By March of last year, lean finely textured beef (LFTB) had reached celebrity status under the unfavorable moniker “pink slime.” The product—which is made by centrifuging slightly heated fatty beef trimmings to separate out lean meat bits and then treating that meat with ammonia gas to reduce foodborne pathogens —was the subject of thousands of media articles, millions of tweets and widespread consumer outrage when the public learned it was being used in the vast majority of the nation’s ground beef.
Parents in particular became outraged when they discovered that millions of pounds of LFTB were being used in the national school lunch program, and that the U.S. Department of Agriculture was about to purchase 7 million pounds of the product for the next school year. Responding to public outcry, in a matter of weeks, major meat companies, grocery chains and school districts had dropped the substance from their ground beef, forcing LFTB-producer Beef Products Inc. to shutter three of its four production plants. According to Meat & Poultry, BPI’s sales dropped to $400 million, down from $1.1 billion it was making annually before the “pink slime” controversy began.
Now, a year later, Food Safety News has obtained several thousand internal emails from USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service – the agency charged with ensuring meat is safe and properly labeled. The emails paint a picture of what was happening behind the scenes at the agency, revealing vastly different opinions on the safety and quality of LFTB – from employees who called it “GROSS” to those who called media skepticism of LFTB “a bunch of bull.” These correspondences also show that many within the agency thought LFTB should have been labeled as an ingredient in ground beef. (Under current USDA policy, LFTB can comprise up to 15 percent of a ground beef product, and it does not have to be labeled on packaging). Some employees suggested that other processed meat products are more unappetizing than LFTB, and some even admitted that they avoid U.S. ground beef altogether.
Food Safety News requested an interview with FSIS to gain additional context for the emails, but the agency declined. It was also of note that our reporters received almost no records of emails from the highest echelons of FSIS leadership, including USDA Under Secretary for Food Safety Elisabeth Hagen and FSIS Administrator Al Almanza.
LFTB was new news for some at FSIS too
When consumer outrage over LFTB went viral last spring many federal food safety officials had never heard of the product.
“Do you know anything about this?” wrote one FSIS meat inspector to a colleague March 3, in response to a consumer inquiry. “I checked USDA’s homepage and there is nothing about it there.”
On March 6, after reading The Daily’s story on USDA’s use of LFTB in the national school lunch program, Bettina Siegel, a mother of two who writes a blog about school food, launched a petition on Change.org to ban the product from the program. The next day, ABC World News was on the story, reporting that 70 percent of U.S. ground beef contained LFTB. Within a matter of days, Siegel’s petition had over 250,000 signatures, and had garnered national attention.
Some FSIS officials were frustrated that they didn’t find out about the widely used product from the agency.
“The thing that gets me is why do we learn about products like this through the news media and not from the agency?” wrote another meat inspector March 12.
An agency veterinarian in New York said, “I was totally unaware of the process, but I am glad that I have access to the resources to learn about it and then pass along my knowledge to family and friends.”
School administrators also seemed to be unaware that LFTB was in products being served to students, according to the emails.
“This is disgusting,” wrote John Overcash, the Food Service Director for Littleton Public Schools in Massachusetts, referring to Siegel’s Change.org petition. “The article did mention that McDonalds has stopped using ground beef that contains pink slime. Be interested to know if the ground beef produced at a grocery store could or does contain this pink slime. I don’t buy commercially premade burgers or the tubes of ground beef often sold in grocery stores any way.”
Sarah Klein, a food safety attorney at the Center for Science in the Public Interest told Food Safety News she believes the LFTB fiasco raised transparency concerns.
“The troubling part of the entire pink slime fiasco– which we believe is unsavory, but generally not unsafe– is that no one outside the industry seemed to know what was going into burgers; not the consumers who were buying them or the agency that regulates them,” said Klein in an email. “That’s the truly unsavory part of this, and the part that is worrisome for public health. If the agency who is tasked with overseeing the safety of beef products doesn’t know what’s going in to those products, how can consumers have confidence in their food?”
Emails reveal a divided agency
As “pink slime” snowballed into a national controversy, FSIS employees revealed their thoughts on whether or not LFTB was an offensive product over email. Some said they had no problem with the product, while others didn’t consider it fit for human consumption.
