Lean finely textured beef/"pink slime" linkfest

Competing rallies about lean finely textured beef took place on the Iowa State University campus yesterday. Governor Terry Branstad, Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds, and Representative Steve King were among the speakers at a rally supporting continued use of the additive used in some ground beef. Before that event, some family farmers joined activists at a rally to “to protest the collusion between industrial meat production and our political system.”

It’s time for a new Bleeding Heartland thread about lean finely textured beef, known to detractors as “pink slime.” A dozen links to news and commentary about this controversy are after the jump.

First, I recommend reading the timeline of events in the life of Beef Products Inc and “pink slime,” which James Andrews compiled for Food Safety News.

Governor Branstad has been on the warpath about what he calls the “smear campaign” against lean finely textured beef, and he beat that drum again yesterday.

“It’s your future that is threatened if campaigns of distortion and smear are successful against safe, wholesome food products,” Branstad said.  […]

“We need your help to combat this information and smears and replace it with accurate, scientific information that consumers can rely on,” Branstad told the I.S.U. students. Outside the lecture hall, the animal science students grilled hamburgers containing the beef product.

The groups that helped organize the competing rally, including Food Democracy Now!, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, Occupy Ames, and Occupy ISU, see the issue very differently. From a press release announcing the protest of “collusion between industrial meat production and our political system”:

The rally organized by family farmers and advocacy organizations was put together in an effort to correct the misleading propaganda being put forward by the meat industry and politicians.

The recent controversy surrounding ground beef has brought to the public’s attention that an estimated 70 percent of ground beef in the U.S. contains an inferior grade beef parts mixture known as pink slime, which the industry calls “lean, finely textured beef”. While the issue has been around for several years, the controversy reached a boiling point when the USDA announced that it planned to order more than 7 million pounds for the National School Lunch Program, which according to federal regulations allows ground beef to contain up to 15 percent of the substance by weight.  

The recent controversy has once again laid bare the continued problems that industrial agriculture has in hiding their worst practices from the American public and brought to light the negative consequence that industrial meat production has on family farmers and consumer confidence.  

“Transparency, knowledge and choice – that is what consumers need in their spending decisions,” said Chris Petersen, a farmer from Clear Lake, Iowa and president of Iowa Farmers Union. “The facts are now coming in and once again people are questioning our food system blessed by the FDA and USDA and a lot of politicians influenced by processors, industrial agriculture, lobbyists and campaign contributions.”

Petersen’s comment about transparency in food choice and undue political influence is especially important considering the revelation that Eldon and Regina Roth, the owners of Beef Products Inc., the world’s largest producer of pink slime, have contributed an estimated $800,000 to local, state and federal elected officials, including more than $150,000 to Governor Branstad.

With the recent loss of livestock reforms in Washington DC, known as GIPSA, which were required market protections won during the 2007 Farm Bill and were gutted last winter under meat industry pressure, farmers and ranchers are outraged over the continued political influence of the meat industry, which has driven more than 80,000 beef cattle producers out of business in the past decade with little response from Congress or USDA officials.

“Family farmers and ranchers are being used again by giant agribusiness and their pet policies to gain the public’s support for one of their most unethical practices that actually cuts the demand for beef cattle,” said George Naylor, a farmer near Churdan, Iowa and the past president of the National Family Farm Coalition. “Farmers, ranchers, and the public should not want ‘cheap’ food, but food of good quality that’s affordable,” Naylor continued.

Farmers and ranchers are so outraged over the obvious political favors and deliberate PR spin being waged by the meat industry and political supporters that cattle producer and independent meat processor Mike Callicrate travelled from as far as Colorado to make sure that America heard the message loud and clear.

“The use of pink slime is a grave betrayal of trust to our beef eating customers. Selling adulterated, otherwise inedible tissue, to uninformed people is wrong. These irresponsible practices by USDA and our short-sighted, greed driven meat industry are ruinous to our reputation, our financial future and America’s food system,” said Callicrate.

Food Democracy Now! sent out an e-mail blast on April 10 challenging the safety of “pink slime.” Excerpt:

The sad truth is, despite what a number of politicians and the Industrial Meat propagandists would have you believe, before Beef Products Inc. (BPI) invented Pink Slime in the 1990s, this meat by-product would have been used for dog food. [3] Sadly, now it’s ending up in our hamburgers and our children’s school lunches.

