BPI’s Lean Finely Textured Beef (aka “Pink Slime”) Back in the News

The last seen has witnessed renewed discussion about the safety of Beef Products Incorporated’s (BPI) Lean Finely Textured Beef (LFTB).  The product, also dubbed “Pink Slime” by a former USDA microbiologist, is produced by BPI from fatty trimmings and other beef scraps using a process based on centrifugation to remove the fat and result in a final product that is 90% or more lean.  Because such trimmings are at risk for E. coli or Salmonella contamination, the company uses ammonium hydroxide treatment to kill any pathogens that might be present. Typically, the product is then mixed with other ground beef.

The product has been at the center of controversy for some time since it was first brought to the attention of the general public in 2008 by the documentary “Food, Inc.”  A 2009 New York Times article questioned the safety of the product and effectiveness of the process used to kill pathogens in the product.  BPI has subsequently implemented a “test and hold” approach for the product to further ensure safety, but that has not prevented several fast food chains from abandoning its use in their menus.  Additional criticism by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver further stoked concern in 2010.  Now Texas food columnist Bettina Siegel, author of “The Lunch Tray” about school lunches, is taking on ammoniated beef by sponsoring an internet petition to persuade USDA to drop BPI’s product from school lunches.

Food Safety News has run a series of articles on this topic in the past week which are recommended reading for those seeking additional information.  Here are the links:
Campaign Against BPI’s ‘Pink Slime’ (March 8, 2012)
BPI Ground Beef Gets Support From Food Safety Leaders (March 9, 2012)
What’s Wrong With Pink Slime? (March 12, 2012)

An article on the topic published by ABC News on March 7th includes interviews with former USDA scientists Gerald Zirnstein (who coined the term “pink slime”) and Carl Custer (who also opposed USDA’s approval of the process).  The ABC article also includes a useful animation explaining how LFTB is produced.

While some may find this product objectionable for various reasons, it is important to note the following:

  • the end product – Lean Finely Textured Beef – is microbiologically safe given the process and testing that is conducted,
  • the ammonia treatment process is legal and ammonia is not required by USDA to be listed on the label as an ingredient, and
  • the product is less expensive than ground beef, so its continued use as an ingredient in ground beef and pre-formed hamburger patties is likely (estimates indicate that 70% of supermarket ground beef contains LFTB).

About Les Bourquin

Professor and Food Safety Specialist Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition Michigan State University
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