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Salmonella or pink slime? Consumers don’t have to make a choice

A hamburger made from ground beef containing "pink slime," and one made from pure 85 percent lean ground beef are displayed. (Jim Cole/AP)

It seems like a Catch-22 for consumers.

Salmonella is still busy contaminating our food supply. Federal officials announced an investigation today into an outbreak of the bacterium over the past two months that has sickened more than 90 people.

But a common way to get rid of salmonella is to spray food with ammonia, a process for ground beef called, derisively, “pink slime.” (The meat industry calls this product “lean, finely textured beef.”)

So which is it — risk salmonella or eat pink slime?

Consumers don’t have to make a choice.

In part, that’s because salmonella doesn’t just contaminate beef. This particular outbreak of salmonella can likely be traced back to sushi, a food product that isn’t treated with ammonia. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says people in 69 percent of recent cases with salmonella reported eating sushi, sashimi or similar foods the week before they got sick. Avoiding pink slime, in these cases, likely won’t help a consumer avoid salmonella.

Secondly, there are other ways food suppliers can prevent salmonella besides treating food products with ammonia. In 2009, the Obama administration issued new requirements to prevent the bacterium, none of which included using ammonia. The requirements included refrigerating eggs during transport, more stringently inspecting poultry houses and a boost in the number of food inspectors.

Most importantly, ammonia — despite assurances from food makers — may or may not actually prevent salmonella. The New York Times reported in 2009 that E. coli and salmonella were found dozens of times in tests on the federal school lunch program of ammonia-treated beef. Between 2005 and 2009, a company that used the treated beef had a rate of 36 positive results for salmonella per 1,000 tests, while other suppliers had a rate of nine positive results per 1,000 tests.

If pink slime doesn’t help prevent salmonella, then consumers who don’t want ammonia-treated foods can safely boycott them without risking repercussions for their health.

“This is not a health issue,” Bill Marler, a prominent food safety lawyer, told Reuters of pink slime. “This is an ‘I’m grossed out by this’ issue.”


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