US News recently updated, 10 Things the Food Industry Doesn’t Want You to Know, originally published in 2008. The tenth thing speaks directly to my industry – meat.
Regurgitated negative news and the manipulation of facts by the media are more common than we’d like to think. In this case, “Lean Finely Textured Beef” (LFTB), also known in slang terms as, “Pink Slime”, bore the brunt of numerous media inspired controversy.
Void of clarity in food science, production, safety and regulations, the press essentially led the way to reactive change. Negative ramifications have since begun to emerge in direct result and stand to reason why we are paying higher prices for ground beef today.
Science Sounds Scary
Part of the LFTB process involves heating beef trimmings to soften fat and then spinning them in a centrifuge to separate the fat from the lean meat. The lean meat is then treated with a puff of ammonium hydroxide for food safety purposes to kill bacteria such as, E. coli O157:H7.
Words that begin with prefixes such as “hyd” and end in “ide” (including any other chemical sounding words for that matter) generally make people think they are unsafe. However, the use of this compound in food processing has been consistently studied since the 1970’s and was approved for use in food manufacturing by the USDA and in Title 21 by the FDA.
This bears repeating: The use of ammonium hydroxide is approved by two regulating government agencies for food production use.
Ammonium hydroxide is ammonia combined with water. Ammonia is a compound consisting of nitrogen and hydrogen. Ammonia and ammonium hydroxide are very common compounds both found naturally in our environment – in air, water, soil, plants and animals. Ammonia is also produced in the human body, by our organs, tissues and by the beneficial bacteria living in our intestines. Eating good bacteria has become more commonplace in recent years with the introduction of probiotics to the dairy product markets.
You may also be interested in knowing ammonium hydroxide is used as a direct food additive in baked goods, cheeses, chocolates, caramel, puddings and scads of other foods. However, unlike ground beef, these food products have yet to be subjected to media centric sensationalism.
Monkey See, Monkey Skewed
Last year, ABC’s Food Revolution Chef, Jamie Oliver, campaigned against LFTB by pouring a bottle of ammonia over ground beef on camera and telling viewers that’s what their children were eating in school lunches. Oliver manipulated Pink Slime in a trend du jour fashion which is most ironic as the term had been coined by a USDA microbiologist years prior when he used it to describe its pink tones when unfrozen.
Oliver’s tangent went viral, was heralded in the media and thus ignited consumer outrage. LFTB bashings across social, print and broadcast media seemed irreversible until recently. Counter reports to Oliver’s fact void haberdashery have since been published by the Huffington Post, National Public Radio, New York Times, in opinion blogs and by watch dog groups.
Unfortunately, refuted claims were far too slow in coming as school districts, retailers and foodservice operators had already caved to public pressure and stopped purchasing ground beef made with LFTB in favor of 100% pure ground beef.
How This Fallout Affects All of Us
To date public outcry over Pink Slime has subsided leaving a trail of economic ills behind. Business, industry, employment and pricing relevant to the situation now travel in negative directions.
Beef Products Inc. (BPI) was a large manufacturer of LFTB who used the approved process to bring economically priced lean ground beef to market. However, due to the change of institutional, retail and consumer markets from LFTB blended ground beef to 100% ground beef, BPI was forced to close three of their four plants and lay off over 600 workers.
Consider that circumstance again – 75% of their business output channels were lost and the employees that ran them. What adds insult to BPI’s injury is they were a company widely known for pioneering food safety measures – they made a habit of finding ways to produce safer meat.
AFA Foods, a ground beef processor who provided over 500 million pounds of ground beef annually with over 800 employees, filed for bankruptcy last April, citing “changes in the market” for its treated beef products. Last month, two AFA plants were sold to different companies, Cargill and CTI dismantling the business piece by piece.
Consumer prices for 100% ground beef have since outpaced inflation and hit a record high this month. The beef industry, already seeing its lowest herd numbers since 1955 due to drought, now needs 1.5 million head more to fill the demand gap for ground beef. These effects will likely drive up cattle futures and ultimately the price of beef for all of us.
What is most tragic about the LFTB timeline is the delay in rebuttal coverage. Ultimately, major corporations gave in to misguided public opinion, people lost their jobs, and lean ground beef choices have all but disappeared from the marketplace.
Food manufacturers are often taken to task on the hype used to sell their products. US News says, “A health claim on the label doesn’t necessarily make a food healthy”. To that end, the one thing the food industry does want you to know is this: media claims about the food industry do not necessarily make a food unhealthy.
From the desk of John Cecala Twitter @Buedel Fine Meats Facebook Buedel Fan Page