What's the Beef With 'Pink Slime'?

Leah Barkoukis

3/31/2012 12:01:00 AM - Leah Barkoukis

“That’s what’s wrong with the media in this country… no longer do facts matter. Accusations are enough to condemn folks, the press wants the story and doesn’t care who gets hurt in the process. Allegations become front page news no matter how flimsy they are.” – Bill O’Reilly

It’s sad how quickly and easily unfounded criticisms of a product can go viral, leading to more than 600 jobs being lost ostensibly overnight. This is what has happened to Beef Products Inc., the world’s leading producer of the USDA-approved Lean Finely Textured Beef (LFTB) or perhaps better known by its recent moniker, “Pink Slime.” While the quote from O’Reilly was in response to a different story, the point applies almost universally and most certainly in this case, too.

Thanks to a three-week campaign waged by a major news organization, celebrity chef, and a mother from Texas who decided to take up this “cause” in the form of an online petition, the company was forced to close three of its four factory doors this week after several fast food chains, grocery stores and school lunch programs were pressured to pull the product.

The president of the American Meat Institute (AMI), J. Patrick Boyle released a statement that blatantly accused ABC News for their “relentless coverage and uninformed criticisms of a safe and wholesome beef product.” He continues to say:

“The impact of alarming broadcasts about this safe and wholesome beef product by Jamie Oliver [celebrity chef], ABC News and others are no joke to those families that are now out of work.”

Politicians like Sen. John Thune publicly criticized the media’s sensationalism of the product, and Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad said “the time for badmouthing and distortions is over.” On Thursday, a group of governors and lieutenant governors toured a BPI facility in Sioux City, Nebraska in support of LFTB and to defend its safety and nutrition. At the press conference there, Nebraska Lt. Gov. Rick Sheehy said he has a new slogan for LFTB: “dude it’s beef.” A host of others including scientists, lawyers and advocates that follow food safety have also come out in support of BPI.

Before I continue though, let me explain what LFTB actually is. If you have ever trimmed the fat off of beef, I’m sure you have been frustrated to have to throw away perfectly good pieces of meat simply because it’s too hard to cut around the fat. Well, this is what the process does. Instead of wasting meat that is trimmed for other cuts, it is recovered, thereby reducing the price of ground beef at checkout because less cattle are used along the way. In the same statement, Boyle writes that now, the AMI will have to 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.” Cue outcry from environmentalists.

Critics accuse the meat of being: less healthy, “filler”, coming from inedible meat, ought to be labeled, is filled with chemicals and let’s not forget, looks like pink slime. These are not facts but myths, and are set straight here. I will touch on some of them in a moment, but first, the heart of the issue seems to be the serious repercussions of misinformation and misrepresentation that spread like wildfire through media outlets. The Media Research Center reports that “In all, ABC used the term “pink slime” 52 times in just a two-week span” and that The Associated Press “continued the string of biased attacks against the company.” The MRC’s Dan Gainor writes:

“Naturally, AP turned to the food police for comment…and “celebrity chef Jamie Oliver.” Oliver, who has a reported net worth of $25 million, was unconcerned about the job loss and “praised ‘people power’ for getting it removed from so many products,” according to AP.”

To no one’s surprise, Gainor notes that “none of the broadcast stories mentioned that the company takes the extra step of adding ammonium hydroxide in an effort to prevent deadly E. coli bacteria.”

There are times that waging a campaign against a company’s practices or products are warranted but only after thorough and balanced research are conducted. Currently, there are serious food safety issues at play - like the fact that only 2 percent of all imported foods are FDA inspected - but LFTB is not one of them. So, I want to set the facts straight about two of the most serious accusations against LFTB; the use of ammoniated hydroxide and the issue of transparency.

BPI’s use of ammonia is because the company is following the rules and regulations set forth by the USDA, which are admittedly influenced like much else in this world: politics. John Munsell, who ran a USDA-inspected meat plant for 34 years, wrote in an op-ed on Food Safety News:

“Although USDA has declared E. coli O157 to be an adulterant, the agency conveniently states that the E. coli is an adulterant only in ground beef and in boneless trimmings destined for ground beef. However, USDA allows intact cuts of beef surface-contaminated with E. coli to be shipped into commerce.”

Why, you ask? Munsell continues:

“As such, Americans are virtually guaranteed ongoing disease outbreaks from contaminated meat, because USDA refuses to implement enforcement actions at the source of the contamination, preferring to use its regulatory authority at smaller downstream plants that are easier enforcement prey and lack the political clout and financial wherewithal enjoyed by the multinational slaughter behemoths.”

Alas, BPI’s government mandated use of these ‘antimicrobial interventions’ in LFTB actually make ground beef safer than the unassuming filet or ribeye sitting in your grocer’s display.

The next question is about transparency: Should this process be on the label? Elisabeth Hagen, Under Secretary for Food Safety at USDA responds:

“There's a whole legal and regulatory framework that we work within, in terms of what's considered an ingredient and what's considered an additive. With this product, we consider this to be beef. We don't label any of the other components that go into ground beef either. We start with beef, there's a treatment that's applied, and it ends up as beef. There's certainly some consideration in terms of being more transparent with the school lunch program so school districts can make choices. Sure we're open to the discussion, but, as I said, it's an existing legal framework we work within as far as what is considered an additive and what needs to be on the label.

There are lot of things that go into the production of food and to sort of single this one out and to say that this one needs to be labeled -- that doesn't seem like a very even handed approach.”

So it would seem that BPI was operating in total compliance with government rules and regulations. And moreover, the product is safe and in fact, safer than other beef products and international food imports. What were promulgated throughout the media about LFTB were not facts at all, but baseless accusations free from any relevant context. So what do these activists really want? It seems for people to lose their jobs and a company’s image to be unjustly tarnished. If it was truly about food safety, perhaps they should try looking more closely at government agencies like the FDA and USDA first.