by Marion Nestle
Apr 11 2012

The legacy of LFTB (a.k.a “pink slime”): power politics in action

The noise about lean finely textured beef (LFTB), commonly known as “pink slime,” is bringing attention to some of the more unsavory aspects of the U.S. political system—public relations spin, the revolving door, and other aspects of power politics.  Here are some recent examples:

According to the Sioux City Journal:

Gov. Terry Branstad on Monday called for a congressional investigation into the source of what he called a “smear campaign” meant to discredit the Lean, Finely Textured Beef made by a Siouxland company.

“Clearly, this is a safe product, it is a lean product, it helps reduce obesity, and there is a spurious attack being levied against it by some groups who are against it…And you can suspect who they might be — people who don’t like meat.”

Helena Bottemiller of Food Safety News reports that Branstad’s colleague, Steve King (Rep-Iowa) explains how the hearings will work:

Witnesses would be under oath and they’re of course obligated by law to tell the truth, those who have been the ones who have perpetrated this smear campaign against one of the stellar companies in the country…I think they’ll have an obligation then to explain themselves why they could not base their allegations on facts and what they’ve done to damage an industry.

Perhaps King will call on Representative Chellie Pingree (Dem-Maine) who has submitted a bill calling for labeling of LFTB. The the Sioux City Journa quotes Branstad’s comments about her:

Pingree is guilty of spreading “bogus misinformation” about lean, finely textured beef along with celebrity chefs and “media elites.”

Pingree should have no trouble explaining why she wrote the bill:

Consumers have made it pretty clear they don’t want this stuff in their food…If a product contains connective tissue and beef scraps and has been treated with ammonia, you ought to be able to know that when you pick it up in the grocery store.

Calling people up before congressional committees is harassment, given how rude congressional committee members typically are to witnesses.

On a lesser scale, Bettina Siegel, the school lunch advocate who initially wrote the USDA to stop using LFTB, has been so harassed by nasty comments on her blog that she has had to set up a filtering system (I’m considering doing the same).

The Concord Monitor reports that USDA undersecretary Joann Smith, the official who approved LFTB for use in school hamburger, was an appointee of President George H.W. Bush and formerly a beef industry advocate.

When Smith left government, she was appointed to the board of directors of Beef Products Inc., the maker of LFTB, which paid her $1.2 million over 17 years [actually, she was on the board of IBP, a supplier of BPI].

Republic Report says that Beef Products Inc. retains a team of lobbyists from the firm Olsson, Frank & Weeda. One lobbyist employed by the firm is Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, a former congresswoman from South Dakota and leader of the “Blue Dog Caucus” of pro-corporate Democrats.

It’s enough to make anyone start buying organics.

Addition, April 16: Food Safety News has published an excellent timeline on the history of the “pink slime” crisis.

Addition, May 10: Legal scholars weigh in on whether pink slime should be labeled.  No, they say, requiring labeling would violate the First Amendment.

  • No doubt there are some people using the pink slime controversy to promote a vegetarian diet. However, many more of us are not vegetarian, and we simply want to know what we are eating.

    There’s nothing unreasonable about requesting that meat be labelled as such if it contains LFTB. That way consumers can make their own informed decisions.

  • Scott Smith

    Edible tissues first entered my vocabulary when researching the garbage the USDA called Chicken Nuggets. It ain’t meat: It’s edible tissues. It’s the equivalent of eating a leather shoe but spitting out the metal shoelace eyelets. LFTB is edible tissue treated with ammonia. Ammonia reminds of a child’s diaper.

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  • Nancy Huehnergarth

    Having written quite a bit about pink slime over the past month (I’m a firm supporter of labeling), I am appalled at the bullying tone of the meat industry’s pro-LFTB campaign. Of all the anti-LFTB articles and posts I have read, I don’t recall seeing any that were personally nasty, hostile, used foul language or that incited bullying of any kind. Yet, looking at the meat-industry driven pro-LFTB campaign in the media, on blogs, via politicians and in social media forums, I see veiled threats, foul language, unproven accusations of conspiracy and other forms of bullying that I find remarkable for an industry that wishes to win back consumer confidence.

