by: Wes Ishmael
“Would you feed that to your children?”
That's the basic question Jamie Oliver, chef and media personality, posed to children and parents at the end of an episode of Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution. In that particular episode a year ago, Oliver gave his take on how beef processors conjure up Lean Finely Textured Beef (LFTB). Only he called it pink slime. His gruesome approach to the process he imagined was behind LFTB and his spooky description, of course, caused the parents to say they would never feed that to their kids.
Almost a year later, ABC news came forward with an investigative report featuring two former USDA microbiologists, who presumably first coined the pink slime term in an inter-office memo while working at USDA. For various reasons, they're against allowing LFTB in ground beef.
As you know by now, that ABC report captured the nation's attention. Within two weeks of its airing, the USDA was giving school's participating in the National School Lunch Program the opportunity to opt out of purchasing ground beef containing LFTB. At the same time, three of the nation's largest grocers reportedly were turning their noses up at it, too.
Lean Finely Textured Beef in a Nutshell
LFTB is beef. It's the result of a process by which lean beef is separated from fat in beef trimmings, lean that either went to waste or went to lower-value uses until the current recovery process was developed about 20 years ago.
That's why there is no legal requirement for labeling ground beef products that contain LFTB; it's not an additive.
There is no technical justification for labeling, says Edward Mills, associate professor of dairy and animal science at Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences. He explains that LFTB is meat that has been warmed to body temperature and physically separated from fat. It is uncooked beef.
Incidentally, Mills offered one of the most reasoned responses to the controversy you'd hope to see, whether you're for or against LFTB.
As part of the process, a puff of ammonium oxide—all-natural and commonly used in all sorts of food production practices—is blown onto the LFTB, raising the Ph level and creating a poor living environment for bacteria like E. coli.
“If you took LFTB out of the ground beef mix, you certainly wouldn't improve the microbial status, and you would not reduce the occurrence of E. coli 0157:H7 or salmonella in ground beef. In fact, it would be just the opposite. There is not a safety issue here,” Mills says.
According to Mills, the brief exposure of LFTB to ammonia gas is an effective antimicrobial treatment.
“…The maximum allowable percentage of LFTB that may be included in a single serving of the USDA-purchased ground beef is 15%, which is similar to incorporation rates in many commercial ground beef products,” says a fact sheet from the National Meat Association.
“LFTB is nutritionally equivalent to lean ground beef,” emphasizes J. Patrick Boyle, president of the American Meat Institute. “It is important to recognize that, while some reports have called LFTB an additive or filler, these terms are absolutely inaccurate. LFTB is simply a beef product that starts with wholesome, inspected trimmings that result when large carcasses are cut into smaller portions. These trimmings can look much like bacon, where fat and lean meat is intertwined. The process used to make LFTB removes the intertwined fat from the lean and the result is a 95 percent lean beef product.”
So, LFTB has been around a while. It's safe. Its inclusion in ground beef makes ground beef less expensive than it would be otherwise, at least in theory.
So, what's the beef?
Emotion and Relevant Questions
Undoubtedly, some folks hopped onto the bandwagon to sell more papers, as the saying goes. Likewise, scattered facts and myths led some consumers to legitimate concerns.
Even when you dig for the objective facts, there are wonderments.
For instance, while I don't doubt the safety or nutritional value of LFTB, it's interesting to note that on the website of Beef Products, Inc. (BPI)—a leading manufacturer of LFTB—one answer to a myth says, “A side-by-side comparison of nutrition labels for 90 percent lean/10 percent fat ground beef demonstrates this lean beef has substantially identical nutritional value as 90 percent lean ground beef…”
That's not especially confidence-inspiring. Identical is one of those characteristics like pregnancy—you are or you aren't; there's no sort of, kind of or substantially similar about it.
Put that aside, though. How does the inclusion of LFTB affect beef quality?
“If you make ground beef only from this material, it wouldn't have a typical coarse, granular texture that you expect from ground beef,” Mills says. “But formulating ground beef with a small amount of LFTB improves the texture. Many consumers appreciate finer ground beef and find the smoother texture to be a desirable characteristic.
“But it is true, LFTB is detectable and it changes the character of the patty. Now, whether that is good or bad is in the eyes of the beholder and is greatly influenced by the way it is presented.”
You can find research papers that speak to the differences in protein composition between beef muscle and LFTB. In recent weeks, you can also find various folks weighing in with their own taste tests, some claiming that hamburgers made with LFTB are chewier and less flavorful than hamburgers made without it.
Perhaps more important than the quality itself is the consistency of eating quality since there are no rules for how much LFTB can be incorporated into the mix below the 15 percent threshold mentioned above.
It's not like domestic consumer beef demand is a lock-solid cinch. Currently, beef retailers have been slow to raise prices as historically high prices narrow their opportunity for beef featuring, which is how most grocers market a substantial amount of their beef. More broadly, there are about 36 percent more U.S. residents than there was 35 years ago and they don't want to eat any more beef than 36 percent fewer of them did back then.
Consider your own history of eating fast-food burgers, which has likely ranged between heaven and a gristly mess. Whatever the reasons behind it, consistency is lacking, as it is with meat-case beef of supposedly the same Quality Grade. That's nothing new. It's also why production efficiency grows more important.
Mills believes not using LFTB is a decision to waste food. “I have seen enough situations in other countries where people appreciate food,” he says. “We don't in the United States because we have so much that wasting food is part of our culture—it is the thing that we do.
“We eat ourselves sick and throw the rest away. But that is not the rule around the world for most of the population, and it bothers me when we make a decision like this to waste food. I grew up in a household where we did not waste food.”
Some major beef customers are choosing against LFTB, though. There are the aforementioned large grocers. And, Mills points out, McDonald's, Taco Bell and Burger King all announced in January that they no longer would use the material in their ground meat.
“We live in a culture where emotions consistently trump logic and reason, and this is one of those,” Mills says. “The only sound condemnation of the product (LFTB) is that it just looks bad. But the fact remains; it is a low-cost source of very lean ground beef.”
Apparently, the court of public opinion disagrees.
“Today, a three-week war waged on a beef product called lean finely textured beef came to a painful head as hundreds of people lost their jobs when one of the primary processors (of LFTB) shuttered three plants,” said Boyle March 26.
The lost jobs Boyle was referring to were due to the reported closing of three LFTB plants, owned and operated byBPI.
Boyle added, “In the end, today's developments are a sad day for the families of those who lost their jobs. Other American families will also pay the price at the checkout counter as they see the price of ground beef begin to rise while we work to grow as many as 1.5 million more head of cattle to replace the beef that will no longer be consumed due to this manufactured scare.”
March 27 officials at Tyson Foods released the following statement regarding BPI's suspension of operation at three plants:
“We believe it's extremely unfortunate BPI has been forced to reduce operations, given its long history for producing safe, nutritious lean beef.
“Our company is one of many beef processors that sell beef trimmings to BPI. The reduction of BPI's operations means less lean meat will be recovered and more of the beef trimmings will be converted into lower-value products. We're making some modifications in our production processes to adjust for this change. We're also making adjustments to accommodate our customers that no longer want BPI's Lean Finely Textured Beef in their ground beef."
“We'd rather not publicly speculate what today's announcement will mean financially to our company or the other beef processors doing business with BPI. We will say we believe the decrease in BPI's production will result in less lean beef available in the market and may result in higher consumer prices. Alternatively, we believe there may be an increase in the supply of some of the raw materials used to produce ground beef, and this may result in lower values that could ultimately affect livestock prices.”
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