If you've cut up a beef carcasses, you know it's impossible to separate all lean meat from fat – even with the sharpest blade. But meat technologists discovered that the high-protein lean can be separated from fatty trimmings via a centrifuge.
And, that lean, finely-textured beef or LFTB quickly became a means to dramatically reduce lean meat wastage, reports Edward Mills, Penn State University meat expert. It's reddish-pink and gooey – not pretty, he concedes. But no one eats it "as is" or even cooked. Mixed with regular ground beef, it boosts nutritional value and may bind lean patties together.
So what's the "beef"? The stuff made recent headlines when a newspaper reported that the federal government plans to buy ground beef containing LFTB for the national school lunch program's beef products.
After a newspaper broke the story about "pink slime", a national furor erupted. It was overhyped by the news media and distorted in social media, says Mills. "'Lean, finely-textured beef' just doesn't roll off the tongue like 'pink slime' does. But there's so much misinformation out there that makes it difficult for most people to know what to believe."
USDA puts LFTB in the same category as boneless lean meat. The trimmings are treated with ammonia gas or citric acid as a preventive against foodborne illnesses. That's why this food scientist strongly disputes elevated claims in the social media that it's unsafe.
"Such claims are blatantly untrue," he stresses. "From a microbial-pathogen point of view, the product has a better reputation than straight ground beef. If you took LFTB out of the ground beef mix, you wouldn't reduce the occurrence of E. coli 0157:H7 or salmonella. In fact, it would be just the opposite. There's no safety issue here!"
Brief exposure to ammonia gas is a very effective antimicrobial treatment, Mills points out. USDA also accepts its use as an effective intervention for reducing microbial and pathogen numbers on carcasses.
Adding 10% to 15% LFTB to lean ground beef actually enhances the texture of lean ground beef. But he acknowledges: "If you're offended by something that's sticky and gooey and red, and you know that it came from meat, you might find it disgusting."
"We live in a culture where emotions consistently trump logic and reason, and this is one of those. The only sound condemnation of the product is that it just looks bad. But the fact remains: It's a low-cost source of very lean ground beef."
Social perception rules the market
McDonald's, Taco Bell and Burger King all announced in January that they no longer would use the material in their ground meat. More than 15 major grocery chains have "sworn off" LFTB since then, with Kroger making the announcement this week.
Mills conceded that he understands their decision, but regrets it. "They succumbed to the pressure, and they are out there on the line – right at the consumer interface," he notes. "When the popular consensus is that a product is bad, businesses on the interface with consumers don't have any choice but to respond to their desires and beliefs. Consumers are always right."
But Mills believes not using LFTB is mistake – a decision to waste food. I've seen enough situations in other countries where people appreciate food," he explains. "We don't in the United States because we have so much. Wasting food is part of our culture."
Extra labeling controversy still in the air
Some detractors, according to Mills, insist that LFTB be labeled differently than other beef. They argue that without special labeling, consumers can't tell when they're getting pink slime.
Mills doesn't expect USDA to require special labeling, as there's no technical justification for it. It's uncooked beef. But he adds that their response may come down to the political will of the organization.
"Will they stick to their guns?" he wonders. "If not, we could see special labeling for this. If so, I worry that it's going to set a precedent that'll change considerably how we label a variety of other meat products."