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?
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