Faculty say ‘pink slime’ beef scare unfounded
Perry and governors blame uproar on 'baseless media scare'
Published: Wednesday, April 18, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, July 25, 2012 20:07
For 20 years, Americans have consumed lean, finely textured beef, also called “pink slime,” a term coined by a Department of Agriculture scientist in 2002, and further propagated by news and social media in the past few months.
Lean finely textured beef, or LFTB, was developed by Beef Products, Inc. to increase domestic lean beef. The process involves heating beef trimmings, sending them through a centrifuge to separate the fat from the meat, and using ammonium hydroxide as a processing aid. It is not sold by itself, but the USDA allows up to 15 percent of the processed beef to be mixed in with ground beef.
Gary Acuff, director of the Center for Food Safety and professor of food microbiology in the animal science department at A&M, was a member of the group of governors and officials that visited one of the four processing plants that produce LFTB to research the safety of the product and investigate the media’s reports of the dangers of pink slime.
“It’s lean beef. It’s just as good a quality of lean tissue as any other trimming used in ground beef — it’s just a finer texture,” Acuff said.
The initial concern with LFTB began when the movie Food Inc. video taped the process with footage indicating that meat was being sloshed around in ammonia. Similarly, celebrity Jamie Oliver filmed a video in which he took ammonia from under the sink and poured it directly into the meat trimmings.
“Those two things seriously mischaracterized the process,” Acuff said. “Then you follow that with the news and two USDA scientists that said the product should not have been approved.”
Junior Spanish major Monique Rosales said she feels the media exaggerated for the sake of a good story.
“It would be less likely that I would trust anything the media says,” Rosales said. “If there have been professors or researchers from A&M that have investigated it first-hand, then I would definitely rely more on what they have to say about the issue than what the media has to say.”
Acuff addressed this issue by pointing out that the USDA scientists didn’t say the process wasn’t safe, but that LFTB wasn’t appropriate to use in ground beef. Acuff said the scientists were discussing a regulation meant for the mechanically separated product.
“Mechanically separated product is when you grind up skeletal bones and separate the bones from tissue. And that is not what this product is. I think those two guys got it dead wrong and ABC news just took off with it,” Acuff said.
Another concern about the product is the ammonia treatment and consumers’ general lack of awareness about this process.
LFTB is exposed to a “puff” of ammonia gas that combines with water and meat to form ammonium hydroxide. This increases the pH level and kills pathogens, effective on both E. coli and salmonella strains.
Beef has natural ammonia levels around 100-200 parts per million, and the ammonia intervention doubles that amount. The ammonium hydroxide is not labeled as an ingredient as it is considered a “processing aid” by USDA regulations.
“You produce about four grams of ammonia in your body each day. I believe that 10 times that amount would be toxic. It doesn’t have a real toxic level except at really high percentages,” Acuff said.
Jeff Savell, professor and leader of the meat science section in the department of animal science, said all beef has some type of intervention applied to reduce the pathogens.
“This process is approved by the USDA and the compound ammonium hydroxide is approved by the FDA as well as the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, so these are standard approved food substances or things that are applied to all kinds of foods,” Savell said.
Despite assurances from federal regulators, three of the largest fast food chains stopped using LFTB in their ground beef including McDonald’s, the largest buyer of ground beef. Grocery retailers such as Kroger, the largest grocery chain, also stopped selling ground beef with LFTB in response to customers’ concerns.
“If [people] have any doubt about a product, they probably aren’t going to buy it. It’s good that the consumer makes the final decision, but it’s unfortunate that they haven’t been given accurate information,” Acuff said.
The bad publicity is having a dramatic impact on the cattle market, and has affected more than 650 workers in three states, including 300 employees in Amarillo.