Food industry battling back from 'pink slime' hysteria

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LANSING — Blow the dust off middle school science and see if you remember this: "For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction." That's Sir Isaac Newton's Third Law of Motion, and it's as applicable to the ongoing debate over lean, finely textured beef (LFTB)—so-called "pink slime"—as it is to colliding objects in space, as consumer backlash is being met and countered by the agriculture industry's own.

Ongoing for weeks now, the LFTB saga that began with media—then the public—embracing the "pink slime" label, mushroomed when consumers collectively gagged at both the mental image of it and the addition of ammonium hydroxide. Agriculture and the food industry are still struggling to set the record straight, despite hundreds of meat industry workers losing their jobs as a result of panicked consumers' hasty objection to the product.

"Not all beef can become a steak or roast," said Michigan State University (MSU) Extension's Jeannine Schweihofer and Sarah Wells, of MSU's department of Human Nutrition and Animal Science. "When meat cuts are trimmed to remove excess fat, some lean is also removed, resulting in beef trim that has a high percentage of fat. It would take too much time with a knife and highly skilled meat cutter to separate this product manually, but again, it is pure beef that is being removed from trim pieces that include fat and/or connective tissue.

"The process of making LFTB is as follows: Beef trim that includes fat, small pieces of meat, and bits of connective tissue is heated to about 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The beef is then spun to separate the lean from the fat/connective tissue. Because the temperature of the meat is raised above refrigeration temperatures in the process, there is potential for microbial pathogens present to replicate more rapidly at this temperature.

"Any time there is potential for microbial growth, food processors must include an intervention step that will minimize the risk. Thus, a puff of ammonium hydroxide gas is applied to the beef. This increases the pH of the meat and creates an environment that does not allow pathogens that might be present to survive. The ammonium hydroxide almost entirely evaporates; hence, it is not considered a food additive. The process...has been approved and used for 30 years without being involved in a recall or safety related issue."

Factual information, however, struggled to gain traction as LFTB maker AFA Foods in Pennsylvania declared bankruptcy, putting an estimated 650 people out of work. Food industry giants Beef Products Inc. has also laid off staff.

The New York Times and other major media outlets began questioning the safety of LFTB as early as 2009, but to no avail; nothing harmful was ever uncovered. This time around, fueled by the off-putting nickname, ubiquitous social media and celebrity attention, what was old is now very new again.

"There is absolutely nothing wrong with this product," said Ernie Birchmeier, livestock specialist with Michigan Farm Bureau. "But the public image problem it has gotten is further exaggerated when fast food companies and food retailers cave in to social media pressure."

Contributing to the hysteria were major fast-food chains distancing themselves from LFTB use, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture green-lighting voluntary labeling of ground beef including the product.

"So here we'll have yet another label that boasts about a product being free of something that either was never there to begin with or never made any difference," Birchmeier said. "The deception is incredible. Will people be less fearful knowing that their milk doesn't have antibiotics in it that it never had in the first place, and that their beef now contains more fat, but at least not LFTB?"

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javier gomez    
united states  |  April, 14, 2012 at 04:37 PM

We were deceived for twenty years, that is why we are angry.

javier gomez    
lancaster  |  April, 14, 2012 at 04:39 PM

We do not want this product, what don't you get?

George from UC    
California  |  April, 15, 2012 at 12:32 AM

"Factual information"? You state "the process has been approved and used for 30 years" but the process was approved by the USDA in 2001 !! I can provide a link if you wish, the letter from BPI's lawyers to USDA-FSIS is dated March 16, 2001.

texas  |  April, 16, 2012 at 09:12 AM

Select Committee on GRAS Substances (SCOGS) Review, Report No. 34, 1974.

IOWA  |  April, 16, 2012 at 06:31 AM

Yep here we go again them darn companies always wanting to feed us and make a profit too. The next thing we will find out is our milk 95% water and you did not tell us. We consumers don't want truth we want, well, we just want it.

SouthDakota  |  April, 19, 2012 at 09:14 AM

TW, wait a minute are you telling that the milk I drink is because the cow had a baby?! I read the label on my milk carton. It DOES NOT say anything about that! So, basically I'm drinking breast milk. Ewhhhh, gross! What's next, I suppose you are going to tell me caviar is really fish eggs?

SD  |  April, 16, 2012 at 09:50 AM

What we have all been exposed to with this "pink slime" coverage is a classic example of media sensationalism aimed at ratings and not based on facts. Now some clear facts here. The only differences between the trimmings used to make ground beef, as the consumer recognizes it, and the trimmings used to make LFTB is the lean beef to fat ratio. LFTB starts by using higher fat trimmings. To achieve the higher lean ground beef that we all desire economically, the lean is separated from the fat and the lean is added back into the ground beef. Nutritionally equal or even improved due to higher lean content. On to the subject of ammonia hydroxide. The association of ammonia used as a cleaning agent is very misleading. After the lean beef is separated from the high fat trimmings. Food grade ammonia gas, which is naturally occurring in many foods including beef, is used to slightly elevate the ph of the product. Elevating the ph of the beef creates an environment that is unfriendly to bacteria. So the intent here is truly food safety. Next, I have seen a lot of back and forth about labeling. This is a tough one. There are some questions that have been posed many times. Do you label it ground beef with lean beef added? Or, do you put on the label ammonia used to elevate the level of already existing ammonia? Contrary to what many might believe, this debate has been going on throughout for quite some time. The next thing we should be asking ourselves is, who's going to suffer? Well, simple economics will tell us we, as consumers, will pay more at the meat counter due to the lose of quality lean beef in the market place. I would encourage that we all do some research for ourselves and not buy into the media hype. A well informed consumer now has the tools to, and will, make good choices.

