The very recent attacks on Beef Products Inc. by groups of well-intentioned but seriously misguided foodies is more proof that good science is too often trumped by manipulated public opinion. For those of you who don’t know the company, BPI produces a boneless lean beef product from trim that is usually lost. Its primary uses are for hamburger patties, taco meat, chili and sausages.
It has two primary benefits: It’s a very low-cost additive and it is as close to an absolutely safe product as humanly possible to produce. Its biggest negative? Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver started a devil’s chorus of condemnation when he labeled it ‘pink slime’ on the season premiere of his now-cancelled ‘Food Revolution’ TV program. Watch the segment on YouTube: (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wshlnRWnf30)
It was the second major victory of ignorance over science. The first being the almost complete beat-down suffered by irradiation a decade ago.
Irradiation’s opponents cried out that the process gave beef processors free rein to take unwarranted shortcuts – not cleaning carcasses, for instance. “Irradiated poop is still poop,” they said, “and this will allow them to sell that crap to the public.”
Of course two facts — (1) irradiation is almost a “silver bullet” that can eradicate most food borne pathogens and (2) it was designed as an end-of-production additional hurdle to be used after several other food safety steps, including thoroughly washing that carcass, had already been taken — were shunned in the stampede away from the process.
“No!” said the Safe Food Luddites. “The American public should not be forced to accept glow-in-the-dark meat liberally dosed with irradiated poop!”
But back to the damage that Oliver created. He demonstrated how “70 percent” of America’s ground beef contains leftover cow parts (aka “pink slime”) containing E. coli and Salmonella that has been treated with ammonia. Seventy percent seems a little high, I’m sure BPI founder Eldon Roth would be delighted with that share of market and I know most food safety advocates would love the results.
And saying those “leftover cow parts” contain E. coli and Salmonella is taking gross liberties with the truth. OK, let’s call it what it is: A lie written for maximum emotional impact. Even if some very small percentage was contaminated, the food safety practices used by BPI would quickly identify the problem and their process would eradicate any pathogens.
BPI was the first company to hold and test for the “Big Six” E. coli pathogens, for instance, announcing the decision on July 14, 2011, well before the announced FSIS mandated deadline of March 5, 2012. In a press release a company spokesman said, “This first-of-a-kind action is part of the company’s ‘hold and test’ quality assurance program through which BPI samples its lean beef prior to sale, holds the lean beef, and tests for the presence of pathogens. Only after determining the test results are negative will beef be sold or used for raw ground beef.”
Keith Nunes, executive editor of Food Business News, writing for Meat&Poultry magazine, said “due to negative publicity, the company that once promoted the fact its boneless lean beef is used in the hamburgers manufactured for most of the nation’s major fast-food chains has seen some of those customers tell their suppliers to stop using the Beef Products lean beef. Negative publicity about the company’s process and the use of the compound ammonium hydroxide, a critical component of the process, is at the heart of Beef Products’ recent challenges.”
Opponents would have you believe that large vats of contaminated beef are drowned in household ammonia at BPI and then masticated into a chemical goo that’s hidden in meat patties that are being force-fed to innocent children in school lunch programs.
Nunes pointed out that the meat is exposed to “ammonium hydroxide, designated as ‘generally recognized as safe’ for use in food by the Food and Drug Administration in 1974 and it has been used as a leavening agent in baked foods as well as a way to manage the pH in many types of food products since then.”
BPI has been upfront about the safety process and the scientific review that went into evaluating its effectiveness as a food safety tool. Its processes and products have received accolades by many people in the food safety arena. Nancy Donley, the founder of Safe Tables Our Priority (STOP) and one of the most well-known and respected observers of the food industry, praised Eldon Roth and his work at BPI when she helped inaugurate him into the Meat Industry Hall of Fame in November.
Stating some of the science behind the process, Nunes wrote, “Ammonium hydroxide is naturally found in proteins such as beef, pork and chicken. What the Beef Products process does is increase the amount of ammonium hydroxide in the lean beef to elevate its overall pH and make the product inhospitable to the survival of pathogens such as E. coli O157:H7 and Salmonella.”
Nunes was concerned that unfounded public perceptions were being used “to cast a negative light on a process that is proven to be safe and has been designed to protect consumers.”
“The situation Beef Products finds itself in is not isolated,” he wrote. “Other processes, such as the use of bisphenol A, are also being challenged. Food safety is not a natural, pure or simple process and products will be less safe if effective processes are shunned for reasons that have more to do with perception than science.”*
Making sure our food supply is as safe as possible requires the use of some sophisticated science, and emotional reactions by people who speak before they understand the process will delay acceptance at best. The worst case, though, is their unwarranted and unsubstantiated fears can stop needed and proven scientific advances cold, exposing thousands of people to easily avoidable illnesses and death.
*Read Keith Nunes’ editorial in MeatPoultry.com magazine
Chuck Jolley is president of Jolley & Associates, a marketing and public relations firm that concentrates on the food industry.