“Absolutely; it shouldn’t be eligible for the Mark [of USDA inspection] – ought to be treated the same as lungs,” wrote one agency veterinarian based in California.
“GROSS,” wrote another FSIS employee.
Others revealed longstanding mistrust of LFTB, and even the U.S. ground beef supply as a whole, despite the fact that their job is to ensure the safety of meat.
“I stopped eating ground beef a long, long time ago because of my years in the processing plants…..that should tell you everything……” wrote one inspector in an email to a friend at the New York Department of Agriculture. “I don’t agree with allowing LFTB (lean finely textured beef), aka, pink slime, to be called beef. It’s a cost cutter, plain and simple…it should be on the label as it is and not called beef.”
Another food safety inspector said he doesn’t let his kids eat any ground beef.
“I think it’s just another way for industry to extend their inventory and make a buck,” he wrote. “I wish it doesn’t have to come to this, but it’s industry at its best and reality. I don’t allow neither of my kids to consume beef/hamburgers. Their little immune systems are not match for tainted product. So, I’m not worried about it.”
Another inspector stationed at a Smithfield plant added: “I would not prefer to consumer this. [Finely] textured lean beef. I call [it] ammonia chips.”
“Regarding the pink slime, I don’t think anyone would have thought to use such stuff in ‘the old days,’” one FSIS inspector emailed to another. “Now it’s all about making money from selling the unknowing public hog slop!”
An agency import inspector emailed a colleague the initial ABC report and added: “Amazing what they (FSIS management) can get away with, glad to hear that USDA/FSIS scientist blew the whistle on this one!”
And the criticism continued: “Amazing that they got this approved in the 1st place it has a caustic chemical inside of it, and some how it got through all the labeling & haccp screening!” wrote one FSIS employee to another.
Some were even a touch dramatic: “What is this world coming too!!!!!” lamented one inspector.
But many others familiar with LFTB defended its safety and quality.
One FSIS employee referred to ABC News’ reporting on LFTB as “a bunch of bull.”
Gary Davis, Deputy District Manager at the Dallas District Office called ABC’s reporting “sensational journalism at its best.” He also questioned the merit of the FSIS “whistleblowers” that were featured widely in the media.
“This is a sad deal,” wrote one agency inspector to another, regarding the news that BPI would have to close three production plants. “One of the only true clean facilities I have ever been in. Spare no expense type of business to get things done right.”
Another food safety inspector said, “I always found it to be a strange process, but I’d still eat the beef.”
“[I]ndustry has spent a great deal of money on research and has a vested interest in producing safe products while efficiently using as much of the raw product (in this case beef carcasses) as they can – this is smart both businesswise and environment-wise,” wrote an FSIS official working in the Denver District to fellow supervisors, adding that, according to the American Meat Institute, if LFTB was removed from the marketplace the industry would need another million and a half head to make up the volume.
A fine line
Throughout the firestorm, FSIS officials struggled to walk a fine line between assuring the public that LFTB was safe and promoting the product, the emails show.
A month before the story went viral, then FSIS spokesman Dirk Fillpot flagged a local news story in an email to other communications staff. “The video leads with the sensational claims by Jamie Oliver and the ‘ick’ factor of the product,” he wrote. “The company doesn’t attempt to defend its product, nor is it our role to defend their product.”
By March 15—about a week after ABC World News had begun airing scathing stories about LFTB nightly—the USDA announced that it would allow school districts to choose whether they wanted to purchase ground beef containing the product.
That same day, Republican staff for the Senate Agriculture Committee “demanded” a call with both the Food and Nutrition Service, which runs the national school lunch program, and FSIS, according to an email from Brian Mabry, Deputy Director of Congressional and Public Affairs at FSIS.
“Staff is concerned that we are killing the beef industry,” read the email.
Members of Congress, it seemed, were either questioning why USDA hadn’t required LFTB to be labeled in the first place, or they were blasting the department for not taking a harder line against LFTB criticism.
One letter, from Iowa Congressman Steve King’s office to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack’s office, said, “We ask that you engage the full force of the USDA and your personal influence to reverse the unjustified tsunami that threatens to take down a great Iowa company.”
