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

New York Wed Apr 4, 2012 6:37pm EDT

1 of 2. 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.

Credit: Reuters/Alex Gallardo

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.

The outrage, which many experts say has been fueled by the term "pink slime," seems more about the unsavoriness of the product rather than its safety.

"This is not a health issue," said Bill Marler, a prominent food safety lawyer. "This is an 'I'm grossed out by this' issue."

Still, critics of so-called "Big Food" point out that while "pink slime" and the ammonia in it may not be harmful, consumer shock over their presence points to a wider issue.

"The food supply is full of all sorts of chemical additives that people don't know about," said Michele Simon, a public health lawyer and president of industry watchdog consulting firm Eat Drink Politics.

NOT AS BAD AS IT SOUNDS?

The meat industry has been trying to raise awareness of other foods that contain ammonia, in response to what it has characterized as an unfair attack on a safe and healthy product.

For example, ammonia compounds are used as leavening agents in baked goods and as an acidity controller in cheese and sometimes chocolate.

"Ammonia's not an unusual product to find added to food," Gary Acuff, director of Texas A&M University's Center for Food Safety, told a recent press conference hosted by Beef Products Inc. "We use ammonia in all kinds of foods in the food industry."

Kraft Foods Inc, whose brands include Chips Ahoy cookies and Velveeta cheese, is one company that uses very small amounts of ammonium compounds in some of its products. It declined to specify which products.

"Sometimes ingredient names sound more complicated than they are," said Kraft spokeswoman Angela Wiggins. She also pointed out that ammonia, made up of nitrogen and hydrogen, occurs naturally in plants, animals, water, air and in some foods, including milk.

Wiggins said that in turning milk to cheese, a tiny amount of ammonium hydroxide is added to a starter dairy culture to reduce the culture's acidity and encourage cheese cultures to grow.

"It is somewhat similar to activating yeast for dough by adding warm water, sugar and salt to create the proper environment for yeast growth," Wiggins said.

In the case of ammonium phosphate, used as a leavening agent in baking, she said the heat during baking causes the gas to evaporate so no ammonia is left in the product. "It is quite similar to adding wine to a sauce and cooking away the alcohol."

DON'T ALWAYS COUNT ON LABELS

Compounds such as ammonium hydroxide, ammonium phosphate and ammonium chloride are considered safe in small amounts.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted ammonium hydroxide status as a GRAS, or Generally Recognized as Safe, substance in 1974.

Ammonium hydroxide is also an acceptable ingredient under the conditions of "good manufacturing practices" in dozens of foods, from soft drinks to soups to canned vegetables, according to the General Standards for Food Additives set forth by the Codex Alimentarius Commission, a group funded by the World Health Organization and the United Nations' Food and Agricultural Organization.

A trip to the grocery store revealed ammonium chloride - a salt - present in Wonder Bread and Chef Boyardee Mini Ravioli, made by ConAgra Foods. Ammonium phosphate, another type of salt, is listed on Chips Ahoy cookies.

But ammonium hydroxide, the chemical often used to sanitize the "pink slime," was harder to find.

That is because it is often considered a "processing aid," which is not required by U.S. regulators to be included on food labels.

"If it helps facilitate a process, it's not required and (if) it's used at a percent less than 1 percent, it doesn't have to be declared on the label," said Roger Clemens, president of the Institute of Food Technologists and chief scientific officer of E.T. Horn Co, a private chemical and ingredient company.

He said ammonia in food is now being used less than before, as replacement products gain popularity.

When asked if their products were made with ammonium hydroxide, Sara Lee Corp, Hormel Foods, Kellogg and ConAgra said they were not.

Hershey said it uses "natural cocoa" in most of its chocolates, but in the few products that use "alkalized cocoa," it uses potassium carbonate, not ammonium hydroxide.

General Mills said the company does not discuss its production processes. Campbell Soup Co did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

(Additional reporting by Lisa Baertlein in Los Angeles and Ernest Scheyder in New York; Editing by Tim Dobbyn)

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/
Comments (22)
jyee wrote:
“what the meat industry calls “finely textured beef” … Used as a filler for ground beef, it is made from fatty trimmings.

Actually, it’s more commonly LFTB, LEAN finely textured beef, which is not fatty. There’s a lot of extremely lean meat left attached to bone after typical butchering. LFTB is a way to reclaim that meat and use it instead of letting it go to waste. It’s simply a byproduct of America’s demand to only eat steaks with an occasional roast or ribs, while ignoring the vast majority of an animal.

Apr 05, 2012 9:13pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
Scunnerous wrote:
Ammonia is not “made up of nitrogen and hydrogen”, any more than cyanide would be “made up of” carbon and nitrogen. Both are compounds of their respective common elements; one is relatively innocuous though with an objectionable smell – the other is a potent poison.

Apr 05, 2012 12:08am EDT  --  Report as abuse
txgadfly wrote:
A big part of the problem is that the US Government agency charged with protecting the public food supply, the Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”), is more interested in keeping good relations with giant food and pharmaceutical companies than in requiring honest and complete labeling of food and honest and complete classification of drugs. It is not “consumer” or “citizen” friendly, but industry friendly. In other words, like much of the Federal Government, you cannot trust it.

Why are genetically modified foods and food ingredients not labeled in the USA when they are labeled in the European Union and Japan? Why are an increasing number of raw grains grown in the USA not exportable to those markets? Why does our own Government force us to buy genetically modified foods that are not labeled so that the consumer knows what they are buying? It looks very much as if we have a food supply that is tainted, unreliable, and unhealthy and that those practices are deliberately concealed from US citizens by their own Government.

Apr 06, 2012 8:57am EDT  --  Report as abuse
This discussion is now closed. We welcome comments on our articles for a limited period after their publication.

Full focus