As Beef Products Inc. was being “slimed” this week — from the blogosphere to network television — David M. Theno was feeling unusually helpless watching from Tampa where he was keynoting the 2012 Annual Beef Industry Safety Summit, along with Food Safety News publisher Bill Marler.
Theno, the guru who was brought in to save Jack in the Box after the infamous 1993 E. coli O157:H7 outbreak, has become one of the nation’s elite food safety consultants through his Del Mar, CA-based Gray Dog Partners.
He was among those who emerged Thursday wondering how boneless lean beef trimmings by South Dakota-based Beef Products Inc. (BPI) could be so maligned by name-calling.
“It is so far off base, it’s just incredible,” Theno told Food Safety News.
And one problem, he says, is that responding to all the misinformation is more complicated than a 10-second television sound bite. Those attacking BPI have that covered. All they have to say is: pink slime.
Those who are campaigning to get USDA to drop plans to purchase an estimated 7 million pounds of lean beef trim are among those calling the product “pink slime” in an Internet petition campaign.
Theno, who has done consulting for BPI, begins by pointing out that – while difficult – any home cook could separate beef fat from beef muscle with a knife and cutting board, creating the same boneless lean beef trimmings.
But long lines of butchers working with knives on such a difficult task would not be economically feasible. That’s why before BPI came up with a mechanized process to do this, such trimmings were often leftovers that ended up being used for pets or oils.
To reduce waste and increase protein, BPI did its own research and development and came up with a proprietary process. While the company does protect its intellectual property, it is not secretive when it comes to sharing the outcomes.
The BPI grinding process is built around a centrifuge that removes beef fat, resulting in a product that is 90 percent or more lean beef. The process includes the use of an ammonia and water bath (ammonium hydroxide), which has proven to be one of the beef industry’s most successful interventions against harmful bacteria — microbes that can sicken and kill.
It works as an antimicrobial agent by slightly increasing the naturally occurring ammonium hydroxide levels in beef and by doing so eliminates harmful pathogens. The use of ammonium hydroxide is not uncommon in food manufacturing.
It is used as a leavening agent in baking, to produce caramel, and in drinking water. It’s used in grains, baked goods, condiments, pancakes, chocolates, puddings and cheeses.
At BPI, the result is a flash frozen product, inexpensive and safe, for hamburger patties, taco meat and sausages.
On Wednesday, ABC World News Tonight reported that 70 percent of the hamburger sold in America contains the BPI ingredient as a “filler,” which the network incorrectly said is not meat.
And The Daily, the iPad-friendly newspaper, ran a couple stories earlier in the week over USDA’s purchase this year of seven million pounds of lean beef from trim for the National School Lunch program.
Two former USDA employees, Gerald Zirnstein and Carl Custer, reportedly remain upset over the government’s acceptance of BPI’s beef product, a decision that dates back almost 20 years ago.
ABC claimed that the then-assistant secretary for USDA’s Marketing and Inspection Service, Jo Ann Smith, overruled unnamed “scientists” on lean beef from trim. And ABC linked that decision to Smith later being named to the board of directors of an unnamed BPI supplier.
BPI’s defenders see all of this as pure fiction.
Now 74, Smith has been recognized for both her good character and glass-ceiling shattering accomplishments, based mostly on achievements outside government. Smith was the first woman president of the powerful Denver-based National Cattlemen’s Association.
She is credited with founding the National Beef Promotion and Research Board, and coming up with the Beef Check-off for marketing U.S. beef worldwide. Until recently, Smith served on corporate boards of some of the world’s largest agriculture-related companies, including Iowa Beef Producers, Purina Mills and Tyson Foods.
ABC did not say which of Smith’s board assignments was supposedly related to her decisions involving BPI during her government service, which ran from 1989 to 1993, perhaps because the allegation is pure speculation.
Theno says that then as now, any USDA decision was not made by any one person but by multiple layers of people over time in typical government decision-making mode.
Both government and industry experts are confident about the wholesomeness of boneless lean beef trimmings.
USDA says it has strengthened ground beef food safety standards in recent years and only allows products into commerce that it has confidence are safe.
The American Meat Institute (AMI) says boneless lean beef trimming (BLBT) are safe, wholesome and nutritious and calls the process similar to separating cream from milk.
Small cuts of meats left over from larger cuts are trimmed down, then run through a process to take the fats away — and the end result is nutritious, lean beef, says AMI. Everything is done under USDA inspection.
AMI says utilizing boneless lean beef trimmings in a world where red meat protein supplies are decreasing and global demand is increasing is a good thing. Demand is rising because both world population and incomes are rising.
“Some recent media reports created a troubling and inaccurate picture, particularly in their use of the colloquial term ‘pink slime,’ ” AMI said in a statement. “The fact is, BLBT is beef. The beef trimmings that are used to make BLBT are absolutely edible. In fact, no process can somehow make inedible meat edible; it’s impossible. In reality, the BLBT production process simply removes fat and makes the remaining beef more lean and suited to a variety of beef products that satisfy consumers’ desire for leaner foods.
“In fact, BLBT is a sustainable product because it recovers lean meat that would otherwise be wasted. The beef industry is proud to efficiently produce as much lean meat as possible from the cattle we raise. It’s the right thing to do and it ensures that our products remain as affordable as we can make them while helping to feed America and the world.”
For its part, BPI produced statements of support from consumer and industry food leaders.
Keith Nunes, executive editor of Food Business News, said negative depictions of BPI’s use of ammonium hydroxide were “distressing” because the process was “generally recognized as safe” by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as long ago as 1974. It was approved for use as a food safety agent in 2001.
Nancy Donley, founder of STOP Foodborne Illness, said she was “encouraged to see a company like BPI taking the bull by the horns and independently test for those killer pathogens before being required to by government…”
BPI has been called “extraordinarily creative in developing ways to protect consumers from pathogens in meat” by Carole Tucker-Foreman, Distinguished Fellow at the Food Policy Institute, Consumer Federation of America.
BPI has also been recognized for its leadership in “testing and holding” beef —
waiting for pathogen test results before releasing beef into commerce — first for E. coli O157:H7 and more recently for six other disease-causing strains of E. coli.