What do USDA scientists say about Pink Slime?

Gerald Zirnstein, a retired USDA microbiologist who worked at the USDA Food Safety Inspection Service, first coined the phrase “pink slime” in 2002 after touring a BPI plant and has recently told the media, “I have a 2-year-old son, and you better believe I don’t want him eating pink slime when he starts going to school.” [4]

According to The Daily, retired USDA microbiologist Carl Custer, a 35-year veteran of the Food Safety Inspection Service said, “the idea of mixing in BPI’s Lean Beef Trimmings into more nutritious, pure ground beef was itself problematic.” He also told The Daily, “My main objection was that it was not meat”. In addition, a study conducted by Zirstein and Custer classified the trimmings as a “high risk product.”5

Why then did three governors recently rush to the Midwest to defend Pink Slime and help promote a food adulteration practice that should never have been allowed in our food supply? Perhaps it is because the owners of Beef Products Inc. have donated nearly $800,000 to political candidates in the past 10 years, including more than $150,000 to Governor Terry Branstad of Iowa, where BPI operates a plant in Waterloo.

Even worse, Secretary Vilsack and a top USDA food safety official joined this misguided effort to defend Pink Slime.[6][7]

Click here to tell Secretary Vilsack “No Pink Slime in Our Children’s School Lunches – not now, not ever!”


Pink Slime and The New York Times exposé

The process of creating “lean, finely textured beef” aka Pink Slime allows meat processors to take leftover beef scraps, connective tissue, ligaments and other inedible beef parts, spin them in a centrifuge, heating the “parts” until they liquefy and treating the resulting substance with a blast of ammonia. While the use of ammonium hydroxide is used to kill deadly diseases such as E. coli and salmonella, Beef Products Inc. has said that its product is absolutely safe. The original exposé of Pink Slime in a 2009 New York Times article proves otherwise.8

According to the original 2009 Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times investigative report, “Government and industry records obtained by The New York Times show that in testing for the school lunch program, E. coli and salmonella pathogens have been found dozens of times in Beef Products meat, challenging claims by the company and the U.S.D.A. about the effectiveness of the treatment”. As a result of the New York Times investigation and numerous recalls of meat containing BPI’s pink slime, the USDA revoked ‘Beef Products’ exemption from routine testing and conducting a review of the company’s operations and research.”

Despite the propaganda that BPI and Industrial Meat’s PR spin team keep repeating, BPI and their “barely meat” by-products have been found in violation of basic food safety standards and have had higher positive test counts for foodborne disease multiple times.

Branstad has emphasized the economic importance of lean finely textured beef production to food workers and cattle producers. Others counter that small cattle producers have been hurt by widespread use of the product. At the competing rally, some farmers told Radio Iowa that lean finely textured beef “has eliminated the need for more than a million cows mostly from independent farms since the 1990s.”

Representative Steve King has been among the vocal defenders of lean finely textured beef. He took up Branstad’s call for a Congressional investigation into critics of the product.

King has asked Frank Lucas (R-OK), chairman of the House Agriculture Committee to host a hearing that would bring in witnesses to testify on the media firestorm and consumer backlash over the product, which has led to three plant suspensions and sidelined 650 workers in Texas, Kansas, and Iowa — including some 200 workers in King’s district.

“Witnesses would be under oath and they’re of course obligated by law to tell the truth, those who have been the ones who have perpetrated this smear campaign against one of the stellar companies in the country,” King recently told an Iowa radio station. “I think they’ll have an obligation then to explain themselves why they could not base their allegations on facts and what they’ve done to damage an industry.”

The congressman said he believes the campaign is also an “assault” on meat. “I’d like to look at that further,” he said. “Right now, I’m focused on helping BPI get their brand back and their market share back.”

Tamara Hinton, communications director for the ag committee, told Food Safety News that, though they are monitoring the issue “closely,” a hearing has not been scheduled.

King said he was not considering legislation or any type of “punishment” to address the issue, but is focused on getting the truth out. “Once we get the truth out, then we might look at what we might provide for solutions.”

Adam Ozimek examined the potential economic and environmental impact of not using lean finely textured beef in an interesting post called “Why You Should Learn to Love Pink Slime.”

