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‘The Lunch Tray’ Responds to Beef Industry Defenses of ‘Pink Slime’

Lunch Tray readers following the astonishing progress of the Change.org petition launched here last week to get “Boneless Lean Beef Trimmings” (BLBT) out of school food (175,000  at present count) will hardly be surprised that the beef industry has started to come out swinging.  PR reps of the American Meat Institute, employees of Beef Products Inc. (the inventor of BLBT) and others with ties to the beef industry are now all over Twitter defending so-called “pink slime” with the hashtag #pinkslimeisamyth.

Well, in point of fact, the undisclosed presence of ammonia-hydroxide-treated bovine connective tissues in 70% of the nation’s ground beef  is hardly a “myth.”  But rather than responding under Twitter’s 140 character constraint, I’d like to address here a few of the main arguments currently being advanced by industry in defense of BLBT.

BLBT Is Nothing But Lean, Nutritious Beef

ammoniated-ground-beef-300.jpg

Meat industry lobbyists maintain that BLBT is nothing more than “lean, nutritious” beef, but it’s well worth noting that two former microbiologists at USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service – now federal whistleblowers – have vociferously protested the agency’s controversial decision to classify BLBT as “meat.”  In a 2002 email to colleagues, one of these scientists wrote: “I do not consider the stuff to be ground beef, and I consider allowing it in ground beef to be a form of fraudulent labeling.”  That revelation ought to be at least some cause for consumer concern.

BLBT Is Perfectly Safe to Eat

Even BPI acknowledges that the types of slaughterhouse waste used to make BLBT- fatty scraps and bits of connective tissue left over from beef processing – is more susceptible to foodborne pathogens than regular cuts of meat.  These bits and pieces tend to come from the outermost part of the animal and thus are more likely to be contaminated with excrement smeared on the animal’s hide.  According to a Pulitzer Prize-winning 2009 New York Times exposé, federal testing between 2005-2009 found that ground beef containing BLBT was four times more likely to contain salmonella than regular ground meat.

In fairness, BPI has improved its safety protocols and now leads the industry in testing for not just one but the so-called “Big Six” strains of E. coli, and it also vows to hold back any batch testing positive for these pathogens.  But it’s important to remember that there are other deadly foodborne pathogens besides the Big Six.  Last year’s E. coli outbreak in Germany, which left 45 dead and 3,785 sickened, was caused by a previously unknown strain of the bacteria, demonstrating that microbiologists often identify new pathogens only after a deadly outbreak.  And should an outbreak occur, children are more vulnerable than adults to suffering serious harm, or even death.

Using Every Bit of the Cow is “Sustainable”

The meat industry argues that we ought to love pink slime because it “absolutely is the right thing” to use every available scrap on a cow carcass. But we were already honoring the noble ideal of “nose-to-tail” butchering by putting these scraps to use in the past for pet food or rendering into cooking oil.  Was there any reason to shift their use to human consumption, beyond profit motive?  (According to ABC News, BPI has made “hundreds of millions of dollars” on the sale of pink slime; a source quoted in the Times article says BPI’s founder and owner has “amassed a tidy fortune” from it.)

BLBT Helps Feed a Hungry World

BPI and the meat industry answer that last question by arguing that BLBT helps “feed America and the world” by stretching the available supply of beef products.  But if our country is undertaking a wholesale “stretching” of the food supply with ammonia-treated bovine connective tissue, shouldn’t individual consumers have the right to opt out?  Just as some people relish the idea of a beef tongue sandwich and others are repelled at the notion, many consumers want to avoid pink slime for reasons both rational and irrational.  Yet the federal government’s decisions — at BPI’s behest – to classify BLBT as “beef” so that it need not be labeled, and to treat ammonia hydroxide as an undisclosed processing agent, has utterly stripped consumers of the right to know exactly what they are eating and feeding their families.

BLBT Actually Helps America’s School Children

In a new post published on The Daily this morning, BPI spokesman Rich Jochum asserts that the presence of BLBT in school beef actually helps our children because it “1) improves the nutritional profile, 2) increases the safety of the products and 3) meets the budget parameters that allow the school lunch program to feed kids nationwide every day.”

Let me address these notions in a slightly different order.  When BPI argues that use of BLBT “increases the safety of products” it seems to be coming dangerously close to making the claim that by mixing the ammonia-hydroxide-treated substance into regular ground beef, its mere presence reduces pathogens in the rest of the product.  This is precisely how BPI first marketed BLBT when it was introduced in 2001, but, as well detailed in the aforementioned Times exposé, this food safety claim has been thoroughly discredited.

