Following Monday’s announcement by Beef Products Inc. that the company would suspend operations at three of the four facilities that produce lean finely textured beef (LFTB), many wonder what lasting impact major supermarkets and restaurant chains will have as they stop buying the product publicly derided as “pink slime” or “soylent pink.”
Reports indicate that prior to the mass rejection of LFTB by big-name buyers such as McDonald’s, Burger King and Safeway, the lean beef product supplemented approximately 70 percent of the ground beef eaten in America. That adds up to a lot of beef that will need to be replaced by other means, all of which are more expensive and wasteful, said Gary Acuff, Ph.D., director of the Center for Food Safety at Texas A&M University.
According to estimates Acuff has read, replacing the amount of beef salvaged from carcasses by Beef Products Inc. (BPI) will require an additional 1.5 million cows raised by industrial agriculture. BPI is estimated to retrieve 10 to 15 pounds worth of lean beef from each carcass processed in its facilities.
Those losses could lead to a rise in beef imports, Acuff said, though he was certain that however Americans compensated for the drop in production, the price of beef is sure to rise. Responding to rising prices, consumers might simply choose to buy chicken or pork more often.
Blaming the LFTB backlash on a tsunami of public misinformation spearheaded by ABC News and The Daily, Acuff said that one of the greatest tragedies of the plant shutdown was that it would result in wasting real meat that only BPI’s technology could retrieve from fat trimmings economically.
All fat trimmings contain some lean meat in and around them, whether visible or not. Manually cutting the meat from the fat would be too costly and time-consuming, but separating the lean beef in a heated centrifuge provides an opportunity to retrieve that meat efficiently.
“It’s our responsibility to be good stewards of the food we produce, especially when we have to take the life of an animal to do so, and we figured out a good way to get that extra meat out of the animal that would otherwise get thrown away,” Acuff told Food Safety News. “People are asking, ‘Why wasn’t it labeled when it’s in my beef?’ Well, because it is beef.”
The question of whether the U.S. beef supply will be any less safe without LFTB is more difficult to answer. No studies have definitively concluded that the ammonium hydroxide that kills pathogens in LFTB goes on to effectively kill microorganisms in ground beef when LFTB is mixed in.
But it’s difficult to argue with BPI’s food safety record. Since the company started in 1981, its products have not been definitely linked to a foodborne illness or outbreak. However, according to the 2009 New York Times article, BPI’s product was one of four suppliers to a 2007 Cargill E. coli O157:H7 outbreak. Cargill’s outbreak garnered the New York Times a Pulitzer Prize for its portrayal of Stephanie Smith, the most seriously injured victim.
BPI now tests for Salmonella, E. coli O157:H7 and the “Big Six” strains of harmful E. coli, and unlike some others in the meat industry, holds the meat until tests results are in. Products aren’t put on the market if contamination is detected.
If nothing else, adding LFTB to ground beef likely dilutes the concentration of whatever pathogens exist in the meat.
Ground beef “is an inherently unsafe food,” Acuff said, “but adding LFTB would never make it less safe.”
Some food scientists have decried what they call misinformation spread by media and the former U.S. Department of Agriculture microbiologist who first coined the phrase “pink slime.”
In a statement dated March 23, Iowa State University agriculture professor Joseph Sebranek, Ph.D., wrote that his 1996 study on LFTB in the Journal of Food Sciences had been misconstrued by some media reports.
While Sebranek’s study did not compare nutritional differences between ground beef with and without LTFB, some media reports have claimed that LFTB degrades the meat to which it’s added.
“Our research is potentially being misinterpreted by some in the media as suggesting that LFTB has a deleterious effect on the nutritional quality of ground beef,” Sebranek wrote. “Nothing in our study or what we know about collagen more broadly should lead one to that conclusion.”
Other LFTB critics cited concerns over the ammonium hydroxide used to treat the beef, but Acuff pointed out that not only do humans naturally produce ammonium in their bodies, ammonium hydroxide can be found in a number of other foods, such as baked goods, cheeses and chocolate.
“It disturbs me that the public will listen to the media over someone who does science and research in the area,” Acuff said. “A scientist doesn’t stand a chance against a celebrity news personality, as sad as that is.”
Frustrated by the tone and angle of the mainstream media’s “pink slime” coverage, Acuff wrote a critical commentary along with his colleague, Texas A&M animal science professor H. Russell Cross, Ph.D., (who approved the use of LFTB when he was Administrator of the USDA’s Food Safety). They titled it “Ignorance, pink slime and Sarah Palin?” and attempted to illustrate how people view contentious issues depending on where they get their news.
“Sarah Palin is stupid, Al Gore is an environmental wing nut, Barack Obama is a socialist, you are eating pink slime,” they wrote, rattling off a series of false characterizations perpetuated by various media organizations, depending on their slant.
“We need to step up and be the clear-thinking, informed source of information — before it is too late,” they went on, calling on science-minded individuals in the food industry to speak up and defend the science behind LFTB.
“We are sick and tired of the news media hijacking the truth, minimizing science, frightening consumers and creating a false crisis, just to boost their ratings,” they wrote. “Lean Fine-Textured Beef is not unsafe, deceptive or pet food.”
Acuff said that while the industry has a responsibility to produce safe, quality products, consumers also have a responsibility to keep informed and understand the difficulties in keeping the food supply both safe and affordable.
“It’s a predicament, isn’t it? We don’t want the LFTB stuff. We don’t want irradiation. We don’t want anything like that in our food, but we want it to be safe,” he said. “There seems to be this feeling among the public that somebody is always trying to get something over on them, and BPI just happened to get caught this time. Nobody wants to do that. BPI wasn’t hiding anything — they were trying to make a quality product. If people had been better informed, this might not have gone south so quickly.”