by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Meat safety

Apr 2 2012

“Pink Slime:” Some questions about what’s really at stake

The “pink slime” furor gets curiouser and curiouser.  It’s hard to keep up (see yesterday’s post) but here’s my summary of where we are with this for the moment.

What is the furor about?

The best place to start is with Michael Moss’s December 30, 2009 investigative report in the New York Time on the ammonia process used by Beef Products, Inc to make LFTB (lean finely textured beef).

The article contains the first mention of the term “pink slime” as a pejorative for this product.

Moss provides confidential documents detailing the effects of the ammonia processing of LFTB, and revelations of the discrepancy between USDA’s standards for beef safety and those of its school lunch program.

How much LFTB is used in ground beef?

According to a report in the Wall Street Journal (March 28), Cargill Inc. estimates about 850 million pounds per year.

What is the “pink slime” crisis going to cost the beef industry?

According to the business press, meat packers are likely to lose a record $101 per head as a result of the pink slime crisis. Multiply that by the 34 million head of cattle slaughtered each year for food. And then there’s the economy:

Margins for meat packers have been declining for several months as consumers began to push back against high prices at retail in order to cope with rising gas prices. In response, processors have reduced slaughter rates in an effort to maintain beef prices [see Addition at the bottom of this post].

Who supports BPI and why?

BPI is a strong supporter of the Republican party and its candidates. But it is also generous elsewhere.

See, for example, BPI’s full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal, March 23, 2012. It quotes from “In defense of food safety leadership,” by Nancy Donley. Donley is a founder of STOP (Safe Tables Our Priority), an organization of mothers whose children died from eating contaminated hamburger.

After what I personally experienced watching my son suffer and die, I am very skeptical and cynical about for-profit meat companies and their professed commitment to food safety. Not all companies ‘walk their talk.’ BPI does.

BPI is well known to be the donor of the anonymous gifts to STOP of $250,000 last year and $500,000 the year before (see the tax forms posted on STOP’s website).

What is the USDA’s position on LFTB and BPI?

Obamafoodorama (March 29) reports on USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack’s press conference in Iowa on March 28. He joined Governor Terry Bransted, a Republican, in defense of LFTB.

Here’s what Obamafoodorama says Secretary Vilsack said:

  • The product is crucial to fighting childhood obesity.
  • This product is safe…There’s no question about it. We’ve said that hundreds of times and we’ll continue to say it.
  • It is a “leaner product” than regular ground beef, and crucial for the battle to end childhood obesity. That’s one of the reasons we’ve made it a staple of the school lunch program.
  • We are…concerned about obesity levels, and this is an opportunity for us to ensure that youngsters are receiving a product that is lean and contains less fat.
  • “Historically” the product is less expensive than other products…For that reason it’s been part of the school lunch program.”
  • [It] doesn’t have to be labeled when it is included in ground beef because “it is safe.”

Obamafoodorama’s report concludes:

Somewhat disappointingly, the Secretary’s efforts to defend lean, finely textured beef did not include him digging into a plate of the product and eating it on camera.

Why is a Democratic USDA Secretary going to bat for a private company well known for supporting Mitt Romney in particular and Republicans in general?

I can only speculate that it has something to do with Tom Vilsack’s wife, Christie, who is running for Iowa’s 4th Congressional District. In Iowa, BPI has bipartisan support, and Christie Vilsack says:

LFTB is safe…it is the women in our community who can put BPI back on it’s feet.

I think one of the biggest strengths in this audience today are all the women here, because we tend to be the ones who go to the grocery stores, and we’re the ones who choose the products that we bring home and feed to our families.

No concerns at all. It’s a safe product, and these are wonderful people who work there.

Who stands to benefit from the “pink slime” furor?

Wendy’s for one. I saw the company’s full-page ad in USA Today and the New York Times (March 30):

Where’s the pure beef? At Wendy’s that’s where! We use nothing but pure, 100% fresh, never-frozen North American beef.

We’ve never used fillers, additives, preservatives, flavor boosters, or ammonia treatments.

We’ve never used ‘pink slime,’ and we never will.

If LFTB is safe, isn’t it acceptable?

I’ve heard this argument before. It’s the same one used for GMOs. As I discuss in my book Safe Food, even if technological processes like this are safe, they are not necessarily acceptable—especially if they are not labeled and do not give consumers a choice.

What should BPI and other companies do when caught in a crisis like this?

