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Will BPI’s Plant Closures Affect America’s Ground Beef?

Following Monday’s announcement by Beef Products Inc. that the company would suspend operations at three of the four facilities that produce lean finely textured beef (LFTB), many wonder what lasting impact major supermarkets and restaurant chains will have as they stop buying the product publicly derided as “pink slime” or “soylent pink.”

Reports indicate that prior to the mass rejection of LFTB by big-name buyers such as McDonald’s, Burger King and Safeway, the lean beef product supplemented approximately 70 percent of the ground beef eaten in America. That adds up to a lot of beef that will need to be replaced by other means, all of which are more expensive and wasteful, said Gary Acuff, Ph.D., director of the Center for Food Safety at Texas A&M University.

According to estimates Acuff has read, replacing the amount of beef salvaged from carcasses by Beef Products Inc. (BPI) will require an additional 1.5 million cows raised by industrial agriculture. BPI is estimated to retrieve 10 to 15 pounds worth of lean beef from each carcass processed in its facilities.

Those losses could lead to a rise in beef imports, Acuff said, though he was certain that however Americans compensated for the drop in production, the price of beef is sure to rise. Responding to rising prices, consumers might simply choose to buy chicken or pork more often.

Blaming the LFTB backlash on a tsunami of public misinformation spearheaded by ABC News and The Daily, Acuff said that one of the greatest tragedies of the plant shutdown was that it would result in wasting real meat that only BPI’s technology could retrieve from fat trimmings economically.

All fat trimmings contain some lean meat in and around them, whether visible or not. Manually cutting the meat from the fat would be too costly and time-consuming, but separating the lean beef in a heated centrifuge provides an opportunity to retrieve that meat efficiently.

“It’s our responsibility to be good stewards of the food we produce, especially when we have to take the life of an animal to do so, and we figured out a good way to get that extra meat out of the animal that would otherwise get thrown away,” Acuff told Food Safety News. “People are asking, ‘Why wasn’t it labeled when it’s in my beef?’ Well, because it is beef.”

The question of whether the U.S. beef supply will be any less safe without LFTB is more difficult to answer. No studies have definitively concluded that the ammonium hydroxide that kills pathogens in LFTB goes on to effectively kill microorganisms in ground beef when LFTB is mixed in.

But it’s difficult to argue with BPI’s food safety record. Since the company started in 1981, its products have not been definitely linked to a foodborne illness or outbreak. However, according to the 2009 New York Times article, BPI’s product was one of four suppliers to a 2007 Cargill E. coli O157:H7 outbreak. Cargill’s outbreak garnered the New York Times a Pulitzer Prize for its portrayal of Stephanie Smith, the most seriously injured victim.

BPI now tests for Salmonella, E. coli O157:H7 and the “Big Six” strains of harmful E. coli, and unlike some others in the meat industry, holds the meat until tests results are in. Products aren’t put on the market if contamination is detected.

If nothing else, adding LFTB to ground beef likely dilutes the concentration of whatever pathogens exist in the meat.

Ground beef “is an inherently unsafe food,” Acuff said, “but adding LFTB would never make it less safe.”

Some food scientists have decried what they call misinformation spread by media and the former U.S. Department of Agriculture microbiologist who first coined the phrase “pink slime.”

In a statement dated March 23, Iowa State University agriculture professor Joseph Sebranek, Ph.D., wrote that his 1996 study on LFTB in the Journal of Food Sciences had been misconstrued by some media reports.

While Sebranek’s study did not compare nutritional differences between ground beef with and without LTFB, some media reports have claimed that LFTB degrades the meat to which it’s added.

“Our research is potentially being misinterpreted by some in the media as suggesting that LFTB has a deleterious effect on the nutritional quality of ground beef,” Sebranek wrote. “Nothing in our study or what we know about collagen more broadly should lead one to that conclusion.”

Other LFTB critics cited concerns over the ammonium hydroxide used to treat the beef, but Acuff pointed out that not only do humans naturally produce ammonium in their bodies, ammonium hydroxide can be found in a number of other foods, such as baked goods, cheeses and chocolate.

“It disturbs me that the public will listen to the media over someone who does science and research in the area,” Acuff said. “A scientist doesn’t stand a chance against a celebrity news personality, as sad as that is.”