In this case the joint products are the various beef cuts of beef and pink slime, and the shared costs include things like the price of raising the cow. In these cases profit maximization means considering the total marginal revenue of each unit, which in this case is each cow. A decrease in the demand for the pink slime will drive down the marginal revenue of a cow, which will lower the profit maximizing number of cows produced.

However, that is not the end of the story, because pink slime is also a substitute for other parts of the cow, namely ground beef. Schools that are replacing pink slime seem to be doing so with ground beef rather than, say, vegetables. This means that a lot of the decline in the demand for pink slime will be offset by an increase in demand for normal ground beef, which will mean more cows will be slaughtered.

So will the number of cows produced and slaughtered increase or decrease? In the end, the cattle industry reports that this filler saves about 10 to 12 pounds of edible meat from every cow, and this is the equivalent of 1.5 million heads of cattle. Despite the lower revenues from each cow discussed above, the demand shift effect will likely outweigh the lower profit effect so that the net impact will be a significant increase in the number of cattle that will be raised and slaughtered every year.

You are probably wondering why we should even care how many cows are produced? After all, if a cow ever got the chance, he’d eat you and everyone you care about. But in his forthcoming book, An Economist Gets Lunch, Tyler Cowen argues that less cows are a good thing given the polluting methane that they produce (cow farts). So we should worry about the negative environmental externalities that this increased production of cows lead to. In addition, [Marion] Nestle reports that half of weight of the 34 million cattle slaughtered each year goes to human consumption, and some of what doesn’t get eaten goes into landfills or gets burned up, which could also create environmental costs.

While the environmental impacts of getting rid of pink slime aren’t certain, intuitively we should not find it too surprising if it turns out getting less food out of each cow is bad for the environment.

Just last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture approved labeling of the percentage of lean finely textured beef from BPI. Speaking to Radio Iowa,

BPI’S Rich Jochum says while ground beef is a single ingredient product and that LTFB is not required to be listed separately on any label, the company believes the voluntary labeling is an important first step to restore consumer confidence in their ground beef.

Jochum says based on the number of taste panel studies conduction using BPI’S lean beef and strong consumer preference for ground beef containing LFTB, the company feels this will allow their customers to provide more options to consumers and pave the way for BPI’S lean beef to re-establish its place in the market.

But many consumers don’t want anything to do with this product. That’s why the fast food chain Wendy’s has been advertising, “We’ve never used ‘pink slime’ and we never will. That’s our promise to you. That’s Wendy’s Way.” That ad got the public relations firm that created it in trouble with BPI, which was another client of the same firm. Dave Dreeszen reported for the Sioux City Journal, “The conflict forced Ketchum to turn over the BPI work to another firm in its Omnicom network.”

Finally, Mark Bittman wrote a good piece about “The Pink Menace for the New York Times opinion page.

A little review: Lean Finely Textured Beef was born about 10 years ago, as an attempt to eliminate E. coli from ground beef. Using fatty beef trimmings, which are especially susceptible to E. coli and salmonella contamination, B.P.I. created a product that could be sprayed with ammonia (yes, that stuff, referred to by B.P.I.’s former quality assurance manager as “Mr. Clean,” in this dramatic piece by Michele Simon) to kill the bacteria. It was then mixed with “normal” ground beef. Voilà: safe hamburgers.

Except that despite B.P.I.’s claim that the ammonia treatment killed E. coli and salmonella, and despite the U.S.D.A.’s support for this process, those pathogens have been found in B.P.I. meat.[1] Oops.

But there’s an irony: the stuff is gross, for sure, but it’s far from the most disgusting meat product out there, and at least its origins reflect an attempt to make meat safer. Some argue, correctly, that other processed meats are much worse, and that ammonia isn’t nearly the most egregious chemical that’s approved for use on meat without your knowing it.[2]

Besides, pink slime could conceivably even be helping: According to the Centers for Disease Control, E. coli O157:H7 illnesses are down 48 percent over the last decade. (And, as my colleague Andy Revkin points out, some 1.5 million additional cattle will need to be raised and slaughtered to fill the “pink slime gap.”)

I recommend clicking through to read Bittman’s whole piece.

The floor is yours, Bleeding Heartland readers.

UPDATE: Lena Groeger at ProPublic posted a useful guide to the differences between lean finely textured beef (“pink slime”), mechanically separated meat (“white slime”), and advanced meat recovery (no catchy shorthand reference).

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