Dr. H talks about pink slime,' cancer risk of hair dye

Question: What do you think about the use of "pink slime" in ground beef?

?Answer: With a name like "pink slime," it seems like "lean finely textured beef" has a serious image problem. I've seen the video of food chef and critic Jamie Oliver where he tosses scraps of meat into a washing machine to illustrate rather poorly the meat separation process, followed by the dousing of household bleach on so-called pink slime to make a dramatic point. This is simply not accurate.

What is finely textured beef? When butchers remove the various cuts of beef from a carcass, there are bits of meat left behind. On a small scale, butchers have tossed these scraps away or sent them to pet food manufacturers because it is difficult and not cost-effective to try to remove the last bits of meat.

However, it does make economic sense for large-scale beef suppliers to invest in a technology that can salvage these last beef remnants. And about 20 years ago, with the blessing of the USDA for safety, that's exactly what they did.

The pieces are heated to liquefy the fat, and the beef remnants are spun in a centrifuge to separate the meat from the fat. This meat contains only 3 to 6 percent fat. This finely textured beef (yes, it is real meat) is then treated with ammonium hydroxide gas to kill any bacteria. This ammonium hydroxide is not an ingredient in the beef - it is just a processing step. This actually makes it safer than ordinary ground beef. True, it is not ground-up beef - but nutritionally, it is real beef.

Lean finely textured beef is both nutritious and safe. What has upset folks so much is the perception that this is cheap meat filler hidden from the public. Once something has been labeled "pink slime," it's tough to convince the general public that it's anything else but that. Industry experts claim that the elimination of this beef from our ground beef will require the slaughtering of an estimated 1.5 million more head of cattle each year to make up the difference.

By the way, finely textured meat is like filet mignon compared to what's found in all-beef hot dogs and bologna.

?Q: Is hair dye safe? Does it cause cancer?

?A: This has been debated for decades. An analysis of 79 studies done since 1966 published in the May 25, 2005, issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association suggests that there is no strong evidence of a marked increase in the overall risk of cancer in hair dye users.

With respect to blood cancers like leukemia or lymphoma, the data suggest that there might be a very slight increased risk. But analysis of nearly 40 years of data is not easy, since certain chemicals that are potential carcinogens have been discontinued for at least 25 years. That makes today's hair dyes much safer than in the past. Also, lighter hair colorings are felt to show even less potential risk. The position of the American Cancer Society is that hair dyes pose very little or no increased risk of cancer, and factors like smoking or poor diet are far more important.

For those who still have concerns, my advice would be to use lighter dye colors; have less frequent touch-ups; use ammonia-free coloring that's low in the chemical "p-phenylenediamine"; consider using coloring that's chemical-free and vegetable-based (e.g. henna); have highlights instead of full coloring to avoid dye contact with the skin of your scalp; or just avoid using it entirely.

Regarding hair coloring during pregnancy, since the first trimester is the most critical time in fetal development, most obstetricians will recommend postponing hair coloring until the second trimester or later.

Dr. Mitchell Hecht is a physician specializing in internal medicine. Send questions to him at: "Ask Dr. H," P.O. Box 767787, Atlanta, Ga. 30076. Due to the large volume of mail received, personal replies are not possible.