Can a British chef and TV personality, social media, and the lamestream media destroy jobs and a company unnecessarily? If recent events, including the closure of three of four beef processing plants, including a plant in Waterloo, Iowa that employs about 220 workers are any indication, the answer is yes. A number of governors and lieutenant governors were in South Sioux City, Neb., Thursday afternoon to tour a Beef Products Inc. plant. BPI earlier this week announced it would close three of its plants in response due to concerns from grocers and restaurants demanding ground beef without lean finely textured beef. More than 650 workers in the three states have been temporarily laid off because of the closures. The South Sioux City plant is the only plant remaining open. During a press conference after the tour, officials called on the media to set the record straight. Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad said he wants to end the “smear campaign and stop the use of inaccurate, inappropriate and charged words designed to scare people.”
Beef Products Inc. (BPI) is the company at the heart of the “pink slime” debate. Reuters reported that back in 2002, United States Department of Agriculture scientist Gerald Zirnstein was unhappy USDA approved the use of the Lean Finely Textured Beef in ground beef. He referred to the product as “pink slime” in an email to a coworker, but a Freedom of Information Act request brought the email to the attention of the news media, which then shared the moniker with the general public. In 2009, The New York Times had a lengthy article reporting on the concerns various consumers and USDA professionals had with the two products. In April 2011, Jamie Oliver (the Brit formerly known as the Naked Chef) did a segment on his show “Food Revolution” to discuss Lean Finely Textured Beef. By discuss, “butcher” might be a more appropriate, pun intended, way to depict his methods. The pejorative term, ‘pink slime’ has taken off because of postings by Food Network chef Jamie Oliver as well as a series of reports recently by ABC News.
“While lean finely textured beef was given a catchy and clever nickname in ‘pink slime,’ the impact of alarming broadcasts about this safe and wholesome beef product by Jamie Oliver, ABC News and others are no joke to those families that are now out of work,” American Meat Institute President J. Patrick Boyle said in a statement. From the huge reaction, given the sensationalist nature of Oliver’s presentation, in social media, the story spread to every newspaper front page in the nation by a further sensationalist report particularly by ABC News.
Oliver’s complaint is about beef trimmings. He associates the trimmings with what would go into dog food, implying it is unfit for human consumption. In his segment on his now defunct show, Food Revolution, Jamie Oliver holds up putrid-looking pieces of beef and of course, there is suitable disgusting audience reaction when he mentions that this in our children’s hot lunches at school. I wish that the chef would also show the ingredients of much of the German and Italian sausage that he no doubt thinks is among the greatest food on earth. The Food Network chef, is, however, selective, sensationalist, and fundamentally dishonest in my opinion.
He continues the scare tactics by opening a locked cabinet to reveal common household chemicals including a bottle with a skull on it, indicating it contains poisonous contents, labeled as ‘ammonia’. The Food Network star then pours cups and cups of straight ammonia directly onto the beef leaving the audience members and viewers of the show with the impression that merely biting into the lean textured beef or a burger made with it would kill you on the spot.
Part of me thinks History Channel needs to jump on this bandwagon and create a “How It’s Made” or “Modern Marvels” episode about Lean Finely Textured Beef and Boneless Lean Beef Trimmings. I’m not going to lie, I like what Jamie Oliver’s intent was with “Food Revolution.” I think it’s vitally important for consumers to be aware of agriculture, since most of them are several generations removed from the farm. But there are some serious flaws in his methodology of presenting Lean Finely Textured Beef and how it is processed.
Oliver does have the facts correct that LFTB is produced by further processing beef that before this process wasn’t eaten by humans. The beef is also treated with ammonium hydroxide. That is as far as the actual truth telling goes in Oliver’s discussion of this beef that acts as a binder in lower fat ground beef. Now, here is what is misleading about the segment. Oliver decries the process to make it, how the meat is chemically treated, and that the beef is unfit for human consumption.
To illustrate what exactly lean finely textured beef is, imagine you are at a fine restaurant eating a steak. It’s a really good, medium New York Strip dripping with deliciousness and you are determined to eat every morsel. But there’s a bit of fat around the edge you have to trim off because, flavorful as it may be, the intramuscular fat surrounding a cut of meat isn’t always the best thing to straight up eat. You trim off that fat, eat the rest of the steak and then notice there’s still some bits of beef embedded in the fat trim. Try as you might, you can’t cut them out with your steak knife, and it’s not exactly the best table manners to pick up the fat and gnaw at the leftover beef.
