As beef producers dealt with the “pink slime” fallout, USDA began approving requests for companies to voluntarily label how their beef uses or does not use LFTB.

That type of label would be a claim and require USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service to verify the accuracy of the label claim.

Beef Products Inc. (BPI), the South Dakota-based operation that created the technology making LFTB trimmings, announced in late March that the “pink slime” backlash would force the company to idle three of its four operations and temporarily lay off 659 employees.

On Monday, beef processor AFA Foods, with plants in six states, filed bankruptcy records and cited the public’s “unfounded public outcry” over the beef product as a factor in its filing for Chapter 11.

The catalyst to those decisions came when grocers such as Kroger, Supervalu and Safeway said they would no longer sell LFTB in their ground beef mixes, due to harsh consumer response.


BPI also began its own consumer information campaign to explain its production methods, largely through its website. The American Meat Institute and the Environmental Safety Alliance also waged information campaigns responding to the furor.

State governors and lieutenant governors from Texas, Iowa, Kansas, South Dakota and Nebraska, where BPI has employees, appeared at BPI’s Iowa plant on March 29 to tour the facility.

The officials issued a statement supporting the product, and saying media sensationalism was trumping sound science, and putting jobs at stake.

"Ultimately, it will be the consumer who pays for taking this safe product out of the market,” the statement said.

“The price of ground beef will rise as ranchers work to raise as many as 1.5 million more head of cattle to replace safe beef no longer consumed because of the baseless media scare."

The governors also began urging retailers to continue selling beef with lean trimmings, which led to Hy-Vee stores reversing course and deciding to keep lean-trimming ground beef in its cases, albeit by labeling beef with the trimmings. Walmart stores announced a similar policy.

The controversy erupted in early March when bloggers and network media seized on the process and the term “pink slime” to criticize USDA and its decision to purchase the beef for school lunches.

The term “pink slime” first came from a New York Times story in 2009 that quoted former U.S. Department of Agriculture microbiologist Gerald Zirnstein, who used the term in a 2002 e-mail to colleagues.

The lean beef mixture is derived from a heating process that separates lean meat from fat. The meat is then treated with a small amount of ammonium hydroxide gas, which kills pathogenic bacteria.

Critics have called the resulting meat a “filler” that was only previously used in pet food and cooking oil production, and assailed the use of ammonium hydroxide.

Beef industry specialists, however, have said the process uses real lean beef and allows producers to use most of the animal, with up to 12 pounds of beef gained per carcass.

Food scientists also defended ammonium hydroxide as food-grade additive that USDA has deemed Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) since 1974. Ammonium hydroxide is also used in the production of breads, cheeses, gelatins, and common items ranging from ketchup to chocolate.

Russell Cross, head of the Texas A&M University Department of Animal Science, said he approved the process when he was at USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service in 1993, but the media have ignored science supporting that decision.

“I’ve never seen more biased, bogus reporting than I’ve seen in this particular case,” Cross said.

“All the reporting that caused this issues, none of the reporters checked the facts, none went to universities, the government. … We need to do what we can to get the truth out about this product.”

Ted Schroeder, a livestock marketing professor at Kansas State University, said the issue boils down to a misperception and “yuck factor” among consumers “that has nothing to do with the quality or safety of the product.”

“If there’s something wrong with it, it should be modified or banned,” Schroeder said. “But from what I understand, I’ve never seen anything suggesting this product is less than safe.”

As for the demand to label LFTB, Schroeder says that process may add a far greater cost in tracking and traceability.

“If we take every food production activity that’s been widely adopted and proven safe and helps get more consistent product to consumers, and we start saying ‘you washed lettuce in that, you have to label that,’ if we start doing that there really is no end. It starts to get into slippery slopes.

How much are we going to put up with increasing costs because we have strangely identified labels, some which may not matter to consumers.”

Schroeder said companies like BPI may find it easier to educate consumers, and reassure them of the product’s safety, and the safety precautions required with ground beef.

“If you regulate because you can, you get a costly industry. If you educate, you just have to get out and help them understand.”

Charlie Powell, chief information officer for Washington State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, said the public’s response was predictable and caught the beef industry unprepared, given how the “pink slime” label was disclosed over two years ago.

“If an industry can’t explain things, or chooses not to explain to the consumer, they run the risk of discovery and exploitation, which always exacerbates the danger of a negative event like this,” Powell said.

The safety of LFTB isn’t in question, Powell said, but the timing of that information came too late when the controversy boiled over. Commodity producers need to embrace open transparency in their production methods, Powell urged.

That requires more than just labeling, but a proactive sustained strategy to educate stakeholders before a blogger or reporter reveals a production secret handed to them by someone unfriendly to the industry.

“Take a page out of the playbook of other commodities. Help (consumers) understand not only the health of the product but also what it takes to produce this. My argument is for complete transparency. Then people aren’t vulnerable to a disinformation attack.”  end_mark

Beef processors gained approval from USDA to label their ground beef indicating whether or not it has finely texture lean beef. Photo by Progressive Cattleman staff.