Last week, the Daily Mail reported that McDonald's in America has responded to a segment in Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution by removing an ingredient called "finely textured lean beef trimmings" from its burgers.
This luxurious-sounding product is in fact another form of 'reclaimed meat', where meat processors try to get every last bit of meat from an animal's carcass.
In the segment, Oliver shows a group of parents and children a cow and explains the value of each of the different sections of its body. Then, he says that some parts of the animal were previously regarded as being fit for nothing but dog food, basically because there was so much fat and so little meat. However, a company in the US - Beef Products - has found a way of grabbing that meat. First, the leftover parts are spun in a centrifuge to separate the meat from the fat. The result looks - from what I can tell from the clip - a bit like regular mince. Then, to ensure the product is safe to eat, it is treated with ammonium hydroxide.
What Oliver called 'pink slime' is then added to burgers and other meat products. However, no more than 15% of the finished product can be these 'beef trimmings' and they must be labelled. However, he said in outrage, the ammonium hydroxide does not need to be labelled. No one had suggested that this product is uniquely dangerous - it appears to be safe to eat. Unless you were prepared to eat your burgers rare - and I've never seen McDonald's dish up rare beef - then any bugs not killed off by the ammonium hydroxide should be killed off by cooking.
Yet Oliver bigs up the 'yuk factor' in this process, which he freely admits he is pretty much completely ignorant about. So in this clip, he says: "this is how I imagine the process to be..." before demonstrating that he hasn't got a clue. Particularly irritating is his suggestion that the meat is treated with the kind of ammonia you might use for household cleaning and the implication that children are being fed powerful chemicals that might poison them.
In fact, getting every last bit of meat off a carcass is a good thing, given the cost of rearing a cow. The fact that this is done with a centrifuge rather than by a man with a knife only means the process is more efficient now. Butchers and meat processors are proud of the fact that they use everything but the moo. Little or nothing goes to waste - which is a good thing.
Treatment with ammonium hydroxide is a sensible precaution and was declared safe decades ago. Ammonium hydroxide occurs naturally in the body as part of the process of metabolising protein. It is quickly converted into urea in the liver. In large quantities, it would be poisonous, but in small quantities it is harmless. As a report for the US Food and Drug Administration noted in 1974: "Ammonia and the ammonium ion are integral components of normal metabolic processes and play an essential role in the physiology of man.... There is no evidence in the available information on... ammonium hydroxide... that demonstrates, or suggests reasonable grounds to suspect, a hazard to the public when [it is] used at levels that are now current or that might reasonably be expected in the future."
Jamie Oliver thinks this is all bad because it shows a lack of 'respect' for food and consumers. But if using this kind of product can make foods like burgers cheaper and ensure there is as little waste as possible, why not? Foods like burgers and sausages are all about taking less palatable but perfectly nutritious parts of animals and making them palatable.
If Oliver wants to say that burgers should only be made from the 'finest cuts' of an animal, that's a matter of taste - literally. But when he scaremongers about perfectly safe food on national television, that's pretty slimy.