It may be lean, finely textured beef to some people, but it will always be pink slime to many more. The beef trimmings, once destined for dog food and cooking oil, were given that nickname a decade ago by a former USDA employee, in a private email message to colleagues. He also wrote that he thought it fraudulent to call the product, which had been heated, centrifuged and sprayed with ammonia, ground beef.
But no one paid much attention to this process until a recent series of events shone a spotlight on LFTB: That USDA email became public (following a Freedom of Infomation Act request); the term appeared in some newspapers; celebrity chef Jamie Oliver devoted a show to the subject; ABC ran some stories about it; and a very unappealing photo, said to be the product, shot around the Internet (though it turned out to actually be a photo of a ground poultry byproduct).
Consumers heard the very catchy, very gross-sounding nickname and they saw that photo. They also learned the beef was being treated with a form of ammonia, which most people associate with household cleaning products, and that it was being included in school lunches. Public outrage ensued.
Actually, ammonium hydroxide was cleared for use in food way back in 1974, and it can still be found in many processed foods, from sodas to canned vegetables. FDA regulations state that ammonium hydroxide can be incorporated as a leavening or a pH control agent; because it’s classified as a “processing aid,” food labels don’t need to mention it. (And in fact, most food manufacturers are loathe to admit using it.)
So what’s the real issue? After all, there haven’t been any foodborne-illness outbreaks associated with LFTB, and we have had ammonia in other foods for more than 30 years. Recently, some people have applauded LFTB from a sustainability standpoint, since it makes more efficient use of the whole animal and decreases the number of cows going into the food chain.
But does any of that make people want to buy it? Thus far, the answer certainly seems to be no, despite the efforts of several farm-state governors sporting T-shirts that read, “Dude, it’s beef,” and calling for congressional hearings into the alleged “smear campaign” against LFTB. None of this seems likely to win over consumers.
Starbucks took a different tack following its recent brouhaha over the use of cochneal extract (which is made from crushed bugs) to provide red color to its strawberry drinks. The product is FDA approved and is a natural alternative to other food coloring options — and it’s also used in other products, such as fruit drinks and yogurt. Nevertheless, customers made it known they didn’t want the bugs in their drinks, and Starbucks announced it will phase out the product by next month.
Purchasing decisions are, at least in part, emotionally based, and the predominant emotional response to LFTB (like the cochneal extract) is, essentially, “Yuck.” Consumers also seem to feel misled; many comments fall along the lines of “Why didn’t we know about this?” Although the beef industry can reasonably say it was simply providing consumers what they say they want — safe food at a low price — clearly many consumers would also like to know more about how that is being done and the reasons why.