That’s kind of what happens when you harvest a beef animal. The majority of whole muscles are turned into steaks, roasts or specific ground beef (think “ground chuck,” “ground round” and “ground sirloin”). With ground beef, the muscle is separated from the fat by hand, and using a lot of mathematical equations, processors determine how much muscle and fat to add together to make an 80/20, 85/15 and so on ground beef mixture. Now, there are parts of the beef carcass that are like that “meat-stuck-in-the-fat” scenario. America wants lean beef. Processors also don’t want to waste beef. Thus, the process of creating LFTB was designed.
According to the American Meat Institute, this is the process to make LFTB:
- Trimmings (that’s the “meat-stuck-in-the-fat”) are warmed to about 100 degrees Fahrenheit inside a centrifuge. That’s a machine that looks rather like a large mixing bowl.
- The centrifuge spins the trimmings to separate meat from fat, similar to the way milk is separated from cream. The temperature inside the centrifuge melts and liquefies the fat.
- Once the meat is separated from the fat, it’s 95 percent lean. It can be added to ground beef to create a leaner product desired by lots of American consumers.
Lean Finely Textured Beef is treated with food-grade ammonium hydroxide. This is NOT the stuff you find in your run-of-the-mill chemistry lab. This is a type of NH3 that’s been, in a better term, watered-down to be safe in extremely small quantities when added to food. LFTB is treated with citric acid. Why treat the trimmings? With ammonium hydroxide in particular, these treatments if done correctly reduce the amount of E. coli and Salmonella found in ground beef. Let’s be clear here, though. Treating is not what Jamie Oliver’s video showed, where the LFTB is dumped into a plastic tub and doused with noxious amounts of household chemicals. Treating is, however, giving the LFTB a puff of ammonium hydroxide to up its pH to an amount that will kill off these bacteria. In fact, if you look at the Material Safety Data Sheet for ammonium hydroxide, you’ll see that in any amount it’s harmful to bacteria, where in humans unless you drink, inhale or rub it on you, there are no harmful effects. In fact, it’s a chemical found naturally in humans. It is in meat. It is in baked goods. It is in chocolate. It is also in cereal. Like a slice of melty, gooey cheddar on that beef burger? Well, the .8oz piece of cheese on your cheeseburger contains about 813 parts per million(ppm)of ammonium hydroxide? Guess how much your 1/4 lb beef patty (from BPI) has? Only 200 ppm! So when a puff of it is added to a processed beef product, it is used to up the“anti” in anti-bacterial; not to poison schoolchildren who eat NH3-treated hamburgers in their school lunches.
The next big argument against the use of LFTB in ground beef is whether or not it should be labeled as an ingredient. We’ve established that these are beef. So you can imagine how ridiculous it might seem to the meat industry to add beef to the ingredient listing on the label when they are actually adding beef to something that is already beef. If I would see “LFTB” on the label and immediately react by wanting to know what the heck the USDA was putting in our ground beef. Then I would immediately petition the USDA to stop using confusing abbreviations on ground beef packaging. Because if you think about it, no packer is going to label ground beef as containing “pink slime,” because that’s a misnomer.
Let’s address another claim Oliver made in his segment. The beef that’s turned into LFTB is inedible and used for pet food. For the record, the only reason it was considered “inedible” is because until these processes were invented, it was inedible in the sense the industry could not get to the meat! Boneless lean beef trimmings are 100% edible meat. These trimmings are simply the lean beef removed from the meat and fat that is trimmed away when beef is cut into steaks and roasts. The meat in these trimming is nearly impossible to separate with a knife so, historically, this product only could be used in cooked beef products when the fat was cooked and separated for tallow. But now there is a process that separates the fat from the fresh lean beef, and it is this fresh lean beef that can be used in ground meat foods like hamburger and sausages. No process exists that could somehow make an inedible meat edible. Another fact to consider, these trimmings are removed during primal and sub-primal fabrication, and the company isolates the small bits of lean attached to these larger chunks of fat. This stuff is 80% fat or more and not trim that would be fed to a dog.
