In a Blow to Consumer Transparency, LFTB Can Now Be Labelled “Ground Beef”

For those who followed my successful 2012 petition campaign regarding the use of “lean finely textured beef” (LFTB) in school meals, I wanted to share a troubling news item reported in yesterday’s New Food Economy.

LFTB (frequently called “pink slime” in the media) is made from slaughterhouse scraps that are heated, centrifuged, and then treated with ammonium hydroxide to kill the pathogens they often contain due to contact with cow feces during the slaughtering process.

LFTB is useful to the beef industry because, when mixed into standard cuts of ground beef, it lowers the overall fat content in the resulting product. It can also potentially lower its price by a few pennies per pound.

The term “pink slime” was coined not by the media but by USDA microbiologist who used the term to express concerns about the product in an internal agency email, writing, “I do not consider the stuff to be ground beef, and I consider allowing it in ground beef to be a form of fraudulent labeling.”  That email was later discovered by then-New York Times reporter Michael Moss in his reporting of a 2009 story, “Safety of Beef Processing Method Is Questioned,” part of his Pulitzer Prize-winning series on the beef industry.

But despite that microbiologist’s concern, the USDA has never required LFTB to be independently labelled on packages of ground beef. Indeed, according to LFTB’s manufacturer, Beef Products, Inc. (BPI), the product was at one point in over 70 percent of the country’s ground beef supply without consumers’ knowledge. (After the public uproar over LFTB in 2012, some beef suppliers chose to voluntarily label it.)

That said, the USDA also didn’t consider LFTB to be the equivalent of ground beef; rather, it was defined as a “qualified component” of the ground beef in which it was used. And, indeed, ground beef processors have typically used only up to 15 percent LFTB in their total product.

But according to New Food Economy writer Joe Fassler, that’s all about to change. Thanks to a successful months-long campaign waged by BPI at the USDA, the agency has been persuaded to reclassify LFTB as “ground beef”—allowing BPI to label it as such and sell it directly to consumers.

The “qualified component” scheme was already arguably deceptive in that consumers couldn’t know exactly what was in their ground beef. As then-Associated Press food editor J.M. Hirsch noted in 2012, the old regulations meant that “two packages labeled ‘ground beef 80 percent lean’ may look and sound the same but be composed of different meats. One could be . . . ground beef made from cuts of meat containing 20 percent fat. The other could be made from poorer quality — much fattier — meat but cut with and made leaner by [LFTB].”

The USDA’s move only compounds this problem and, according to Fassler’s piece, even some in the beef industry feel a little squeamish about BPI’s regulatory victory because it might set off another consumer backlash.

I think my own views couldn’t be better summed up than by this quote in Fassler’s piece from Bill Bullard, president of an advocacy group for independent cattle ranchers:

“It’s not a standalone beef product—it has to be added to ground beef. So I think that consumers deserve to know exactly what they’re buying. If they are as comfortable with it as the industry says they are, then no problem. If there are some consumers that would like to avoid it for whatever reason they may have, we believe that’s the consumer’s right. So our position has always been that the consumer deserves to know what our industry is selling to him or her, and we should be very transparent on precisely what is included in the product.”

I’ll share here any further developments in this story here.

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♥♥♥ And look for my new book  Kid Food: The Challenge of Feeding Children in a Highly-Processed World—out this fall from Oxford University Press!♥♥♥

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