Frustrated by the tone and angle of the mainstream media’s “pink slime” coverage, Acuff wrote a critical commentary along with his colleague, Texas A&M animal science professor H. Russell Cross, Ph.D., (who approved the use of LFTB when he was Administrator of the USDA’s Food Safety). They   titled it “Ignorance, pink slime and Sarah Palin?” and attempted to illustrate how people view contentious issues depending on where they get their news.

“Sarah Palin is stupid, Al Gore is an environmental wing nut, Barack Obama is a socialist, you are eating pink slime,” they wrote, rattling off a series of false characterizations perpetuated by various media organizations, depending on their slant.

“We need to step up and be the clear-thinking, informed source of information — before it is too late,” they went on, calling on science-minded individuals in the food industry to speak up and defend the science behind LFTB.

“We are sick and tired of the news media hijacking the truth, minimizing science, frightening consumers and creating a false crisis, just to boost their ratings,” they wrote.  ”Lean Fine-Textured Beef is not unsafe, deceptive or pet food.”

Acuff said that while the industry has a responsibility to produce safe, quality products, consumers also have a responsibility to keep informed and understand the difficulties in keeping the food supply both safe and affordable.

“It’s a predicament, isn’t it? We don’t want the LFTB stuff. We don’t want irradiation. We don’t want anything like that in our food, but we want it to be safe,” he said. “There seems to be this feeling among the public that somebody is always trying to get something over on them, and BPI just happened to get caught this time. Nobody wants to do that. BPI wasn’t hiding anything — they were trying to make a quality product. If people had been better informed, this might not have gone south so quickly.”

© Food Safety News
  • pawpaw

    James, you wrote: “If people had been better informed, this might not have gone south so quickly.”
    Agreed. If BPI had included LFTB on their labels, where do you think we would be now? Per a comment on a related FSN article, consumers thought they knew what ground beef is, and LFTB inclusion sans labeling is a violation of that trust.
    More labeling and consumers have a choice. Less labeling and companies take a risk of being misunderstood in a media frenzy and public relations debacle. Presuming customers won’t notice or care is a risky business strategy.
    BTW, I taught microbiology for years, my major prof and some coursework was in a Food Science Dept. In a prescient comment, another prof there questioned a USDA official on its apparent approval of cheap food over higher quality food, and its eventual effect on public confidence in our food supply. Long term, the % of income Americans spend on food is at record low levels.
    Ground beef sales have been up at our producer-only farmers market and should be for some time. The industrialization of our food supply has multiple sociological consequences that producers, from direct-market farmers to BPI, ignore at our peril.

  • http://foodsafetynews.com jandrews

    Hi pawpaw,
    Not that it affects the content of your comment, but I want to clarify that I was quoting Dr. Acuff, not supplying my personal opinion.

  • thrifty mom

    Ah, pawpaw, the insidious old Michael Pollan talking point that food is too cheap. Beating down abundant safe affordable food is elitism at its very finest. Enjoy your boutique-burger and never mind ordinary family folks who are on a budget. It’s all about you, after all. I hope you choke on your tres chic vittles.

  • Theresa Kentner

    I am afraid I am going to have to add food, safety, and science to the list of taboo topics for polite conversation, along with politics and religion.

  • psimon

    I find it interesting that BPI thinks that it will succeed in persuading consumers to eat what would otherwise be pet food by “educating” them. More likely they’re hoping the public will forget pink slime and begin using that product again.
    While I appreciate that they apparently are doing a really good job of testing and then waiting for results before putting products into the stream of commerce, this used to be a given. We expected that if a product was called “ground beef” that’s what, and all, that it contained. Not that it was ground beef with added trimmings that had been disinfected and not disclosed. I don’t care how safe the producer can prove this stuff is. I want my ground beef (on the rare occasions when I consume it) to be waste product free. And if these things weren’t ordinarly considered waste to be fed to pets, etc., then why would it need the ammonium hydroxide treatment? No wonder folks are turning away from mass producers’ products. The poor shouldn’t have to eat garbage in order to afford to consume some meat in their diets. I have to say, from here on, I will only eat ground beef that my local butcher grinds in front of me.

  • Michael Bulger

    “If nothing else, adding LFTB to ground beef likely dilutes the concentration of whatever pathogens exist in the meat.”
    When just a few cells of E. Coli can be deadly, this statement falls rather flat. If you drop a tablespoon of pasteurized milk into a glass of raw milk, I’m not going to consider the safety of that glass significantly improved.
    The testing regimen the company uses should be adopted throughout the industry. Still, raw ground beef exists as a product because of consumer demand and certainly not because of its food safety attributes. The bottom line is that ground beef is potentially hazardous both with LFTB and without LFTB.

