Hoaxes & Rumors

McDonald’s and the Pink Slime Controversy

McDonald’s and the Pink Slime Controversy

Did McDonald’s and other fast food chains recently change their recipes to remove ammonium-hydroxide treated hamburger filling?

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It’s true, although assertions regarding this issue have varying amounts of fact and fiction.

Let’s take a look at a message which was circulated heavily in 2013:

Hamburger chef Jamie Oliver has just won a battle against one of the largest fast food chains in the world. After Oliver showed how McDonald’s hamburgers are made, the franchise announced it will change its recipe.

According to Oliver, the fatty parts of beef are “washed” in ammonium hydroxide and used in the filling of the burger. Before this process, according to the presenter, the food is deemed unfit for human consumption.

According to the chef and presenter, Jamie Oliver, who has undertaken a war against the fast food industry: “Basically, we’re taking a product that would be sold in the cheapest way for dogs, and after this process, is being given to human beings.”

Besides the low quality of the meat, the ammonium hydroxide is harmful to health. Oliver calls it “the pink slime process.”

“Why would any sensible human being put meat filled with ammonia in the mouths of their children?” asked the chef, who wages a war against the fast food industry.

In one of his initiatives, Oliver demonstrates to children how nuggets are made. After selecting the best parts of the chicken, the remains (fat, skin and internal organs) are processed for these fried foods.

The company, Arcos Dorados, the franchise manager in Latin America, said such a procedure is not practiced in the region. The same applies to the product in Ireland and the UK, where they use meat from local suppliers.

In the United States, Burger King and Taco Bell had already abandoned the use of ammonia in their products. The food industry uses ammonium hydroxide as an anti-microbial agent in meats, which has allowed McDonald’s to use otherwise “inedible meat.”

Even more disturbing is that because ammonium hydroxide is considered part of the “component in a production procedure” by the USDA, consumers may not know when the chemical is in their food.

On the official website of McDonald’s, the company claims that their meat is cheap because, while serving many people every day, they are able to buy from their suppliers at a lower price, and offer the best quality products.

In addition, the franchise denied that the decision to change the recipe is related to Jamie Oliver’s campaign. On the site, McDonald’s has admitted that they have abandoned the beef filler from its burger patties.

Did Jamie Oliver make these assertions? Yes.

Chef and food advocate Jamie Oliver assailed “pink slime” in an episode of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution which aired on April 12, 2011. “Basically, we’re taking a product that would be sold at the cheapest form for dogs and after this process we can give it to humans,” Oliver stated.

What is Pink Slime?

The term “pink slime” was coined by Gerald Zirnstein, a former United States Department of Agriculture scientist turned whistle-blower, in an internal USDA memo in 2002. Pink slime, known in the meat industry as “lean finely textured beef” (or “LFTB”), is a mixture of beef trimmings, cartilage, and connective tissue which are processed and used as beef filler. Part of the process exposes the product to ammonium hydroxide or citric acid in order to kill bacteria. It was approved in 2001 for limited human consumption, with a limit of no more than 25% of any food product containing LFTB. Prior to 2001, it was used primarily in pet food and cooking oil.

Awareness of so-called “pink slime” had been on the rise for years when ABC ran a high-profile series of reports on it in 2012. This report singled out the primary producer of the product, Beef Products, Inc. (BPI) and highlighted their use of ammonium hydroxide.

In the wake of the high-profile reports, BPI shut down three of its four plants and claimed its output had been reduced by as much as 80%. BPI is currently suing ABC for $1.2 billion in damages due to a “disinformation campaign.”

In March 2012 the USDA announced that it would give schools the option to purchase beef made without the filler. CBS news reported in June 2012 that all but three states (Iowa, Nebraska, and South Dakota) had opted to purchase beef without LFTB.

According to an article published by Time.com in August of 2014, BPI has reopened one if its closed plants as demand for “lean finely textured beef” has increased after the backlash against it has died down. The article reports that BPI still produces a million pounds of lean finely textured beef every week (in 2012 they produced 5.5 million pounds a week) in spite of their ongoing $1.2 billion defamation lawsuit against ABC.

What is ammonium hydroxide, and is it safe?

Ammonium hydroxide is a solution of ammonia and water. It is used in food production to kill bacteria such as E. coli or salmonella.

The treatment of food with ammonium hydroxide has been listed as “generally regarded as safe” by the FDA since 1974, and was used for many years before then. There are still those who question the process. Dr. Daniel Zagst of NaturalNews, for example, points out “there is no study of actual safety thresholds in food ingredients, and its safety is based on an extrapolation of data based on the normal presence of ammonium hydroxide in food, not added.”

