Collaboration in Civic Spheres

U.S. report: anti-”Pink Slime” campaign was misleading

by William McKee May 15th, 2012

The media’s portrayal this past March of the long-used lean finely textured beef (LFTB) ground beef additive as suspect “pink slime” has had far-reaching effects, according to a recent report on the controversy issued by the Congressional Research Service, the non-partisan research arm of the U.S. Congress. The CRS report suggests that benefits of the controversy have included increased emphasis on the labeling of ground beef that contains LFTB, and more informed choices for both consumers, and school districts enlisted in the National School Lunch Program, on whether or not to purchase ground beef containing the additive. Other results accented in the report may have a negative effect. These include the fall of 50% beef trimming prices and the rise of domestic beef market prices; retail grocery stores discontinuing products that contain LFTB; the loss of jobs and business as the producers of LFTB and similar products shut down operations due to withering demand; and the heightened possibility of future advances in food safety being stifled due to the negative press on the use of ammonium hydroxide as an antimicrobial agent during the preparation of LFTB.

What is LFTB?
LFTB is a beef product produced by Beef Products International, Inc. (BPI) since 1991, created through a process that takes ground beef trimmings left over from beef processing plants, then heats them and sends them through a centrifuge to separate the meat from the fat. This extracted meat substance is then treated with a puff of ammonium hydroxide in a USDA-approved process designed to kill dangerous microbes, specifically E. coli 0157:H7 and salmonella. The resulting product is flash frozen into blocks later used as an inexpensive 95% lean beef additive that can be substituted for up to 15% of any ground beef product in the U.S. without being labeled.

Ammonium chloride approved by FDA in 70s, widely used in consumer food products
According to the CRS report, the use of ammonium hydroxide as an antimicrobial agent has been accepted practice since the FDA designated it as a “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) substance in the 1970s. It is used in the production of numerous foods: baked goods, dairy products, chocolates, pudding, breakfast cereals, eggs, fish, sports drinks, beer and meat.

The CRS report emphasized industry’s safe response to increased market demand for lean ground beef.

The meat industry saw media sensationalism as a campaign of misinformation to undermine a product used for more than ten years to supplement lean beef supplies used in ground beef. Ground beef is the most popularly consumed beef item among American consumers, and consumers have increasingly demanded lean ground beef. USDA approved the process that Beef Products, Inc. (BPI), the primary producer of LFTB, uses to produce LFTB, and USDA continues to affirm that LFTB is a safe, nutritious beef product.

The recent controversy
While LFTB has received some press coverage in the past, the recent controversy began with a story by ABC News on March 7, 2012, reporting that “70% of the ground beef (bought) at the supermarket contains… ‘pink slime.’” The story featured a former USDA scientist, Gerald Zirnstein, referred to by ABC News as a “whistleblower,” who along with a fellow retired USDA scientist, Carl Custer, “warned against using what the industry calls ‘lean finely textured beef,’ widely known now as ‘pink slime,’ but their government bosses overruled them.” “It’s economic fraud,” Zirnstein told ABC News. “It’s not fresh ground beef. … It’s a cheap substitute being added in.” Zirnstein originally coined the term “pink slime” in 2002 in an internal USDA memo.

This ABC story followed another published just two days before on the online news site, The Daily, that said the USDA was continuing the “purchase of so-called pink slime for school lunches,” a move that made “no sense, according to two former microbiologists (Zirnstein and Custer) at the Food Safety Inspection Service.” The Daily reported that the USDA had “plans to buy 7 million pounds of Lean Beef Trimmings from BPI in the coming months for the national school lunch program.”

In mid-March the USDA announced that it would allow school districts to choose whether or not to purchase ground beef with LFTB, following a social media uproar. Schools will decide on their ground beef purchases for next year this spring. The prices they pay for ground beef either with or without LFTB will depend on market prices at the time of the purchase.

LFTB Production Declines
BPI has announced that it will be closing three of its four plants by the end of this month, cutting its daily production of LFTB by more than half. About 650 jobs will be lost in Amarillo, Texas; Garden City, Kansas; and Waterloo, Iowa. Manufacturers of products similar to LFTB, like Cargill, which produces finely textured beef, have also announced they’ll be scaling back its production.

Retailers Discontinue Carrying LFTB
Since the controversy began in March a number of major retail grocery chains have decided to no longer sell ground beef that contains LFTB. This group includes Safeway, SuperValu, Food Lion, BI-LO/Winn Dixie, Hy-Vee and Giant. Walmart and Sam’s Club have also announced they will offer customers a choice of beef without the additive. None of these chains have expressed food safety concerns over the product, however.

Rising Beef Prices
Due to an unusually small number of domestic cattle, beef prices were already at record high levels when the controversy began. Analysts expect the discontinued use of LFTB by so many retailers and school districts, and the subsequent need to replace the additive with 90% lean beef trimmings, will likely drive prices up even further.

WSU experts beg to differ with anti-’Pink Slime’ campaign
Experts from Washington State University have said they think the hubbub over the use of LFTB is unfounded. “The product is perfectly safe,” said Dr. Karen Killinger, assistant professor in the school of food science and consumer food safety specialist. “I think it boils down to a consumer perception, or media portrayal issue.” She was not alone in her opinion. Michael Costello is a food safety technician at WSU. He said the CRS report seemed to be accurate in its assessment of the consequences of the media’s portrayal of LFTB.

“I expect it in the food industry though,” Costello said. These sorts of controversies occasionally occur, he said. In the end, though, said Costello, it just winds up costing the consumer more money and hurting the industry. “The name, ‘pink slime,’ it just caught on. It became a good buzz word,” he said. “Lean, finely textured beef. Pink slime. Which would you rather eat?”

Labeling will not include term ‘pink slime’
Regaining consumer demand is now the primary goal for the flailing industry. BPI has announced its interest in labeling, simply to put the minds of customers at ease. The CRS report quoted BPI as saying, “We believe USDA’s decision to allow companies to voluntarily include information on their label regarding LFTB content will be an important first step in restoring consumer confidence in their ground beef… we feel this development will allow more customers to provide options to consumers and pave the way for BPI’s lean beef to reestablish its place in the market.”

The sentiment was mirrored by the director of food safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Caroline Smith Dewaal. “We don’t have a concern about its safety, but it certainly has captured a lot of attention…..the level of consumer concern shows that more information is needed, and so labeling would be appropriate,” Smith Dewaal said in an article distributed by the Iowa Cattlemen’s Association.

The USDA has announced that several companies have requested ground beef that includes LFTB be labeled. The USDA has approved the labels, on a voluntary basis. There has also been legislation introduced to Congress to require the labeling of products that contain LFTB. For now though, consumers looking for labels on their meat should not expect to see the term ‘pink slime’ on packaging the next time they go shopping, though. The USDA has said that the labels voluntarily applied to the ground beef that retailers like Walmart intend to sell will read: “Contains Lean Finely Textured Beef,” “Contains Finely Textured Beef” or “Contains Lean Beef Derived from Beef Trimmings.”

Unintended consequences for food safety?
Little disagreement has arisen that consumers should have clear information on what they’re buying, but the effect of the controversy on the beef industry, specifically on producers of LFTB and similar products, is clear. Total production has declined by about 70 percent. The irony in all of this, Costello says, is that the recent wave of alarm about LFTB could actually lead to ground beef being less safe, not more. “Historically, the LFTB additive is not going to be the source of a food-borne illness,” said Costello. “The other beef that it’s being added to is far more likely to wind up making people sick.”

Comments are closed.