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.