Food Insight points out that ammonium hydroxide is also used in “dairy products, confections, fruits and vegetables, baked goods, breakfast cereals, eggs, fish, beverages such as sports drinks and beer, and meats,” and that other forms of ammonia are used “in condiments, relishes, soy protein concentrates/isolates, snack foods, jams and jellies, and non-alcoholic beverages.”

The debate on the use and safety of ammonium hydroxide in foods continues.

Did McDonald’s Change its Recipe?

Several fast food chains have issued responses to the pink slime controversy, including McDonald’s, which announced it would no longer use BPI products. Taco Bell and Burger King also announced the halt of ammonium hydroxide treated meat. McDonald’s denied their decision was related to the pink slime controversy: “The decision to remove BPI products from the McDonald’s system was not related to any particular event but rather to support our effort to align our global beef raw material standards.”

What is Mechanically Separated Poultry?

Some discussions of pink slime also mention mechanically separated poultry, (or MSP). Mechanically separated poultry is described by Meatsafety.org as:

…a product made by removing meat from chicken or turkey bones by using screens and filters to remove the bones and bone chips and keep the meat. Mechanically separated poultry has been used in poultry products since 1969. It is used primarily as an ingredient in franks, lunch meat or other processed products. It is NOT typically used in chicken nuggets or patties, and it is not sold directly to consumers.

If mechanically separated poultry is used in any food product, it must be listed among the ingredients as “mechanically separated poultry, “mechanically separated chicken,” or “mechanically separated turkey,” depending on the source.

The USDA describes mechanically separated poultry in the following manner:

Mechanically separated poultry has been used in poultry products since the late 1960’s. In 1995, a final rule on mechanically separated poultry said it was safe and could be used without restrictions. However, it must be labeled as “mechanically separated chicken or turkey” in the product’s ingredients statement. The final rule became effective November 4, 1996. Hot dogs can contain any amount of mechanically separated chicken or turkey.

McDonald’s has been accused of using MSP in their chicken nuggets, but the fast food giant refutes this, claiming that it has only used white meat chicken in nuggets since 2003.

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What is mechanically separated meat?

Although mechanically separated meat (MSM) and pink slime are two different things, they are sometimes (erroneously) used interchangeably. In reaction to Mad Cow Disease (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, or BSE), mechanically separated meat was deemed “inedible” and prohibited in the U.S. in 2004.

The USDA description of mechanically separated meat reads:

Mechanically separated meat is a paste-like and batter-like meat product produced by forcing bones, with attached edible meat, under high pressure through a sieve or similar device to separate the bone from the edible meat tissue. In 1982, a final rule published by FSIS on mechanically separated meat said it was safe and established a standard of identity for the food product. Some restrictions were made on how much can be used and the type of products in which it can be used. These restrictions were based on concerns for limited intake of certain components in MSM, like calcium. Due to FSIS regulations enacted in 2004 to protect consumers against Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, mechanically separated beef is considered inedible and is prohibited for use as human food. It is not permitted in hot dogs or any other processed product. Mechanically separated pork is permitted and must be labeled as “mechanically separated pork” in the ingredients statement. Hot dogs can contain no more than 20% mechanically separated pork.

McDonald’s Response

McDonald’s released a statement in response to the ubiquitous photo showing the infamous “pink slime.” The food chain said that the photo does not represent their products:

A photo circulating online does not show how we make Chicken McNuggets or, frankly, any item on our menu.

Our Chicken McNuggets are made using USDA inspected boneless white breast meat chicken. We do not use the process known as mechanically separated chicken, nor do our Chicken McNuggets ever at any point, look like this photo.

In addition to the statement, McDonald’s also released a video showing how Chicken McNuggets are made. While they don’t resemble the “pink slime” photo, some journalists have suggested that it doesn’t look much more appetizing.

Google Trends History

The Google Trends graph below displays search interest in “pink slime” over time. A peak surge of interest occurred in March of 2012 which coincided with news that many schools had opted out of using “pink slime” in lunches.

Bottom Line

McDonald’s and several other fast food chains no longer sell hamburgers made of meat which contains “pink slime” filler. The use of meat treated with ammonium hydroxide has dropped significantly after the pink slime controversy peaked in 2012. Other types of foods continue to be treated with ammonium hydroxide, but without the same outcry. Debate regarding the safety and use of pink slime, MSP, and MSM continue. It is clear, however, that these processes have not fared well in the court of public opinion.

Additional Sources

Updated March 15, 2015
Originally published August 2013

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