Second, when BPI says use of BLBT increases the nutritional profile of school food, I can only assume that the company is referring to the lower fat content of ground beef mixed with BLBT.  But of course another way of achieving the same result would be to add higher quality lean beef to the mixture, rather than pink slime.  This would of course be more costly, however, which leads to the third defense of pink slime, which is that it reduces school districts’ food costs.

On this
point, BPI and I are in complete agreement.  Use of BLBT shaves three cents a pound off the ground beef that contains it.  But as writer Tom Philpott wryly noted back in 2010:

Three cents off the cost of making a pound of ground beef. Under the severe fiscal austerity that school cafeteria administrators operate under, pinching those three pennies is a rational decision, even if it means subjecting children to ammonia-ridden slime that may contain pathogens.

The bottom line for me is this:  three leading fast food giants – McDonald’s, Burger King and Taco Bell – all recently discontinued their use of BLBT.  Though they haven’t said so explicitly, it’s likely that growing consumer concern over pink slime led to their change in practice.  But while fast food customers can vote with their dollars, our nation’s school children, particularly those whose lower economic status forces them to rely on federal school meals, lack any voice in the matter.  They must passively consume whatever the federal government sees fit to feed them.

I simply do not  believe that use of BLBT is doing our best by our nation’s children.

And, so far, apparently, over 175,000 people agree with me.

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“My Response to Beef Industry Defenses of ‘Pink Slime’ “ was originally posted March 12, 2012 on Bettina Elias Siegel’s “The Lunch Tray: kids and food, in school and out” website. Reposted with permission.

© Food Safety News
  • Chuck

    Back to the old saw that you’re entitled to your own opinions but not your own facts, Bettina goes way out on a very thin limb with some of her concoctions. BLBT in 70% of the nation;s ground beef? She’s going to have to show some independent data to support that claim. The NYT expose has been debunked. As an aside, there is absolutely nothing wrong with the profit motive. It’s what helps feed us what we eat. Calling BLBT ‘ammonia-ridden slime’ is ridiculous and simply not true. Her article was correctly labled ‘Opinion.’ A subhead should be included: ‘Not fact-checked.’

  • Martin Rojas

    And, so far, apparently, over 175,000 people agree with me.
    and so far, apparently i would say 175,000,000 starving humans would disagree with you. i would like to see everyone that they think BPI is pink slime put up 5 dollars each so we can take care of all the starving people in the world.

  • Sigmund

    175,000 mouse clicks worldwide. Not surprising. Never underestimate the collective stupidity of people in large groups. Mass hysteria, I believe is the clinical nomenclature.

  • John

    It is time for all consumers to DEMAND that ingredient labels display ALL processing aids and processes used in the creation of that food. NO EXCEPTIONS.

  • David

    There is no natural source of ammonium hydroxide in our foods unless you are eating shark buried in the ground like a Maori in New Zealand. Ammonium hydoxide is used to break down the animal proteins, bacterial cell walls and anything else via base mediated peptide amide or fatty acid ester hydrolysis. It is like the soap making process that uses sodium hydroxide to saponify fats only this application also breaks down animal and bacterial proteins and cell membranes. The REAL problem is that the dead bacteria are NOT harmless. Bacterial toxins can be resistant to alkaline hydrolysis and the breakdown products can promote a strong immune response in our guts. The fact that ammonia is produced when proteins are hydrolyzed by strong acids or bases does not make ammonia safe in our food. Nitrifying bacteria in our guts can turn ammonia into nitrites and nitrites can promote cancer causing reactions in our body. It is hard to defend an industry with unsafe feedlot practices with a track record of making mistakes going back to THE JUNGLE by Upton Sinclair. People should insist that their ground meats are grass fed and ground right in front of them while they wait or do it themselves. That makes for a safe and quality ground meat. Get to know your local butcher.

  • Michael

    I may be the only commentator who can speak as an industry outsider who has actually been in a trim plant and knows the process. FTB is not pink and it is not slimy. They start with the fat trimmings from whole meat cuts like sirloin, chuck and round. These trimmings have bits of meat and that meat is recovered by grinding the trim up and separating the protein from the fat with a centrifuge.
    There is no other material added and the “connective tissue” is that which is in the meat already. Look at your next steak and you will see it.
    It is foolish for people to object to FTB over chemical and filler laden “meat” products like hot dogs and pizza toppings.
    The ammonia is a separate issue, but it has nothing to do with FTB and there are better alternatives for pathogen control currently being used.
    I don’t know the motivation of these two “scientists” but it quite clear that they are being less than honest.

  • David Wangbichler

    Right on David!
    Maybe if the beef cost too much they should take it out of school lunches. Then when the beef industry sold ( dumped) a lot less product they would find a way to make it more affordable but still safe..100% lean beef.
    The kids dont have to eat beef by the way.
    I enjoy a hamburger myself but I’m only going to buy from a butcher I know now.
    The USDA should set higher standards for food not continue to lower them.

