The story of Beef Products Inc.’s Lean Finely Textured Beef isn’t new, and neither is the nickname “pink slime.” Yet after more than 10 years on the market, the beef additive had never received the level of attention it did beginning in March of this year when a cascade of exposure from ABC, The Daily and blogger moms skyrocketed its notoriety.
This timeline lays out the history of a product so ubiquitous that anyone who ate ground beef in recent years likely consumed it, whether they knew it or not. In hindsight, the controversy surrounding the product serves as a reminder that food safety, a topic often viewed through the lenses of science and risk assessment, can never entirely escape politics and emotion.
1971: BPI CEO Eldon Roth founds Roth Refrigeration and invents the Roller Press Freezer, which can freeze packages of meat in two minutes, the company says, reportedly reducing the time from several hours.
1974: The FDA declares food grade ammonium hydroxide (essentially ammonia and water) safe for consumption.
1981: Roth founds Beef Products Inc., building its first plant in Amarillo, Texas. The plant manufactures frozen beef products using the Roller Press Freezer.
1988: BPI’s second plant is opened in Holcomb, Kansas.
1992: The company opens its third plant in Waterloo, Iowa.
1993: The USDA approves BPI’s heated centrifuge process of separating lean beef from fatty, boneless trimmings.
1994: Following the beef industry’s increased attention to food safety in the wake of the 1993 Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak, Eldon Roth starts developing a pH Enhancement System to reduce the number of pathogens in beef. Roth’s idea employs an ammonium hydroxide gas treatment which eventually paves the way for the development of Lean Finely Textured Beef (LFTB).
1998: BPI opens its fourth plant in South Sioux City, Nebraska. Later that year, the company introduces its “test and hold” program for E. coli O157:H7.
2001: The FDA and USDA approve BPI’s pH Enhancement System to treat lean beef with ammonium hydroxide as a processing aid meant to eliminate pathogens. The company begins marketing ammonia-treated LFTB.
2002: A logistical error at a BPI plant sends 13 boxes of contaminated LFTB out to customers instead of the rendering plant. The company announced a recall as soon as it catches the mistake, though none of it gets returned and is assumed to have been consumed without leading to any reported illnesses. USDA microbiologist Gerald Zirnstein tours a BPI plant as part of an investigation into recent contamination. He coins the term “pink slime” in an email to colleagues, adding, “I do not consider the stuff to be ground beef, and I consider allowing it in ground beef to be a form of fraudulent labeling.” That same year, the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service, the division that buys food for the school lunch program, releases a memorandum questioning whether LFTB was in their best interest “from a quality standpoint.” The memorandum concluded that LFTB “should be labeled accordingly,” The New York Times said.
2003: Officials in Georgia return 7,000 pounds of LFTB after state prison cooks complain of strong ammonia odors in 60-pound blocks of the product meant to be served to prisoners. The officials assume the meat is accidentally contaminated with ammonia, given that it is not labeled as being treated with ammonia. That year, a BPI company study questions the palpability of beef containing LFTB with a pH of 9.5. (The pH of beef typically sits around 6.) Company email exchanges indicate the pH levels will be lowered.
2004: Federal school lunch officials raise the allowable percentage of LFTB in school hamburgers from 10 percent to 15 percent to reduce costs. McDonald’s begins adding LFTB to its hamburgers.
2005-2006: Food processing giant Cargill suspends three of its processing plants for excessive Salmonella, two of which were BPI plants.
2006: Federal school lunch officials find E. coli O157:H7 in BPI products, stopping shipments before they got to schools.
2007: Officials at the USDA say BPI’s ammonia treatment destroys E. coli “to an undetectable level” and exempts BPI from routine E. coli testing. Sometime else that year, the International Association of Food Protection awards BPI the Black Pearl Award, its highest honor, for BPI’s commitment to food safety. The company also expands its South Sioux City plant.
August 2007: Death at plant: Contractors installing new refrigeration equipment in BPI’s Waterloo, Iowa plant forgot to close off a pipe and pumped ammonia indoors, killing 44 year-old BPI employee Elizabeth Meyers. In December, Iowa state regulators fined BPI $1 million and cited the company for 34 safety violations. “We wish we could turn back time and keep the accident from happening,” Eldon Roth told the Washington Post.