Bill Marler has an explanation and some suggestions. This CEO:

  • Did not trust consumers with the truth.
  • Did not openly explain how the food product was made and what additives and ingredients it contained.
  • Ignored dissenting expert opinions in memos and emails.

To rebuild public trust and sales, Marler advises, do not:

  • Shoot the messenger.
  • Threaten legal action.
  • Play the political card.
  • Make political supporters eat your product or say how safe it is in front of the national media.

What should companies do? Simple:

  • Just tell the truth.
  • Tell consumers what they already know.
  • Tell the public how the product is made and what is in it.
  • Tell consumers the real benefits of the product.
  • Post test results online.
  • Invite the public, not politicians, to your plant for a tour and a taste test.
  • Bottom line: If you have nothing to hide, hide nothing.

My last questions for now:

  • Why are we allowing the school lunch program to be the dumping ground for cheap food?
  • Why don’t we have a food safety system in place that requires beef to be safe in the first place—so it doesn’t have to be treated with ammonia?

We should all be asking these questions and demand that our elected leaders ask them too—and insist on answers.

Addition: AFA, a competitor of BPI, filed for bankruptcy, because of reduced demand for all beef products.

Apr 1 2012

The dilemma of pink slime: cost or culture?

I devoted this month’s (first Sunday) Food Matters column in the San Francisco Chronicle to the current hot-button issue, pink slime.

Q: I keep hearing about pink slime being fed to school kids. How could anyone even think about putting something so disgusting in school lunches?

A: Pink slime is the pejorative term for “lean finely textured beef,” a product designed to recover useful bits from carcass trimmings. These are warmed, centrifuged to remove the fat, treated with ammonium hydroxide gas to kill pathogens and compressed into blocks that are frozen for later use.

The final product is pink; therefore, it’s meat – or so says the meat industry. And from a strictly nutritional standpoint, it is. But from any other standpoint, LFTB creates a dilemma.

For one thing, it solves an enormous problem for meat producers. Only about half the weight of the 34 million cattle slaughtered each year is considered fit for human consumption. The rest has to be burned, buried in landfills or sold cheaply for fertilizer or pet food.

LFTB recovers 10 to 12 pounds of edible lean beef from every animal and is said to save another 1.5 million animals from slaughter.

This is the same argument Mal Nesheim and I used in our book, “Feed Your Pet Right.” If American pets were not fed byproducts of human food production, they would need the equivalent of food for 42 million people.

Our readers did not buy this argument. They do not want their pets eating byproducts. They believe their pets deserve food of higher quality. Don’t kids?

A dilemma

Here’s the dilemma. LFTB solves a serious food safety problem. The meat trimmings that go into cheap hamburger are said to often be heavily contaminated with bacteria, some of them dangerous. The ammonia processing makes LFTB safe.

Since LFTB’s introduction, safety officials say they rarely find toxic E. coli in school hamburger.

LFTB’s leading manufacturer, Beef Products Inc., has just announced suspension of LFTB production at three of its four plants. This alarms some food safety advocates. They worry that if public pressure causes LFTB to be eliminated, bacteria-laden beef trimmings will go back into hamburger, just as they used to, and the meat will be much less safe.

Under public pressure, some fast food chains, grocery retailers and school districts say they will no longer mix LFTB with hamburger. Walmart will offer customers a choice, and so will the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Members of Congress have written the USDA, asking, “If fast food chains won’t serve pink slime, why should school cafeterias?”

Calling LFTB “pink slime” presents a massive public relations problem. Human culture determines what is socially acceptable to eat. Most of us don’t eat the parts of animals our culture considers inedible.

LFTB is not really slimy and it is reasonably safe and nutritious. But it violates cultural norms.

Chef Jamie Oliver proved this with schoolchildren. In one episode of his “Food Revolution,” he made the chicken version of pink slime (white slime?) from bird parts the kids found disgusting. When he formed the slurry into patties, the kids ate them anyway. They forgot about the patties’ origins.

But we are acculturated adults. Once we know how chicken nuggets are made, we might want to think twice before eating them. Now we know hamburger is mixed with LFTB. Do we still want to eat it?

Letter to USDA

School food advocate Bettina Siegel collected 230,000 signatures on a letter to the USDA to ban LFTB. She wrote, “It is simply wrong to feed our children connective tissues and beef scraps that were, in the past, destined for use in pet food and rendering, and were not considered fit for human consumption.” The USDA buys loads of LFTB for school hamburger because it is cheap. Districts that choose higher-quality meat will have to pay more for meat. Can they afford to?

