Over the past several weeks, thousands of articles, blog posts, tweets and even Facebook statuses have weighed in on the debate over Lean Finely Textured Beef (LFTB), now commonly known as “pink slime.” One place you won’t find any mention of the product, however, is on a ground beef label — or any meat label, for that matter.

That may be about to change.

As the nation’s largest manufacturer of LFTB, Beef Products Inc., reels from the consumer revolt against its product and state and local politicians work to help the company recover, the national discussion has turned to labeling.

On Monday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) said it would approve requests from ground beef product makers who want to voluntarily label products containing LFTB.

Last Friday, U.S. Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (D-ME) and 10 co-sponsors introduced a bill that would require beef products that included LFTB to be labeled, and Reps. Sam Farr (D-CA) and Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) urged USDA to update beef labels “to note whether or not the product contains processed meat filler, and, if so, which filler(s) are in the product.”

So, why isn’t “LFTB” or “ammoniated beef” or “centrifuge-separated ammonia-treated beef” already labeled when added to ground beef?

(Were it up to satirical news anchor Jon Stewart of The Daily Show, LFTB might be labeled “ammonia-soaked centrifuge separated byproduct paste.”)

In a USA Today Op-Ed, former USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service administrator Dr. H. Russel Cross declared that “There is no need for labeling LFTB — because nothing is being added that is not beef.”

Likewise, in a recent video to help combat “a frenzy of misinformation” about LFTB, American Meat Institute spokeswoman Janet Riley added a similar justification for not labeling LFTB: “Both citric acid and ammonium hydroxide are natural processing aids, not additives or ingredients because they don’t remain in the product.”

But ammonia does remain in LFTB: A BPI spokesperson told Food Safety News that the company’s product contains between 400 and 500 parts per million (ppm) ammonia. According to microbiologist Gary Acuff, untreated ground beef naturally contains somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 to 150 ppm of ammonia.

LFTB defenders often refer to a “puff” of ammonia gas meant to kill pathogens that may be on the meat, but that puff appears to effectively leave behind four times the normal amount of ammonia.

To raise the pH of the product high enough to kill bacteria, BPI says it takes beef from 5.7 or so, where it naturally is, to 8.5. (For those rusty on their chemistry, that’s like going from the slight acidity of black coffee to the alkalinity of baking soda).

When it leaves the facility in a large frozen brick it likely drops closer to pH 7.5, according to the company, which leaves the product about 100 times more alkaline than before it was treated. (According to some who have handled LFTB first-hand, the product still smells of ammonia at this point, though most residual ammonia dissipates or dilutes in the ground beef mixture once the product is thawed and mixed with more traditional ground beef at 10 or 15 percent.)

BPI’s process also changes the texture of beef. “It in fact takes on a different texture. And that is a fine texture, which is very descriptive in its name,” said BPI spokesmen Craig Letch at a press conference featuring three governors and USDA Under Secretary for Food Safety Dr. Elisabeth Hagen.

What’s more, according to a 1995 study on LFTB by Ying He and Joseph Sebranek of Iowa State University, LFTB contains more serum and connective tissue proteins and less myofibrillar proteins than muscle meat, giving it a softer texture.

As Acuff sees it, the texture difference is actually a big part of LFTB’s image problem.

“People look at it and say ‘that doesn’t look like meat’ and that’s because of the texture,” he said. “I think people don’t have a good idea of how ground beef is made.”

Acuff, who leads the Texas A&M Center for Food Safety, explains that after the trimmings go through BPI’s process they no longer look like a traditional ground beef input: “It doesn’t look like ground beef and it certainly doesn’t look like trimmings. It looks like paste — but it’s all going to get ground up.”

So if LFTB contains added ammonia, is 100 times more alkaline, and has both a different texture and sometimes smell, why isn’t it labeled as a component when it’s thawed and mixed in ground beef? Because both the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration have decided that ammonia is not an additive, but a processing aid.

The decision, however, was not without controversy. There was opposition within the USDA on the issue, as the New York Times reported in 2009, “department microbiologist Gerald Zirnstein, called the processed beef ‘pink slime’ in a 2002 e-mail message to colleagues and said, ‘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.’ ‘”

There are other experts in the field who take issue with using ammonia in beef processing because it is known to mask the rancidity and lock in the color of meat. The process can disguise rancidity through both smell and color, which is reminiscent of the controversy over using carbon monoxide in meat packaging to keep meat red, even past its expiration.

