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What is Pink Slime and Why is It in My Burger?

Posted in Foodborne Illness

Raw HamburgerNever has the saying, “ignorance is bliss,” been more true than in the context of the ground beef filler known as “pink slime.”  Pink slime, which is known in the food industry as “lean finely textured beef,” or “LFTB,” has been a commonly used ingredient in ground beef for more than two decades.  It is made available to Americans as part of the ground beef they purchase at their local grocery stores and fast food restaurants, and it is fed to children in their school lunches.  Experts estimate that approximately 850 million pounds of LFTB are added to ground beef each year.  LFTB has been dubbed “pink slime,” based on its appearance.  But according to Rich Jochum, corporate administrator for Beef Products, Inc., which took out a full-page advertisement in The Wall Street Journal to defend its product,

“[t]he derogatory term [pink slime] has trumped all science, all facts, all history.”

In fact, LFTB is beef.  LFTB is comprised of beef scraps which are left over from the cow after the valuable cuts of beef are sold. A centrifuge is then used to remove the fat, and ammonium hydroxide gas is applied to kill bacteria.  The resultant product is then added as a filler to ground beef.  This allows meat processors to recover meat that might otherwise be wasted, and saves up to 1.5 million head of cattle from slaughter.  It also leads to leaner ground beef and lower beef prices for consumers.

Until recently, however, most Americans were completely unaware that the ground beef they consumed contained up to fifteen percent LFTB.  That is due to the fact that it is considered a raw material, and thus federal labeling requirements dictate that its inclusion need not be reflected on the label.  Both beef processors and the federal government regulators maintain that there was no reason to label the presence of LFTB in ground beef, and risk consumer confusion, because it is not a separate ingredient.  “It’s beef,” says a USDA official. “There are various parts of the animal that come together in ground beef.  This is just one part.” Moreover, The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) both deem LFTB safe for consumption.  They point to the fact that the product has never been linked to any outbreaks, nor have there been any safety related recalls.

That, however, did not stop the firestorm which quickly swept across this country, fueled by social media, over concerns about the use of ammonium hydroxide and the quality of the meat used in the filler.  The media attention, and the associated response of the American consumer, has led a number of supermarkets to phase out the sale of any ground beef which includes LFTB, and caused a number of school districts to indicate that they will no longer serve ground beef which contains LFTB. This, in turn, has led to an economic disaster for many meat processors, including AFA Foods Inc., which filed for bankruptcy, and Beef Products, Inc., which will close three plants, resulting in a loss of more than 650 jobs.

Faced with the public outcry concerning LFTB, the USDA and FDA still maintain that LFTB is safe for consumption, and that the issue is not one concerning safety, but instead appears to involve the public’s concern with the way their food is made. In addition, they point out that, ammonium hydroxide, one of the major reasons for the public outcry, has also been extensively used as a food additive for many years in other food products, including various baked goods, cheeses, chocolates, other confectionery (e.g., caramel), and puddings, though there has been no similar outcry with respect to those products.

The recent public outcry against “pink slime” is a reflection of a growing public consciousness as to the food we eat.  It is also a startling demonstration of the power of social media and the effect it can have over the mainstream media and in shaping public opinion.  Perhaps this whole firestorm could have been averted with more comprehensive labeling of ground beef.  In fact, it appears that beef producers are now considering a label which would indicate whether ground beef contains LFTB.

“The idea is simple. Tell consumers what they’re buying. Give them an option. Let them make the choice.”

Transparency is the key to avoiding similar public uproar concerning the food we eat.