Of course they can, says my go-to guru for all matters concerning school meals, Kate Adamick. Her new book “Lunch Money: Serving Healthy School Food in a Sick Economy” ( shows how schools can buy new equipment and better-quality food by creating strong breakfast programs and cooking meals from scratch.

This means that the acceptability of LFTB in supermarket hamburger or school meals boils down to a cultural choice. Even if LFTB is safe, nutritious and tastes like hamburger, it may not be culturally acceptable.

Do we want LFTB in our food? Or do we and our children deserve better? Serving healthy and delicious food is a way to show respect for our culture, food, children and schools, and to invest in the future of our nation.

Perhaps the best solution to the pink slime dilemma is simply to label LFTB as an ingredient. This would give individuals and schools the opportunity to decide for themselves whether culture or cost is the more important value in food choice.

An even better idea: Let’s produce safe meat in the first place.

Sep 17 2010

A decent food safety system: will we ever get one?

I get asked all the time what food has to do with politics.  My answer: everything.  Take food safety, for example.

No wonder meat producers hate bad press.  According to Illinois Farm Gate, when consumers read scary things about meat, they stop buying it.

When media attention is given to animal welfare issues, regardless of the production practices involved, consumer demand softens not only for that particular meat, but for all meats. Over the past decade, pork and poultry demand would be higher, were it not for media attention to livestock production issues. Such attention causes consumers to eat less meat and show preference to spend their food dollar on non-meat items for as long as 6 months after the media report.

This week’s bad press is about the use of antibiotics as growth promoters in industrial pig farming.

Dispensing antibiotics to healthy animals is routine on the large, concentrated farms that now dominate American agriculture. But the practice is increasingly condemned by medical experts who say it contributes to a growing scourge of modern medicine: the emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, including dangerous E. coli strains that account for millions of bladder infections each year, as well as resistant types of salmonella and other microbes.

Dr. James R. Johnson, an infectious-disease expert at the University of Minnesota explains what this is about:

For those of us in the public health community, the evidence is unambiguously clear….Most of the E. coli resistance in humans can be traced to food-animal sources.

Will reports like this discourage consumers from buying pork and other meats?  Consumers are not stupid.  They just might.

As for our profoundly dysfunctional Senate: it seems increasingly unlikely to pass food safety legislation before the midterm election cycle.  All of a sudden, food safety is too expensive?

Tell that to industries producing food that nobody will buy out of fear of becoming sick.

That’s food politics in action for you.

Last year at about this time, Bill Marler, the Seattle attorney who represents victims of food poisonings, sent every senator a tee shirt with this logo on it.  I suppose it’s naive to hope that maybe he will get his wish by this thanksgiving, but I am everlastingly optimistic that reason occasionally prevails.

Footnote 1: China is considering the death penalty for perpetrators of food safety crimes: “Officials who are involved in food safety crimes should not be given a reprieve or be exempt from criminal punishment.” Mind you, I am not a proponent of the death penalty, but I do think we need a safety system that holds food producers accountable.

Footnote 2: And then there is the half billion”incredible” egg recall.  Slow Food USA has a nifty video on the alternatives: “USDA and FDA.  Make eggs edible.  Now that would be incredible.”

Dec 10 2009

More school lunch meat shockers

That pesky newspaper, USA Today, has done it again.  It’s latest exposé on food safety points out that USDA rules for meat are more stringent for fast food than they are for school lunches and that fast food companies do a much better job of producing safe meat.

The reporters say, for example, that the schools use “old-hen” meat, whereas fast food places do not.  But things are getting better.  The USDA used to buy 30% of all the old-hen meat available, but now only buys 10%.

The article elicited an immediate response from the USDA. An offical wrote USA Today that USDA’s standards for meat sent to schools have been “extremely successful in protecting against food-borne pathogens…inspections and tests of that meat exceed those required for meat sold to the general public.”  That, alas, is not what these articles suggest.

While Congress is dithering over the FDA’s rules for food safety, it ought to be looking at USDA’s also.  At the moment, USDA has better rules than FDA but doesn’t always bother to enforce them.

Congress: get busy!  Better yet, how about considering a complete overhaul and creating ONE food safety agency!

Dec 8 2009

The latest food safety measure: vaccinate cows?

What is to be done about E. coli O157:H7?  In the last two years, the USDA reports an astonishing 52 recalls of meat contaminated with these toxic bacteria compared to only 20 in the three years before that.

