Lean finely textured beef (LFTB) is manufactured from beef trimmings, which are also used to make ground beef. The trimmings come from USDA-inspected cattle, after the roasts and steaks have been removed. The trimmings used to make LFTB are higher in fat, which meant that previously they were underutilized. The trim is warmed to a temperature slightly lower than the normal body temperature of a live cow, and then run through a separator which acts very much like a cream separator in a dairy plant. Because the lean muscle is heavier than the fat, the lean meat and fat tissue can be separated rapidly, and the result is a lean beef product which is all beef and 95% lean. It is estimated that using this process with the fat trim recovers 10 to 12 pounds of additional lean meat from each carcass. This means that we are using our beef resources more efficiently, which also means that we can meet consumer demands with lower prices and fewer cattle.
But what about ammonia? Beef Products, Inc. uses an ammonia process to make the LFTB safer. Ammonium hydroxide gas is puffed into the product, which kills the harmful bacteria which occasionally turn up in our food supply. Almost everyone has heard of the problems with E coli and Salmonella, and although these are surprisingly rare, they are serious when they occur. The ammonia process is an added safety factor. It seems odd that a process which is so effective in controlling harmful bacteria has been so misunderstood in the media.
But is it safe? There is no debate on the safety. As the Undersecretary for Food Safety Dr. Elizabeth Hagen pointed out last week (29 March 2012), if the product was unsafe, USDA would not allow it to be on the market. Had there been any doubts, it would have been easier for USDA say “no” rather than to say “yes”. In addition, ABC reporter Mr. Jim Avila said at the same press conference that ABC News has never broadcast that the product was unsafe or that it has hurt anybody.
But why weren’t we told? Why isn’t it on the label? USDA writes the regulations on labeling. Since LFTB is made from beef trimmings, the same beef trimmings that are used for ground beef, USDA did not require it to be on the label. It would be hard to imagine how it would be labeled; “ground beef with additional ground beef”? The companies that manufacture LFTB and those who use LFTB are simply following USDA labeling regulations. Imagine the reaction of consumers if those companies had not followed labeling regulations! USDA is now allowing some changes in the label to indicate whether or not LFTB has been added to the ground beef, but until these changes were allowed by USDA, it may not have been legal for a company to label a product as containing LFTB.
Ultimately the consumer should decide what is best for them. But the decision should be based on the truth, and not on speculative opinions. Ground beef containing LFTB is ground beef, and LFTB is unquestionably safe. It is regrettable that the consumer confidence in a food that has been in the market for twenty years, and is treated with a process designed to enhance the safety of the food, is now shaken. With food safety such a high priority in our society, taking a food with a proven food safety record out of the marketplace is a step backward.
Source: Jim Dickson, Professor, Dept. of Animal Science
Dr. Dickson originally wrote this article for the Institute of Food Technologists. You can read the full text version on that website.