The “pink slime” furor gets curiouser and curiouser.  It’s hard to keep up (see yesterday’s post) but here’s my summary of where we are with this for the moment.

What is the furor about?

The best place to start is with Michael Moss’s December 30, 2009 investigative report in the New York Times on the ammonia process used by Beef Products, Inc to make LFTB (lean finely textured beef).

The article contains the first mention of the term “pink slime” as a pejorative for this product.

Moss provides confidential documents detailing the effects of the ammonia processing of LFTB, and revelations of the discrepancy between USDA’s standards for beef safety and those of its school lunch program.

How much LFTB is used in ground beef?

According to a report in the Wall Street Journal (March 28), Cargill Inc. estimates about 850 million pounds per year.

What is the “pink slime” crisis going to cost the beef industry?

According to the business press, meat packers are likely to lose a record $101 per head as a result of the pink slime crisis. Multiply that by the 34 million head of cattle slaughtered each year for food. And then there’s the economy:

Margins for meat packers have been declining for several months as consumers began to push back against high prices at retail in order to cope with rising gas prices. In response, processors have reduced slaughter rates in an effort to maintain beef prices [see Addition at the bottom of this post].

Who supports BPI and why?

BPI is a strong supporter of the Republican Party and its candidates. But it is also generous elsewhere.

See, for example, BPI’s full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal, March 23, 2012. It quotes from “In defense of food safety leadership,” by Nancy Donley. Donley is a founder of STOP (Safe Tables Our Priority), an organization of mothers whose children died from eating contaminated hamburger.

After what I personally experienced watching my son suffer and die, I am very skeptical and cynical about for-profit meat companies and their professed commitment to food safety. Not all companies ‘walk their talk.’ BPI does.

BPI is well known to be the donor of the anonymous gifts to STOP of $250,000 last year and $500,000 the year before (see the tax forms posted on STOP’s website).

What is the USDA’s position on LFTB and BPI?

Obamafoodorama (March 29) reports on USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack’s press conference in Iowa on March 28. He joined Governor Terry Bransted, a Republican, in defense of LFTB.

Here’s what Obamafoodorama says Secretary Vilsack said:

– The product is crucial to fighting childhood obesity.

– This product is safe…There’s no question about it. We’ve said that hundreds of times and we’ll continue to say it.

– It is a “leaner product” than regular ground beef, and crucial for the battle to end childhood obesity. That’s one of the reasons we’ve made it a staple of the school lunch program.

– We are…concerned about obesity levels, and this is an opportunity for us to ensure that youngsters are receiving a product that is lean and contains less fat.

– “Historically” the product is less expensive than other products…For that reason it’s been part of the school lunch program.”

– [It] doesn’t have to be labeled when it is included in ground beef because “it is safe.”

Obamafoodorama’s report concludes:

Somewhat disappointingly, the Secretary’s efforts to defend lean, finely textured beef did not include him digging into a plate of the product and eating it on camera.

Why is a Democratic USDA Secretary going to bat for a private company well known for supporting Mitt Romney in particular and Republicans in general?

I can only speculate that it has something to do with Tom Vilsack’s wife, Christie, who is running for Iowa’s 4th Congressional District. In Iowa, BPI has bipartisan support, and Christie Vilsack says:

LFTB is safe…it is the women in our community who can put BPI back on it’s feet.

I think one of the biggest strengths in this audience today are all the women here, because we tend to be the ones who go to the grocery stores, and we’re the ones who choose the products that we bring home and feed to our families.

No concerns at all. It’s a safe product, and these are wonderful people who work there.

Who stands to benefit from the “pink slime” furor?

Wendy’s for one. I saw the company’s full-page ad in USA Today and the New York Times (March 30):

Where’s the pure beef? At Wendy’s that’s where! We use nothing but pure, 100% fresh, never-frozen North American beef.

We’ve never used fillers, additives, preservatives, flavor boosters, or ammonia treatments.

We’ve never used ‘pink slime,’ and we never will.

If LFTB is safe, isn’t it acceptable?

I’ve heard this argument before. It’s the same one used for GMOs. As I discuss in my book Safe Food, even if technological processes like this are safe, they are not necessarily acceptable–especially if they are not labeled and do not give consumers a choice.

