Jamie Oliver vs. McDonald’s: Do you want fries with that pink slimeburger?


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Chef Jamie Oliver burst onto the scene in 1997 with a cooking show called "The Naked Chef," which aired in the United Kingdom, but he is best known in the United States as the guy who wants to help Americans and Britons alike eat healthier.

Being a media personality and all, it’s no surprise that he’s ticked off a few people and earned himself some sharp criticism — he once slaughtered a fully conscious lamb on his show. But he’s done some good things as well, most notably, his "Feed Me Better" campaign, on which he embarked in 2005 to encourage British schoolchildren to eat healthier food in lieu of the usual junk food.

His campaign brought him to this side of the Atlantic with the television series, "Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution" (2010–2011), wherein Oliver tried to convince Americans not only to eat better but also to address their dependence on fast food — not surprisingly, Oliver soon set his sights on giant fast food corporation McDonald’s.


Food fight!

So here’s this chef with television shows in the U.K. and the U.S. who is pushing a healthy diet agenda on either side of the pond. He’s trying to convince the denizens to just say no to junk food. McDonald’s, therefore, seems like a natural opponent. But Oliver’s beef with the fast food chain was not fueled by its greasy, high- and empty-calorie meals, marketed as aggressively at children as they are to adults. The fight boils down to how McDonald’s used to prepare it burger patties.


Soaking in ammonia

McDonald’s used to take the fatty bits and pieces of beef, which are described by Oliver as “unfit for human consumption,” and wash them in a solution of ammonium hydroxide. Why? To kill bacteria such as salmonella and E coli. “Basically, we’re taking a product that would be sold in the cheapest way for dogs, and after this process, is being given to human beings,” said Oliver during a simplified (and unfortunately slightly flawed) demonstration of the process, which he did on "Food Revolution."  


The fallout

Oliver refers to the ammonia-treated meat as “pink slime,” and since taking his first shot at the fast food giant, McDonald’s has abandoned the practice. In early 2012, McDonald’s, Taco Bell and Burger King confirmed that they had discontinued using ammonia-treated meat in its burgers and tacos. However, McDonald’s was very keen to add that “the decision to discontinue its use was not related to any particular event, but rather a result of [the company’s] efforts to align [its] standards for beef around the world." See, it was a matter of making its supply chain more consistent around the globe, rather than Oliver’s claims, explained McDonald’s. Well. You can’t prove intentionality, after all, but something smells rotten in the state of Golden Archlandia. (Can anyone say, “Not bloody likely”?)


Why the resurrection?

So if Oliver picked the fight in 2010 and McDonald’s stopped washing beef bits that no one wants in ammonia to fill its McBurgers as early as August 2011 and certainly by early 2012, why all the renewed fuss? Well, on Aug. 3, the battle between chef and fast food giant was covered on Political Blind Spot. One of the first questions the article raises is why the fast food giant’s decision to abandon the pink slime method was barely covered by “mainstream, corporate media.”

Can anyone say “ad revenue”? Can we say this for certain? No, of course not. But it’s a fairly good guess that the news is not going to want to contradict the company’s statement, especially if its burgers are going to be featured during the commercial break. You can’t piss off the guy footing the bill, eh?


So why is Oliver’s argument flawed?

Here is a man who has seemingly good intentions. The pink slime process is indeed revolting and while one may conclude that eating fatty trimmings — let alone fatty trimmings washed with an ammonia/water solution — is very likely unhealthy, Oliver repeatedly refers to it as “not safe.” And here’s where we have to remember to question everything, even when the person has good intentions, even when we’re very likely to agree with the gist of his argument.


More data required

We need independent studies showing (or not showing) a definitive link between consuming ammonia-treated meat and specific health-related consequences, be they illness or death. When we have this data, then we can say for certain whether consuming this meat is unsafe. Note here that just because something is safe to consume does not mean you should consume it.

Something can be bad for you and still be safe to eat. Take Twinkies, for instance. Please. The problem with Oliver’s use of the phrase “it’s not safe” is that especially when going mano-a-mano with a powerful fast food corporation, the last thing you want to do is undermine your own argument. Oliver not only wants McDonald’s to stop using the process (which they have, even if they don’t credit him), but also wants to convince people not to eat it, period.

Furthermore, while it’s understandable that he has to oversimplify the actual procedure — especially given that children were among the audience — he does himself a disservice by saying, “This is how I imagine the process to be” and admitting that he doesn’t know how much ammonia is used in the process. If you’re going to say that consuming something treated with ammonia is unsafe, you must have an idea of how much ammonia is supposed to be used or how much you believe is being used and how you drew that conclusion or confirm whether the company employing the method refused to disclose the amount of ammonia used.


The takeaway

Parsing out someone’s argument — Oliver’s included — and examining its weaknesses does not necessarily mean none of the argument holds water. Medical Daily seems to agree, and points out astutely: “While it's important to know what processes our food goes through, and especially what's inside, it's also important to refrain from exaggerating. Regardless, Oliver's campaign raised awareness to the idea that many people don't want the dirtiest, cheapest, throwaway parts of the meat.”

When we sift through the more sensational bits of Oliver’s demonstration — the washing machine as centrifuge, the cow, all the ammonia — and some of his presentation’s weaker points, we find the takeaway, which just makes good sense. We should know what’s in our food and how it’s processed. We should be made aware that the USDA and FDA disagree and believe that because the ammonia wash is part of a process, and not an ingredient in the meat, they feel consumers don’t have to be told about it. We should consider, if we insist on eating meat, grinding our own so we know exactly what we're ingesting.

Most important, we should demand total transparency — how food is processed, what it is made from, how it is grown — so that once we are armed with all the information we can each make informed decisions. And in an age where we have information at our fingertips, how can we demand anything less?