  • Karl

    The bottom line is that we were not told what is in the ground beef and therefore our right to chose what we put in our bodies was denied. They choose not to disclose this production method because they knew that there are a lot of us that would not eat it. I grew working on ranches and feedlots raising beef and will continue to support the industry but I will not tolerate nondisclosure of what my family and I are consuming. Thanks to the country of origin labeling it is a lot easier for me to buy only US beef and I should be afforded the same opportunity to decide if I want to consume chemically treated byproduct.

  • http://www.jimrehs.net Jim Schmidt

    I haven’t taken a position on this product but I would like to clarify something in the article that may lead readers to a false assumption. The E. coli outbreak in Germany referred to in the article was from consumption of raw sprouts, fenugreek seeds were the source.
    So make sure the schools are not serving raw sprouts. I would definitely be more concerned about raw sprouts than this product.

  • TX Consumer

    I would like to ask a questiion to all of the comments stating “buy from your local buter”. Can you explain how buying from your local butcher is safer. I am looking for facts here, not opinions. I am really interested in knowing. I hear this all of the time, but I have yet to hear an factual answer.

  • http://www.jimrehs.net Jim Schmidt

    TX Consumer the last thing anyone should be saying is “X is safer than Y because they are local”. This is a myth. Organic does not equal safer. Organic does not equal pesticide free. Small farm does not equal safer.
    Go ahead and support locally, buy organic if that is your prerogative, just remember putting a nice word like “organic” in front of “spinach” doesn’t magically remove pathogens. No matter where you source your food from you need to practice food safety at every step of the process.
    I always recommend supporting things that are economically and environmentally sound and sustainable.

  • Minkpuppy

    TX Consumer,
    Unless you buy a chuck roast and stand there watching your local butcher while he grinds it, there’s no guarantee that his ground beef doesn’t contain lean finely textured beef (aka LFTB, the correct name for this stuff).
    Butchers and grocers are getting ripped off on this stuff also. Because of the lack of labeling, they have no idea if that 90/10 ground beef they purchased was made purely from high-quality boneless beef cuts/trimmings or if LFTB was added to stretch out the poundage. It’s economic misbranding at its finest.

  • Tiffany

    Every person is allowed their opinion. Just as every person is allowed choice. That is part of being an American. But what happens when the words of few turn into the words of quite a few and then the media gets involved uses inaccurate or only bits and pieces of truth mixed with lies. Well you get mass hysteria. People panic, they judge not on facts but well… a tunnel visioned opinion. 3,000 people lose their jobs. Children (the same cute little faces you were trying to “protect”) go without health insurance, much needed medications, clothes and some times even food.
    If you take 3,000 lost jobs and an average family has 2.5 children that is 7,500 children suffering because one persons opinion influenced a few, then quite a few and the media involved the nation. We are all allowed our opinion, we are all allowed choice but completely bringing down a company (which is not the only company that makes this product… Hi Cargill), demanding and petitioning that it’s product be banned, allowing hysteria to be spread across our nation, watching stores refuse to carry the product (denying people to choose that product if they wish), and refusing to open the tunneled vision and study the facts about the product you are against, makes me wonder do we really have a choice? Does our opinion even matter? In the case of the lunch tray and LFTB it seems the only opinion and choice that mattered was its founder and those she allowed. If you don’t like something don’t buy it. If you don’t want your childrens school lunch to have it pack them a lunch or take it up with your school district. Why cause a nation already struggling food supply and demand issues, a nation with the highest unemployment rates in history to get rid of a product that has been consumed for over 20 years, that is USDA approved, that is safe, nutritious and sustainable, that allows as much to be harvested from a cow as possible saving 1.5 million head of cattle each year? I think we should all step back become Dear Nancy,
    I am writing you today because I know that you believe in truth and justice. Recently there has been a lot of media on a product called LFTB, also known by a name I will not say. Our nation has been grossly misinformed about this product and our nations economy, beef industry and the jobs of thousands are in jeopardy. Innovation is the key to our nations prosperity, the product being ripped to bits by the media is innovation at its best. We live in a nation where we are struggling with hunger and obesity at the same time. LFTB is a product that helps us fight both. Please visit beefisbeef.com it is a very educational site. Educate yourself and please help me educate our nation. Help me show our nation, our children that the truth will always prevail.
    Sincerely,
    Tiffany Hausefamiliar with the product and educate everyone on what it really is, no P****S****, LFTB. Because really the only reason the nation calls it that is because that’s what one person that turned into a few people, that turned into many allowed the media to spread it to the nation and that’s all they know it by. So let’s say we stop the hysteria and educate each other and allow a company to make a product they have made for 20 years, allow supermarkets to sell the product and let people have an opinion and make their own choice.