To help respond to the criticism coming from Capitol Hill, someone in Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s office sent an email to the FSIS communications team, asking for talking points on USDA’s response on LFTB.
Citing the letter from Rep. King, the staffer asked: “[H]ow best do we respond to the issue of ‘promoting’ a particular product? I would assume there are some statutory, legal and or regulatory concerns there?”
By the end of the month, USDA had greatly strengthened its PR response.
On March 28, Secretary Vilsack held a press conference in Des Moines with Iowa Governor Terry Branstad to help dispel LFTB’s negative image. Vilsack noted that USDA had received hundreds of requests to stop using LFTB in the school lunch program, but he said since the product is safe, lower in fat, and inexpensive the department had no plans to remove the product.
“By taking this safe product out of the market, grocery retailers and consumers are allowing media sensationalism to trump sound science,” said Vilsack and Branstad, in a joint statement. “This is a disservice to the beef industry, hundreds of workers who make their livings producing this safe product, and consumers as a whole.”
The next day, USDA’s Under Secretary for Food Safety Elisabeth Hagen appeared at a BPI press event in Nebraska with Texas Governor Rick Perry, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback, as well as Texas A&M food safety professor Gary Acuff and Nancy Donley of STOP Foodborne Illness.
“Dude It’s Beef!” and “Beef is beef” became the slogans of those touting LFTB’s safety and quality. A variety of brightly colored t-shirts donning BPI’s logo and the slogans were passed out as souvenirs at the press conference.
(Interestingly, there were no FSIS emails about this press event in the agency’s FOIA response to Food Safety News).
There was another layer that further complicated USDA’s response, according to the emails – a lack of interagency coordination when it came to messaging.
“FNS [Food and Nutrition Service] has been a problem all the way throughout this exercise in that they have not been in sync with the rest of us,” wrote Mabry, in the thick of the media storm. “We learned a little earlier today that FNS is having a conference call at 1:30 PM today with stakeholders on this topic – and by learned, I mean that Jarvis [then Agriculture Marketing Service spokesman] got an inquiry from the NY Times asking to listen in. “
To label or not? “It looks like pink play doh, not ground meat”
The emails reveal that FSIS officials, including frontline meat inspectors and labeling policy staff, were also divided over whether LFTB should be labeled if it’s used in meat products consumers buy at the grocery store.
At times, the emails suggest there was some internal confusion about the agency’s 2001 decision to allow BPI’s product to be added to fresh ground beef without any labeling.
“I don’t think that we ever said that LTB is ground beef,” said Phil Derfler, Deputy Administrator at FSIS, in an email in mid-February. “We just said that it is cow meat because I think that you can show that what emerges from the BPI process is muscle tissue. We don’t get the opportunity to judge the quality of the product if it meets the definition of meat.”
When Merle Evans, who used to work as a food technologist for FSIS’ labeling division, emailed Sally Jones, a senior technical adviser on labeling, asking if she knew anything about “pink slime” in early March, she responded incredulously.
“Are you kidding?? It is the BPI finely textured beef that is treated with ammonia,” wrote Jones. “Let’s see, Ashland and Ron were about the 50th people from DC to go see the stuff, and Ron said it went in white and came out red. It’s pretty much fat with a little lean, that is heated, centrifuged and becomes finely textured beef or beef. YUCK.”
Jones added that Brett Schwemer at Olsson, Frank and Weeda, a prominent lobbying firm in DC, was “involved,” though it’s not entirely clear what she meant because the rest of the email is redacted, citing a FOIA exemption for releasing trade secrets or other confidential commercial information.
A few days later, Jones and Jeffrey Canavan, Deputy Director of FSIS’ Labeling and Program Delivery Division, were emailing back and forth about why LFTB struck a particular nerve with consumers.
“I’m guessing this is the worst that can be used and consumers never know about it, and it is in “ground beef” a sacred product that everyone eats,” wrote Jones.
“True,” Canavan responded. “Putting the ammonia controversy aside though, I don’t see the issue with ftb…I guess its just consumers don’t know. I think they expect that premium cuts of beef are only used.”
Jones said she agreed, but added, “I think it is also what it looks like, it looks like pink play doh, not ground meat.”