2008: The Academy Award-winning documentary Food, Inc. features a segment on BPI and LFTB, interviewing Eldon Roth and showing daily operations inside BPI’s Nebraska plant. That year, the federal school lunch program dishes up an estimated 5.5 million pounds of LFTB. Sometime else that year, federal school lunch officials again find E. coli O157:H7 in BPI products and temporarily halt shipments.
June 12, 2008: BPI is profiled for its safety reputation in a Washington Post business article. An estimated 75 percent of hamburger patties in the U.S. contain LFTB.
July 2009: Federal school lunch officials temporarily ban hamburger makers from using LFTB from BPI’s Kansas facility after linking it to Salmonella. This causes the USDA to revoke BPI’s exemption from routine pathogen testing.
August 2009: Federal school lunch officials find E. coli O157:H7 in BPI products for a third time, stopping shipments.
October 3, 2009: Journalist Michael Moss publishes an article in the New York Times on the E. coli infection of Stephanie Smith, a 22 year-old woman who became paralyzed after eating a contaminated hamburger. Smith’s burger contained LFTB, but Cargill, the burger maker, ruled out BPI as the cause of the contamination. The article details the three times BPI’s products had tested positive for E. coli. Moss’ article later wins the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting.
December 30, 2009: Michael Moss publishes another article in the New York Times, this time focusing on BPI. Through Freedom of Information Act requests, Moss uncovers and describes a wealth of information about BPI and LFTB, including many of the details listed in this timeline. In independent tests, The Times finds LFTB samples with a pH as low as 7.75. BPI provides The Times with research it says show that E. coli and Salmonella are undetectable at pH 8.5 or higher.
January 21, 2010: BPI sues Iowa State University for releasing company documents to Marler Clark law firm after BPI had commissioned Dr. James S. Dickson, a university professor, to perform tests and research for the company under a non-disclosure agreement. After filing a public records request to ISU on November 19, 2009, Marler Clark paid $2,175 for 1,650 pages of documents. Marl
er Clark publishes Food Safety News.
February 17, 2010: Food Safety News reports that BPI will begin posting all of its E. coli O157:H7 and Salmonella test results online. The company later scraps this plan.
April 12, 2011: ABC airs the season two premiere of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, in which the celebrity chef decries both the inclusion of LFTB in the U.S. school lunch program and the existence of the product itself before dousing beef scraps in liquid ammonia in front of a live audience.
July 14, 2011: BPI announces it will begin testing for the ‘Big Six’ E. coli strains beyond O157:H7 that the USDA now considers adulterants in beef.
January 31, 2012: McDonald’s announces that it has stopped adding LFTB to its burgers, saying the product had been completely removed from its inventory since August of 2011. At various times, Burger King and Taco Bell also announce that they have stopped purchasing LFTB.
March 5, 2012: Journalist David Knowles publishes an article in The Daily that retells the “pink slime” story from the perspectives of Zirnstein and fellow former USDA scientist Carl Custer. It reports that the USDA plans to buy 7 million pounds of LFTB — a product both scientists consider “high risk” — in the coming months for the national school lunch program.
March 6, 2012: Bettina Siegel, a lawyer-turned-freelance-writer and mother of two, creates a petition on Change.org asking the USDA to stop purchasing LFTB for the school lunch program. The petition rapidly gains more than 250,000 signatures and Siegel continues to write about LFTB on her website, The Lunch Tray.
March 7, 2012: ABC World News with Diane Sawyer features a segment on “pink slime” by correspondent Jim Avila, who reports that 70 percent of U.S. supermarket ground beef contains pink slime and this same beef can be labeled as “100% ground beef.” The report also features Zirnstein and Custer interviewed on camera for the first time, and it is credited with bringing the story of LFTB to a much wider audience: The show averages just over 7.5 million viewers this week.
March 8, 2012: ABC News confirms that Costco, Publix, HEB and Whole Foods do not sell LFTB products.
March 9, 2012: BPI launches BeefIsBeef.com.
March 14, 2012: Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (D-ME) writes a letter to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack urging the USDA to stop using LFTB in the school lunch program, with 41 congress members signing on. That same day, Texas A&M food science professors Gary Acuff and H. Russell Cross co-author a commentary criticizing media coverage of LFTB, accusing reporters of “hijacking the truth, minimizing science, frightening consumers and creating a false crisis, just to boost their ratings.”
