There has been a lot of media attention given to a product that is unfamiliar to most consumers, even though they have been eating it for the last 20 years. Lean finely textured beef, known by the derogatory term “pink slime,” has come to mean many things to many people. And as is often the case with something unfamiliar, people sometimes jump to conclusions that are based on incomplete facts.
So what is it? Lean finely textured beef (LFTB) is manufactured from beef trimmings, which are also used to make ground beef. The trimmings come from USDA-inspected cattle, after the roasts and steaks have been removed. The trimmings used to make LFTB are higher in fat, which meant that previously they were underutilized. Two things happened to change how LFTB is used in the industry. First, the consumer wanted leaner ground beef, which meant that less of the “fat trim” could be used in ground beef. Secondly, a process was developed that efficiently separated the lean and fat in the trim. The trim is warmed to a temperature slightly lower than the normal body temperature of a live cow, and then run through a separator that acts very much like a cream separator in a dairy plant. Since the lean muscle is heavier than the fat, the lean meat and fat tissue can be separated rapidly. The result is a lean beef product that is all beef and 95% lean.
It is estimated that using this process with the fat trim recovers 10–12 lbs of additional lean meat from each carcass. This means that we are using our beef resources more efficiently, which also means that we can meet consumer demands with lower prices and fewer cattle.
But what about ammonia? Beef Products Inc. (BPI) uses an ammonia process to make the LFTB safer. Ammonium hydroxide gas is injected into the product, which kills the harmful bacteria that occasionally turn up in our food supply. Almost everyone has heard of the problems with E. coli and Salmonella, and although these are surprisingly rare, they are serious when they occur. The ammonia process is an added safety factor. Many people assume that it is done for some economic benefit to the company. Actually, the company does not have to do it. And unknown to many, the ammonia process is a cost to the company, and not a way to make additional profit. It seems odd that a process that is so effective in controlling harmful bacteria has been so misunderstood in the media.
But is LFTB safe? There is no debate on the safety. As the Undersecretary for Food Safety Elizabeth Hagen pointed out on March 29, 2012, if the product was unsafe, the USDA would not allow it to be on the market. In addition, ABC reporter Jim Avila said at the same press conference that ABC News has never broadcast that the product was unsafe or that it has injured anyone. All food processes have to undergo a review before they can be used and before the foods produced by that process are introduced into the marketplace. The process of ammonia gas injection was extensively reviewed by the USDA for safety before it was allowed to be used with meat. Since this was an unusual process at the time, it underwent a very rigorous scientific evaluation before it was approved. Had there been any doubts, it would have been easier for the USDA say “no” rather than to say “yes.”
But why wasn’t the public told? Why isn’t LFTB on the label? The USDA writes the regulations on labeling and since LFTB is made from beef trimmings, the same beef trimmings that are used for ground beef, the agency did not require it to be on the label. It would be hard to imagine how it would be labeled: “ground beef with additional ground beef?” The companies that manufacture LFTB and those who use LFTB are simply following USDA labeling regulations. Imagine the reaction of consumers if those companies had not followed labeling regulations! The USDA is now allowing some changes in labeling to indicate whether or not LFTB has been added to the ground beef.
Ultimately, the consumer should decide what is best for them. However, the decision should be based on the truth, and not on speculative opinions. Ground beef containing LFTB is ground beef, and LFTB is unquestionably safe. It is regrettable that the consumer confidence in a food that has been in the market for 20 years, and is treated with a process designed to enhance the safety of the food, is now shaken. With food safety such a high priority in our society, taking a food with a proven food safety record out of the marketplace is a step backward.