Packers deal with “pink slime” debate (Updated)

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 169 views 

Lean finely textured beef is likely to be a thing of the past, as more retailers and food service chains opt out of the product because of the “pink slime” debate that resulted from an ABC News cast earlier this month.

The so-called pink slime is actually “Lean Finely Textured Beef" — a meat product derived from a process which separates fatty pieces from beef trimmings to reduce the overall fat content, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The American Meat Institute says low grade trimmings cut away from the carcass are heated and sprayed with ammonium hydroxide to kill any germs. This product is then mixed into lean ground beef, which the USDA approves as 100% beef and safe for human consumption. (Ammonium hydroxide is ammonia diluted with water.)

Consumers have eaten it for more than two decades but now have had a sudden change of heart, which is wreaking havoc on a national beef packing industry already operating in the red.

The controversy left more than 700 workers without a job Monday, (March 26) as BPI Inc. announced it would suspend operations at beef plants in Amarillo, Texas; Garden City, Kan. and Waterloo, Iowa because so many of its customers will no longer carry ground beef products that contain LFTB.

BPI said its headquarters in Dakota Dunes, S.D. will continue to operate.

The nation’s two largest beef packers Tyson Foods and Cargill are also scrambling to adjust.

“Our company is one of many beef processors that sell beef trimmings to BPI. The reduction of BPI’s operations means less lean meat will be recovered and more of the beef trimmings will be converted into lower-value products. We’re making some modifications in our production processes to adjust for this change. We’re also making adjustments to accommodate our customers that no longer want BPI’s Lean Finely Textured Beef in their ground beef,” said Tyson Foods spokesman Gary Mickelson.

He said it’s unfortunate BPI has been forced to reduce operations, given its long history for producing safe, nutritious lean beef.

Mickelson said the decrease in BPI’s production will result in less lean beef available in the market and may result in higher consumer prices.

“Alternatively, we believe there may be an increase in the supply of some of the raw materials used to produce ground beef, and this may result in lower values that could ultimately affect livestock prices,” he said.  

The National Meat Association said aside from the 700 layoffs, another 3,000 suppliers and others that rely on BPI’s business will also be negatively impacted.

“At a time when so many Americans struggle to put a healthy, nutritious meal on their family’s dinner table, the unfounded mischaracterization of (lean finely textured beef) as ‘pink slime’ is unconscionable,” said Barry Carpenter, chief executive officer for the trade group. “I am sure the public is not aware of how widespread and potentially devastating the consequences of allowing public misperception to trump sound nutritional science are.”

Cargill produces lean finely textured beef at four of its beef slaughter facilities in Texas, Kansas and Nebraska. The company opts to blend the beef trimmings with citric acid instead of ammonium hydroxide to make the finely textured beef product.

Michael Martin, spokesman for Cargill Meat Solutions, said there are no plans to eliminate staff, but because of customer requests most of the finely textured beef production will be greatly reduced.

“It’s a shame there is so much misinformation about beef processing. We must go to work educating those far removed from the farm and processing industries. The product has been eaten for 20 years or more and there are no food safety concerns with respect to this product.”

Martin said, the industry produces 850,000 lbs of finely textured beef annually. That is going to mean more 1.5 mllion more cattle will need to be slaughtered to make up the loss because hamburger remains a staple for the American family.

J. Patrick Boyle, president of American Meat Institute said, “American families will also pay the price at the checkout counter as they see the price of ground beef begin to rise . . . due to this manufactured scare.”

Monday, the American Meat Institute characterized the situation as “a sad day for the families of those who lost their jobs” and a foreboding omen of things to come at the retail level.

Retail all beef prices hit a record high in recent weeks at $4.70 per pound, up more than 6% from a year ago, according to Stephens Inc. At the same time beef packers have lost an average $68 per head processed in the first three months of this year.

The backlash from consumer concerns have prompted the following food service providers and retailers to denounce their use of the beef product.

In early March the USDA said it would allow schools to opt out of using the product in the National School Lunch Program.

Hamburger titans McDonald’s and Wendy’s, in addition to Taco Bell have already declined to use hamburger meat that contains LFTB..

Walmart said last week it will begin offering an alternative to the controversial product. Safeway, SUPERVALU and Food Lion grocers indicated they will no longer carry hamburger containing LFTB. All the companies cite customer concerns as one of the primary reasons for the change.

Deisha Barnett, Walmart spokeswoman, said that the company: “Spends a lot of time listening to customers and adjusting our product assortment to ensure we have the right products at the right prices. Recently some customers have expressed concerns with lean finely textured beef (LFTB) and, while the USDA and experts agree that it is safe and nutritious, Walmart and Sam’s Club will begin offering fresh ground beef that does not contain LFTB. We’re committed to providing our customers with quality products at the right prices.”

Springdale-based Harp’s Foods said they are working to offer both products in the future, but will need to get through the beef inventory already purchased.

Consumer groups argue at the bare minimum LFTB should be labeled as such because the fat trimmings are filler used to pump up the volume of the meat.

The red meat industry claims beef is beef and the label says so.

Aside from short-term supply chain interruptions, meat analysts say more cattle will ultimately need to be imported from Australia to make up the difference from lost volume when the beef additive is no longer routinely mixed into lean hamburger meat.