According to FSIS, ammonium hydroxide – which is what ammonia gas becomes when it bonds with the water in meat – is considered a processing aid, not an ingredient, so it doesn’t have to be labeled. The ingredient is on the government’s list of substances that are generally recognized as safe (GRAS).
On that list, ammonium hydroxide is recognized as being “used as a leavening agent…; a pH control agent…; a surface-finishing agent…; and as a boiler water additive.”
In an Op-Ed published in USA Today on April 2, former FSIS Administrator Dr. Russel Cross, who had first approved LFTB, declared that, “There is no need for labeling LFTB — because nothing is being added that is not beef.”
Contrary to LFTB supporters’ claims that the product utilizes just a small “puff” of ammonia and does not smell or taste any different than lean ground beef, FSIS employees pointed out in emails that the product did smell strongly of ammonia before being mixed into regular ground beef.
One agency employee, whose name was not disclosed, wrote to Laura Hulsey, the Director of FSIS’ Policy Development Division, saying “[name redacted] will contend that there is no residual and it dissipates. He opened a bag of injected ammoniated beef (intact cut) for sensory analysis after 2 weeks…my cynical sniff test. Didn’t pass.”
George Pauley, a veteran FSIS inspector, wrote to a colleague in March: “Reliable [a meat company] used that stuff for a while. When you opened the cases, it stunk up the whole processing room.”
In both cases, it’s not clear whether officials had been in contact with BPI’s product before or after the company changed the amount of ammonia it was using in the LFTB process. As the New York Times and others have reported, the company started tinkering with its system after customers complained that LFTB smelled like ammonia. Some media reports have questioned whether lowering the ammonia levels greatly influenced the pathogen reductions the company had been achieving.
On March 20, during a discussion about how to respond to concerns raised by Senator Jon Tester (D-MT), Dr. Daniel Engeljohn, Assistant Administrator for the Office of Policy and Program Development addressed BPI’s process change: “I think it is appropriate to say that at one time USDA was of the understanding that the lethality treatment being applied to the product was sufficient to eliminate E. coli O157:H7 and Salmonella. At some point in time, the establishment chose to lessen the lethality treatment, achieving only a pathogen reduction (not elimination) treatment.”
By the end of March, Cargill had asked the agency if it could use the claim “contains no finely textured beef” on their products, and FSIS was carefully weighing the pros and cons of three options going forward, according to an internal memo. (Cargill uses a process similar to BPI’s, but instead of anhydrous ammonia, the company utilizes citric acid to kill pathogens.)
The first option was to deny the claim because, while factual, it “could be misleading for consumers” and “could raise additional questions on an extremely sensitive issue.” The second option was to approve the claim, but only for ground beef not sold at the retail level, so that processors would know what they were getting, but consumers at the point of purchase wouldn’t. The memo contends that this could be useful for industry but “could cause consumer outrage.”
The third option was to approve the claim for both retail and non-retail labels, but officials similarly worried it could cause confusion. “Consumers may still be unclear as to why LFTB is permitted to be in ground beef and without ingredient labeling,” the memo read.
The emails on March 27 also indicate that beef giant Cargill had asked the agency if the company could include LFTB in its ingredient label for consumers.
“Cargill asked if FSIS would be amenable to putting FTB in the ingredient statement,” read an email from Engeljohn. “Phil [FSIS Deputy Administrator] indicated that he would not want this option. Rather, he would want there to be a note on the [front of package] or elsewhere that says that the product does/doesn’t contain FTB.”
“Needs a decision this morning,” he added. “Several Cargill facilities are not operational today because they have no buyers for the ground beef. Virtually all of their product has FTB.”
Ultimately, the agency decided to allow companies to label their product “contains lean finely textured beef” on the front of the package on a voluntary basis.
Emails show that several FSIS employees were personally in favor of labeling LFTB.
“Carrie and I both believe consumers should have a choice because this is a rendered product and is inferior like a filler when though it comes from the scraps of a carcass,” wrote Ilene Arnold, a veterinarian staff officer within FSIS’ Policy Development Division.
