LFTB lessons learned

by Bernard Shire
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The phrase has been hovering in the public consciousness for months now. And although it’s really nothing more than a news-media label, shorthand for the latest “sin” the meat industry is being accused of committing, “pink slime” is a phrase that was coined about a decade ago. It was created by Gerald Zirnstein, a former microbiologist for the US Dept. of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. Those of us involved in the meat industry know it’s nothing more than a trash phrase for “lean finely textured beef” or “boneless lean beef trimmings”.

Unfortunately, in the minds of many consumers and news media, it is something much worse – the latest version of what socialist author Upton Sinclair described in great detail 106 years ago in The Jungle, his book about the evils of the meat industry at the time. Not surprisingly, there have been numerous references to The Jungle in the current debate about using the product in ground beef, and selling the combination to the public. A debate that’s meaningless, by the way, since USDA permits the additive up to 15 percent in ground beef without requiring additional labeling. It can also be added to other meat products, such as beef-based processed meats.

The meat industry has said for a long time the product, a byproduct of other meat cuttings, is safe. The flap over the product started when USDA announced plans to buy 7 million lbs. of ground beef containing lean finely textured beef for school lunches across the country.

The debate has gone far beyond whether this beef product that’s added to other beef is OK. Instead, the forces in this country long opposed to the consumption of meat, poultry and other animal products have seized on this incident involving school lunches to mount an attack against the meat and poultry industry, factory farming, the commodity food industry and any other “evil” they can think of to pin on the American food industry.

The use of words like “pink slime,” ammonia and others are meant to throw a scare into food-consuming Americans. It’s not certain at this point how successful that effort has been. When I first saw the reference to “pink slime,” what jumped into my head was not ground beef, but The Blob, a horror movie from the late 1950s starring Steve McQueen. The goal of the phrase “pink slime” is to create a similar kind of scary impression.

Then there’s mention to using an ammonia compound, ammonium hydroxide, to treat the product. This is another scare tactic aimed at consumers, even though this is used to produce many other foods, including baked goods, cheese and chocolate. These ammonia compounds have been considered safe by health officials for many years.

While some in the meat industry have suggested the industry stymie its critics by embracing the term “pink slime,” from a PR standpoint, that hardly seems like the best step to take. For example, large numbers of supermarkets, after receiving feedback from thousands of their customers, have decided to no longer buy ground beef containing lean finely textured beef. “Customers were expressing concerns, so we will no longer be purchasing beef products containing finely textured beef,” explained one large chain spokesperson. Some ground beef processors have also decided to stop making it. One producer, Beef Products Inc., stopped producing it at three facilities, and another maker, AFA Foods, filed for bankruptcy.

After critics made fun of the product on social media websites, even leading national fast-food chains rejected using the product, even though US public health officials have deemed the product safe to eat and federal regulators say it meets food-safety standards. But because of the public outcry, hundreds of US school districts also have demanded it be removed from school lunch programs.

The outrage seems to be more about peoples’ opinions of the product than its actual safety, of which there is no real question. It’s fine for meat industry packers and processors, as well as trade organizations, to tell each other in the pages of trade magazines the product is OK. But these groups really need to reach the general public with this message in a believable way, or consumers and the general public will continue to be extremely suspicious of virtually everything food manufacturers use to make food products. The message needs to be conveyed strongly to consumers by everyone in the industry, including processors of all sizes, big, medium, small and very small, and trade associations.

Because more than a century after The Jungle, the same arguments are being dredged up, inaccurately and unfairly, against an industry that uses modern science in the best way possible to make sure its products are safe.

Update

In the April 2012 issue of Meat&Poultry, it was reported in the “Washington” column that the US Dept. of Labor was taking another look at rules it proposed more than a year ago, which would put more restrictions on work youths could do on family farms and small meat or poultry processing plants, many of them family owned. Earlier this month, the government agency made its decision. It’s scrapping the whole plan, throwing out the proposed rules, after loud protests from people in the agriculture industry, who said the new restrictive regulations would upset the rural way of life plus steer children away from pursuing careers in agriculture. Among other things, the labor rules would have banned children younger than 16 from using power-driven farm equipment, and prevented youth younger than 18 from working in stockyards, feed lots and silos.

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READER COMMENTS (1)

By Jon Greenberg 6/4/2012 10:36:05 AM
I believe that many people in the industry and in the USDA FSIS are overlooking a major point, and this is not only with meat and poultry. The public wants transparency. If a processing aid, such as ammonia or acidified sodium chlorite is used in processing a product, the public wants to know. Yes, the industry has to better educate the consumer. But when you buy a t-bone steak, that is a single ingredient item and the consumer knows exactly what they are getting. When they are buying hamburger or other processed meat they also want to know what they are buying. Saying that it is 100% beef is not transparent. If using all the different parts of an animal and the use of processing aids is 100% safe, then you should be proud of your product and tell the consumer exactly what they are getting. The problem isn't that the consumer is now getting one side of the story. The real problem is that it appears that the industry and the government are trying to hide information from the consumer when they want to know about everything. This is the real issue.