    Here’s a recent tweet I received from a pro-LFTB individual @HZirkel (the Twitter account was only recently opened):

    @SlowFoodUSA @nyshepa Get a fuckin CLUE #beefisbeef SPREAD THE TRUTH NOT LIES

    I have received other Tweets and messages like this. If the meat industry can’t engage in a civil conversation about LFTB and consumer concerns about the product — a product that the industry fought to keep unlabeled, effectively keeping consumers in the dark — how will Americans ever regain any trust in the industrial meat business?

    I think, unfortunately, we’re seeing Big Meat’s unvarnished, incredibly arrogant attitude toward the American public revealed. I’d sum it up as “Shut up and eat what we give you.”

  • It’s all over Pinterest, of all places, as well: photos of LFTB are being spammed with comments that start with a request to go to BPI’s website, and get more angry from there. They have an expensive multi-level social media campaign going.

    I don’t think it will work, though: they are missing why many consumers upset: in essence, BPI created a lower-cost product, and added it to ground beef without anyone’s knowledge. At the very, very least, as a consumer, if I’m buying something that costs less to produce than what I ordinarily buy, I expect it to be labeled so I know what price to expect. (e.g., they both come off a steer, but a chuck arm roast costs less than steak.)

    If non-LFBT hamburger costs more, raise the price: don’t change the cost by adding something cheaper without telling me. It’s akin to yogurt companies maintaining price but making containers 2oz smaller; it’s, well, a slimy business practice.

    Even if BPI proves LFTB is identical in makeup to ground beef, and they prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that there is no problem with their process, they still have to address the fact that the economics were hidden from consumers.

  • B.

    I’m sorry-“pink slime” reduces obesity how?! Please quote the study so I can look it up on PubMed, Gov. Branstad.

  • Marion: Thank you for the mention here.

    If readers of The Lunch Tray have been appalled in recent days by the ferocity of attack by beef industry supporters, let me just say: try to imagine the comments I HAVEN’T posted, some of which (like the one that referred to the general location and value of my home) were truly scary.

    I understand that people’s livelihoods are at stake and for that reason have been far more liberal than I otherwise might in letting in ad hominem attacks, etc. on my blog. But what is so troubling is the people likely to suffer job losses now are far removed from the decision makers who lobbied USDA and FDA a decade or so ago to make sure ammonium hydroxide was classified as a processing agent, and that LFTB be considered no different from the beef with which it is mixed. Thus American consumers had no clue until last month that what they thought was “100% ground beef” might be up to 15% LFTB. Had there been transparency from the start, I feel certain we’d never have seen last month’s intense consumer backlash against LFTB, resulting in those job losses.

    If there are Congressional hearings, I look forward to going to DC to answer any questions posed to me about my petition on LFTB.

  • David Terry

    Chellie Pengree used a petition of 200,000 people (note petition ended with ~258,000), which represents 0.07% of the population and states the petition to represent consumers as a whole. It’s a good thing laws are not passed, or officials elected, based on 0.07% of votes. So, Chellie’s argument is without base. Also, the product is not made from connective tissue and beef scraps so her basis on this argument is not factual.
    Bettina Siegel based her petition off information from celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, which his tactics have been publicly announced as being fictitious and lacking basis.
    Joann Smith made 1.2M over 17yrs, which is ~$70,000/yr. Putting that number into perspective, but how much did she make over the previous 17yrs? How much does the current undersecretary make per year, considering she left that position for a position with BPI making $70,000/yr?
    As you can see, you have been a victim of the hysteria as well and have not finished your research for this article. I hope in the future you will finish the research and base your articles on facts.

  • FarmerJane

    You all are only experiencing the power of Big Food. As we old farmers have warned for decades, the concentration of food power into a few hands is a very dangerous thing. Remember, just two years ago, the Obama administration held hearings on consolidation and antitrust in agriculture? Pretty much nobody showed other than farmers and ranchers and the Food Democracy group. In the end, its you, the consumer who will suffer the most as America’s food supply is concentrated, cheapened and degraded.
    Bettina, if any litigation breaks out, you could be subjected to subpoena and deposition as were some of the farmers who spoke out at the antitrust hearings. And, as to threats, farmers who have bucked Big Food are used to this. The global food companies treat the farmers with as little respect as they do the consumers.
    Michele, as to yogurt, someof the yogurt you get in the store is not pure dairy, but full of added junk fillers, but at least you can read the label to see they are there. However, you are not allowed to know what country the fillers come from as there is no mandatory COOL labeling in dairy thanks to the global food companies. These firms have successfully lobbied to date that consumers would “find it too confusing”.

