Responding to a dramatic drop in consumer demand, Beef Products Inc, the nation’s leading maker of ammoniated beef now widely known as “pink slime,” announced it is suspending production at three plants. The suspended plants account for approximately 70 percent of the company’s capacity to produce Lean Finely Textured Beef (LFTB) treated with ammonium hydroxide.
LFTB is essentially low-cost filler made from leftover trimmings once relegated to pet food and other byproducts. Because all beef trimmings are at risk for E. coli or Salmonella contamination, the company adds a mixture of ammonia and water (ammonium hydroxide) to kill bacteria. The product, which is 90 percent lean, is then mixed in with other, higher fat content ground beef.
Calling the recent barrage of negative coverage of its product “unfounded and misguided,” the company said it would temporarily suspend the operations at production facilities in Garden City, Kansas; Amarillo, Texas; and Waterloo, Iowa, which employ around 650 people. The Dakota Dune, South Dakota headquarters plant will continue operating, but not at capacity, according to company spokesman Rich Jochum.
“The plant probably won’t be at capacity for a while,” said Jochum, adding that the company’s production plans would depend on how long it takes to “educate and inform consumers” to restore demand for the product. In the meantime, the company will continue to pay and provide benefits to the suspended plant workers.
Demand has plummeted in large part because many of the nation’s leading grocery chains have responded to consumer concern about the undisclosed presence of ammonia-hydroxide-treated beef trimmings and dropped LFTB from their ground beef. Safeway, SuperValu, Kroger, Food Lion have completely dropped the ingredient from ground beef and Walmart is now offering consumers a choice.
Last spring, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver sparked interest in the topic after railing against the product on his ABC reality show. He called the “clever scientific process” shocking and a breach of consumer trust and referred to LFTB as “shit.” Fast food giants McDonald’s, Taco Bell, and Burger King all dropped LFTB several months later.
In the past few weeks, the LFTB debate has stuck a national chord. ABC World News has run several segments on “pink slime” and The Daily, an iPad publication, re-reported issues that had been brought up in 2009 by the New York Times in a series that won the Pulitzer Prize. The Daily pointed to the fact that USDA was gearing up to purchase more of the product for the national school lunch program.
“Pink slime” caught even more momentum when Bettina Elias Siegel, a mom and blogger, petitioned the U.S. Department of Agriculture to remove the product from school lunches. Since launching her petition at change.org, she has attracted more than quarter of a million signatures. USDA has said school districts could opt not to serve the treated beef.
“It’s not just the petition,” said Jochum in an interview with Food Safety News. “ABC News, The Daily, Jamie Oliver — they are all part of what feels like a campaign. They’ve put out enough false information that it will take a significant amount of time to undo. To restore demand, first we have to restore consumer confidence.”
Jochum said the company was considering legal action and said misinformation from media sources included over-using the term “pink slime” without attribution, falsehoods about the ingredients, the use of ammonium hydroxide, the levels of ammonium hydroxide, and what it’s used for.
Will ground beef be less safe if ammoniated beef is dropped for good?
Jochum said there has been “very limited research” on the precise impact ammoniated beef has on the safety of the mixed product — or whether BPI’s LFTB actually makes the whole burger less likely to carry E. coli.
Iowa State University did a study a decade ago that showed there was a small reduction in pathogens in ground beef mixed with BPI’s LFTB, so it could provide an additional level of safety, but it’s not settled science.
The bigger issue, on the food safety front, is that BPI’s overall testing program is much more advanced than other meat processors. BPI tests and holds — waiting for test results before releasing the product into commerce — and tests for Salmonella and non-O157 E. coli in addition to E. coli O157:H7.
“We’ve had positives and we’ve prevented them from going to market,” said Jochum. “We know now that some of those will now go into ground beef. They won’t go through our plant.”
Whether or not BPI ever wins the image war on “pink slime,” it seems clear the company is making a compelling case for more progressive testing policies for ground beef.
“It’s a good argument for everyone doing finished product testing,” added Jochum. “Unfortunately, we don’t have control over anyone but ourselves.”
“Ultimately, the question will be: are there any processing aids that will be acceptable to consumers? Or is the idea of processing aids unacceptable?”