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Agriculture Today

What’s the beef about ‘pink slime’?

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Wilson County News
April 4, 2012 | 4,419 views | Post a comment

As consumers visit the meat counter to select items for the next family meal or gathering, they may see signs such as “ground meat does not contain pink slime.” What began as an “investigative” news report about the lean, finely textured beef, dubbed “pink slime,” has caused some school districts to find alternative meat suppliers for the products offered through the National School Lunch Program. Now the beef industry is speaking in defense of the beef product about what is not being told to the public. As the late commentator Paul Harvey would say, “Here is the rest of the story.”

What is all the hype about?

To understand the issue, the American Meat Institute explains how the lean, finely textured beef is produced. With the use of high-technology food-processing equipment, lean meat is separated from fat. For those familiar with slaughtering, knife trimming by hand is nearly impossible. The end product and all beef products are strictly regulated and inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

The American Meat Institute states there are two common types of lean, finely textured beef -- boneless lean beef trimmings and finely textured beef -- but the latter is receiving most of the attention. While the products are similar, the antimicrobial treatment used differentiates the two. See “Boneless lean beef trimmings” for more on this (page 2D).

Finely textured beef is made safer for consumption by a “puff of ammonium hydroxide gas” which helps destroy bacteria “that could make someone ill if a raw product is not cooked thoroughly,” according to the American Meat Institute. “The USDA, after consultation with the Food and Drug Administration, has determined that this use of ammonium hydroxide is safe and it has been in use for this purpose since 2001.”

While these beef products are being “grilled” by some media outlets, hardly any mention is made that ammonium hydroxide is also “used in a variety of other processed foods, such as baked goods, gelatins and puddings, and cheeses, and can occur naturally in foods,” according to an American Meat Institute fact sheet.

Food safety

While ground beef has been the source of outbreaks of E. coli O157:H7, the USDA stated the department has a “zero tolerance for Salmonella and E. coli O157:H7 in all Agricultural Marketing Service beef purchases for the National School Lunch Program.”

Beef, including lean, finely textured beef used as a raw material in ground beef products, that tests positive for these pathogens is rejected and never supplied to schools.

While the 100-percent beef product is receiving negative publicity, ground beef samples testing positive for E. coli dropped by 55 percent between 2000 and 2010, according to the USDA.

Lunch program

Following, the early March media reports, the USDA has made changes in the National School Lunch Program. See “National School Lunch Program” for details. The meals are served to more than 31 million schoolchildren every day. While the school program and major chain stores are getting the most attention, this product also is used by fast-food chains, restaurants, and hospitals.

As the USDA defends its position that this beef product is safe and nutritious, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) -- the major beef check-off contractor -- also is defending the use of lean, finely textured beef.

NCBA President J.D. Alexander commented in a March 15 press release after the USDA made an announcement regarding the school lunch program.

“The fact remains that lean finely textured beef is a 100-percent beef product produced from beef trimmings that yields an additional 10-12 pounds of lean, nutritious beef from every beef animal,” Alexander said. “The production of lean finely textured beef prevents lean, nutritious beef from being wasted.”

The American Meat Institute estimates that if this beef is not used in ground beef products, “approximately 1.5 million additional head of cattle would need to be harvested annually to make up the difference.”

The hype is being played out “in a world where red meat consumption is rising and available supply is declining,” according to an American Meat Institute fact sheet.

Boneless lean beef trimmings

The American Meat Institute explains the process used for boneless leaf beef trimmings (BLBT).

“When beef carcasses are processed into meat cuts consumers and restaurants use, trimmings result. Trimmings are smaller pieces of fat that contain small portions of beef that are wholesome and nutritious. To make BLBT, the trimmings are warmed to about 100 degrees Fahrenheit in equipment that looks like a large, high speed mixing bowl that spins these trimmings to separate meat from the fat that has been liquefied. The resulting product is very low fat (more than 95 percent lean), which many consumers desire. This process is very similar to the one used to separate cream from milk.”

National School Lunch Program

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in a March 15 press release announced it will offer school districts more choices when purchasing ground beef.

“USDA only purchases products for the school lunch program that are safe, nutritious and affordable -- including all products containing Lean Finely Textured Beef. However, due to customer demand, the department will be adjusting procurement specifications for the next school year so schools can have additional options in procuring ground beef products. ...

“While USDA sets national nutritional guidelines for school meals, school districts make local decisions on what food to feed kids to meet these guidelines. On average, schools in the National School Lunch Program purchase approximately 20 percent of their food through USDA, and approximately 80 percent of food served is purchased directly by schools or school districts through private vendors. ...

“USDA ensures all food purchased for the National School Lunch Program meets stringent food safety standards, which includes rigorous pathogen testing. Purchase specifications are continually reviewed, microbial test results are evaluated, new food safety technologies are considered, and food safety experts are consulted to determine the adequacy of our food safety requirements.”

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