Javier Gomez    
lancaster  |  April, 16, 2012 at 03:01 PM

I disagree that the customer will suffer higher prices. You are assuming consumers will continue to purchase the same volume of beef as we had in the past. That is not a safe assumption, a lot of trust has been lost. However the truth is people will eventually get over this, but honesty and transparency will be required. We want it on the label.

Poultry & Cattle Producer    
Garrison, TX  |  April, 16, 2012 at 03:11 PM

Thank you TOMC! Javier one day this country is going to wake up hungry because of this kind of craziness with our consumers and when that day comes we are going to all wish we had a plate of LFTB to sit down to at the super table. And TW whole milk is 86% water, i'm assuming you know that since you are from Iowa. Yes consumers want it all and then complain about the price!

April, 16, 2012 at 06:54 PM

If people don't want this product, you can preach all day that it's fine to no avail. Just stop it, and figure out how to make the money elsewhere. YOU know, good old capitalism. If stopping the LFTB process results in a lower availability of lean ground beef, and the demand is there, then you'll make plenty of money. If demand is not there, then do something else with your capital. This is easier than trying to convince folks they should want something they don't want.

Michigan  |  April, 17, 2012 at 09:36 AM

I for one would pay MORE for quality meat. I would pay MORE for honesty in advertising. Its funny people will pay $200/month for a cable bill but complain about paying $4/carton for eggs. Food is artificially cheap in this country already. We should pay more. I for one, like many, would rather know what is in their food and pay more for it. On a good note, stories like this are making people realize that they dont know what is in their food, whether it be pink slime, arsenic, antibiotics, GMO's and the industrial food system doesn't have their best interests in mind, but their shareholders. Still the best bet is to by your meat and other farm products from your local farming neighbors.

Craig A. Moore    
Billings, MT  |  April, 17, 2012 at 01:57 PM

I wonder how many of the protesters of this product have actually reviewed how this product is really processed or looked at how the human body uses and processes ammonia. Many of the articles from "those in the know" are based on emotion and not fact. And if they are so sensitive on how their food is processed and what it is made with, do you think any of them eat jello?

East Coast  |  April, 17, 2012 at 06:39 PM

If I put ammonia in food I prepared for my family at home, they would call the police and have me arrested. I'd probably be diagnosed as a psychopath. Anyone who thinks putting ammonia into meat is O.K. has to have their head examined. This is the ultimate Yuk factor, makes you want to puke. If beef producers want that feeling associated with their product, they are absolutely nuts. I'll switch to tofu before I eat that crap.

Shelly Jones    
nebraska  |  April, 18, 2012 at 09:48 PM

First of all We only want you to learn the facts on LFTB. Second we only want you to understand the cattle production process. Third and finally we only want the TRUTH to be told! A embellished, media hyped story has attempted to destroy 100% safe beef. Lftb has been proven to be healthy, safe and e-coli free! For the people that are afraid of the ammonium hydroxide, well do you eat chocolate? Do you eat cheese? Do you eat jams or jellies? Do you drink beer? If so then you have consumed ammonium hydroxide! These products are safe becuse of it! Just learn the facts, the truth and then decided. Everyone should have a choice and I choose LFTB!

SD  |  April, 19, 2012 at 07:15 PM

First, ammonium hydroxide is NOT household ammonia. AND contrary to what some ill-informed people CHOOSE to believe, the 'chef' who demonstrated by pouring household ammonia and a miniscule amount of water into a bin of meat scraps, mixing by hand, then wringing it out, shaping a 'burger' and claiming THAT is how "pink slime" is made...was lying. No other way to put it! Ammonium Hydroxide is a gas. It evaporates quickly leaving the MANY foods treated with it safer from bacteria. Some, not all, of the foods treated with Ammonium Hydroxide are: the hamburger bun, the cheese, the catsup/ketchup, the lettuce and other salad bar veggies...and many more! It HAS been done for many years. How many of you are going to boycott all the various foods which didn't tell you on the label they were treated with Ammonium Hydroxide....oh, yes, the list also includes chocolate!!! There are people involved in this deliberate smear of a product and companies producing it who have various agenda's......isn't that a 'good enough' reason to create a smear out of 'almost facts' when 'corporate food giants' are 'trying to kill off their customers?????

Javier Gomez    
Lancaster  |  April, 19, 2012 at 09:47 PM

Relax Maxine, I'm worried about you.

SD  |  April, 25, 2012 at 04:29 PM

Sorry to bring your sympathies into play, Mr. gomez, but not to worry, my relaxation level is fine, but my level of indignation over political, business, and just plain mean spirited injustices is very strong. What is your plan for that label? Should it say "Fat beef, with some very lean beef added, protected from bacteria by a puff of ammonium Hydrate gas"? Or what is your solution? Adam, however the gas used to treat the meat is made, it IS a gas, NOT a huge amount of household ammonia mixed with a small amount of water, dumped into the meat and agitated about before being squeezed out and shaped into 'hamburgers'.


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