Two years after consumer outrage forced meat processors and retailers to stop using “pink slime” — the ammonia-treated slaughterhouse remnants added to some ground beef — the dubious byproduct is back in the mix as beef prices rise and suppliers scramble to cut costs.
Patty Lovera, assistant director at consumer advocacy group Food & Water Watch, notes in the video above that the renewed demand is certainly not coming from consumers. "I don't think most consumers have changed their mind and suddenly decided this is the type of ingredient they're looking for," Lovera says. "It’s economics.”
The additive was coined “pink slime” by former USDA scientist Gerald Zirnstein, who told ABC News in 2012 that “pink slime” was “not fresh ground beef” but a “cheap substitute being added in.” At the time, he said 70% of the ground beef sold in the nation’s supermarkets contained “pink slime." The product is made by separating the fat out from meat scraps and treating what's left with ammonia or citric acid to kill bacteria.
Following the public outcry, many food establishments, including McDonald’s (MCD), Kroger (KR) and Safeway (SWY), said they would no longer use “pink slime.” The Department of Agriculture said its school lunch program would stop serving it to students. As demand plummeted, the two largest producers of the ingredient, Beef Products Inc. and Cargill Inc., were forced to close plants and eliminate hundreds of jobs.
But BPI, which refers to its product as “lean, finely textured beef (LFTB),” announced last week it would start making LFTB again at a factory in Kansas. (The company sued ABC for $1.2 billion in 2012, claiming the network misled consumers over its "false and misleading and defamatory" reports; the suit is still pending). And Cargill’s executive chairman Gregory Page told The Wall Street Journal that sales of what his company calls "finely textured beef (FTB)" have “rebounded sharply from their 2012 lows” with sales rising about threefold from their lowest point. Cargill uses a slightly different process than BPI, treating the meat with citric acid instead of ammonia, and currently sells FTB to nearly 400 retail, food-service, and food-processing customers, according to The Wall Street Journal.
The USDA does not mandate labeling of products that include FTB and LFTB. Cargill began labeling its FTB meat in 2013. The USDA says the LFTB process is “generally recognized as safe” and therefore “it is not required to be included on the label of products.” The USDA also ruled that LFTB is “not filler; it is nutritionally equivalent to 95% lean beef and doesn’t contain connective tissue.”
“Pink slime” may be the cheaper alternative, but Lovera argues that food retailers should seriously consider whether it’s worth the price.
“The reason for the outrage was because people felt duped…there was no disclosure,” she says. “Retailers, grocery stores, and fast-food chains that are the closest to consumers have a lot of thinking to do if they want to use it and whether they want to tell people they're using it, or risk a backlash if people find out."
A Cargill representative told Yahoo that the company’s FTB, available since 1993, is “100% pure beef” and “is usually added to ground beef to increase the percentage of muscle protein to fat.” Neither Cargill nor the American Meat Institute would specify which retailers are currently using FTB and LFTB meat.
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