  • Bradley

    Well, Michael, ground beef products ought freely to exist due to consumer demand (as you say) but now we learn how meddling nanny state thugs (who decidedly are not consumers of common food products) can railroad an entire industry, throw hundreds out of work merely for the calculated purpose of over-ruling consumer demand. This is the real face of the “real food” agenda. Bash, smear and vandalize…because they have nothing uniquely positive to offer the consuming public. Evil, pure unadulterated evil lurks in the guise of smug foodie self-righteousness.

  • http://www.BeefisBeef.com beef is beef

    To psimom:
    LFTB is not a “waste product”. LFTB is beef. Period.
    BPI uses a naturally occuring chemical compound to increase the safety of ground beef so America doesn’t face yet another E. Coli 0157 or Salmonella outbreak. Much the same as growers use naturally occuring chemical compounds to prevent the same food-borne pathogens on fresh vegetables.
    I think they’re doing America and the world a great service by keeping our supply of ground beef safe, nutritious, and affordable.

  • http://burningbird.net Shelley

    Michael Bulger: “When just a few cells of E. Coli can be deadly, this statement falls rather flat. If you drop a tablespoon of pasteurized milk into a glass of raw milk, I’m not going to consider the safety of that glass significantly improved.”
    Excellent analogy.
    Bradley, don’t you mean nanny state pinko commie thugs?

  • http://foodsafetynews.com James Andrews

    Hi pawpaw,
    Not that it affects the content of your comment, but I want to clarify that I was quoting Dr. Acuff, not supplying my personal opinion.

  • donna

    Ground beef “is an inherently unsafe food,” Acuff said, “but adding LFTB would never make it less safe.
    I’m really curious about this statement. It stands out for me and makes the rest of the article seem rather unnecessary. The pink slime apparently isn’t really the issue, ground beef is. Or am I missing something?

  • Minkpuppy

    Donna,
    Ground beef is just a risky product period.
    Grinding meat does a pretty good job of mixing bacteria into the interior of the meat and provides a ton of surface area for it to grown on. This makes it absolutely necessary to cook burgers throughly to internal temperatures of 160-165 degrees F to kill the bacteria.
    Steaks and roasts on the other hand, can be cooked to lower internal temperatures because the bacteria is on the surface and the actions of searing the steak or roast kills it. (Unless they were needle-tenderized which opens a whole different can of worms…)
    From my standpoint, the issue with LFTB is a perceived lack of transparency on the part of BPI. I don’t really understand that because BPI did participate in the movie Food, Inc. and allowed filming of the process over 3 years ago. Having said that, I do think BPI should have been hard selling this product to the public about its safety etc from the day the process was approved in 2001.
    BPI, AMI and other industry type continue their epic FAIL in understanding that people have a right to know these things. Ok, we get it that it’s safe but it doesn’t make it anymore appealing when MSM keeps screaming “pink slime” at us 24/7. Whining about smear campaigns doesn’t help the cause any either. It’s too little, too late. The damage is done and it could have been easily prevented by proactive information campaigns from day 1.
    Side note: The company has been around 30 yrs old, but the process they use has only been approved since 2001. I also saw that BPI actually stated that LFTB is used in 70% of premade ground beef patties, not in 70% of ground beef overall. Can’t recall where I saw that at the moment. I’ll have to dig again to find it.

  • Rebecca

    It’s interesting that there is such a stink about this being a “waste product.” Fifty years ago, the animal would have been carefully hand-processed, and the 10-15 pounds of meat we’re talking about would have been left connected to the rest of the meat – part of the steak or roast that you served on Sunday. Now we’re processing in a hurry, and rather than cutting carefully, we’re hacking the good cuts out of the middle. These trimmings are the SAME PIECE OF MEAT. It’s the equivalent of cutting an apple in half because you just want to eat half, offering the other half to a friend, and having them spit on it, because they don’t want to eat your “trimmings” and they’re disgusted that you had the nerve to refer to it still as an apple. Being angry at BPI for not including LFTB on its label also makes no sense. The day before processing, the steak and the LFTB were all part of the exact same muscle on the cow, just knifeswidth apart from one another. Yes, the LFTB was processed with chemicals, but so was the ground beef (think meat is naturally bright blood red several weeks after slaughter, when blood from the cut on your arm is brown a few hours later? Think again). Personally, I really could care less if my hamburger comes from the back left leg, or the giggly part of the neck, or the area surrounding the animal’s penis, or is trimmed from a chunk of fat (honestly, the fat is what makes meat taste good – this is why Angus are bred for fat marbling throughout the muscle), and would much prefer to buy my hamburger without a photograph of said animal with X’s marking where my burger came from. I just want to know that it’s safe and nutritious. If you want to know every detail about where your meat comes from, grow your own or buy from a local rancher, and ask if you can watch the slaughtering process.

