In 2011, British chef Jamie Oliver took a stance against fast food giant McDonald’s, airing an episode on his cooking show, Food Revolution, in which he pointed out that McDonald’s burgers contain a chemical substance he dubbed “pink slime.”
“What they do is shocking,” he said. “The great American public needs to urgently understand what their food industry is doing.” (1).
How Pink Slime is Made
McDonald’s burgers are made with lean beef trimmings—basically, it’s what’s left of the cow after all the best cuts of meat are taken and the fat has been removed.
Those beef trimmings are mixed with ammonium hydroxide before being used as a filling in McDonald’s burgers.
On his show, Oliver demonstrated how ammonia makes the beef a bright pink color, giving it an uncanny resemblance to—you guessed it—pink slime (2).
Ammonium hydroxide, which is made from mixing ammonia and water, is used to kill bacteria, such as E. coli and salmonella and other pathogens. It’s also a household cleaning solution. Exposure to high concentrations of ammonia can corrode the mouth, throat, and stomach (3, 4).
Oliver explains that this process is used to produce over 70% of ground beef products available in restaurants and groceries stores throughout the United States.
“We’re taking a product that would be sold in the cheapest form for dogs,” says Oliver. “And after this process, we can give it to humans.” He even describes the meat used by McDonald’s in their famous burgers as “unfit for human consumption.” (5).
“Why would any sensible human being put meat filled with ammonia in the mouths of their children?” he asks.
More Than Just Beef
On another episode of his show, Oliver showed a group of young schoolchildren how McDonald’s chicken nuggets were made.
His demonstration started with a store-bought chicken. He removed the expensive cuts: the breasts, the wings, and the legs. What was left was a carcass of ribs, giblets, blood, and skin. He went on to show the kids how the remainder of the chicken is processed to make a chicken nugget (6).
Despite this graphic show-and-tell, all the American children in the episode insisted that they would still eat chicken nuggets, proving that they didn’t quite understand the harm of eating processed food. Their British counterparts, however, were turned away from this food for good (7).
Of course, Oliver’s comments didn’t go unnoticed by the global fast-food chain.
In response, representatives from various regions of the world, including the United Kingdom, Australia, and Canada, insisted that their food products did not involve any of the practices Oliver demonstrated. Instead, their meat was provided by local suppliers and did not contain ammonia or beef filler.
However, in the United States, Oliver’s show sparked widespread outrage.
While other fast-food outlets, including Burger King and Taco Bell, had long since abandoned the use of ammonia in their burgers, the food industry still allows for the use of ammonium hydroxide as an antibacterial agent in meats.
As a result, McDonald’s was able to get away with using meat that would otherwise not be legal to feed to humans.
Even worse, since the USDA & FDA considers ammonium hydroxide to be part of the production process, it’s not listed as an ingredient. This means that consumers don’t even know what’s lurking in their food (8).
When the American franchise finally spoke out a few months after Oliver’s show, they insisted that they no longer used “pink slime” in their beef burgers. They continue to claim, however, that the change has nothing to do with Jamie Oliver’s show (9).
Although McDonald’s seems to be some baby steps in the right direction, beef-and-poultry-based pink slime products continue to be served to American children in school cafeterias nationwide (10); And that doesn’t even cover the additives, antibiotics, hormones and GMO ingredients commonly used in meat production today.