In a matter of weeks, lean finely textured beef (LFTB) went from a staple of US beef production that has been in use for 20 years to a product vilified as low quality and even unsafe. As a result of the controversy, production facilities have been temporarily shuttered and beef demand has been affected.

During a question-and-answer session at the JP Morgan Protein Conference on March 27, Jim Lochner, chief operating officer of Tyson Foods, Inc., Springdale, Ark., said the result of food service customers shunning LFTB has had a negative effect on ground beef demand.

“ … In the spread businesses, it did have a negative short-term impact on the revenues,” he said. “So the cattle costs probably will reflect that going forward, and we will actually probably see somewhere around a 2 percent or 3 percent reduction in the available beef supply.

“So it’s not a positive thing. It’s a very unfortunate thing because it was a very safe, very wholesome, very nutritious product that will now be not available to the consuming public.”

The rapid change in the market for LFTB also has suppressed prices in the edible tallow market.

Lean finely textured beef is manufactured through a process that takes trim from beef production and separates the lean protein from the fat. The lean protein is then treated with ammonia hydroxide, a substance generally recognized as safe by the US Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, to reduce the incidence of pathogens. The product is then added to ground beef to reduce the fat content.

Labeled “pink slime” by critics because of the end product’s physical appearance, LFTB came to the public’s attention through misinformation spread by a celebrity chef and others.

Due to a reduction in demand, Beef Products Inc., manufacturer of LFTB, has suspended operations at three of the company’s four facilities where the product is produced. The affected facilities are located in Amarillo, Texas; Garden City, Kan.; and Waterloo, Iowa.

Beef Products, Inc. said its South Sioux City, Neb., facility will continue operating. The company stopped production at its other facilities after several major food service operations and supermarket chains announced they would no longer sell ground beef products that contain LFTB.

“We’ve made a decision to stop selling ground beef that contains lean finely textured beef,” said Danny Wegman, chief executive officer of Wegmans Food Markets, Inc. “Having grown up in the meat business, we have always been proud of our ground beef and eat it ourselves.

“Because of the sensationalism of this issue it has become a concern for our customers. Every decision we make is with our customers in mind. Our commitment remains the same. We will continue to source the best quality ground beef, now without lean finely textured beef.”

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Terry Branstad, the governor of Iowa, held a press conference March 28 to defend the use of LFTB.

Vilsack reaffirmed that LFTB is safe, and that the USDA has no intentions to ban the product. He encouraged consumers and grocery chains to make a choice based on science.

“It’s interesting that all of the focus is on the one component of ground beef that has never been implicated in a case or outbreak of foodborne disease or a single recall,” said James Marsden, Ph.D., Regent’s Distinguished Professor of Food Safety and Security, Kansas State Univ., Manhattan, and associate director of the Biosecurity Research Institute.

A survey commissioned by the Red Robin Gourmet Burgers chain in late March and conducted by Harris Interactive found that 88 percent of adults surveyed were aware of the “pink slime” issue. Among respondents who were aware of the issue, when asked about their level of concern about LFTB, 76 percent said they were “at least somewhat concerned,” with 30 percent stating they were “extremely concerned.”

The survey also revealed that 53 percent of respondents who were aware of the LFTB controversy took some action as a result. Twenty-four per cent said they researched the brands of ground beef they purchased or researched the brand of ground beef used at the restaurants they visited, and 22 percent of respondents said they decreased and/or stopped altogether their consumption of restaurant foods containing ground beef.

“While this kind of processed beef has been used for many years, the Harris Interactive poll shows that consumer fears are very real, and they’re not ready to let them just fade away,” said Steve Carley, CEO of Red Robin Gourmet Burgers. “This underscores that our industry simply must do a better job of communicating the facts, educating consumers and regaining consumer trust in the quality of the food they buy.”