ABC News’ characterization of LFTB as a filler or additive is also inaccurate. Many in the media including KCCI have begun to describe Lean Finely Textured Beef (LFTB) as “filler” for ground beef. This is factually inaccurate. Meat fillers include cereals, legumes, vegetable, roots and tubers, and may not be used in anything carrying the term “ground beef” due to its standard of identity. On the other hand, LFTB is an end product made from boneless lean beef trimming, the very same beef that is processed into roasts and steaks for retailers and restaurants. These trimmings are simply small pieces of beef with fat attached. The boneless lean beef trimmings become “finely textured” using high-technology food processing equipment that resembles a large, high-speed mixing bowl, in which they are warmed to help separate away the fat so that only the beef remains. The result is a high-quality beef product and is at least 90 percent lean. LFTB is blended into ground beef, which is required by law to be made exclusively from beef. It has not been labeled as a separate ingredient because it is 100 percent beef. It is not an additive or filler. In fact, to label it as anything but beef would raise truth-in-labeling questions.
I’ve always enjoyed Jamie Oliver and think a lot of him as a chef and entertainer, but I find this treatment of “pink slime” disgusting and irresponsible. It shows how entertainers like Jamie know how to play to that, and how reporters and producers know how to attract audiences by heightening fears. It shows how crisis normally start in social media or from videos posted on YouTube and rapidly gain momentum both from amplifying messages in social media and mainstream media. Each step of the process heightens the fear and outrage. It shows how companies, understandably sensitive to their own business, respond at the first sign of consumer reaction and pull the product, further amplifying the message that this stuff must really be bad.
Never to miss an opportunity to create fear and outrage, ABC jumped on the story (remember ABC was the primary “investigator” behind Toyota’s “software” problems that turned out to be bogus.) Because of the now near panic created by the sensationalist TV entertainment and news stories, the retailers reacted by pulling the product from the shelves, schools refused to provide beef products that included “pink slime,” and pressure was put on government regulators for failing to do their job. Ground beef is the most widely consumed beef product in the United States. Scaring consumers away from this unnecessarily will hurt beef demand. The fact that an individual “whistle blower” can single-handedly effect beef demand is scary, and an unfortunate reality to meat producers. Regardless that the USDA and FDA employs hundreds of scientists whose job is to study different applications of products and compounds for approval to use in the food system, one person who disagrees (and no longer works for USDA) can grind that all to a halt. Should additional scientists at USDA have been contacted? Probably. Should a scientist from the American Meat Institute or National Meat Association have been consulted for a 3rd party scientific perspective, unrelated to USDA? Absolutely. But given the nature of the media machine, there is only so much info that can go into a two-and-a-half minute news piece and unfortunately those perspectives didn’t make it in the story.
And now we have our “white knight” legislators already rewriting the rule book on beef products to eliminate pink slime from the marketplace. Wrongly informed legislators from around the nation are jumping on the “Stop the Pink Slime” bandwagon. For example, in a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack , Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, 1st District of Maine urged the government to immediately end the use of the product in school lunches. “It’s wrong to feed children a slurry that was formerly only used for dog food. I hope you will do everything in your power to eliminate it from school lunch programs around the country,” Pingree wrote. Congresswoman Chellie Pingree has assembled the support of 41 House representatives and submitted a sign-on letter asking that USDA discontinue the use of any beef with LFTB in schools, recognizing that that USDA’s offer of a choice to schools may not be a viable solution for all. Senators Robert Menendez (NJ) and Kristen Gillibrand (NY) have also sent letters to the USDA in support.
Consumers have a right to question what goes in their food, and we owe it to the public to be transparent on the process that results in a hamburger on their plate. However, the story run last night, on one of the largest media outlets in the world, and the misguided expose by Jamie Oliver last year unnecessarily struck fear into the consumer on a process that poses no threat to their health. Mischaracterizations on the process, and portraying it in a way that makes it looks like the meat industry is being disingenuous to the consumer is irresponsible. It is also irresponsible because it has caused a loss of jobs during a time when so many Americans are struggling to make ends meet and put food on the table. It will no doubt also result in the food that we can manage to put on our tables to be less since the cost of ground beef will rise as much as thirty cents per pound. So please, next time you are watching the news, remember fear mongering. And remember that everything you hear on the news isn’t always the actual truth. I’d sure hope that before you make a decision to discontinue eating a product such as meat that you would at least do some research about the topic. And what other way to research than to consult an expert in the field? Head down to your local butcher shop and ask questions! It is my hope that through asking the right people questions, you will come to find out that ideas you had about the meat industry really aren’t what they are made up to be. And that in fact, the truth really isn’t bad. So what are you waiting for? Go grab a burger!