Ammonia used in many foods, not just "pink slime"

Wed Apr 4, 2012 6:37pm EDT
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By Martinne Geller

New York (Reuters) - Surprise rippled across America last month as a new wave of consumers discovered that hamburgers often contained ammonia-treated beef, or what critics dub "pink slime".

What they may not have known is that ammonia - often associated with cleaning products - was cleared by U.S. health officials nearly 40 years ago and is used in making many foods, including cheese. Related compounds have a role in baked goods and chocolate products.

Using small amounts of ammonia to make food is not unusual to those expert in high-tech food production. Now that little known world is coming under increasing pressure from concerned consumers who want to know more about what they are eating.

"I think we're seeing a sea change today in consumers' concerns about the presence of ingredients in foods, and this is just one example," said Michael Doyle, director of the University of Georgia's Center for Food Safety.

Ammonia, known for its noxious odor, became a hot topic last month with the uproar over what the meat industry calls "finely textured beef" and what a former U.S. government scientist first called "pink slime".

Used as a filler for ground beef, it is made from fatty trimmings that are more susceptible to contamination than other cuts of beef, and are therefore sprayed with ammonium hydroxide - ammonia mixed with water - to remove pathogens such as salmonella and E.coli.

After critics highlighted the product on social media websites and showed unappetizing photos on television, calling it "pink slime," the nation's leading fast-food chains and supermarkets spurned the product, even though U.S. public health officials deem it safe to eat. Hundreds of U.S. school districts also demanded it be removed from school lunch programs.

One producer, Beef Products Inc, has since idled three factories. Another, AFA Foods, filed for bankruptcy protection.   Continued...

Packs of ground beef are seen in a crate at the Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market meat processing facility in Riverside, California, March 29, 2012. U.S. meat packers' losses on beef sales have doubled since a controversy over ammonia-treated scraps dubbed "pink slime" exploded some weeks ago, with margins nearing their lowest in at least 22 years, an industry estimate showed. Fresh & Easy says they do not use the ammonia-treated filler in their beef products. REUTERS/Alex Gallardo