How a Good Product Got a Bad Rap

My Generation

Pink slime: lots of misinformation, followed by hype and more misinformation. Rinse, and repeat. But wait! Here are the facts.

Published on: April 12, 2012
John and I went out for a nice, leisurely dinner last weekend, and over the course of the conversation, I somehow mentioned "that whole pink slime thing."

To which he said, "What pink slime thing?"

"You don't know what I'm talking about?"

"No. No idea. Am I supposed to?"

I had two immediate thoughts. One, that I have failed in a measurable way as an ag journalist, if even my husband doesn't know about pink slime. Granted, we've had a lot going on the past month. But still. And two, if my own husband doesn't know about it, there's a good chance other non-Facebooking, non-social media farmers don't either. I hadn't planned to write about this, given that it all went down when my mother was sick and there's no point in rehashing old news. Unless, of course, there are folks who don't know about it.

So to re-cap: about a month ago, ABC News reported on something the industry calls lean finely-textured beef or LFTB, a beef product made by Beef Products, Inc. They called it "pink slime." They said it was USDA approved, but by just one person who overruled two scientists and later went on to claim a board seat at a BPI supplier. They said it contained ammonium hydroxide, "an ingredient used in fertilizers, household cleaners and roll-your-own explosives." They said it was pet food, before USDA approved it for people.

Public outrage ensued. Then the fertilizer really hit the cooling device when reporters learned USDA planned to purchase 7 million pounds of ground beef for the National School Lunch program that contains the dread "pink slime." Mothers circulated online petitions, and folks used Facebook and Twitter to the equivalent of a bullhorn to share rampantly untrue stories of "pink slime."

By the end of March, fast food companies and grocery chains were cancelling their orders, and the BPI plants were laying off workers. Midwest governors held a press conference to explain that "beef is beef." BPI filed for bankruptcy. And Jim Avila, the ABC reporter, sat at the press conference and still called it pink slime.

The truth?

It takes a long time to separate meat and fat from the bone. You can do it at home. So can a series of people with knives in a processing plant. But it takes a long time. BPI basically came up with a process to mechanically separate beef from fat (from what I understand, it's proprietary but involves a centrifuge). They treat it with a shot of food-grade ammonium hydroxide, which is ammonium and water and was approved by the FDA in 1974 and is used in a variety of products including pudding and baked goods. A puff of ammonium hydroxide is used in LFTB to kill bacteria that may be present. This is food safety. It's a good thing.

And a single person approving anything in the government? Given the layers of bureaucracy and the time involved to get anything done, I'm not sure a single person would be capable of passing or failing anything in our federal government. Indeed, ABC had no evidence of a board seat payoff. Just conjecture.

And pet food? Not hardly. That's patently false. BPI uses technology to separate the meat from the fat, kill the bacteria and very efficiently use as much of the animal as possible for human consumption. But it's beef. It's always been beef. This should seem like common sense because as it turns out, no process can make an inedible product edible. Also, efficiency is a good thing. An animal has given its life for our food supply; let's not waste any of it. Even the Wall Street Journal points out the real loser in the "pink slime" debacle is the cow.

But I digress.

What's up with the lack of understanding? Consumers say the industry isn't transparent enough. The industry says consumers didn't care, until they did care and then they bought into wild misinformation.

And what do the meat scientists think? Tom Carr's official title is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Animals Sciences at the U of I. He retired last year to his home state of Kansas, but before that he coached decades of meat judging teams. He's pretty much like the Godfather of meat science, except without the guns. And with more colorful phrases.

No surprise, but Dr. Carr has toured the BPI plant in Dakota City, Neb., several times. He reports it's "an incredible process" that increases efficiency of protein production, and that the plant is basically stainless steel and is amazingly clean.

"So much of the negative comments are simply the lack of understanding, and in some cases, an opportunity to slow down/decrease the demand for animal protein," Dr. Carr says. "This incident clearly shows the influence of social media and how quickly inaccurate information can spread."

Obviously, a lot of damage has been done.

And as Dr. Carr points out, the amazing thing is that companies were adding LFTB to their ground beef blends to improve the healthiness of the product. "The addition of the product actually reduced microbial loads; the meat was improved," he says, pointing to a University of Arkansas study that showed adding LFTB up to 20% improved fresh color, reduced spoilage and increased tenderness. And it cut the cost by 20 to 25 cents per pound of ground beef.

Again, this should be a good thing.

USDA has agreed to approve requests by ground beef suppliers to voluntarily label packages containing LFTB. So "official approval" is new, but the option to label LFTB has always existed.

"In hindsight, maybe it should have been from the start," Dr. Carr adds.

The cattle producer in me wants to ask, if beef is beef, is it really necessary? But for consumers – like my Chicago mom friends - who've heard nothing but "PINK SLIME" for a month, probably so.

For a guy like Dr. Carr, who's spent a good share of his professional career in a meat cooler, the pink slime mess is personal.

"This whole process is backed by sound science, but public perception has led to a train wreck. Will the public listen to science, if we detail every food manufacturing process? I doubt it. The only good thing we have going for us is the American consuming public has a very short memory."

Editor's note: Corporate Editorial Director Willie Vogt adds that Europe only allows LFTB in pet food, hence the dog food comments we keep hearing. Europe, you'll recall, also shuns genetically modified crops and properly used hormones and antibiotics.