Jamie Oliver Peddling Chemophobia

By Michael Edmonds 12/02/2012

Jamie Oliver has done some great work in promoting healthy eating, however his recent attack on the “pink slime” used in some meat products in the USA reeks of scientific illiteracy and self promotion.

Prior to 1991, the various trimmings left over once a cow had been butchered were typically used to make dog food. However, an enterprising American company, Beef Products Inc, developed a process whereby these trimmings could be treated and centrifuged to remove most of the fat and produce a meaty slurry consisting of around 94% lean beef, which Mr Oliver refers to as “pink slime”.

As part of this process the meat is treated with ammonia gas in order to kill off Salmonella and E. coli bacteria. A sensible approach to food safety as very little ammonia/ammonium hydroxide remains in the final product. Furthermore, small traces of either are not a health concern (indeed, in Europe some forms of liquorice have ammonium chloride added to give it a salty taste).

While this process probably does not sound particularly appealing, the product is both safe and contains very little fat. Up to 15% of this product can be added to meat products in the USA, including at McDonalds – at least until Mr Oliver started kicking up a fuss – McDonalds has now stopped the use of this meat product.

Here is the clip where Oliver “demonstrates” how this pink slime is produced. If you ask me the final product doesn’t look too bad at all.

Notice how he says “this is how I imagine the process to be…”   –  ever thought of actually doing some research Jamie?

Also notice how dramatic he is in showing how “dangerous” the ammonia solution is. I wonder if he realizes that in a chemistry lab, his kitchen grade vinegar would be considered just as hazardous – I don’t see him calling for a ban on vinaigrettes.

As distasteful as Mr Oliver seems to think this product is, not everyone can afford top grade sirloin steaks. And it seems to me in a world which is becoming more focused on sustainability and reducing our effect on the environment that the better use of animal products is a good thing. (Of course, reducing meat consumption is even better for the environment, but that is another story).

Educating the public about what they is eating is a good thing. Using misinformation and hyperbole to do so is not.

0 Responses to “Jamie Oliver Peddling Chemophobia”

  • Jamie Oliver aside, there are significant problems with the product. First of all, for the process to be effective (or at least to conform to the process that was presented to the USDA ), enough ammonia has to be injected to bring the pH of the meat up to 10. This is pretty noticeable (not a surprise) and leads to complaints. It also means the ammonia plumbing in the processing plant has to be working correctly all the time. So for which ever reason, the company (Beef Products Inc) started shipping a lot of … beef product … at close to neutral pHs. This resulted in a high (compared to other beef suppliers) rate of E. coli and Salmonella contamination (also not a surprise).

    People who can’t afford top grade steaks still deserve honestly labeled and safe food.

  • Hibob

    Thanks for the additional info about the meat products. Can I ask where you got your information about the different pH’s from?
    In theory, it should only be necessary to raise the pH during the process – this does not mean the pH of the shipped product has to stay at 10.
    You are right, everyone is entitled to safe and nutritious food, I just haven’t seen any evidence that this product is neither. If you can supply such evidence I would be most interested in learning more.

  • pH and safety info:

    Regardless of safety, there’s still the problems of aesthetics and honest labeling. The process exists to recover spoiled/potentially spoiled meat byproducts for human consumption. When done correctly, I’d certainly believe it is as safe to eat as lean beef that was never contaminated in the first place. The question is: shouldn’t meat products containing potentially spoiled defatted beef trimmings include some communication of the fact on the ingredient list?. The only other honest option seems to be to skip the “ground beef” label and just call it “ground cow and other organisms”.

  • hibob

    Completely agree with you regarding honest labeling. I think all products should list what their contents are.
    Aesthetics is more complicated – different cultures have quite different ideas as to what is pleasing and what isn’t with regards to food.

    Thanks for the NY times link – it doesn’t seem to contain anything concrete or verifiably linking the product to high microbial loads but the company’s somewhat secretive response doesn’t come across well at all.

    However, irrespective of all of the ways Jamie Oliver might have chosen to voice his concern about this product he chose to use the “oooooh look, nasty chemicals in your food.” Surely he could have used a more intelligent approach?

  • Not everyone can afford top quality sirloin steaks? No, you’re right. But there are plenty of healthier options than McDonald’s. How about we ditch the laziness, buy some vegetables and actually prepare healthy meals for our families!?

    And before the “we don’t have the time” sheep start bleating, I’m a single mother of 2 who studies full time, and works, and I manage a healthy diet just fine.

    These chemicals have no place in my diet.