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Exposing the Truth Behind the ‘Slime’

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.

ImageJim Dickson
Professor, Dept. of Animal Science
Iowa State University

8 Responses

  1. An excellent and well written article.

  2. Although not initiated by PETA or the like, this pink slime debacle plays right into the hands of all opponents of animal agriculture, including vegetarians. I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop – graphic videos of animal slaughter operations. The general public would find graphic display of even humane practices far more off-putting than LFTB. With a little theatrics, the antimeat crowd could raise hell with established, sensible animal processing and utilization practices and the industry in general.

  3. As a food scientist and nutritionist, I was never concerned about the safety of LFTB when I learned about it. However the unfortunate name of “pink slime” will disgust anyone….I wish I knew how this term ever got coined and found its way to the media.

    Consumers are defining good nutrition for themselves now, and are not necessarily listening to any respected authority on the subject. Intertwined in the often inconsistent and oversimplified concepts of good nutrition are the aesthetic and culinary aspects of food…..food that looks beautiful must be good for you, food that looks or sounds unattractive couldn’t possibly be. I wonder if anything newsworthy about LFTNB would have happened if it had been called “beef trimmings” or “meat protein” or something similar, in the media.

    Thank you for your clear and complete explanation.

  4. As a retired professor of food science, I have recently appeared on a radio show on WATD in Marshfield, MA The host of the program is a past student of mine and she said the response after the program was very positive. People were surprised to hear what the truth about LFTB reeally is and were relieved that the product is as safe as it is.

  5. Thank you for some clear and understandable FACTS. I am so tired of the media sending up trial balloons for the next big food scare. I challenge you to watch ABC News for 1 week and just see if they don’t try to push a food related story at least 4 out of 5 weekdays. Unfortunately this one against ground beef stuck, which only fueled their fire to make it bigger.

  6. […] 20April Exposing the Truth Behind the Pink ‘Slime’ Original Article Link–There has been a lot of media attention given to a product that is unfamiliar to most […]

  7. The term “pink slime” had to be coined by the media. Anything to make a story out of nothing. I have no problem eating it. More scare tactics from the liberal media.

  8. I am an emeritus ift member whose experience with this product goes back to its development in the 50’s until I retired. I understand that LFBT became an issue when the use of ammonium hydroxide and the use of LFBT in ground beef became generally known. The safe and quality use of this costly material is important. Why cannot we [industrial and regulators] illuminate the value of such innovations before we are forced into a defensive posture by our detractors?

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