaurants and those that supply them have for their customers.

      Something to think about.

      1. Understood. But if you think any of these restaurants ever had “respect” for their customers (or at least their customers’ refined culinary sensibilities), I’ve got a bridge to sell.

        Nobody thinks this stuff is very nutritious, but if it fills you up and it costs a dollar, someone will buy it. Beyond regulating for danger, I’m not sure the USDA needs to get involved.

        (Also, sad fact: dog food is pretty edible)

        1. Dog food may be non-lethal, but I would still like to know under which administration it was decided that dog food is good food for Americans.

          1. Which incarnation of dog food?

            – It was approved in 1991 as “fat reduced beef” (Bush I), but not allowed in ground beef

            – It was again approved in 1993 as “lean finely textured beef” (Clinton) with no requirement that it be listed as a separate ingredient

            – 2001 was the approval of the use of ammonium hydroxide (Bush II)

        2. What’s going on here, that we now expect food sellers to lace our food with garbage, previously unfit for human consumption, to make a buck? I’m pretty sure previous generations expected nutrients, and created the FDA to ensure this.

      1. It seems weird and pointless to mention vegans in this context. They would be just as bothered by ultra-high-grade grass-fed kobe beef as they would pink slime, since their problem is more fundamentally with the use of any products of any kind. Pink slime in and of itself isn’t an especially “vegan” problem. It’s more of a “people who don’t want to eat garbage” problem.

        I understand, though, this is the Internet, and any posting about food needs some dork’s pointless, appropos-of-nothing vegan-bashing.

    4. No you are not the only one. Anyone who actually understands the science is fine with it. Just a bunch of self-important d-bags patting themselves on the back.

      Don’t worry about the ammonia that is still in the slime, there is more ppm of it on that slice of cheese or the bun on the same burger.

      edit: Yeah, self-important, as in you are really into yourselves and your thoughts on the matter, when all of the academics, the usda, they have the opposite story on this product but you just carry on making articles gloating about how you stuck it to them. Sounds pretty self-important to me… Sounds like you’re so into your own narrative you missed the facts of the story. Did you read all the pages of the BPI vs. ABC lawsuit? I did. You’d better hope they lose, otherwise you’ll look pretty bad seeing as they’re being sued for saying the same crap you’ve said about it.

      Enjoy patting yourself on the backs over your conspiracy theory. Since you’ve blocked me from new comments here your critics won’t be ruining your little party.

      1. Just a bunch of self-important d-bags patting themselves on the back.

        Yup, anyone who has different priorities than you is a ‘self-important d-bag’.

        You might want to look up the meaning of ‘self-important’.

  2. “Jules: Hey, sewer rat may taste like pumpkin pie, but I’d never know ’cause I wouldn’t eat the filthy motherfucker.”

  3. I think it’s a good idea too. Might as well make use of that part of the animal, rather than waste it. If you think it’s yucky, don’t ever try making a pate recipe.

    If you don’t like ammonia, don’t eat cheese. Or the numerous other foods that contain it.

    1. Agreed.   Don’t read a cookbook printed before 1920 if the thought of meat trimmings and sinew disgust you.

      I’m all for truth in advertising, but let’s put this in perspective. 

      1. Those meat trimmings and sinews came from your own yard or the local butcher and local cattle. Not even dimly comparable.

  4. The ammonia “issue” is used for shock factor. Although there is a certain amount of ammonia in the end product, it’s negligible. Like the cyanide in apple-seeds, you’ve eaten it, get over it. Ammonia is actually a pretty natural material if you think about it.

    Anyway, the real problems behind the issue are still there. For one, like mentioned above, once the meat is processed that much, it tastes terrible. The chicken you would get in chicken nuggets is actually flavored to taste like chicken. You’re not actually tasting the “chicken” at all when you eat it, but the flavor they insert after processing.

    But the real problem, also mentioned above, is the amount of animals that go into a batch. If you took one or two cows/chickens, and processed them down in the same way, the result would probably be pretty delicious, and safe. A batch made in an industrial factory however, could contain thousands of cows from all over the world who’d been dead for god knows how long.

    What am I saying? Don’t take my word for it, read this:

    1. The ‘ammonia issue’ is real, it’s just not the one that gets talked about as the ‘ammonia issue’.

      In order to neutralize pathogens successfully in the trimmings, you have to dial up the pH significantly(and, if you do that, it does work, which is the reason that the process was approved). However, if you do ammoniate it that hard, even hardened institutional customers start calling and asking if the product is supposed to smell like that when it starts to thaw.

      So, you cut back on the ammonia, and now you are shipping a product that is palatable; but is substantially less disinfected than it is supposed to be.

      That’s the real issue with the ammonia in this context: because of the high pathogen risk with these trimmings(which is not improved by the fact that they usually end up in ground beef), the ‘safe, also doesn’t smell like high concentrations of ammonia’ window is quite narrow. In practice, this caused the manufacturer to oscillate back and forth, playing the “Oh, totally ammoniated and safe, no need to inspect” whenever pathogen concerns arose; but frequently shipping product that was only ammoniated to unproven or known-risky levels for reasons of palatability.

  5. So why has this additive been disguised and labeled as something else? “Lean”. No it’s utter crap. You wonder why the western world is suffering an obesity epidemic?

    As for “Using” all the animal! So why is it less and less people turn their noses up at things like; liver, kidneys in other words offal? But are quite happy to stuff their faces with industrialised processed crap?

    Lastly please don’t give the likes of McDonalds, Taco Bell etc, the pleasure of calling them “Restaurants”. Please go to real one’s.

    1. Lean in this context simply means less than ~12% fat by weight.

      Specificly the USDA considers beef with less than 10 grams of fat per 3oz serving “lean”.

  6. yup that maybe but mechanically products of this type may be ~12% fat by weight, blah, blah, blah. Just because it’s fat content is below a certain amount does not mean the contents of said product are necessarily appetising, or particularly good for you?

    1. Just because it’s fat content is below a certain amount does not mean
      the contents of said product are necessarily appetising, or particularly good for you?

      You asked why it was labeled “lean”.  I answered why it was labeled “lean”.  Nothing more, nothing less.

      1. And I’m trying to make a point. Part of that point is to get people thinking about what they put in their mouths.

        This not necessarily aimed at you :)

  7. I don’t have any problem with the food industry using “pink slime” per se. However, if it is included in a product it should be required to be mentioned in the ingredients label.

    1. I think it’s good there has been a discussion of this product, just so people are aware of what they are eating and can make a decision on whether they think it’s a healthy thing to eat regularly. 

      I don’t usually eat anything that processed, though I do eat the occasional hot dog, which I assume uses a very similar type of product. I’m also guessing some of the turkey sausage has a bit of this as a filler.I generally avoid fast food places. Even though I am one for a guilty pleasure, I never liked the consistency of the overly processed chicken and beef and I’d rather have a nice burger at a normal restaurant than a spongy fast food burger.
      I think that using the end bits of meat and finding a way to keep them safe is okay, but I also think people should be aware of what they eating. All things in moderation. I didn’t particularly find it odd that the FDA was not on top of its response to the issue, which was more of a press concoction than an issue generated by the organization itself. The emails seem like normal stuff to me. In my industry we have had similar things happen where a competitor will make a big deal over some minute technical feature that has little impact on real performance but which they are using as a scare tactic to get people who are not on top of all the technical nuances afraid that our product is not as good as theirs.

Comments are closed.