  • JC

    Schools might want to take hamburgers out of the lunchroom altogether, pink slime or not! http://www.alternet.org/environment/25122/?comments=view&cID=35161&pID=34156 and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fKr4HZ7ukSE

  • Than Nguyen

    So much “educating” yet so still so many misunderstandings. I’d like to point out a simple thing here: BPI’s product is a raw material. It is not the finished product. It was meant to be mixed into ground beef to enhance/control it’s lean percentages. BPI came up with a process to safely and efficiently do this and to what end? It’s not their responsibility to inform the consumer, that would fall on the end seller’s shoulders. BPI makes a product that is an ingredient to a finshed product. So if you want a place to place blame for not “disclosing” what’s was in their product, you should look towards the people actually distributing the product to the public. Ever see a Wendy’s or McDonald’s advertisement for 100% beef patties? Now let’s think for a minute. Do you think these conglomerates knew exactly what they were buying and mixing into their ground beef? Don’t you think they would tour the plants and understand the process before spending millions on the product? How about the supermarkets or packing houses that used lftb in there ground beef. Does their label state it? Yet all these former BPI customers are now on the other side of the fence when it was infact their negligence that kept consumers from being “fully” informed. Here’s an anology for you: Would you place blame on the corn farmer because he grew genetically engineered corn (try to find some that isn’t a genetically altered hybrid..you won’t find many.) and it wasn’t “disclosed” on your can of Cambells soup? Cambells didn’t grow the corn after all right? So it’s the farmer’s responsibility to ensure that his corn’s proper name goes on the soup can right? Give me a break. Apply logic rather then being content to conforming to misguided information. So now that you know that the product is infact beef and safe, you choose the angle of deception. End rant.

  • Than Nguyen

    So much “educating” yet so still so many misunderstandings. I’d like to point out a simple thing here: BPI’s product is a raw material. It is not the finished product. It was meant to be mixed into ground beef to enhance/control it’s lean percentages. BPI came up with a process to safely and efficiently do this and to what end? It’s not their responsibility to inform the consumer, that would fall on the end seller’s shoulders. BPI makes a product that is an ingredient to a finshed product. So if you want a place to place blame for not “disclosing” what’s was in their product, you should look towards the people actually distributing the product to the public. Ever see a Wendy’s or McDonald’s advertisement for 100% beef patties? Now let’s think for a minute. Do you think these conglomerates knew exactly what they were buying and mixing into their ground beef? Don’t you think they would tour the plants and understand the process before spending millions on the product? How about the supermarkets or packing houses that used lftb in there ground beef. Does their label state it? Yet all these former BPI customers are now on the other side of the fence when it was infact their negligence that kept consumers from being “fully” informed. Here’s an anology for you: Would you place blame on the corn farmer because he grew genetically engineered corn (try to find some that isn’t a genetically altered hybrid..you won’t find many.) and it wasn’t “disclosed” on your can of Cambells soup? Cambells didn’t grow the corn after all right? So it’s the farmer’s responsibility to ensure that his corn’s proper name goes on the soup can right? Give me a break. Apply logic rather then being content to conforming to misguided information. So now that you know that the product is infact beef and safe, you choose the angle of deception. End rant.

  • T Allen

    Until “Agricultural Sciences” are added back into the school curriculum we will continue to get dumber and dumber about where our food comes from, the economics and safe preparation of it. Kids are indoctrinated into eating mostly at home by their parents, a little at school and even less by learning on their own as they get older. School gardens are popping up and are quickly changing the way kids perceive vegetables. The American meat industry needs to start financing elementary school education curriculum that explains how our meat, poultry and eggs are produced and the pros/cons of how it is being done, if they want to continue doing business as usual. Instead of discontinuing the production of “pink slime” just drop the price on those products for a few weeks and see how many people prefer to buy it over “pure??? ground beef”.