What should BPI and other companies do when caught in a crisis like this?

Bill Marler has an explanation and some suggestions. This CEO:

– Did not trust consumers with the truth.

– Did not openly explain how the food product was made and what additives and ingredients it contained.

– Ignored dissenting expert opinions in memos and emails.

To rebuild public trust and sales, Marler advises, do not:

– Shoot the messenger.


– Threaten legal action.

– Play the political card.

– Make political supporters eat your product or say how safe it is in front of the national media.

What should companies do? Simple:

– Just tell the truth.

– Tell consumers what they already know.

– Tell the public how the product is made and what is in it.

– Tell consumers the real benefits of the product.

– Post test results online.

– Invite the public, not politicians, to your plant for a tour and a taste test.

– Bottom line: If you have nothing to hide, hide nothing.

My last questions for now:

– Why are we allowing the school lunch program to be the dumping ground for cheap food?

Why don’t we have a food safety system in place
that requires beef to be safe in the first place — so it doesn’t have to be treated with ammonia?

– We should all be asking these questions and demand that our elected leaders ask them too — and insist on answers.

Addition: AFA, a competitor of BPI, filed for bankruptcy, because of reduced demand for all beef products.


‘Pink Slime’: Some questions about what’s really at stake was originally published on Marion Nestle’s Food Politics website April 2, 2012. 

  • Rita

    LFTB is beef. It is lean and nutritional. The amount of ammonium in it is far less than your coffee creamer, tofu, cheese and many more products on the market.
    This is not a Republican – Democratic problem as you would like to portray. It is a food safety issue for everyone. And LfTB is a safe product. No illnesses or deaths have been contributed to BPI and LFTB
    I’m highly disappointed that an FDA newsletter would publish a such a politically slanted article. I expect REaL facts and information, not cheap advertising for political parties.

  • Freeze! Drop the burger, punk

    What did BPI hide? For the past decade the process was openly discussed, all pertintent info was and is available to anyone interested enough to inquire into the matter. Why now suddenly this engineered outrage directed as much at industry as at any product? Nestle drops a few clues describing her peculiar dog in the race:
    “BPI is a strong supporter of the Republican Party and its candidates.”
    “BPI is well known to be the donor of the anonymous gifts to STOP…”
    “I can only speculate that it has something to do with Tom Vilsack’s wife…”
    “…if technological processes like this are safe, they are not necessarily acceptable…”
    “…allowing the school lunch program to be the dumping ground for cheap food…”
    So there we have it distilled to its essence — Nestle sees an opportunity to play food politics. No problem with product safety. No undue risk to the health & welfare of kids or families. No rational objection to the product except that it is “cheap”. Ordinary American families might describe it as “affordable” but that lacks the sensational smearing sizzle of Nestle’s calculated hate prose.
    It seems, when it comes to food, abundant safe and affordable are no longer acceptable attributes. No, food must not be “cheap”. It must be expensively chic…and it must be FEARED. How else will food politicians like Nestle railroad all of us into the food police state of her dreams?

  • Wynann Brownell

    My beliefe is that any comany that puts ANY AND ALL KINDS of food out to consumers to eat should disclose every thing they put in it. Even if I have to get a chemical dictionary, I for one want to make the decision myself as to what I put in my body. Not some greedy ceo who just wants the money.

  • Phil Coombs

    Respectfully Terry, I think that you are confusing two issues. One is the potential threat from prions in beef; the other is the acceptability/safety of LFTB/”pink slime”.
    The ammonia treatment in the latter is intended to inhibit bcateria, in particular. Correct me if I am wrong, but I don’t think that anyone has ever claimed that the LFTB process destroys prions.

  • Marion Nestle is supposed to be a scientist? This is an embarrassing mish mash of speculation and paranoia. Vlisak should oppose it because it is “Republican technology”. Maybe Vlisak-unlike Nestle-actually thinks before he judges?

  • Michelle

    I would also like to mention that BPI has made significant donations to many non-profit groups that have no involvement in the food industry (arts, education, health i.e. cancer treatment, hospitals) The list goes on and on. They also support Project Lead the Way, which enables high schools students hands on experience to businesses. BPI has always helped its employees when it need. They just don’t promote this.

