Years of food-safety research and development were flushed in a matter of days last month due to a media firestorm over an icky moniker attached to a beef product by a former USDA employee. Retailers and foodservice companies quickly distanced themselves from the brewing public relations disaster now widely known as “pink slime.”
Officially, the product is called “lean finely textured beef” and is produced by recovering lean beef from the trimmings at processing facilities. The process, known as “advanced meat recovery,” includes using ammonium hydroxide to eliminate dangerous pathogens such as E. coli in the final product. The process has been around for about 20 years and has added millions of pounds of beef to the nation’s supply and helped reduce hamburger prices for consumers.
Many in the national media and most food activists, however, have criticized the technology, the beef industry for using it and USDA for approving its use.
“Lean fi ne-textured beef is not unsafe, deceptive or pet food,” says H. Russell Cross, professor and head of the Department of Animal Science, Texas A&M University. “I approved the use of this product in food when I was administrator of FSIS (Food Safety and Inspection Service) because it is safe and an excellent source of nutrients.”
Safety assurances notwithstanding, the outrage over pink slime continues to grow. By month’s end, Beef Products, Inc., the nation’s largest processor of LFTB, announced it had suspended production at three of its four plants after several major retailers stopped buying the product. BPI was forced to lay off about 650 employees.
Rallying to defend the production of LFTB and the safety of the product, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack joined Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad during a news conference to praise the product as safe, low-cost and low-fat.
“For 30 years, people like me have been eating this,” Branstad said of LFTB.
Addressing the bigger picture, Vilsack and Branstad said the hit taken by beef producers from shutting down LFTB production will ripple onto corn and soybean producers and elsewhere in the ag economy.
Both men said the incident illustrated the crucial need to respond quickly to set the record straight when ag products and agriculture are under attack based on false or misleading information, particularly considering how rapidly information can spread via social media.
Food safety is — and should be — the primary concern with this issue. Obviously, the beef industry fell victim to a manufactured controversy that scared consumers needlessly and damaged the industry’s image.
Fortunately, there is an alternative, highly effective food-safety method. It’s called irradiation, and since it was approved by the Food and Drug Administration more than a decade ago more than 150 million pounds of irradiated ground beef have been sold to American consumers. Omaha Steaks and Schwan’s irradiate every hamburger they sell. In fact, irradiation is approved for use on food products in more than 40 countries to kill bacteria, including E. coli and other contaminants such as viruses and insects.
Irradiation is the process of using “ionizing radiation” to destroy contaminants. But, similar to “pink slime,” some consumer groups fear the extremely low levels of radiation produced by irradiated meat.
Fears of irradiation, however, are misguided. Foodborne illnesses from E. coli and other contaminants present a much greater danger to our consumers. Indeed, consumer fears of irradiation are similar to those exhibited a century ago when pasteurized milk first came into use. That seemed to work out pretty well.
Scientists from around the globe believe irradiation is a silver bullet that can drastically reduce food contamination. It is not, they believe, a replacement for sanitation and other regulated food-safety practices already in place, but it is a tool that can greatly increase food safety and minimize human suffering. What’s not to like about that?
The outrage over “pink slime” is misguided. We should be outraged that every hamburger in America is not irradiated.