March 15, 2012: The USDA announces it will allow school districts the choice to opt out of serving LFTB-supplemented ground beef. Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) calls the move a “good first step,” but urges the USDA to require labeling of ground beef containing LFTB.
March 16, 2012: Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution team launches StopPinkSlime.org.
March 17, 2012: Nancy Donley, a spokesperson for the nonprofit public health organization STOP Foodborne Illness and the mother of a child who died in the 1993 Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak, writes an opinion piece for Food Safety News defending BPI’s food safety record.
March 20-23, 2012: Supermarkets weigh in: Safeway announces it will stop selling LFTB products due to “considerable consumer concern.” Supervalu Inc. announces it will follow suit in all of its grocery chains, including Albertsons, Shop ‘n Save and Farm Fresh. Kroger and Food Lion do the same. Walmart says it will begin labeling LFTB products to give consumers a choice. Iowa-based Hy-Vee drops LFTB, then reverses its decision and says that like Walmart, it will provide a choice.
March 22, 2012: New York City Public Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott announces that NYC schools will no longer serve LFTB beginning September 2012. Several other school districts announce similar news, or confirm that they did not serve LFTB in the first place.
March 23, 2012: BPI runs a full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal calling the public backlash a “campaign of lies and deceit.” The ad reprints Nancy Donley’s opinion piece from Food Safety News. That same day, Iowa State University agriculture professor Joseph Sebranek writes that his 1996 study on LFTB in the Journal of Food Sciences might be misconstrued by some media reports. “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,” he writes. “Nothing in our study or what we know about collagen more broadly should lead one to that conclusion.”
March 25, 2012: BPI announces that due to a loss of business it will suspend operations at its plants in Texas, Kansas and Iowa for 60 days, leaving only its plant in Nebraska partially operational. This effectively reduces BPI’s production by 70 percent and puts approximately 650 jobs on hold. The three plants produced a total of 900,000 pounds of LFTB per day.
March 28, 2012: Agriculture Secretary Vilsack and Iowa Governor Terry Branstad hold a press conference in Des Moines in an effort to dispel LFTB’s negative image. Vilsack defends the product’s inclusion in the school lunch program because of its safety, low fat content and relatively cheap price. That night, satirical news anchor Jon Stewart tackles the issue, suggesting that instead of “pink slime” or “lean finely textured beef,” consumers adopt the term “ammonia-soaked centrifuge separated byproduct paste.”
March 29, 2012: Governor Branstad leads a tour of the Nebraska BPI plant for government officials and notable LFTB supporters. The guest list includes Texas Governor Rick Perry, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback, Nebraska Lt. Governor Rick Sheehy, South Dakota Lt. Governor Matt Michels, USDA Under Secretary of Food Safety Elisabeth Hagen, Gary Acuff and Nancy Donley. Following the tour, the group held a press conference to answer media questions and counteract what some of the called “misinformation” spread by the coverage.
March 30, 2012: Congresswoman Pingree introduces a bill that would require the labeling of beef products that contain LFTB. The “Requiring Easy and Accurate Labeling of Beef Act” (REAL Beef Act) is cosponsored by 10 congress members. That same day, fast-food chain Wendy’s runs full-page ads in eight major newspapers stating it has never used LFTB in its food.
April 1, 2012: Both Congressional candidates for Iowa’s 4th District, Republican Congressman Steve King and his Democratic opponent, Christie Vilsack — wife of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack — show bipartisan support for BPI amid a contentious campaign.
April 2, 2012: The USDA agrees to approve label requests by ground beef producers who wish to label their products that contain LFTB. Also, Iowa Gov. Branstad and Congressman King request the House Agriculture Committee to hold a congressional hearing on the negative media “smear campaign” against BPI. That night, comedian Stephen Colbert followed Jon Stewart with his own take on the issue.
April 3, 2012: Blaming the “pink slime” backlash for declines in sales, ground beef processor AFA Foods files for bankruptcy.
April 4, 2012: A survey commissioned by Red Robin finds that 88 percent of U.S. adults are aware of “pink slime,” with 76 percent of those aware being “at least somewhat concerned” and 30 percent “extremely concerned.”