Apparently, the cattle and beef packing industries are unwilling or unable to produce safe meat, even though they could be doing much, much more to reduce bacterial infections: follow a decent HACCP plan and test-and-hold, for example.

The alternatives?  Late-stage techno fixes.  First, we had irradiation. Now we have vaccination!    Or so said the New York Times last week in a front-page story on two new anti-E. coli vaccines, one actually in use and one still under study.

The vaccines have been in development for a long time but were held up because they aren’t as effective as one would like, to say the least.  They are said to reduce the number of animals carrying toxic E. coli by 65% to 75%.  That should help, but will it solve the problem?

Doesn’t this argue for more efforts on prevention?  Or am I missing something here too?

Dec 3 2009

Food agencies at work (or not): USDA

USDA is the agency supposedly responsible for the safety of meat and poultry.  Unlike FDA, which is responsible for the safety of just about all other foods, USDA gets to impose HACCP (science-based food safety regulations) on meat and poultry.  It just doesn’t bother to enforce its own rules.  Hence recent events:

Consumer Reports, which for decades has been testing supermarket chickens for microbial contaminants, has just  tested chickens again. Sigh. Two-thirds were contaminated with Salmonella or Campylobacter. You will be relieved to know that this is an improvement. It was 80% the last time Consumer Reports did the testing.

In an effort to get USDA and the poultry industry moving on this problem, Senator Dianne Feinstein (Dem-CA) has introduced a bill to prohibit the sale of meat that has not been certified free of pathogens. Based on what’s been happening with meat safety, I’m betting it won’t get far.

So let’s talk about meat safety.  For this, we should all be reading USA Today, which seems to be one of the last newspapers in America still funding investigative reporting.  Its latest blockbuster is an account of the 826,000-pound recall by Beef Packers, Inc. (a subsidiary of Cargill) a few months ago. The meat made at least 28 people ill as a result of infections with a strain of Salmonella Newport highly resistant to antibiotics.

That’s bad enough, but it gets worse.  Beef Packers is a major supplier of meat to the USDA’s school lunch program. But oops.  The recall covered meat sent to retailers.  It did not cover meat sent to schools. According to the intrepid reporters at USA Today, USDA bought 450,000 pounds of ground beef produced by Beef Packers during the dates covered by the recall.

USDA should have known better.  Beef Packers had a history of positive Salmonella tests but the USDA did not disclose that information. An official told USA Today that doing so

would discourage companies from contracting to supply product for the National School Lunch Program and hamper our ability to provide the safe and nutritious foods to American school children.

You can’t make these things up.  USA Today provides the documents on its site to prove it.

I missed the earlier article in the USA Today series about school lunches in general and Del Rey Tortillas in particular, a company implicated in 20 cases of school food poisonings since 2003. Check out the article’s quick facts-and-figures about school lunches, the nifty interactive timeline for the Del Rey episodes, and the raft of documents in this case.

Good work, reporters. If you want to know why we need newspapers, here’s a good reason.

As for USDA: the new administration at the agency shows many signs of wanting to do the right thing about food safety but they have to deal with entrenched staff and inspectors who have been cozy with industry far too long.  USDA: deal with it!

Coming soon: updates on FDA and FTC.

Mar 14 2009

Obama on food safety!

President Obama had quite a lot to say about food safety this morning and I’m happy to say that it sounds like he gets it: the present system is outdated (it was developed a century ago), too spread out, under-resourced, and hazardous to health.  He’s going to appoint a committee to make recommendations and promises that all will be fixed “under the leadership of Dr. Margaret Hamburg.”  I hope she knows what she’s gotten herself into.

In the meantime, here’s his radio address and lawyer Bill Marler’s take on it.  And thanks Bill for posting the entire text of the speech.

And while I’m at it, how about the USDA’s new plan to test the meat at hamburger packing plants four times a month?  Is this an improvement or a clear effort to make sure nobody ever finds anything wrong?  Here’s Brian Hartman’s discussion of that question at ABC News.

Mar 28 2008

Oh no! Now see what the USDA is doing

So now the USDA is proposing to forget about its promise to identify retailers selling recalled meat – unless the health risk is really, really bad. Oh great. The agency now thinks it’s just fine if consumers don’t realize that the meat they bought from local stores was later recalled.  It’s up to you to track all those lot numbers and know what you bought and where you bought it.   Rumors are that USDA is reneging on its promise to keep consumers better informed under pressure from the food industry.  Let’s keep an eye on this one.

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