  • Sonya Ronan

    Mr. Brownell,
    Can you please respond how the CEO is greedy. By re-investing in the BPI plants, being the first to implement STEC testing, being the first company for test and hold programs? I must be missing something.

  • Clarence

    In a relevant note, Marion Nestle is over on her blog (Food Politics) right now apologizing for smearing Dr. Mike Osterholm, a University of Minnesota research scientist with impeccable first class professional credentials. Nestle’s attack upon Osterholm was her conditioned reflex to factual information he shared with her by email. The case could be made it was Osterholm’s blunder in the first place to mistake Nestle for a professional scientific colleague. NYU should have retired her a couple of years ago.

  • I don’t hold out much hope for BPI. No matter the good advice given the company–to label the adulterated beef, to be transparent with consumers–we keep getting people repeating “It’s beef, dude!”, as if this is sufficient.
    Marion Nestle’s points are valid about the influence of political donations, and nothing has ever demonstrated this more profoundly than to see all the politicians lined up supporting this company and its products.
    Where’s the Republican Free Market spiel? Where’s the “let the markets decide”, that seems to be the cry every time a new regulation is discussed?
    Now we have Governor Brandstad of Iowa, a state that corporate enshrines secrecy in its laws, demanding a Congressional investigation…of what?
    Blog posts? Twitter tweats? Media articles?
    Free speech?
    But then, all is explained when we hear that Branstad is the recipient of $150,000 in campaign contributions from BPI.
    But adulterated beef and BPI fans, continue on with your obsessed defense of BPI and demands to hide all from consumers. BPI will make an interesting footnote in failed companies who just don’t understand that times have changed.

  • Steve

    Shelley’s completely right on this.
    And now that numerous fast food corporations, supermarkets, etc. are dropping “pink slime” products I’d think the FSN responders who have been coming out in favor of BPI and their product would ALSO WANT LABELING so they can find it and BUY IT — or request it in their schools to feed their kids…
    And, equally, those who DON’T want to buy it — DON’T HAVE TO….

  • Ted

    Labels. The duct tape of the angry foodie movement. There is nothing so fearsome, so world-ending, so icky it cannot be patched up with some sticky labels. Make no mistake…the world is ending but only for those who don’t read labels.

  • T.J. Marin

    OK, who the flip is “Obamafoodorama”? Is this the sort of science people like Marion Nestle work on at colleges like New York University? I’m glad we’re not depending on these frauds to discover the artificial heart or a cure for cancer over there. Sheesh.

  • James

    It’s simple; accurate and honest labels mean EVERYONE can make a choice in the marketplace — not the manufacturers who want to make choices for us (ie by offering no choice at all) and profit by keeping consumers in the dark…..
    If you don’t care, it’s still simple — just don’t read the labels….

  • Wilhelm

    Don’t sweat it James. Before long Marion Nestle will have her food police making all your culinary decisions for you. You don’t seem to know, but choice is highly over-rated and you cannot be trusted to choose correctly anyway. Nestle’s rangers will efficiently manage all your alimentation. And, fear not…there will be labels on your allotted ration. Tons and tons of meaningless labels. All scolding. And scary.

  • Should consumers have the choice? Yes.
    Are there politics involved? Absolutely and it’s been getting worse every year.
    How much will labeling help in my opinion? Probably not much. I continually tell food workers and consumers that to be safe you need to cook that ground beef to 160 degrees F. How many tell me they don’t have or if they do can’t properly use a thermometer? How many tell me they have been eating ground beef that way for “x” years and they’ve never gotten sick?
    Foods are now labeled to cook to the proper temp and that is XXX degrees. Tell me, if you go into your food market how easy is it to find a food temp measuring device? Lot of selection? People good on the idea that the candy one isn’t good for everything. That door fridge guy probably isn’t going to cut it. So labeling is good, if it’s used and followed through.
    How many people even reading this can tell me that there fridge maintains 40 degrees? Do they dispose of leftover potentially hazardous food no later than five days in the fridge?
    We should be getting safe food, but what about what you do? It really isn’t as simple as people try to make it out to be. Yet it isn’t a matter of hermetically sealing your house either.