According to the FDA Code of Federal Regulations, processing aids are substances used as manufacturing aids to enhance a food’s appeal or utility and are not required to be labeled because they do not technically alter the composition of the food.

Some processing aids, including ammonium hydroxide, are also considered “incidental additives” — substances that get left over in food at insignificant levels and do not change the food’s overall function.

Many in the industry do not believe LFTB should be labeled. “Beef is beef” has become the mantra of the American Meat Institute in the past week.

One of the major concerns is that if USDA were to require labeling for ammonia-treated LFTB, it might open the floodgates to labeling a plethora of processing aids and other compounds used in meat processing that might show up at low levels.

Acuff has been very supportive of BPI. He was the one of the scientists featured at the press conference last week, and he doesn’t believe LFTB should be labeled (“It really meets the requirements for a processing aid”), but he was also quick to point out that “consumers are never wrong.”

“They can be misinformed,” he said. “But ultimately they get to decide. It’s just too bad this all wasn’t discussed before people lost their jobs.”

Though it’s probably a safe bet USDA won’t require it anytime soon, consumers demanding an LFTB label at the grocery store look like they’re going to get it.

James Andrews and Gretchen Goetz contributed writing and research to this report. This story was updated to reflect that Dr. Gary Acuff was not the only scientist on the press conference panel (Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, Under Secretary for Food Safety at USDA also made remarks).

  • Amanda T.

    Except for the cost and inconvenience of policing it, I would prefer USDA consider only allowing producers to label their beef if it does NOT contain LFTbeef. Then overcharge for it and gullible foodie hammerheads would flock to purchase it. Oh, how they would fawn over the wonderfully rustic texture, the real down-home flavor, the savory aftertaste!! A true bargain at, oh say, $9.50 per pound. No, make that $19.50 — so, so much juicier and more exquisite!!! Also make the label removable and re-stickable so prideful jackass foodie consumers could peel the label off the package and stick it to the breast of their hemp shirt, proudly displaying for all the adoring world to witness: “Look! See me!! I have overpaid to save the planet, me, I did that! I am a freaking hero!!”

  • Betty

    As a consumer, I demand to know what is in the product that I buy. I have a right to make an informed choice about the products my family consumes. I do not object to pink slime in beef…some people don’t care, they just want a cheap enough meat to feed their family. Just please label it. I will not buy it for my family, nor will I eat fast food hamburgers that use it. But keep producing it if there is a demand for it. An informed public could have prevented this fiasco in the first place.

  • Donnie

    Pink slime should be labeled. All substances used as processing aids certainly do need to be labeled, for consumer safety. Citric acid, lactic acid, cornstarch and other corn derived substances are used, but not labeled to warn people who have corn or sulfite allergies. I am allergic to both, and I can assure you, that lack of truthful labels is hazardous to my health. I do have severe reactions to trace amounts of hidden corn and sulfites. Those of us who have these allergies can’t find out where corn or sulfites are hidden in the food supply, because companies can’t or won’t tell us. So, pink slime should be labeled, to warn people who can have health problems that may be affected by this substance, whatever it is made from. There may be people who can’t tolerate eating anything containing trace amounts of it.

  • The Farmer

    I don’t understand the name calling. I also don’t understand the fact that people who are for pink slime, still ignore the fact that this beef was once dog food. Ground beef has always been the cheapest beef, and it always will be. The price has continued to go up and the quality has gone down. They are feeding you dog food. Why wouldn’t you be mad?
    I would like a poll on the employees who made this product, and if they actually ate it? Or did it just turn their stomach? I don’ put blame on the worker, they are just trying to survive, and this is a sad loss for them. They did not make the millions needed to sustain them.
    Just give us labels, and let us decide. When I am too poor to eat human quality ground beef, I will eat rice and beans.