  • Thank you, Farmer Jane! You’re right: guess what a common filler in yogurt is – gelatin! (connective tissue!)

    @David Terry – I am curious, since you seem to be knowledgeable about what people do/should know about LFBT – do YOU know the proportion of myoglobin to connective tissue in LFBT?

  • Cathy Richards

    I’m all for using as much of the animal as possible — if we’re going to kill it for food, let’s use it to the max. I think pets would be pretty happy to eat this stuff if it is truly as safe as they say. So it seems to me there must be a market for it and that the companies shouldn’t be put out of business or workers laid off, although they may make less profit.

    But I don’t want to eat something unless I know what’s in it. Until there is labelling, I think I’m going to buy a grinder attachment for my kitchen mixer, and start making my own ground meat…

  • Tomc

    Ok, some clear facts here. The only differences between the trimmings used to make ground beef, as the consumer recognizes it, and the trimmings used to make LFTB is the lean beef to fat ratio. LFTB starts by using higher fat trimmings. To achieve the higher lean ground beef blends that we prefer economically, the lean is separated from the fat and the lean is added back. The association of ammonia used as a cleaning product is very misleading. After the lean beef is separated from the higher fat trimmings, food grade ammonia gas, which is naturally occurring in many foods including beef, is used to slightly elevate the ph of the product. Elevating the ph of the beef creates an environment that is unfriendly to bacteria. So the intent here is truly food safety. Now, simple economics would tell you that we, as consumers, will all pay higher prices at the meat counters due to the lose of lean beef in the market place. I encourage you all to research for yourselves. A well informed consumer now has the tools to, and will, make good choices.

  • As it seems to be everywhere, where can one buy a pink slime recipe book?

  • IRememberWhen

    Iowas farmers would make a ton more money by going to grass-fed beef. Here in California, grass-feed steak goes for US$25 a pound, as opposed to the US$5.75 Safeway asks for conventional, CAFO steak. I have zero idea why Iowa farmers don’t convert to grass operations ASAP. The demand is definitely there.

  • Michael Bulger

    Ah, but Tomc, when are economics simple? Can you provide some projection on how much prices will be affected?

    How much money needs to be saved in processing to be passed on to the consumer? How much of the savings are captured by the manufacturers, marketers, retailers, etc., etc.

    Perhaps the major meat companies will open their books for us. Until then, I don’t think it is safe to assume that LFTB has resulted in direct savings to the consumer.

    The intent here seems less about food safety than increasing profits. These trimmings were previously excluded from ground beef and were known to be particularly vulnerable to food safety hazards. The ammonia process brings the trimmings to a limited standard of safety and allows them to enter into the meat supply. Ammonia might make these hazardous trimmings safer, but they are not completely safe (by the company’s own admission, see NYTimes).

    Moreover, adding LFTB to the beef supply does nothing to increase food safety. It is not as if the LFTB is removing contaminated beef from the market.

    “Dude, it’s raw ground beef.” Cook thoroughly.

  • Matt

    @Irememberwhen: you said “Iowas farmers would make a ton more money by going to grass-fed beef. Here in California, grass-feed steak goes for US$25 a pound, as opposed to the US$5.75 Safeway asks for conventional, CAFO steak. I have zero idea why Iowa farmers don’t convert to grass operations ASAP. The demand is definitely there.”

    Basic economics would tell you that grass fed is much more expensive to produce. Higher costs will trickle down to consumers. The majority of those people buying beef are on limited budgets and would not be able to afford (hypothetical #) a $9.99 8oz Ribeye. Farmers would most definitely lose out on the situation you describe.

    @ To those who need more information on ammonia in foods:
    Ammonia is a VERY common processing aide used in a wide-variety of foods, ranging from cheese, to pudding, to chocolate. Please get facts here before assuming ANYTHING! Plenty of info on the web about the use of ammonia.

    @David Terry: Good point!

    Did you know that the widely distributed photo of “pink slime” that you have likely seen is actually mechanically separated CHICKEN?? For a real photo of LFTB check out Point being…isn’t it amazing how so many of us believe everything the media tells us??