“I don’t think it should be called ground beef either, but that’s just my opinion!!!!” wrote one FSIS employee to another. “I think it should be declared on the label and if it’s used in meat in the restaurants, then it needs to be disclosed on all of the dishes it’s used in on the menu. Of course that’s just my opinion again. We all know what that’s worth!!!!!”
Another email read, “Truth in Labeling – Not a primary responsibility – just an additional dollar for the beef industry. Extend the beef. I bet this stuff can’t be used in pet food. What did they do with this stuff prior BPI? In order to call it beef trimmings it had to contain 12% visible lean years ago. The USDA always gives more than it’s worth for commodity stuff. The [poultry] industry has to declare their pink slime.”
On the flipside, there were also several FSIS employees who defended the product and maintained it needn’t be labeled.
“Pink slime is not an adulterant,” said one FSIS employee, whose name was redacted. “It is a meat product and all packaged meat pretty much has it and has had it for years. The only issue now is that someone saw it and reacted unfavorably. The slime is actually meat that is processed more than ordinary meat like ground beef.”
If they think this is gross…
Not only did the national “pink slime” debate bring out FSIS officials’ opinions of LFTB, it also sparked comments about other, “nastier” meat products regulated by the agency. When the topic of LFTB came up in emails, many in the agency were ready to name foods they thought were even more off-putting.
“If they think that the Pink Slime is bad or nasty wait till the media gets a hold of MST or MSC this stuff is the original Pink Slime,” wrote one employee in a March 20 email. MST and MSC stand for mechanically separated turkey and mechanically separated chicken, respectively. Both are ubiquitous ingredients in processed meat products and both are required to be labeled as ingredients.
Others expressed similar thoughts.
“If they could only see what the mechanically separated chicken and turkey looks like,” wrote one employee in an email to two dozen others on March 29 after the governors’ press conference. “Now that is pink because they add nitrite and it is like paste or cement before it sets up.”
“There is pink slime in poultry too. It is called MSP,” wrote Dr. James Rogers, Branch Chief of the Microbiological Analysis and Data Branch at the Office of Public Health at FSIS on March 16.
Also writing about mechanically separated poultry, Dr. Michael Hockman, chief of the Ohio Department of Agriculture’s Division of Meat Inspection wrote March 29, “Wait till the social media assigns one of their activists to a plant that makes the stuff. Now that is pick slime. At least now it has to be labeled what it is.”
Coincidentally, early media reports about LFTB mistakenly used pictures of what appeared to be mechanically separated chicken.
In a Q & A posted on its website in May of 2012, The National Chicken Council made sure to separate MSC from ‘pink slime:’ “While the federal government has determined the use of ammonium hydroxide in food processing is safe, it is not used in the production of MSC.”
According to NCC, mechanically separated chicken is “product that is derived from separating chicken meat, which is naturally low in fact, from the bone, using a high pressure device.”
In a March 9 email to two leaders in the labeling department, technical advisor Sally Jones wrote, “Can you imagine if they heard of that other stuff, the dissolved in acid and re precipitated in base JUNK. That is worse.”
Food Safety News was unable to determine what food Jones was referring to.
“Hopefully the Agency can make strides to better educate the public before the next big whirlwind (hotdogs? Lunchmeats? Chicken nuggets?” wrote an FSIS veterinarian based in Buffalo, NY on March 22.
But for now, BPI, ABC News and two former FSIS officials who came forward to decry LFTB are still dealing with the aftermath of the “pink slime” controversy. BPI sued ABC, former FSIS employees Carl Custer and Gerald Zernstein, and former BPI quality assurance manager Kit Foshee for alleged defamation of its product. Motions to dismiss the case against the defendants are still pending, as is BPI’s motion to remand to State Court.
BPI’s counsel confirmed with Food Safety News that it is still operating at a production rate of less than 25 percent compared to its production rate before the incidents of last year.
Editor’s Note: FSIS’ FOIA office said that it “inadvertently” did not fully respond to Food Safety News’ FOIA request regarding these emails, which was filed last July. The FOIA office is working to remedy this and we will post additional documents online as they are received. For now, emails that have been released can be found here: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V.
Marler Clark LLP, underwriter of Food Safety News, is representing two defendants (former FSIS officials Carl Custer and Gerald Zirnstein) in the BPI defamation case.
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