  • doc raymond

    “Dude, it’s Beef”. There is not enough room on the labels to list every component and every processing aid that go into grfound beef, hot dogs and sausages. Does it have to be on the label because it was treated with ammonia hydroxide to make it safer? Then maybe ground beef that does not contain LFTB should say “not treated with ammonia hydoxide, and therefore more likely to contain e coli”. According to Dr. Hagen ( a second scientist on the panel, by the way) USDA has pulled 7,000 BPI samples in the last three years and NOT ONE was positive for E coli O157.
    Lastly, where is the clammer to label tofu as containing 4 times as much ammonia as LFTB? Or chocolate, coffee creamers, cheeses, etc? Your intestines make 4 gms of ammonia each day, the ammonia left over in a quarter pounder is but a drop in the ocean, yet Helena, and others, continue to treat it like a toxin in their misleading stories.

  • But, why did the USDA and BPI hafta lie? And what else are they lying about?

  • Michael Bulger

    Doc Raymond, you should know that ground beef that contains LFTB can still contain E. Coli. Just as non-LFTB beef can contain pathogens. Adding LFTB to a burger does not render the burger safe. The pro-LFTB crowd seems to be deviating from science as much as the anti-pink slime group.
    “Dude, it’s raw ground beef.” Cook thoroughly.

  • Another well done, informative article.
    Something else I read this week that’s interesting. There is such a large demand for hamburger that producers in this country actually import beef trimmings, and that the majority of imported beef consists of beef trimmings from grassfed cows.
    It would be really interesting to follow the path from cow to plate when it comes to hamburger. Regardless, I’ve pretty much lost interest in ever eating hamburgers again.

  • Wendell

    Nice hyperbole with the “100 times more alkaline” jab. Of course, pH is measured on a logarithmic scale making it convenient for you to put the good old foodie sensational backhand spin on this innocuous data. Really just one more indication you are neither a scientist nor an expert. As if we needed another indicator to make us 100 times more certain of your credentials.

  • libia chavez

    I believe every person has the right to know what they are buying. So if there is nothing wrong with the product why conceal it,
    The processors of LFTB can give as much info about the product to dispel doubts. But every consumer still has to decide what they want to purchase.
    for example I do not buy a product with MDCM because I do not like the flavor but I will not discourage people from buying it.

  • Lindsey

    I know you all are saying that it is a product that used to be made into dog food. Well, you may want to do more research that just what you see on TV. Did you know the picture that ABC News and the Lunch Tray Lady was showing you was a picture of processed chicken? Well, it’s true, the reporters lied to all us people! They found a catchy name “pink slime” and it caught on like wild fire. If you really do some research you will see that the person who was one of the whistle blowers used to be an employee of the company that produces the product. He was the QA Manager! Well, what does that tell you. Pretty sure he (the whistle blower) believed in the product at one point in time. Seems to me he is just upset that he no longer works their. The other whistler blower is a former USDA employee who is currently unemployed. Humm.. You cathing what I am telling you people.
    These people threw out a catchy phrase and stated it had ammonia in it. Well, once again the media twisted their words AGAIN. They are right the product LFTB has some ammonia in it, but if you research it you will see the facts.
    Bread – 440ppm
    Beef – 200ppm
    Typical condiment (ketchup) – 400ppm
    Cheese – 800ppm
    Well, I think I would choose the BEEF over the rest of the burger if you look at the amount of ammonia.
    I know you all say that it used to be used in dog food, but so is chicken,lamb, etc. And I know you all still eat it. I encourge you all to get the facts and do the REAL reseach and not believe what ABC World News tells you.

  • Ground beef shouldn’t need a label because all it should contain is…ground beef. If you are going to do something other than grind beef and sell it as ground beef, then let people know. I understand why manufacturers don’t want to lable this stuff, it will likely hurt their sales. But I don’t understand why consumers don’t want to know what they are eating. Everyone is free to make their own choices, some of us are just requesting the information we need to make informed choices.

  • Josh

    Very nice article! I thought the Daily Show clip was a nice touch. I’ve worked in the grocery industry for a few years, the only time a product will get pulled are eith due to a recall, or slow sales. Labels will only appear on a product due to the nature of what’s been added. The only time LFTB would be added on the label is if it is considered an “additive,” if this happens there’s a good chance “contains LFTB will appear on the product. Didn’t something very similar happen with water bottles???

  • Minkpuppy

    There will be no extra cost for policing this if it’s made mandatory to label LFTB. Inspectors are already required to verify product standards as part of labeling.
    Does this require a House bill? I doubt it. A rewrite of the regs on ground beef would be sufficient.