COLUMBIA, Mo. – Just as the “swine flu” misnomer for the H1N1 virus had an economic impact on the swine industry, the pejorative “pink slime” is causing notable impact on the beef industry, said a University of Missouri Extension economist.
The correct term is “lean finely textured beef” or LFTB, says Ron Plain of MU Extension Commercial Agriculture. LFTB is what its name implies: finely ground beef that is low in fat. It is mixed with high-fat beef trimmings to reduce the fat ratio of hamburger meat.
“The LFTB is actually a safer product than the ground beef it is added to,” Plain said. “However, perception is everything. Eating is both necessary for life and fun. It is a social activity. When a less appetizing name is attached to something I normally enjoy, the unappealing name takes away some of my pleasure.”
In the early 1990s, a USDA scientist used the term “pink slime” in an internal memo. The memo surfaced in a 2009 New York Times article critical of the product’s maker, Beef Products Inc. (BPI). Next, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver televised a story incorrectly suggesting that the beef was soaked in buckets of ammonia. This was followed by negative stories from ABC News and numerous other news outlets. Social media latched on to the controversy and LFTB/pink slime became the latest target for consumer outrage.
LFTB is made from finely ground, high-fat beef trimmings that have had the fat, sinew and connective tissue mechanically separated in a centrifuge heated at 100 degrees Fahrenheit, Plain said. The remaining product is treated with a puff of ammonia gas to kill any bacteria that is present. The gas then disperses into the air.
“Most grain-fed steers produce a lot of 50-50 beef trimmings—50 percent lean and 50 percent fat,” said Plain. “The trimmings from older, less valuable cows are closer to 90-10, meaning 90 percent lean meat and 10 percent fat. Unfortunately, the latter does not make for a very cohesive meat patty. Stores often mix 50-50 beef with 90-10 beef and then add up to 15 percent LFTB to reach the perfect texture for meat to be used in making hamburger patties.”
USDA Under Secretary for Food Safety Elisabeth A. Hagen issued a statement on March 22 saying, “The process used to produce LFTB is safe and has been used for a very long time. Adding LFTB to ground beef does not make that ground beef any less safe to consume.”
The addition of LFTB actually lowers the fat-to-meat ratio, making the product healthier, notes Plain.
The media firestorm over the product has led to a decline in sales of ground beef. Many big buyers such as Wal-Mart, Costco, Safeway and Whole Foods have announced that they will not buy any product containing the additive. McDonalds, Burger King and Taco Bell restaurants say they will discontinue use of products containing LFTB.
In March, BPI suspended operations at three of its four plants in Texas, Kansas and Iowa, laying off 650 workers. On May 25, the company will officially close those plants. A fourth plant in South Sioux City, Neb., will operate at reduced capacity.
In April, ground-beef processor AFA Foods filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, citing “ongoing media attention” that has “dramatically reduced the demand for all ground beef products.”
John Kleiboeker, executive director of the Missouri Beef Industry Council, has expressed his concern. “Consumers are asking for lean, safe, lower-cost protein, and LFTB is one of our great products that fully meets their needs,” Kleiboeker said. “Those who have misled the public about LFTB will bear the responsibility for higher family and school food prices at a time when none of us wants to risk our children’s long-term health by reducing their protein consumption at home or school.”
The economic impact of the LFTB controversy on the beef industry shows in wholesale prices, Plain said. “Packers are paying less when buying cattle because they will get less for high-fat beef trimmings due to the outcry against LFTB.” He noted that 50-50 beef trimmings dropped from $1 per pound in early March to 50 cents per pound in mid-April.
“But this too shall pass, just as the flurry over the non-swine flu,” he said. “The media will latch on to something else that plays on the public’s emotions more than facts or reason.”