    I am also pro-LFTB labeling. Why? because when people get the facts about it, they will want it in their ground beef…for reasons based on their own research…not media sensationalists who are after the next “biggest story”.

  • Garrett

    I saw a celebrity chef speak in my home town tonight, and one of the topics was “pink slime.” He humorously exposed the fact that while most of the audience was “against” pink slime, not a single person in the audience was able to explain what it was. He then went on to explain what LFTB is, and how it’s a reasonable product driven by American demand for cheaper and cheaper beef. It’s safe food, it’s sustainable from the point of view that it uses parts of the animal that might have otherwise gone to waste (or animal feed) — and it achieves its end by reducing the overall cost of ground beef. However, it’s certainly “gross” and not well understood by consumers.

    The best part, however, was the conclusion — if Americans want higher quality beef, they can’t also want the cheapest beef available. If we vote with our pocketbooks products like this don’t need to enter our food supply.

    My takeaway: eat beef less often, and eat better beef. I win, and so do the cows 🙂

  • In My Opinion: Mad Cow Risk from BGH & rBGH Is the Real Pink Slime.

    My father was a butcher and I worked for the National Cattlemen’s Association. I’ve seen the insides of the industry from many sides. Turning my back on this heritage is not easy.

    Let’s take the debate to a new level. Ask the BS artists where BGH and rBGH (growth hormone) come from. Aren’t they both at least partially derived and built upon genetic material from the pituitary gland of dead cattle? Isn’t such brain material supposedly regulated as specified risk material (SRM) to minimize mad cow (BSE) risk to humans? Has anyone even bothered to test these glands or the hormone/implant factories for the presence of prions–the pathological protein that causes mad cow disease? One infected gland will infect the entire production process from that point forward.

    Is this really a good idea just to add fast, cheap pounds on cattle and to boost milk production in dairy cattle. Foolish feed made from dead cows was step one. Foolish growth hormones made from dead cows to boost profits could be the next boot to drop.

    Who is smearing who and who is really putting the cattle industry (and consumers) at risk? The mad cow crisis cost Canada/U.S./global producers billions. Beef producers may have met the enemy and it isn’t the media, food safety advocates, or concerned consumers. Ask some tough questions of the industry insiders and regulators.

    With this type of mentality generating millions of pounds of beef for human consumption, asking tough questions about pink slime and other greedy practices are well justified. Reform the industry for the good of everyone. Stop hormones. Stop antibiotics. Stop grazing on OUR public land. Stop destroying OUR mustangs. Stop killing OUR wolves. Corporate favoritism in agriculture is killing the spirit of free enterprise, free markets and free speech. Learn to compete in a true market-based economy. @gary_chandler

  • @Garrett You nailed it! At our house, we eat less meat than we used to, but better. Sure, grass fed beef costs twice what the CAFO version does at the grocery store, but if we eat half as much, it’s a win-win! for bodies and for the environment, and the store gets the same amount of money from us.

  • So, not one commenter can answer my question? Does anybody have definitive data that tells us what the myoglobin to connective tissue ratio is in LFTB as compared to conventional ground beef?

    I find it interesting that BPI supporters can provide data on everything except the makeup of the protein in their product.

  • Tom Meixner

    Mr. Terry Ms. Nestle notes that Ms. Smith served on the board of BPI. For this service she received ~$70K per anum. Typically service in a corporate board is not a full time job. For example, Condoleeza Rice served on the board of Exxon while at the same time being employed as a Stanford Professor. While I do not have the particular information for BPI’s board typical obligation amount to 204 weeks of time at most. I think most of us would sorely appreciate $70K per year for service such as Ms. Smith likely performed for BPI.

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  • Martha

    I’ve newly discovered this controversy. I’ve had other issues and mostly eat chicken. Mostly, before. Now, I am not going to buy ANY beef products for my extended family until all products are properly labeled as to what they contain. (Where do we live????) None. And I JUST started to feel comfortable eating red meat again, since the heart and fat issues of years past have been resolved. BUT NO MORE. The bullying of the industry is something I left a marriage for and will not tolerate it regarding my food options. Looks like more beans for me!! Shame on them. They are so out of touch with what Moms will do to protect their families!!! Yes, organic is the way. Next time I eat beef will be at when i see it killed and the steaks cut for me. Not likely.